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The Atheistic Religions?

Bertrand Russel defined atheism as being a positive assertion of the denial of a higher power. Not being religious isn’t enough, not being spiritual isn’t enough, nor is being that eternal cop-out unsure but willing to subscribe to Pascal’s wager*. You have to deny, positively assert that there is no higher power. You can’t be a “non-practicing atheist” if you are unconcerned with religion, don’t bother with the question of God, Gods, or whatevers it doesn’t mean that you are an atheist it just means you are apathetic. More probable, it means that you are an agnostic.

Is atheism though, necessarily materialistic? By this I don’t mean concerned with worldly values, or possessions. I mean in the philosophical, existential sense. Can you be a Cartesian Dualist and still be an Atheist? Or are the two things mutually exclusive?

I ask because I am reading Jennifer Hecht’s book on the history of religious doubt aptly titled “Doubt: A History,” and so far she has written about religious doubt in the Greek and Hellenic world, the Hebrew world, and in chapter 3 the Ancient East dealing with religions of the Indian subcontinent and China. So far the book is pretty fantastic, but I have some issues with chapter 3, because of the claims she is making about the Eastern religions.

Christopher Hitchens, in his book “God Is Not Great,” mentioned how his atheism was a Protestant Atheism. Meaning that his conversion from religiousness to atheism started with Protestant Christianity. As much as I liked the book I thought that comment was misplaced as an atheist is an atheist. It doesn’t matter what religion a person started in, they have rejected all gods since. A Protestant atheist is just a way of saying I reject all religious truths but I am really anti-Protestant. I myself am not a Catholic-Atheist, I’m just an atheist.

And Hecht seems to treat this correctly when dealing with the doubters of both the Greek, Hellenic, and Jewish world. Then she comes into the East. Alot of people that have been raised in the Western world have a mistaken idea of religion in the East. It seems exotic and mysterious, because it doesn’t deal with the West’s typical notion of God. The Eastern religions either possess an abundance of God figures or they possess none. Buddhism does not have gods in it’s religion but it does have gods in its origin**, then we have Hinduism with it’s numerous gods at the edges and the Brahman/Atman duality in the center. Which is like a god but also completely unlike the concept for reasons that take a whole semester to explain.

When someone criticizes religion they are almost invariable leaving alone the Eastern side of things. Primarily this is done for one reason: ignorance. The person arguing against religion doesn’t know enough about Buddhism to take the hammer to it. They may have seen the Dalai Llama and think that he seems to be a good guy so they leave him alone opting instead for the man in the white hat.

This gives Buddhism and Taoism a unique aegis against the attacks of atheists that Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam don’t have: there isn’t a god to reject. Not at the core of the religion anyway. You can attack them on religious grounds but not on conceptual grounds.

So Hecht, in her book has taken to calling the religions “atheistic.” It might an effort to pack as much irony into two words as possible but she seems serious. Can a religion be atheistic? I would think not, I would categorize the religions as “A-Deistic” to coin a phrase, but the problem for her assertion is that while there are not central god figures in Buddhism and Taoism there still is a higher power, a final goal that reaches beyond this world. Which means it can’t be an atheistic religion.

I think the trap that she gets herself into is that she is using the word “atheism” in the common sense which denies the existence of a supreme god, at least in the manner that most people use the word, however this runs contradictory to the way in which the word must be applied in the universal sense philosophically. An atheist denies all religion you don’t get an Eastern escape clause just because it seems cool.

*Succinctly put, you might as well believe because you have nothing to lose if you do but everything if you don’t.

**Quibble if you want but upon Siddarhta’s birth his father appealed to soothsayers who foretold that the Buddha would venture upon one of two paths. If there are no gods in this story then where did the soothsayers get their prophecy?

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