3. Buddhism and the God-Idea
QUESTION: Do you Buddhists believe in a god?
ANSWER: No, we do not. There are several reasons for this. Like modern sociologists and psychologists, the Buddha saw that many religious ideas, and especially the god-idea, have their origin in anxiety and fear. He says:
‘Gripped by fear people go to the sacred mountains, sacred groves, sacred trees and shrines.’ Dhp.188
Primitive humans found themselves in a dangerous and hostile world. The fear of wild animals, of not being able to find enough food, of injury or disease, and of natural phenomena like thunder, lightning and volcanoes was constantly with them. Finding no security, they created the idea of gods in order to give them comfort in good times, courage in times of danger, and consolation when things went wrong. To this day you will notice that people often become more religious at times of crises and you will hear them say that the belief in their god or gods gives them the strength they need to deal with life. Often they explain that they believe in a particular god because they prayed in time of need and their prayer was answered. All this seems to support the Buddha’s teaching that the god-idea is a response to fear and frustration. The Buddha taught us to try to understand our fears, to lessen our desires and to calmly and courageously accept the things we cannot change. He replaced fear with rational understanding not with irrational belief.
The second reason the Buddha did not believe in a god is because there does not seem to be very much evidence to support this idea. There are numerous religions, all claiming that they alone have God’s words preserved in their holy books, that they alone understand God’s nature, that their god exists and that the gods of other religions do not. Some claim that God is masculine, some that she is feminine and others that it is neuter. Some claim that God is unitary, others that he is a trinity, and yet others that his nature is unknowable. They are all satisfied that there is ample evidence to prove the existence of the god they worship, but they scoff at the evidence opposing religions use to prove the existence of their gods. It is surprising that despite so many religions using so much ingenuity over so many centuries to prove the existence of a god, that there is still no real, concrete, substantial or irrefutable evidence for such a being. They cannot even agree amongst themselves what this god that they worship is like. Buddhists suspend judgment until such evidence is forthcoming.
The third reason the Buddha did not believe in a supreme deity is because he felt that the belief was not necessary. Some claim that the belief in a god is necessary in order to explain the origin on the universe. But science has very convincingly explained how the universe came into being without having to introduce the god-idea. Some claim that belief in god is necessary to have a happy, meaningful life. But again we can see that this is not so. There are millions of atheists and free-thinkers, not to mention many Buddhists, who live useful, happy and meaningful lives without belief in a god. Some claim that belief in God’s power is necessary because humans, being weak, do not have the strength to help themselves. Once again, the evidence indicates the opposite. One often hears of people who have overcome great disabilities and handicaps, enormous odds and difficulties, through their own inner resources, their own efforts and without belief in a god. Some claim that a god is necessary in order to give salvation. But this argument only holds good if you accept the theological concept of salvation, and Buddhists do not accept such a concept.
Based on his own experience, the Buddha saw that each human being has the capacity to purify the mind, develop infinite love and compassion and perfect understanding. He shifted attention from the heavens to the heart and encouraged us to find solutions to our problems through self-understanding.
QUESTION: But if there are no gods how did the universe get here?
ANSWER: All religions have myths and stories which attempt to answer this question. In ancient times such myths were adequate but in the 21st century, in the age of physics, astronomy and geology, such myths have been superseded by scientific fact. Science has explained the origin of the universe without recourse to the god-idea.
QUESTION: What does the Buddha say about the origin of the universe?
ANSWER: It is interesting that the Buddha’s explanation of the origin of the universe corresponds very closely to the scientific view. In the Aganna Sutta, the Buddha described the universe being destroyed and then re-evolving into its present form over a period of countless millions of years. The first life formed on the surface of the water and again, over countless millions of years, evolved from simple into complex organisms. All these processes were, he said, without beginning or end, and are set in motion by natural causes.
QUESTION: You say there is no evidence for the existence of a god but what about miracles?
ANSWER: There are many people who believe that miracles are proof of existence of some sort of god. We hear wild claims that a healing has taken place, but we never seem to get independent testimony of this from a medical office or a doctor. We hear second-hand reports that someone was miraculously saved from disaster, but we never seem to get eye-witness accounts of what is supposed to have happened. We hear rumors that prayer straightened a diseased body or strengthened a withered limb, but we never see X-rays or get comments from doctors or nurses to prove these rumors. Wild claims, second-hand reports and hearsay are no substitute for solid evidence, and solid evidence of miracles is very rare.
However, unusual and unexplained things sometimes do happen. But our inability to explain such things does not prove the existence of gods. It only proves that our knowledge is as yet incomplete. Before the development of modern medicine, when people didn’t know what caused sickness, they believed that God or the gods sent diseases as a punishment. Now we know what causes such things and when we get sick we take medicine. In time, when our knowledge of the world is more complete, we may find out what causes unexplained phenomena, just as we can now understand what causes disease.
QUESTION: But so many people believe in some form of god, it must be true.
ANSWER: Not so. There was a time when everyone believed that the Earth was flat, but they were all wrong. The number of people who believe in an idea is no measure of the truth or falsehood of that idea. The only way we can tell whether an idea is true or not is by looking at the facts and examining the evidence.
QUESTION: Some people say that the evidence is everywhere. They say that the beauty of nature and the complexity of the human body are all evidence of a higher intelligence and a loving creator.
ANSWER: Unfortunately this idea breaks down as soon as you look at the other side of nature – leprosy bacteria, cancer cells, parasitic worms, blood-sucking insects and plague rats. Why would a higher intelligence design things that cause so much misery and suffering? Then stop to consider how many people die or are injured in earthquakes, droughts, floods and tsunamis. If there really is a loving creator, why does he create such things or allow them to happen?
QUESTION: If I became a Buddhist I would be all alone in the universe. People who believe in some god can always call upon him to help and protect them when they have a crisis. I think this is a much more comforting belief.
ANSWER: People who believe in a supreme being think that that they are being helped or protected. But actually they are not. The comfort and confidence they might feel has come from their belief, their mind, not from anything a deity has done for them. There is no evidence that people who believe in a supreme being have less accidents, live longer, have lower rates of cancer, do better in the exams, are richer or are different in any other way from people who do not believe. A jumbo jet can carry 600 passengers. If one crashes, as occasionally happens, all 600 people die, those who believe in divine help and those who do not.
All of us have the psychological resources and the intelligence to deal with the difficulties of life. We should try to develop and strengthen these resources rather than rely on pleasing but unfounded beliefs.
QUESTION: So if you Buddhists don’t believe in gods, what do you believe in?
ANSWER: We do not believe in a god because we believe in humanity. We believe that each human being is precious and important, that all have the potential to develop into a Buddha – a perfected human being. We believe that human beings can outgrow ignorance and irrationality and see things as they really are. We believe that hatred, anger, spite and jealousy can be replaced by love, patience, generosity and kindness. We believe that all this is within the grasp of each person if they make the effort, guided and supported by their fellow Buddhists and inspired by the example of the Buddha. As the Buddha says:
‘By oneself is evil done, is one defiled.
By oneself is good done, is one purified.
Good and evil depends on oneself.
No one can purify another.’ Dhp.165