Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism

Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Sat Mar 24, 2012 4:37 pm

This thread has really confused me. I thought most people considered atheism to be a rejection of a supreme being or God, which Buddhism clearly espouses. Being an atheist and being irreligious are two different things. Even if I believe in rebirth and other realms and all that, I'm still an atheist if I reject any deity. Even belief in Devas doesn't rule out atheism so long as you consider them to be transitory phases, essentially like other dimensions, which I feel is the correct Buddhist understanding. Stephen Hawking believes in other universes too and he's an atheist.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

Stuff I write about things.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sat Mar 24, 2012 5:37 pm

LonesomeYogurt wrote:This thread has really confused me. I thought most people considered atheism to be a rejection of a supreme being or God, which Buddhism clearly espouses. Being an atheist and being irreligious are two different things. Even if I believe in rebirth and other realms and all that, I'm still an atheist if I reject any deity. Even belief in Devas doesn't rule out atheism so long as you consider them to be transitory phases, essentially like other dimensions, which I feel is the correct Buddhist understanding. Stephen Hawking believes in other universes too and he's an atheist.

Atheism isn't limited to rejection of a creator God or monotheistic deity, and so on.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Sat Mar 24, 2012 6:07 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:Atheism isn't limited to rejection of a creator God or monotheistic deity, and so on.

Then wouldn't the best term for what you're saying be "secular" or "irreligious?" Those have stricter definitions that would include ruling out rebirth, etc.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

Stuff I write about things.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Kare » Sat Mar 24, 2012 6:49 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:
Kare wrote:"With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful."

Do you believe this?

It doesn't matter what I believe.


Very true.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sat Mar 24, 2012 6:56 pm

LonesomeYogurt wrote:Then wouldn't the best term for what you're saying be "secular" or "irreligious?" Those have stricter definitions that would include ruling out rebirth, etc.

Well, there are a few related issues. The wrong view already quoted earlier in this thread includes atheism, materialism, and moral nihilism. Regarding atheism, Arvind Sharma, Buddhism and Atheism:

    Because it posits the existence of devas, original Buddhism cannot be considered an atheistic religion in the broad sense.

Alfred Bloom, Buddhism and Atheism:

    Buddhism is not, therefore, atheistic in the modern understanding which developed in the West as a reaction to theistic Christianity.

Michael Martin, Atheism and Religion:

    To the extent then that atheism consists in the denial of the existence of god or gods Buddhism is not technically atheistic, since what it really questions is not the existence but the significance of god or gods.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby nowheat » Sat Mar 24, 2012 7:13 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:...if someone has a sincere interest in Buddhism then I think they should be willing to keep an open mind on the question of rebirth, and at least accept that this is a significant teaching of the Buddhadhamma, even while they remain agnostic themselves.


I sincerely practice and study Buddhism, and have an open mind on the question of rebirth.

The problem is that when I read the Pali canon, I find the Buddha is not talking about literal rebirth. I find he is using it as a structure that is useful to make his points on several levels simultaneously, and that this use of rebirth is consistent with the whole of his dhamma. I recognize that a part of me wants to believe in rebirth, and that part of me wants the approach that is Theravada to have an accurate understanding of what the Buddha taught, and for that understanding to be factually accurate. But when I read the canon, I am struck by the clarity of the Buddha's message, which is that we should stick to what we are certain of -- certain through repeated personal experience that has been thoroughly examined for the possibility that there may be underlying clinging to self that charges our interpretation of those experiences; certain because our experience and understanding is backed up by the wise (which I do not take to be limited to those of one school of thought).

Because it seemed as though what I was reading was in conflict with what the ancient schools were telling me the Buddha taught about rebirth, I began studying non-Buddhist works from around that time, to get a feel for the way people expressed ideas about rebirth and other grand issues, expecting this to make it clearer where my misunderstanding lay, make it clearer that the Buddha was talking about literal rebirth, but it had the opposite effect: it made his layering of meaning even clearer. What I expected to have happen, didn't.

I understand the structure of the Theravadin interpretation of buddhadhamma, and how it hangs together, and I keep an open mind that what is described in there might be factually accurate. Meanwhile, I have yet to find evidence that couldn't be described in other ways.

I would think that if someone has a sincere interest in what the Buddha taught, they would be willing to keep an open mind about the accuracy of the interpretation we have been handed, and to be interested enough to try to actually understand what's being said, rather then spending a lot of time decrying it without giving it a full hearing. After all, what we have had handed down to us, and particularly the interpretations of it, were handed on not by the originator, but by mere humans, many of whom may have had less insight than the originator, and all of whom certainly had less of the original context than the originator had.

:namaste:
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sat Mar 24, 2012 7:34 pm

nowheat wrote:I sincerely practice and study Buddhism, and have an open mind on the question of rebirth.

Right on.

nowheat wrote:The problem is that when I read the Pali canon, I find the Buddha is not talking about literal rebirth.

And other people, even without recourse to the commentaries, find that he is.

nowheat wrote:I would think that if someone has a sincere interest in what the Buddha taught, they would be willing to keep an open mind about the accuracy of the interpretation we have been handed, and to be interested enough to try to actually understand what's being said, rather then spending a lot of time decrying it without giving it a full hearing.

Yes, well, I can assure you that this subject forces me to step outside of my comfort zone. It's an aspect of dhmma that I have always been quite happy to avoid discussing. But the dhammavinaya is much more than a few modern materialist and secular trends.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Goofaholix » Sat Mar 24, 2012 7:50 pm

Mr Man wrote:I wonder if the "natthika-di??hi" of the Buddha's time was a much stronger "view" than the re-birth skepticism that some Theravada Buddhist of today have.


According to the definition i posted on page 1 most definately.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby mikenz66 » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:01 pm

nowheat wrote:I would think that if someone has a sincere interest in what the Buddha taught, they would be willing to keep an open mind about the accuracy of the interpretation we have been handed, ...

Very true. As I said in another thread, it's claims that someone has either proved or rejected particular interpretations that I think is completely bogus. This evangelistic certainty is the problem I see with many modern interpreters, who inflate their otherwise interesting opinions into a crusade to show that some particular way of looking at the Canon clears away the "unnecessary" parts and gives us the "true way". That the Commentators and other have got it completely wrong for 2500 years, but now we have rediscovered the truth.

Many modern scholars, teachers, and practitioners are quite capable of discussing problems of interpretation and practice without rejecting other views as nonsense. In fact, almost anyone I meet off-line does that.

I have another observation. A huge straw man that some hoist when these issues arise is "appeal to authority". Now, unless you think that the only thing Dhamma is good for is bit less stress in your life. I.e. if you take seriously the Buddha's claim that the end of dukkha is possible, then, unless you are an ariyan, you are appealing to authority. So accusations of "appeal to authority" are, I'm afraid, beside the point. Why read any suttas at all if you reject "appeal to authority"?

As I said above, I'm disappointed that Geoff chose to use the particular words he did. I think that the rejection of annihilationism and nihilism in the suttas is a more intersting thing to discuss than the definition of atheism. However, this thread brings out some very interesting issues and is a nice change from the usual "rebirth" threads...

:anjali:
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Goofaholix » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:01 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:There are no Buddhist atheists. It's a contradiction in terms. Alan Wallace, Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist:


So by that I can only assume that by choosing the title that you did you intended to label the people the OP is about as "non-Buddhist", I strongly suggest nobody has the right to do that.

When you look at the history of tolerance and mingling of ideas over the last 2500 such a need to ex-communicate sincere people that may think differently from you is absent, such an attitude is uncharacteristic of Buddhists.

Ñāṇa wrote:Nāstika in this context means not believing in the authority of the Vedas.


Correct, so another lame duck point you made.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Goofaholix » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:07 pm

Lazy_eye wrote:One should not, however, surrender his or her critical thinking skills or encourage other people to do so. That would be harmful and unwise.


This is very true, if word got out that Buddhists were in the business of asking their followers to surrender their critical thinking skills we'd be branded a cult, better they walk the path and come to an understanding of what is important in their own time.

Surely it is more important that somebody is sincerely practising the path and learning as they go than they have absolute faith in a traditional interpretation of a 2500 year old document.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Goofaholix » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:08 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:It doesn't matter what I believe.


So why does it matter what others believe?
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Goofaholix » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:14 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:Agreed. As I mentioned the other day on another thread, if someone has a sincere interest in Buddhism then I think they should be willing to keep an open mind on the question of rebirth, and at least accept that this is a significant teaching of the Buddhadhamma, even while they remain agnostic themselves.

On a related note, one of the trends that I've noticed over the years is that there is a certain significant subset of Westerners who are drawn to the Pāli dhamma and Theravāda who are more comfortable with the rational, analytical, and objective perspective than with the intuitive, holistic, subjective perspective. And it's sometimes the case that people who highly value rationalism are suspicious of the more visionary, subjective perspective. But I think both aspects are equally valuable and it's worthwhile -- even necessary -- to work towards integrating both. Awakening requires developing the optimal mental qualities for practice, both cognitive and affective, the rational and the visionary.


I agree with that and in my experience what gives the visionary, subjective perspective freedom to evolve is an open mind, which is why the Buddha discouraged fixed views and instead encouraged finding the middle way between views, in this case between eternalism and annihilationism.
Last edited by Goofaholix on Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Goofaholix » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:15 pm

LonesomeYogurt wrote:This thread has really confused me. I thought most people considered atheism to be a rejection of a supreme being or God, which Buddhism clearly espouses. Being an atheist and being irreligious are two different things. Even if I believe in rebirth and other realms and all that, I'm still an atheist if I reject any deity. Even belief in Devas doesn't rule out atheism so long as you consider them to be transitory phases, essentially like other dimensions, which I feel is the correct Buddhist understanding. Stephen Hawking believes in other universes too and he's an atheist.


That's because your english is better than Nana's.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Goofaholix » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:19 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:
    Because it posits the existence of devas, original Buddhism cannot be considered an atheistic religion in the broad sense.

Alfred Bloom, Buddhism and Atheism:

    Buddhism is not, therefore, atheistic in the modern understanding which developed in the West as a reaction to theistic Christianity.

Michael Martin, Atheism and Religion:

    To the extent then that atheism consists in the denial of the existence of god or gods Buddhism is not technically atheistic, since what it really questions is not the existence but the significance of god or gods.


Are these people Buddhist practitioners? The Buddha demoted "gods" to beings stuck in samsaric realms like you and me, he never instructed is to believe in them or worship them which makes the whole point Irrelevant.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Goofaholix » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:25 pm

nowheat wrote:I sincerely practice and study Buddhism, and have an open mind on the question of rebirth.

The problem is that when I read the Pali canon, I find the Buddha is not talking about literal rebirth. I find he is using it as a structure that is useful to make his points on several levels simultaneously, and that this use of rebirth is consistent with the whole of his dhamma. I recognize that a part of me wants to believe in rebirth, and that part of me wants the approach that is Theravada to have an accurate understanding of what the Buddha taught, and for that understanding to be factually accurate. But when I read the canon, I am struck by the clarity of the Buddha's message, which is that we should stick to what we are certain of -- certain through repeated personal experience that has been thoroughly examined for the possibility that there may be underlying clinging to self that charges our interpretation of those experiences; certain because our experience and understanding is backed up by the wise (which I do not take to be limited to those of one school of thought).

Because it seemed as though what I was reading was in conflict with what the ancient schools were telling me the Buddha taught about rebirth, I began studying non-Buddhist works from around that time, to get a feel for the way people expressed ideas about rebirth and other grand issues, expecting this to make it clearer where my misunderstanding lay, make it clearer that the Buddha was talking about literal rebirth, but it had the opposite effect: it made his layering of meaning even clearer. What I expected to have happen, didn't.

I understand the structure of the Theravadin interpretation of buddhadhamma, and how it hangs together, and I keep an open mind that what is described in there might be factually accurate. Meanwhile, I have yet to find evidence that couldn't be described in other ways.

I would think that if someone has a sincere interest in what the Buddha taught, they would be willing to keep an open mind about the accuracy of the interpretation we have been handed, and to be interested enough to try to actually understand what's being said, rather then spending a lot of time decrying it without giving it a full hearing. After all, what we have had handed down to us, and particularly the interpretations of it, were handed on not by the originator, but by mere humans, many of whom may have had less insight than the originator, and all of whom certainly had less of the original context than the originator had.


Excellent point, this deserves to be bumped, thanks for taking the time to provide a bit of sanity.

When you think in terms like this it seems to me there is no usefulness in branding one group of people who might think a bit differently with uncomplimentary labels as was suggested by the OP.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Goofaholix » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:37 pm

mikenz66 wrote:I have another observation. A huge straw man that some hoist when these issues arise is "appeal to authority". Now, unless you think that the only thing Dhamma is good for is bit less stress in your life. I.e. if you take seriously the Buddha's claim that the end of dukkha is possible, then, unless you are an ariyan, you are appealing to authority. So accusations of "appeal to authority" are, I'm afraid, beside the point. Why read any suttas at all if you reject "appeal to authority"?


You're right. Actually the way some people go on about it it comes across like Buddhism is about taking refuge in 4 jewels Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha, and a unwavering belief in literal rebirth, but of course putting aside that fourth jewel doesn't give license to denigrate part of the teaching.

The Buddha incorporated teachings of older religions on samsaric rebirth and the need for beings to free themselves from said samsaric rebirth pretty much intact as a description of the problem.

However the means to get free from that problem is what is radically different, one aspect of this is anicca, and to me among other things this takes the wind out of the sails of samsaric rebirth. When you are focussed on dismantling self view in the present then what "this self" will be become in future lives is less and less relevant. This is the power of the Buddhist teaching, it solves the problem as defined previous Indian religions not by arguing against it or denying it but by relegating it to background irrelevancy.

I don't know how someone who has practised the Buddhas path over a period of time with any depth could fail to notice this. The argument misses the point, we aren't here to believe in a problem, we are here to transcend it.
"Proper effort is not the effort to make something particular happen. It is the effort to be aware and awake each moment." - Ajahn Chah
"When we see beyond self, we no longer cling to happiness. When we stop clinging, we can begin to be happy." - Ajahn Chah
"Know and watch your heart. It’s pure but emotions come to colour it." — Ajahn Chah
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Lazy_eye » Sat Mar 24, 2012 8:48 pm

Mikenz wrote:However, this thread brings out some very interesting issues and is a nice change from the usual "rebirth" threads..


Sure is -- and thank you Geoff for starting the thread and patiently fielding questions and objections. Discussions like this are part of the reason DW has become such a valuable resource for students of the Dhamma.

Ñāṇa wrote:One of the trends that I've noticed over the years is that there is a certain significant subset of Westerners who are drawn to the Pāli dhamma and Theravāda who are more comfortable with the rational, analytical, and objective perspective than with the intuitive, holistic, subjective perspective. And it's sometimes the case that people who highly value rationalism are suspicious of the more visionary, subjective perspective. But I think both aspects are equally valuable and it's worthwhile -- even necessary -- to work towards integrating both. Awakening requires developing the optimal mental qualities for practice, both cognitive and affective, the rational and the visionary.


As a side note, it seems a certain tension between the rational/analytical and the visionary perspectives can be detected even in early Buddhism. Guang Xing discusses this at some length (with reference to the Sarvastivadins and Mahasanghikas) in "The Concept of the Buddha":

Guang Xing wrote: The Sarvastivadins were rational and developed their concept of the Buddha more on the basis of reason than on faith, because their attitude towards the teachings of the Buddha is that not every word of the Tathagata is the preaching of the Dharma. Therefore, they were careful in dealing with the sutras and formulated their concept of the Buddha on the basis of the human identity as revealed in early Buddhism, summarizing and synthesizing the teachings concerning the Buddha. They considered the Buddha as a human being and thus bodhi made Gautama a Buddha.


By contrast:

The Mahasanghikas’ religious philosophy was based more on faith than on reason... [and as a result] they developed the concept of a transcendental (lokottara) Buddha based on the superhuman qualities of the Buddha.This belief is founded on their attitude towards the words of the Buddha, which convinced them that all the words of the Tathagata were the pronouncement of Dharma. As a result, they took everything that was said in the Nikayas and the Agamas as the true words of the Buddha. They arrived at the conclusion that the actual Buddha could not be an ordinary human but must be a transcendental being who is omnipotent and eternal.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby Nyana » Sat Mar 24, 2012 9:47 pm

mikenz66 wrote:As I said above, I'm disappointed that Geoff chose to use the particular words he did. I think that the rejection of annihilationism and nihilism in the suttas is a more intersting thing to discuss than the definition of atheism. However, this thread brings out some very interesting issues and is a nice change from the usual "rebirth" threads...

Caveat: :soap:

Well, again Mike, I specifically chose this term for a reason. Part of the issue is this: If one is highly confident that they will attain the arahant path in this life, or, if one is highly confident that there is nothing after this life and death is the end (which, of course, means parinibbāna for everyone), then the issue of rebirth, higher and lower realms, etc., is not a significant aspect of the dhamma or right view.

But if one isn't convinced of the certainty of either of these two endings, then, as you know, Theravāda Buddhism offers a complete worldview and practice, including generating merit (puñña), and practicing the perfections (pāramī), and so on, in order to attain a good rebirth as a human or god. And far from being an inferior, conciliatory version of the Buddhadhamma, it is a meaningful and valid right view which can inform all aspects of practice and life. This Theravāda Buddhist worldview is far removed from the mainstream atheism being touted by popular authors such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and even Stephen Batchelor and other Secular Buddhism folks.

This Theravāda Buddhism is most fully expressed in texts such as the Apadāna, Buddhavaṃsa, Cariyāpiṭaka, and the Vimānavatthu -- where deities describe their former meritorious deeds that resulted in their rebirth as deities in heavenly mansions. Again, this worldview isn't compatible with mainstream atheism, which dismisses all of this. Indeed, even some of the "sutta-only" Buddhists dismiss these teachings as "late additions to the canon" and therefore spurious or illegitimate. Well, I disagree.

Of course, numerous Buddhist authors -- both academics and teachers -- consider Buddhism to be atheistic in the narrow sense of the word, i.e. denying a Prime Mover creator God. But in the real-world this restrictive sense of the term "atheism" has been eclipsed by the inclusion of a myopic belief in scientific materialism, which is incompatible with Buddhist rebirth, and related teachings. Therefore, this pesky little word has significant connotations that are contrary to 2500 years of Pāli dhammavinaya and Theravāda Buddhism.
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Re: Atheism is an Unskillful False Dhamma

Postby tiltbillings » Sat Mar 24, 2012 10:16 pm

Ñāṇa wrote:
LonesomeYogurt wrote:Then wouldn't the best term for what you're saying be "secular" or "irreligious?" Those have stricter definitions that would include ruling out rebirth, etc.

Well, there are a few related issues. The wrong view already quoted earlier in this thread includes atheism, materialism, and moral nihilism. Regarding atheism, Arvind Sharma, Buddhism and Atheism:

[list]Because it posits the existence of devas, original Buddhism cannot be considered an atheistic religion in the broad sense.
That is the point -- "the broad sense." Again, it is a matter of how atheism is defined. This thread is a category 5 hurricane in a teapot.
This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond.
SN I, 38.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.
People live in one another’s shelter.

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