Atheism, Buddhism, and the Question of ‘Belief Systems’

By Adam J. Pearson

Today, I came across some people who were debating the subject of belief systems.  One of the debaters claimed that atheism is a belief system and the other, that it is not. To address the question of whether atheism is or is not a belief system, we must first ask: what is a belief system?

A belief system can be defined as an organized set of beliefs.  Do atheists all possess belief systems of some kind? Certainly. Their worldviews, the ways of seeing the world that form the lenses through which sensation is transformed into perception in their brains, are constituted by sets of beliefs about the way things are.  They believe that water evaporates and condenses through the water cycle, that people cannot live without water, that objects fall because of the Earth’s gravitational pull, etc. etc.  These beliefs constellate their worldview. In short, they compose belief systems.

A more interesting question, however, is whether atheism can itself be considered a belief system.  To this question, I again answer yes.  It is, however, a qualified yes. Atheism, as a philosophical position, is a belief system, but a flexible one.

Allow me to explain.  Sincere atheists do not believe that there is a God as described by the religions, but they usually believe that should sufficient evidence for such a being be presented to them, they would be willing to change their minds. So far, they have not encountered such sufficient evidence or reasons.  Therefore, they disbelieve in the existence of a God.

This view that they would believe given sufficient evidence in turn presupposes an additional epistemological belief. This belief about knowledge is that a view is worth believing if and only if it is supported by adequate empirical evidence. The first belief mentioned above and this second belief are organized and mutually supporting; they are logically consistent. Together, they seem to make up a system of beliefs, albeit a flexible one. They are distinct beliefs which fit together in an organized way. Therefore, it seems fair to say that atheism is a form of belief system, an organized set of at least two beliefs.

We must qualify this statement further, however, by saying that atheism, as a ‘belief system’ is fundamentally different from most religious belief systems, which tend to be dogmatic. Certainly, atheism can become dogmatic as well. However, sincere atheism which really and consistently holds to the second belief outlined above would not be dogmatic because it would remain open to the possibility that it could be wrong. All that would be required to show it to be wrong would be sufficient empirical proof.  It is this quality that lends atheism, as a belief system, its flexibility, and it is for this reason that I refer to atheism as a ‘flexible belief system.’

One of the debaters went on to refer to Buddhism as a ‘non-belief system.’ Is this designation accurate? I would argue, first of all, that there is no monolithic code of beliefs that can be called Buddhism.  Buddhism exists in multiple diverse systems, ranging from the monastic spareness of Theravada to the metaphysically robust Vajrayana with its many deities and bodhisattvas.  However, suppose we could look at all of these together, focusing on what is most basic, fundamental, or common to them.  Could that be regarded as a ‘non-belief’ system, that is, a system without beliefs?

I argue that Buddhism could not be regarded as a ‘non-belief’ system. A belief system, as defined above, is simply a set of organized beliefs. Buddhism does meet this criterion. It has fundamental beliefs (e.g. in the Four Noble Truths, in the connection between the Three Poisons and suffering, in the impermanent nature of the universe and the Three Marks of Existence as a whole, etc.). These beliefs are systematically organized. Therefore, Buddhism is a belief system.

What makes it distinctive, however, is that these beliefs are not presented as givens to be taken in faith. They may be at first, but deep Buddhist practice involves testing these beliefs out in practice to see if they are really true after all. Buddhist ‘faith’ is grounded in experience, which makes it a unique variety of faith. This is in contrast to the Kierkegaardian form of Christian faith in which one believes in the absence of strong reasons or of evidence, out of a kind of ‘leap into the Transcendent.’

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