A Neglected Atheism: A View from Sam Harris

If atheism is the rejection of belief in gods then Buddhism is an atheistic system!  Buddha himself was an agnostic who said in Deer Park, "I can not say whether there is a god, no god or not a not-god. But I can tell you how to obtain enlightenment" 

Buddha thought that belief in gods was a source of suffering. He taught a particular path of consciousness that is a form of detached compassion. Can we of a skeptical Western Atheism dialogue with a more ancient psychological Eastern atheism?  Or does the roots of Western atheism come from an Enlightenment period younger but with a more valid materialistic ontological grounding that must reject the phenomenological ontology of Buddhism? 

The author Sam Harris points out that the true teachings of Buddhism has become caught in a trap of religion: http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/killing-the-buddha/

What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”

If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.

There is a reason that we don’t talk about “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra,” though the Christians invented physics as we know it, and the Muslims invented algebra. Today, anyone who emphasizes the Christian roots of physics or the Muslim roots of algebra would stand convicted of not understanding these disciplines at all. In the same way, once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations. Once such a conceptual revolution has taken place, speaking of “Buddhist” meditation will be synonymous with a failure to assimilate the changes that have occurred in our understanding of the human mind...

There is much more to be discovered about the nature of the human mind. In particular, there is much more for us to understand about how the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion. Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in their way.

Written by Tommy G. Baker