Over on Sweep the Dust, John asks “Can Buddhism be completely atheistic?” I replied in the comments there, but I’d like to elaborate a bit here as well.
Atheism is tricky to pin down now ‘a days. There is the “extreme” atheism that denies the existence of anything supernatural whatsoever, including karma and rebirth. And then there are those that identify as atheists simply because they don’t believe in god/gods. Either one is fine by me. I can embrace the atheistic idea of no deities, but I choose not to define myself by what I don’t believe in.
I believe Buddhism to be largely apatheistic in its approach to deities. It doesn’t really matter if god/gods do exist, because they obviously don’t care about ending our suffering. It falls upon us to end the cycle of samsara (though we may call upon the bodhisattvas to aid us).
But as for “complete” atheism, no, I don’t think it’s really compatible with what the Buddha taught. The Buddha spoke for kalpas upon kalpas about karma and rebirth. It’s kind of hard to deny this, isn’t it?
I think the Buddha addressed skeptics when he states that it takes a noble version of right view to correctly see how karma and rebirth work. So for us, it takes practice, and a little faith. Yes, faith. It takes a bit of faith that yes, we walking a path that results in liberation. It takes a bit of faith to plop down on that zafu for the first time. It takes a bit of faith that the Buddha and the teachers that followed him knew what it was they were talking about. It takes a bith of faith to put into practice the teaching of the Lotus Sutra before you see any real change. It takes a bit of faith to get us on our path (and sometimes to keep us going) because we aren’t fully enlightened. We are unable to see reality as it truly is. But we work towards it, strive towards it.
Now, before you start quoting the Kalama sutra, hold on. First, he was speaking to a particular group of people about a particular set of circumstances. Much of what he said there rings true today and should be applied to one’s teaching. However, no where did he say that one shouldn’t trust wise teachers, or that one shouldn’t trust in (what later became) the sutras. Remember the 3 jewels? It takes trust and faith to walk this Buddhist path. If not, how on earth did first you come to practice Buddhism? You had to have a little faith and trust before you started practicing. You had no direct experience beforehand.
If one wishes to remain skeptical towards karma and rebirth, I think that is healthy. It isn’t taking something on blind faith, it is remaining skeptical while working through it in your practice. Though I think a strong disbelief in either is a form of aversion and craving/attachment. It seems like a thick wall to put up in front of you and your practice. Some may say that Buddhism requires no belief in karma and rebirth. That may be true. Your average practitioner doesn’t have to believe in either. But if we are to believe what the Buddha had to say, and that what he achieved was real, then we also should accept that when we get to that point, we won’t need to believe in either, we will be able to discern it for ourselves.
Karma and rebirth are still tricky for me, as I’ve posted before. But thanks to some helpful dharma bums here on the interwebs, I’ve read a little more, and things are starting to almost make sense for me. I suppose I’ll just not worry too much about it, and focus on what set me on this path in the first place; becoming more mindful, attaining a “quieter” mind, breaking habits, and living more compassionately.