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Are Atheists Buddhas?

Buddhism is a very old and expansive religion - there are many teachings and behavior prescriptions. It's also one of the few religions that doesn't give me the heeby geebies because the main tenents tend to be along the lines of being nice to everyone and leaving a small environmental footprint (in my limited exposure). The ultimate goal of every Buddhist is to become a Buddha.

In high school and college I was what a Sociologist would call a "seeker". I was looking for spiritual fulfillment and answers to questions like "What is the meaning of life", "What is my purpose in life", "How should I behave". I studied lots of different religions and religious teachings from the East and West, modern and tribal (although biased towards the modern Western religions due to my location in time and space): Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Bahái, Scientology, The People's Temple (Jonestown), The Manson Family, Heaven's Gate, Cargo Cults, early Mesopotamian religions, and more that I don't remember as well (wikipedia has a great list of religions).

My conclusions, looking back, are really simple. Perhaps if I had had some "spiritual" guidance when I was younger I would not have had to work so hard to come to such basic responses to religion. In short, here are a few summary conclusions on religions:

  • When it comes to extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence is required for proof.
  • All "holy books" were created by fallible men. I can't say for certain on other planets, but there was no godly inspiration on Earth. All of them contain glaring holes, inaccuracies and contradictions, if not downright ungodly behavior.
  • All religions (like all human institutions) bear remarkable similarities to the milieu they were founded in. No religion changes the adherents substantially in a way you might expect the input from an omniscient being to. Related: see my recipe for religion.
  • Testimony, a favorite tool of modern Christians, is bullshit. You can get people to say or believe anything.
  • All logical proofs for the existence of God are wrong. All "new" theological positions are just Thomas Aquinas or some other very old argument rewrapped.

My spiritual quest was similar to that of a Buddhist. I read the scriptures and followed the paths to truth. I denounced untruth when I discovered it. Slowly I defined truths for myself, and came to understood how people came to believe untruths. I cast aside forever the ancient superstitions of my milieu. A learning Buddhist on the same journey might learn that all of who we are is defined by our physical brains. Modern science and neuroscience reinforce the idea that there is no soul. For example, after a brain injury somebody might change any number of mental/emotional attributes (for better or worse). I have been under anesthesia, and while under, I experienced absolutely nothing - as if I were dead.

Experience and the search for truth leads one to believe that there is no life after death - and if there is - it's probably not like the stories we've been told. Thus casting aside reincarnation, the Buddhist realizes that when he dies he will reach Nirvana because we all reach Nirvana. The human mind is still a relatively fragile organ, despite all its power. Not every human can cope with the thought of nothing after death. Only the mentally prepared and enlightened Buddhists realize they will reach Nirvana. The enlightened Buddhist does not want to take away the support from those who need it, perhaps he does not teach this part. The enlightened Buddhist teaches in order such that they the student can reach this conclusion on his own. Formerly a student, the Buddha sees that the answer was always there; he just had to look at it from a different perspective. These Buddhists become Buddhas, just like Atheists.

postscriptum: I don't mean all Atheists here. I just means the Atheists who are Atheists after a rational struggle for Truth. Also, I'm not suggesting that Atheists are enlighted Buddhists per se, just that the parallel between Buddhas and Atheists seems like more than a coincidence to me.


You did not improperly draw a parallel between your own and Joe Buddhist's path to truth, from my Buddhist perspective. You have not mischaracterized Buddhism. Buddhist practice indeed emphasizes self-discovery of basic truths - for example, actions have reactions.

However, because Buddhist practice involves self-discovering already uncovered truths, the burden of "not taking things for granted" is placed on the Buddhist. Your path to truth did not have this burden, and in this regard, it was not unlike the Buddha's. Conversely, you had to endure the burden of discovering truths yourself. Scientifically, this is a good thing; however, the pros and cons of either truth-finding methodology remains for another article.

A Buddhist might believe your path to truth will converge with his own.

I'm interested in the relationship between modern science and "the soul." You state that a brain injury might affect an individual's emotions and morals, and therefore there is no soul. Do you then, equate the soul with emotional, moral or otherwise personal characteristics? This discussion seems key to your argument that "atheists are Buddhas," as Buddhists do believe in innate consciousness. I don't mean conscious thought or behavior, but innate consciousness as what you might call a "soul." How would you define a soul? I find doing this rather difficult.

The liberation (or lack thereof) of a "soul" might be called "nirvana." Be careful to differentiate between nirvana and an atheist's disbelief in a soul. Nirvana is the liberation of a soul, not the lack of one, even though the end state might be the same.

Your argument that Buddhists will reach Nirvana, in the absence of reincarnation, is a good one, and an admission I must make. Casting aside reincarnation is a big deal, but it supports your point quite well.

No soul -> nothingness after death || Liberation of the soul -> Nirvana after death

-> leads to
|| parallels

An excellent parallel.

I hope you don't find my comment insulting or aggressive - it isn't meant to be. Just wanted to share my perspective on it. Maybe the misuse of 'C' was most aggravating. =)

Thanks a lot for responding Franklin. I've addressed some of your concerns by rewriting the ending and adding a PS.

My argument about the soul and brain is this: Everything traditionally attributed to a person's 'soul': personality, values, intelligence, ethics, etc are completely dependent on the physical brain. If the brain does not exist: there is no personality, values, intelligence, ethics, or emotions. My argument may turn out one day to be incorrect. But right now, all the scientific evidence points towards it.

I think defining a soul that is separate from a brain is a difficult (perhaps impossible) task because a soul separate from the brain does not exist. I am entirely ignorant about how Buddhas think, but I'm not certain that a Buddha would disagree with that.  I wonder what points Buddhas would disagree on? In other words, as 2 different people, you would expect 2 Buddhas to disagree on something.

I'm really glad that you drew the correct conclusion from my essay - regarding the parallel. It was not particularly a clear thesis, I had half-intentionally left the conclusion an exercise for the reader. :-)

My real question in writing this is - is this just a parallel, or could it be more? Could the path to Nirvana have been designed?

Regarding the matter of the soul, here is what one layperson asked of the Lord Buddha.

"What pray tell does Anatta (no-soul/self) mean?"

"Just this Radha, form is not the soul, sensations are not the soul, perceptions are not the soul, assemblages are not the soul, consciousness is not the soul. Seeing thusly, this is the end of birth, the Brahman life has been fulfilled, what must be done has been done."

The Buddha states that once one recognizes that there is no everlasting and permanent entity, reincarnation ends and Nirvana is achieved. My favorite Buddhist monk, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, states that Nirvana is ego dying before the body dies. He expresses the same by saying Nirvana is death of the mind before the physical death; something which you may have experienced under anesthesia, Mr. Dimmer. I can understand, because in a state like such, it is quite easy to let go of almost all attachments, especially that of self.

Could the path to Nirvana have been designed? I have no clue, but I really think that the question is beyond the point. I do believe that the personal discovery of truth should not have labels attached to it, for truth itself belongs to no religion. If you look at it this way, then their are no parallels, just one path for the same goal: enlightenment.

For a world that is governed by defining laws such as physics and karma, there has to be a precise method to transcend such things. Correct understanding has led many enlightened individuals to teach nearly the same concepts, and if there is another way, it probably hasn't been divulged to humans yet.

My favorite Buddhist monk, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, states that Nirvana is ego dying before the body dies.

I really like that quote. This sounds an awful lot like the idea of Nirvana is identical to our ultimate fate as many Atheists perceive it.

Cultural, spacial, and linguistic differences has made transcending differences difficult although modern technology is helping tremendously. More importantly, I'd argue that the most important step needs to be done by each individual before they can transcend such differences: the desire to know Truth regardless of what Truth is. And once somebody has achieved this - following the path to Truth is easy.

Perhaps the way to achieve your goals is to, as an entire species, highly value Truth.