Why we can be certain that God doesn’t exist

A couple of months ago I wrote a rebuttal of Paul Williams’ critique of Buddhism. That got me thinking about theology a little; always bearing in mind the Hindu saying that one who loves God will get enlightened in seven lifetimes, but one who hates God will get enlightened in three!

I was reminded of something in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I read it a few years ago, and there was something that had niggled me about it. Of course, there are many things that one might take issue with in that book, but one thing struck me: even though he launched the most virulent attack possible on God, he said that we can be almost certain that God doesn’t exist. It seems to me on reflection that he is being too wimpy: in fact, we can, and should, be completely certain that God doesn’t exist.


TL;DR: The concept of God, in any recognizable form, involves not one, but a cascading series of impossibilities, incoherencies, and contradictions, any one of which is sufficient to dismiss the notion out of hand, but which taken together render the likelihood of God’s existence to be practically zero. Moreoever, there is precisely no evidence in favor of God existing. The only rational conclusion is that God does not exist.


Certainty

Dawkins, of course, is being a good scientist, and operating within the conservative epistemological framework of modern science, according to which it is not possible to arrive at definite truth about anything. This is all fine and good, but it is not really how things work.

The reality is that we accept many things all the time as being certain. It is certain that today is Monday. It is certain that I am sitting on the floor. It is certain that I am breathing air. Sure, we might do a solipsistic fantasy where we doubt these things for philosophical purposes, but for any pragmatic purpose, these things are certain.

Another way of looking at it is to think of certainty’s opposite, doubt. “Question everything!”: so goes the slogan. Sounds great, but it is completely impossible. If you really questioned everything, you’d never get anything done. I’ll get a glass of water. But is there water? Is there a glass? Am I me? How do I go? And if we really questioned everything, we would not find wisdom, we would be paralyzed and unable to understand anything.

In this way, the standard of “question everything”, or its correlate, “nothing is certain”, becomes just another metaphysical absolute. It becomes an unassailable doctrine; and of course, it begs the question: can we doubt the idea that everything should be doubted?

What science, and Buddhism, actually operate on is far more pragmatic. Truth is approached in a reasonable way, contingently accepting most things as true, and identifying just one thing, or a set of things, as the object of inquiry. How we choose those things is largely based on what matters: for science, to have an improved understanding of the physical world; for Buddhism, to escape from suffering.

So we have a pragmatic approach to truth, and we question things when it appears that questioning is going to be useful. Of course, we don’t know until later whether it actually is useful, but we make our best guess, based on what we have previously learned, and then we see the results.

Rather than saying that everything should be doubted all the time, then, we would be better off saying that anything should be open to be doubted, if by doubting or questioning it we may gain some benefit.

Defining God

In such discussions, it is customary for theists to say that we really can’t say what God is. This is apparently meant to be an argument in favor of the existence of God, but all it does is to affirm that the concept is ultimately meaningless. I will come back to the meaninglessness of God later on, but for now, I want to refute this idea as it stands.

The concept of God is not so vague that we can’t talk about it. While it can never be 100% pinned down, that is not the point. In fact, pretty much any concept, if pushed too hard, will break down and be impossible to define.

What is relevant is whether there are enough qualities that are commonly accepted to be part of the understanding of God in order that we can have a sensible conversation about it. And of course, there are. God is eternal, he is morally perfect, he is omniscient, omnipotent, infinite in extent, and he created the world. Pretty much any monotheistic theology will accept these and other similar claims about their God. If they reject these, we are probably in the sphere of the pagan small-g gods, to which my argument does not apply. However, any understanding of God that works within these and similar basic qualities will fall squarely within the “impossible”.

Why is God impossible?

If we take at all seriously any of these claims, it becomes immediately apparent that they are simply nonsense.

What could it possibly mean to say that an entity is omnipotent, for example? He can literally do anything: save a bird’s life, raise a man from the dead, start a universe, or shift the orbit of an electron in a hydrogen atom floating in the Horse-Head Nebula.

This is just ridiculous. It has no correlate to anything that we know of the universe. There is nothing in science, nothing in experience, nothing anywhere that gives the slightest credence to this idea.

It violates, in fact, every observable fact about the universe. Everything we have seen, every physical reality that you or I have ever experienced or will experience, operates according to certain well-understood principles. And these things are always limited. Stuff falls down. Energy flows to an equilibrium. Push something and it pushes back. And so on and so on. Every single observation that anyone has ever made of the universe is of this kind.

Sure, there are plenty of details that need working out, and plenty of areas where our knowledge is inadequate. But the only way to extend our knowledge to to start with what we have actually observed and understood, and to work out from there. You can’t just pull out of your hat a kind of thing that is utterly different from every other kind of thing and assert that it is worthy of serious consideration.

And what of omniscience? To know literally everything that is happening now, and in the past and future? Nice idea, but it contradicts everything that we know about how consciousness works. As the Buddha pointed out ad infinitum, consciousness works according to conditions. Those conditions are, like all conditions, limited, impermanent, temporal, and localized.

As I have argued earlier in discussing the “infinite consciousness” ideas that sully much Buddhist mysticism, the notion of a consciousness that has not evolved, that is not embedded in time, that has no relation to the actual consciousness that you and I experience every day of our lives, is nonsense on a stick. You can’t just take away all of the conditions that make consciousness possible and say, a-ha! That’s a consciousness! Omniscience is deeply impossible.

Eternity? Same thing. No one has never experienced anything eternal. It is, in fact, quite impossible to do so. You can’t use a limited impermanent consciousness to experience an infinite period of time, any more than you can take a limited ruler or measuring tape and measure an infinite distance. Even the existence of the past and the future is dodgy enough, much less the notion of eternity.

Impermanence is not merely an arbitrary thing that happens to consciousness: it is how consciousness works. Change is how consciousness learns and grows and becomes. In deep meditation, sure, this process is radically arrested, which is why with limited insight, and the power of attachment to self, it is easy to mistake such states for eternal. But they are not, they are merely dependent on subtle conditions. This was one of the chief insights of the Buddha.

Hopefully I don’t need to continue. The point is simple enough: every quality that is commonly attributed to God is simply a baseless assertion, which contradicts everything that we know about the world as it is, and for which there is no evidence.

Not only is there no evidence currently, it is not possible for there to be any evidence. How could one ever prove that God was omnipotent? What possible means of knowing could there be that could establish this? None whatsoever.

But the impossibility of God goes deeper than this, for not only is every quality of God impossible individually, they are also impossible taken collectively. The most powerful argument here is the argument from evil. God knows all, so he knows not only every bad thing that is done, but how to avoid it. He is all powerful, so he can prevent every evil without harmful side effects. And he is morally perfect, so he will always do the right thing. Yet there is much evil in the world, evil that even a morally imperfect person of limited knowledge and power can eliminate. How is it that God allows this evil to persist?

The theists have been back and forth on this argument for centuries, but I won’t go into all the defences here, and why they don’t work. Suffice to say, the argument from evil is highly robust, and more than that, it is spiritually important as it goes to the heart of why we engage in spiritual practice: the problem of suffering. Any doctrine that aims to address suffering, and does so while leaving such a gaping hole in its heart, is grounded only in the irrational.

The argument from evil is only one of many arguments that philosophers have developed over the years to show that God cannot exist. When we start to take seriously the claims that are intrinsic to the notion of God, the impossibilities cascade one after the other, multiplying the improbability, which was already at vanishing point with the first quality of God.

In addition, there are many other considerations that we could bring to bear. Take, for example, the criteria of usefulness, which is one of the basic standards that any scientific proposal must satisfy. If it was the case that God created the world, surely he would leave some fingerprints somewhere? Surely this fact would be the primary datum underlying any successful physical theory? Surely it would be the single most important fact about the world? Yet those who do science know that not only is the God hypothesis utterly useless in explaining any physical phenomenon whatsoever, it has a positively pernicious influence, which has frequently held back science.

The most pertinent example of this today is of course the ridiculous creationist doctrine in the US and elsewhere. I refuse to dignify it with the term “intelligent design” since what it depicts is neither intelligent nor designed. It is the doctrine that God created the world, and that this explains how all the different animals and plants came to be. Yet this silly dogma has added precisely nothing to our understanding of biology. Nothing, after hundreds of years and countless proponents. It is an utterly barren and useless hypothesis for understanding anything about the world.

Once more, we could continue in this vein indefinitely. There is literally no end to the nonsense that can be argued and justified based on the single mistaken assumption that God exists. So much so that I propose the following: any subject whatsoever, if investigated rationally, disproves the existence of God.

What could be more impossible than God?

Here I’d like to propose a sliding scale of impossibility. We’ll start with things that we can all agree don’t exist, and see how weird we can get before encountering something less likely to exist than God.

How about Unicorns? They don’t exist, right? Even hardened scientsist are agreed on this, I would presume. Yet they are not all that improbable. Basically, a horse with a nice horn; we’ll leave aside the more magical varieties here. They might have existed, but evolution didn’t happen to take that particular step. Now, given the size of the universe, could we not argue that Unicorns probably exist on some world? Sure, why not? But let’s rephrase our tenet: that Unicorns don’t exist on earth. This works just as well for us.

Now, there is still some chance that we might be wrong. After all, new species, including some sizeable mammals, are still being discovered. And Unicorns don’t violate any known laws of science. So they are not completely impossible, but still, so unlikely that no-one gives their existence any serious thought. Yet they are far, far more likely to exist than God.

Next, take Santa Claus. With his flying sled, reindeers with shiny red noses, workshop on the North Pole, and his astonishing ability to visit all the homes of children all around the world on one night (excepting of course the poor and the homeless), he is far less likely to exist than a Unicorn. He violates multiple laws of physics. Moreover, like God, the fact that lots of people believe in him is easily understandable as a wish-fulfilment. We can trace the cultural, historical, psychological, and commercial forces that have led to the cultural phenomenon of Santa Claus, and there is no need to invoke a supernatural explanation.

So he’s impossible, he doesn’t exist: and yet he is still much more likely to exist than God. Flying through the air on a sled is pretty much impossible, but hey, maybe there is some super-advanced technology that might make it happen. And who knows what advances plastic surgery might bring to the burgeoning field of reindeer nose enhancement? Getting to every home on a single night: well, not so easy to explain. But a ton easier than explaining the ability to literally do anything whatsoever. That is far more impossible, if not infinitely more impossible. So God is many, many orders of magnitude less likely to exist than Santa.

Okay, so how about something a little less fanciful? Is it possible, for example, that 2+2=5? (We can rephrase this in ontological terms, if you like: what is the probability that there exists a true statement that “2+2=5”?) Surely there is no-one, not even the most skeptical scientist, who would treat this as possible.

Now, mathematical statements are true or false by definition. Once we know the terms of the problem, we can derive the result that 2+2=4, and it never equals 5. We can do this in pure mathematics, and if we like, we can confirm by empirical observation, as has been done countless thousands of times.

But the history of science is full of examples of apparently self-evident axioms turning out to be anything but. A classic example is the Euclidean “a straight line is the shortest distance between two points”. Self-evident, provable by theorem, and confirmed by countless tests: yet still wrong. Einstein showed that the shortest distance between two points is in fact a curve, due to the influence of gravity.

It is this kind of example that leads to the idea that everything should be questioned. Yet Euclid’s theorem served perfectly well for thousands of years, as indeed it still does today, except when calculating spaceship trajectories and the like. It only became useful to question it when certain theoretical developments forced a new approach, which was subsequently confirmed by observation.

So it is possible that “2+2=5” might turn out to be correct. Perhaps our notion of a number is faulty. Perhaps we are living in a tiny pocket of a much larger Universe where a different mathematics applies. Of course, incredibly unlikely, but still more likely than that God exists.

To make 2+2=5 we would have to revolutionize our understanding of numbers and their relations. This would lead to some changes in our culture, just like changing the idea about straight lines led to some changes, such as improvements in astronomy and understanding of the cosmos. But the existence of God would require an even bigger, wholesale rejection of everything we have ever seen and learned about the Universe. No law of physics, no conception of time and space, no moral principles, no history, no nothing would escape revision. To conclude: the statement “God exists” is vastly less likely to be true than the statement “2+2=5”.

Okay, so what is less likely than this? What about something that is just plain meaningless? There’s Chomsky’s classic “green ideas sleep furiously”; a sentence that is grammatical but meaningless. Can we say of this that it is true or false? In other words, can we make an ontological statement of the form: there exists a true sentence thus: “green ideas sleep furiously”? Well, it would seem unlikely, and the philosophers would mostly say no. But for our purposes, perhaps it is still relevant. Such a statement, unlike 2+2=5, is not even wrong. It simply doesn’t have enough semantic clarity to be the kind of thing that might exist. If anything, then, we could say that it is less likely to exist.

Yet it is still not entirely out of the question. The statement, like the statement 2+2=5, depends on meaning, and meaning is a slippery beast. There have been multiple attempts to create a linguistic context where “green ideas sleep furiously” is in fact meaningful. Whether these are successful or not, it is still the case that the statement might be made meaningful. And if it is meaningful, it might be true.

As with the previous example, if we were to find a way in which this statement were to be made meaningful and even true, it would involve some revision in our understanding, in this case, of linguistics, and possibly in the nature of colors, ideas, sleep, or furiosity.

Yet this would be far less of a revolution than if we discovered that God exists. To work it out would require no more than some rational philosophy, whereas to apprehend the reality of an existent God requires an entirely new way of knowing the world, one that has no relation to anything that anyone has ever experienced. Once more we conclude: the statement “God exists” is vastly less likely to be true than that there exists a true sentence thus: “green ideas sleep furiously”.

I’m reaching here. I’m finding it hard to come up with things that are less probable than this. Maybe someone can help me out! But I suspect that the point has been made.

God doesn’t exist. If we are to use the word “certain” of anything, it is this. The existence of God is not merely unlikely, but of such monumental improbability that the word “impossible” doesn’t do it justice. We simply don’t have language that fully captures the degree of improbability of God. The normal things that we call “impossible” are infinitely more likely to be true than that God exists.

But why?

If this argument is correct, then we might wonder why so many people believe in something so improbable? There are plenty of intelligent, sensitive, and sincere theists: if it is really so obvious, how have they missed it?

I don’t want to get too much into the psychology of religion here, but I will return briefly to the question of meaning. It was an axiom of the logical positivists that metaphysical statements, such as “God exists” are, in a profound sense, meaningless. They constitute a use of language which, while outwardly following the normal grammar and syntax of language, has no content.

I think there is something to this idea; but it is not something that happens incidentally. God must be understood in a way that is beyond the reach of reason and evidence, despite the efforts of countless theologians to the contrary. As soon as God comes within the sway of ordinary evidence, of logic, or of meaning, he enters the profane world; he becomes sullied by the world and withdraws from it it in fear. This is a fundamental drive of the religious impulse; it moves towards the irrational. And there, as a symbol or a feeling or an impression, God has a genuine place.

It is the meaninglessness of the concept of God, the utterness of its impossibility, that makes it such a fertile and powerful idea; that allows it, in fact, to become the focus of meaning for so many people. It is precisely God’s lack of linguistic meaning that endows him with a surplus of spiritual meaning.

This points to, I believe, something more subtle about the notion of God. For some, he is a signifier of a higher reality, a reality that cannot be captured by words and reason. And there is something true about this: there are genuinely higher levels of consciousness that are not accessible to the rational mind, and in this sense the notion of God can genuinely lead towards spiritual development.

The problem is that God is a confused bearer of this meaning. Some things are not rational because they go beyond reason; but other things are not rational because they fall beneath reason. So while God can raise some people to a higher spiritual realization, he is just as likely to drag his followers beneath reason, back to the mire of irrationality, fundamentalism, and dogmatic immorality. The reason for this is not hard to find: God has evolved from the brutal warrior deity of a primitive tribal people, and he still keeps alive many of his traits from the bad old days. While some enlightened believers find a way to get past that, the old ways are still there, and can be backed up by countless passages from scripture.

If we are interested in moving beyond reason, there is no need to invoke a set of theistic beliefs; the Buddha showed this 2500 years ago. The important thing is the expansion of consciousness, and for this God is irrelevant. In recent surveys, many theists agree that atheists are just as likely to be good people, and sometimes they even say that religion does more harm than good. We need a framework for genuine spiritual development which inspires, as God sometimes does, a movement towards greater compassion and wisdom, while avoiding the brutality, the sexism, and the ignorance that God all too often draws in his wake.

95 thoughts on “Why we can be certain that God doesn’t exist

  1. Wow, you most certainly appear to have been niggled. Your article deserves to be read and heard.

    But my sense is it’s even simpler than your detailed argument, Everything that exists is impermanent. God, by definition is not impermanent. Therefore God does not exist!

  2. Thank you, Bhante. This is so clear, so cogent, so important. I think there is no such thing as belief in “god”, there is only belief (whatever that might be) in one’s own beliefs, for which so many lamentable atrocities have been committed. It is an ego-centric world from which we endeavour to be free.

    • Now, of course, I want to hear your thoughts, Bhante, on the words of the Buddha regarding god, gods, deities, prayer and so forth. If I remember correctly, and I do not remember the source, the Buddha said something to the effect that he could so no evidence of the participation of a god or gods in this world.

    • No, on the contrary, the early Buddhist texts frequently mention the existence of other realms of existence. As for the interference of other gods in this realm, the suttas are not so definitive; there are some passages where they do, but these tend to be in the less central and reliable narrative portions, so it is not clear to me how literally they are meant to be taken.

  3. Buddhists have always been much better at critiquing others, than at thinking carefully about their own beliefs. This is a feature of all Buddhist literature, right up to modern day blogs. I’ve been wading through the records internecine quarrels over various versions of karma and rebirth for a few months now. The tedium!

    The irony is that, for much the same reasons that you adduce here, we can be certain, beyond any reasonable doubt, that there is no afterlife and that we do not live in a “moral universe”. Theology is a funny old business.

    • The Buddha taught kamma, dependent origination, rebirth but ignored questions about gods, as they were inconsequential to his Dhamma. I don’t see any irony in Buddhist discussions of consciousness and rebirth (and the science based evidence thereof) and the nonexistence of a personal or creator God, any more than I see a conflict over acceptance of dark matter, and rejection of the existence of leprechauns.

    • Perhaps Jayarava, you are making parallels between the unfalsifiability of god, karma and rebirth?

      The Buddha asserts that by following a path, a scientific method if you will, one can repeatably and predictably observe karma and reaction, including rebirth. I suppose many theologians assert the same: that they can experience god. The difference is defining what that experience is. How would you know if you got there?

  4. I think this piece of writing is ridiculous. We are leaving out and trashing ALL first person testimony. You used the word “spiritual”, but that’s not possible in your model. Your model is extinction of all consciousness as being nirvana, yet there would be no possible experience of nirvana, which means no one has a clue as to what this nirvana could be, like deep unconscious sleep. The Buddha was pointing us to a state of “awareness that takes no object” beyond the fifth skandha. It’s because of heretics like yourself that the Third Turning of the Wheel teachings were manifested, to counteract extremes of nihilistic views, like yours. Why would anyone except suicidal folk want to achieve complete extinction of consciousness, like you misunderstand the Buddha’s teachings to be. There is no reason that there couldn’t be some form of empty quantum intelligence that manifests Itself exactly as our experience appears through dependent origination and the laws of physics. Einstein believed there had to be some kind of extraordinary intelligence behind this kind of grand and infinitely complex symmetry. You and other like heretics give Buddhism the worst possible face.

    • I do indeed address the question of experience, and I point out that consciousness is dependent on conditions, which is the sole experience that any of us has ever actually had. Sorry if that disagrees with your views, but what can I say?

      Einstein believed that, really? Sources, please.

      I would appreciate it if you’d express yourself more politely. I have a shrinking tolerance for people who come into my online home and insult me. Act politely, or you will be barred.

    • Wow, you have a nice collection of logical fallacies here. Impressive.
      1. Strawman – you misrepresent Sujato’s argument and then tear it apart
      2. Ad Hominem – you attack Sujato’s character
      3. Special pleading – moving the goal posts when it appears that God’s existence can’t hold up given the current propositions
      4. Tu quoque – answering criticism with criticism (versus counter argument)

      If you have something constructive and relevant to offer, please we’re all ears. But I agree with Sujato, Act Politely.

  5. I read the God Delusion whilst staying at Santi…As an atheist Dawkins strikes me as more religious than a fundamentalist Christian. I did not really enjoy the book, but very much enjoyed reading this. It seems the notion of God arrises when people stop questioning. For some that’s early on and results in a kind of Santa Clause figure giving out gifts for prayers. For others it can be after years of questioning and leaves the word being used to describe something much less defined and often very personalised. But I have often wondered, is it not just as illogical to believe in concepts such as karma and reincarnation as it is in God, unless they have been personally realised? Though the arguments are less mystical, there is no way to prove (let’s say karma) and a practising Buddhist has to have some level of faith in these ‘unreal’ notions until they are experienced. Therefore, a Christian living a good life, driven by a belief in God, might explain the apparent nature of related coincidence leading to a beneficial outcome as God’s interference. A Buddhist would likely call this the result of good Karma. Maybe label’s themselves are the problem as language gives us very little scope to define things thoroughly.
    Anyway, thank you for the read. On a side note, I once heard that the best argument against Creationism is to show a tree of dog breeds and how humans (not God) have been the ‘Intelligent Designers’ – somewhat ironic that Dog is God backwards.

    • I didn’t address this question directly in the post, but I hoped that the logical point would be clear: belief in karma and rebirth, in the “small-g” gods of Buddhism (or Hinduism or Greek mythology or whatever), in psychic powers, and indeed belief in pretty much everything else, is not affected by this argument. The chief point is that none of these things are infinite in extent: they still involve a limited, finite, set of phenomena, which might break some laws of physics or whatever as we now understand them, but do not entail such a massive, total break with all forms of accepted or possible knowledge. Of course, that does not mean that any of these things are true or false, simply that they fall outside the scope of this argument.

      For example, if the Buddha had said that the stream of rebirths was “endless”, one could argue that this would fall under the kind of metaphysical fallacy. But he didn’t; he said that the extent of samsara was “unknowable”, which is a very different kind of thing.

    • but what about Nibbana, bhante? the possibility of total and final freedom from conditioning and suffering can also be called “simply a baseless assertion, which contradicts everything that we know about the world as it is, and for which there is no evidence” can’t it?

    • Only if Nibbana is conceived in metaphysical terms, as an infinite consciousness or somesuch. The Buddha spoke of Nibbana as a simple empirical reality: there is suffering, and there is the end of suffering. If we can observe what suffering is inside ourselves, and observe how, through reflection, that suffering comes to an end, we have observed the process of which Nibbana is simply the culmination.

    • however it pretty much IS a metaphysical other worldly so to speak experience, at which fact points its ineffability as well as ineffability of the Tathagata’s nature
      because if it were similar to what we are used to experience, it could be described by human language and understood by the conditioned human mind
      i think Kotthita sutta (AN 4.174) illustrates that

      as well as the Yamaka sutta (SN 22.85)

      “And so, my friend Yamaka — when you can’t pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, ‘As I understand the Teaching explained by the Blessed One, a monk with no more effluents, on the break-up of the body, is annihilated, perishes, & does not exist after death’?”

      or the Dona sutta (AN 4.36)

      “When asked, ‘Are you a deva?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman, I am not a deva.’ When asked, ‘Are you a gandhabba?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman, I am not a gandhabba.’ When asked, ‘Are you a yakkha?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman, I am not a yakkha.’ When asked, ‘Are you a human being?’ you answer, ‘No, brahman, I am not a human being.’ Then what sort of being are you?”

      “Brahman, the fermentations by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be a deva: Those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. The fermentations by which — if they were not abandoned — I would be a gandhabba… a yakkha… a human being: Those are abandoned by me, their root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising.

      “Just like a red, blue, or white lotus — born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water — stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I — born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world — live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened.’

    • The texts that you have chosen—and thanks for these, by the way, they are very nice—don’t make any metaphysical claims. The first says that the end of the six senses is the end of “proliferation”, so that one cannot meaningfully speak of what comes after. Compare Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Careful of the direction of logic here: metaphysical claims (like the existence of God) are often said to be ineffable, but that does not mean that everything ineffable is a metaphysical claim. It is simply that language has limits.

      The second passage surely demonstrates this explicitly, which it seems to me is the point of it: the Buddha is right there, walking, talking, breathing, speaking, and yet even so we cannot “pin him down”, how much more so when he has passed away? This is a teaching about not-self, to refute the idea of annihilation (that there is an existing self that ends at death); this was Yamaka’s wrong view, which the sutta argues against at length.

      And the final one—which is unusual and possibly late, but I’ll leave that be for now—claims that the Buddha is not best described by the usual categories that we use for sentient beings. In his body he is human, of course, but in his mind he is free. What matters about the Buddha is that he is the Buddha—”awake”. To be awake merely means to have liberating wisdom, it is not a metaphysical claim.

      These, and similar, passages illustrate, I think, a point that Einstein made repeatedly. The “religious” or “spiritual” impulse invokes a sense of wonder at the cosmos. It is in such cases that Einstein would sometimes speak of “God”, although he said many times that he thought the a personal deity was an infantile idea. For him, God was a word that expressed something of the wonder of the grand order of the universe. And these passages in the suttas, I think, move towards a similar emotion. Their purpose is to inspire one’s mind to a place beyond reason. They do so while very carefully avoiding mentioning any kind of metaphysical reality; if you compare these passages with the Upanishads, the different is stark, for there the assertion of the metaphysical Brahman is the whole point of the exercise.

      However, it seems to me that we are so attuned to reading any such “wonder” statements in metaphysical terms that we immediately take them in that way, despite the repeated and very clear statement of intent of the author that this is not what they mean. In the case of Einstein, he has been constantly evoked in support of theistic views. Perhaps he should have been more circumspect in his use of the word “God”.

      But the Buddha is, I think, much less apt to be read in any metaphysical sense; each of these passages speaks of cessation, not of some persisting metaphysical entity.

    • I started from the premise that karma is just cause and effect. With observation I’ve seen karma with ever more clarity rather than anything mystic. Like eyesight or cooking, it’s just a description of everyday experience. You may see it more clearly or not, hone the skill or not, discuss its limits, but it’s fundamentally undeniable.

      Rebirth requires a bit of faith. While it can’t be proven to one who hasn’t experienced it, I expect you’d know it when you see it.

      God is completely faith. It can’t be proven and you wouldn’t know it if you saw it – as I understand the diversity and ill defined experiences of god.

  6. discussing the existence of god publicly can be a sensitive subject – especially for the believers. however, having spent christmas with families and keeping away from the topic of religion at ‘the family dinner table’ – i am refreshed and uplifted reading an open and frank essay on the subject. To question thoughtfully and intelligently provides a “framework for genuine spiritual development which inspires” . I like the inclusion of “green ideas sleep furiously” as, for me, it is most apt and puts the discussion perfectly in place for genuine inquiry with an open and receptive mind. Thank you Bante for this very timely and uplifting blog.

    • Thanks Heidi! Despite appearances, i still get nervous about broaching such topics, and i’m not really interested in getting into arguments; but i do believe that we should be able to discuss matters of importance straightforwardly, and, as I have said elsewhere, I hope that Christians and other theists will treat Buddhism in the same way. Lots of people have struggled for hundreds of years so that we can enjoy free speech: we should use it!

  7. Bhante . I think your arguments are no more than a series of mental Gymnastics that fit your conditioned view of existence which is just as conditioned as those who believe in a God. I understood that the Buddha said that he looked for God and did not find him … or her but that did not mean that there wasn’t a God.

    Although I am not a Christian I think of Saints Like Francis and Teresa of Avalon for example are you saying that they were deluded and hallucinating and their experience was not real? Do you really believe that any person whether of the Christian, Islamic or Hindu tradition who claims to have a direct experience of God deluded or hallucinating? I would be intrigued to hear a discussion between you and Rumi on God It would be interesting.

    Cheers

    Bill

    PS have a read up on the theory of entanglement you may find it interesting.

    • The Buddha pointed out that you can have a genuinely profound experience, but that how you interpret that experience is conditioned by your beliefs. So yes, I think that anyone who claims to have had a vision of an infinitely powerful deity is deluded. There is no such thing.

      And no, the Buddha didn’t say that he couldn’t find a God; perhaps you are thinking of when he said that the first point of samsara was unknowable. The Buddha dismisses the idea of a creator deity out of hand, saying, for example, that it would render the holy life impossible.

  8. I’m so glad you included this paragraph though……”This points to, I believe, something more subtle about the notion of God. For some, he is a signifier of a higher reality, a reality that cannot be captured by words and reason. And there is something true about this: there are genuinely higher levels of consciousness that are not accessible to the rational mind, and in this sense the notion of God can genuinely lead towards spiritual development.”
    It reminds me of what Joseph Campbell said about God….”God is just a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.”

  9. Bhante, I hope you don’t mind this question: it’s not intended to be impolite or inflammatory. Just something I’ve wondered about. (Most) Buddhists believe in hells, heavens, rebirth (including as an animal, ghost or deva), and the moral law of kamma, which is said to operate across multiple lifetimes. The Buddha says (in MN 19) that he saw “by means of the divine eye” how beings are inferior or superior, beautiful or ugly, fortunate or unfortunate in accordance with their kamma; how virtuous people were reborn in good destinations and bad ones ended up in “the plane of deprivation.” Now, as you can imagine, many skeptics are going to find this every bit as dubious as the belief in God. Why is one plausible and the other not plausible?

    • I don’t mind at all, in fact I always encourage healthy debate!

      I hope this question has been answered in my previous comment to mattpai2014. Please let me know if this is still not clear.

  10. what you seem to be refuting is a concept of a kind of anthropomorphous God

    but there’re other concepts of a supreme entity or reality or force which can be proposed, one that underlies everything and that everything is dependent upon, for example Kamma

    • Kamma isn’t an unconditioned infinite metaphysical reality. It’s simply a description of how cause and effect play out in the moral sphere.

    • if so, kamma isn’t an ontological reality or force or a law either since we cannot experience it directly, neither can we logically prove its existence

      and here in your response you seem to treat kamma as something which actually does exist, only not being absolute, while in refuting God you refute its very existence and not certain qualities ascribed to it, if i understood correctly

      still they both are concepts, the truth of neither of which can be proved and which maybe differ from one another only by the degree of their plausibility

      therefore i think it’s more fair and accurate to refute not the mere existence of God but a certain concept of God

    • if so, kamma isn’t an ontological reality or force or a law either since we cannot experience it directly, neither can we logically prove its existence

      I’ve got no idea why you would say such a thing. We can experience the results of the choices we make, in our own hearts, every day. The teaching on kamma is simply a codification of that, much as Newton’s ideas on gravity were a codification of the reality that everyone experienced every day.

      the truth of neither of which can be proved and which maybe differ from one another only by the degree of their plausibility

      But what else are we to talk in terms of? The whole point of the argument was to establish that the truth of any metaphysical conception of God is so unlikely as to be beyond anything we might sensibly consider to be impossible.

      therefore i think it’s more fair and accurate to refute not the mere existence of God but a certain concept of God

      The God that I’m talking about is any kind of God who would be recognizable as such to the billions of theists in the world. Here is a Wikipedia article on this conception of God, here a list of his attributes. Here is a Catholic definition of God, here another, here an Anglican definition, here a Methodist, here a Jewish, here another Jewish, here an Islamic, here another, here another, and here yet another. This is the God that I am talking about, the God who is believed in and worshiped by billions of people every day. Each of these approaches to God has differences, but they also have things in common: and it is those common features that my argument is based on.

    • great, from your list of sources it transpires that you’re refuting specifically the concept of God of Abrahamic religions

      however some of its Hinduist concepts quite differ from it, especially an advaitist one describing God in apophatic terms

      while, following you line of reasoning, it can be argued that since our mundane experience and knowledge of the laws of nature aren’t familiar with qualityless entities and phenomena, and so it’s safe to assert that these are hardly possible, that would necessarily mean that there’s nothing beyond or besides this samsaric reality

      if this is true, then it’s not clear how escape from or transcendence of this reality in the form of awakening and nibbana is even possible

      and awakening with nibbana certainly ARE escape or transcendence since they put an end to birth, death, rebirth and kamma, which define samsara

    • Just briefly on Hindu ideas of God: the advaita philosophy is of course far more subtle than the Abrahamic conception, and more akin to Spinoza or Einstein’s pantheism. I still think this kind of argument works, but it is a far more difficult case, one deserving of a more nuanced treatment. I am not sure, however, how important such views are among Hindus in general. It seems to me likely that they have mainly been prevalent among philosophers and the intellectuals.

  11. First: Edit the paragraph that begins “TL;DR: The concept of God” and put in the proper xml or html entities.
    Second: Richard Dawkins, IMO is not an atheist. He is an anti-theist. To me his rantings are as tiresome as those of Bible-thumping anti-creationists.

  12. Yes I think I understand what the last blogger (with a Russian name that I am not able to type, sorry🙂 ) means. As far as I understand there are two ways of talking about God. One is the crude way of referring to Him as an entity existing somewhere in the same way that trees or stones do, except that this entity is supposed to be ominscient, all powerful etc. The other way is to try to say something that cannot be expressed in ordinary language, but which is an expression of authentic religious and ethical feelings. A beautiful lecture on this can be found here http://www.geocities.jp/mickindex/wittgenstein/witt_lec_et_en.html
    In this lectures Wittgenstein says for example that the expression ‘God created the universe’ should be understood not as a scientific sentence of a primary cause creating the universe, but as an expression of that experience some of us have of wondering at the existence of the whole world. When this experience happens, it can only be expressed in extra-ordinary language. Why is there anything rather than nothing? (as Heidgger translated the same experience), or ‘How extraordinary that the world should exist’. We are not asking for a causal explanation, but rather wondering at the fact that the world as a whole (including the lawof causality) should exist. This is using language in a different way from normal usage (in which we would wonder at this or that, but not at the existence of the world as a whole) and can be expressed by the sentence God created the world. I believe Stephen Batchelor wrote about some meditations in Korean Buddhism which are expressions of the same state. As the precious blogger points out, even the idea of kamma can be expressed in this way. According to Wittgenstein, the expression God sees everything translates precisely this (all actions and intentions will have consequences), rather than the rather crude idea that we believe there physically exists somewhere an omniscient entity.
    Thus when Sujato writes ‘Everything we have seen, every physical reality that you or I have ever experienced or will experience, operates according to certain well-understood principles. And these things are always limited. ‘ and uses these arguments to confute the existence of God I believe he does so when speaking of God in the first, rather uninteresting, sense. But the very fact that the functioning of nature is governed by laws understandable by the human spirit has always been a source of wonder to great minds. Leonardo da Vinci devoted most of his life to understand nature’s laws and this was for him precisely the way to understand ‘God’s mind’. I wrote about it in an article in the scientific journal Nature here http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v432/n7014/full/432151a.html though unfortunately it can’t be accessed for free from outside academia. There are many quotes by Einstein on God in this sense too, like this one: “My God created laws… His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking but by immutable laws.” I believe that talking of God in this way is not incompatible with Buddhist ideals. As Wittgenstein says in his lecture, ‘it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.’

    • Hi Stefano,

      Thanks for the comment and feedback, and you are quite right, my argument does not at all apply to this “subjective” notion of God at all. The problem is that while this notion may have some relevance for people like Wittgenstein and Einstein, the vast majority of theists do in fact believe in a God that actually exists, created the world, and so on. This is an important and influential viewpoint in our world, and we can’t simply ignore it just because other people have more sophisticated views.

      As I intimated towards the end of the essay, while I don’t have any problem with this subjective way of talking about god as such, I still don’t regard it as a skilful use of language. It is simply too apt to be misused, which is what the Christians do when they, for example, try to co-opt Einstein as one of their own. There are ways to invoke this subjective sense of wonder that do not drag with them thousands of years of theistic baggage, ways that are used with great skill by figures such as Einstein.

      However, many fathers of the theistic churches have affirmed their rejection of these pantheistic views. For example, here are some responses to Einstein’s religious views as quoted in Wikipedia:

      Catholic Cardinal William Henry O’Connell spoke about Einstein’s perceived lack of belief, “The outcome of this doubt and befogged speculation about time and space is a cloak beneath which hides the ghastly apparition of atheism.” A Bronx Rabbi criticized both the Cardinal and Einstein for opining on matters outside their expertise: “Einstein would have done better had he not proclaimed his nonbelief in a God who is concerned with fates and actions of individuals. Both have handed down dicta outside their jurisdiction.” The Catholic priest and broadcaster Fulton Sheen—whose intellect Einstein admired, even calling him “one of the most intelligent people in today’s world”—described Einstein’s New York Times article “the sheerest kind of stupidity and nonsense.”

    • Hi Sujato, thank you for your reply. I also would be interested in reading the text which you mention above in which the Buddha says that the existence of a creator deity would make the holy life impossible. Would it be possible to have the reference? Thanks

  13. Bhante, I’ve now read your post a few times, as well as your responses in the comments. I still see a potential objection on the grounds of “selective use of reason.” With regard to Buddhist beliefs in karma and rebirth, your response would be that they are unverified but possible, whereas God is unverified and impossible, correct?
    But the problem we run into here is the familiar one known as “Russell’s teapot”; from the standpoint of reason and empiricism, possible does not mean probable.

    Moreover, for a Buddhist, it’s not enough to believe that rebirth and kamma are not impossible; most Buddhists would say they are actually true. They are Right View. Holding this belief depends not on observation but on trust in the Buddha. In other words, an epistemology based on reason and empiricism isn’t sufficient to arrive at a belief in karmic rebirth (or Buddhist hells and heavens). Buddhists employ a different kind of epistemology, one in which the development of saddha (conviction that the Buddha is a reliable teacher, even when he is talking about things that we can’t test or observe). To use one of your examples, it is somewhat analogous to there being a religious tradition which centers around the possibility of unicorns existing in some other galaxy. The teacher has said so, but there’s no way to confirm it. From the POV of a skeptic like Dawkins, this isn’t really much of an improvement over the idea of God.

    The problem I see here is that once we have admitted the possibility of some type of knowledge that cannot be arrived at through reason, then the critique of theism falters, because that critique was based on reason. You anticipate this at the end of your essay by arguing that there is indeed a “higher reality” but theism is not the best way to access it. And that, you say, is because it tends to drag its followers “beneath reason, back to the mire of irrationality, fundamentalism, and dogmatic immorality.” Perhaps so, but that seems like something of a subjective judgment: we have seen irrationality, fundamentalism and immorality among some Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka; conversely, the Enlightenment (and Western science) arose within the Christian cultures of Europe. I just wonder if you’re being somewhat selective and inconsistent in your appropriation of skeptical/rationalist arguments against religion, using them when they support your anti-theism, but overlooking the potential challenge to Buddhism.

    Anyway, a very interesting and thought-provoking post, and your replies in the comments section have been illuminating as well!

    • With regard to Buddhist beliefs in karma and rebirth, your response would be that they are unverified but possible, whereas God is unverified and impossible, correct?

      In principle, yes, although I would also say that karma and rebirth are at least partially supported by evidence.

      Moreover, for a Buddhist, it’s not enough to believe that rebirth and kamma are not impossible; most Buddhists would say they are actually true.

      Umm, probably, I guess? But this is maybe leaping a little too quickly from faith to truth: in my opinion, just as one example, I think it’s likely that kamma and rebirth are true, but I don’t think they are proven by any means, merely the best and most plausible way of understanding things. Other Buddhists would of course have different takes on it.

      Holding this belief depends not on observation but on trust in the Buddha. In other words, an epistemology based on reason and empiricism isn’t sufficient to arrive at a belief in karmic rebirth (or Buddhist hells and heavens).

      On the contrary, I think there is lots of empirical support for the idea of kamma and rebirth; much more than there is for, say, string theory. Not everything about the Buddhist idea of kamma and rebirth is supported by evidence—for example, it is much easier to find convincing cases of rebirth as a human than as rebirth in other forms—but there’s no fundamental problem with the evidence; it’s just incomplete and partial, is all. If the evidence convincingly pointed against what the Buddha taught, I would reject it.

      I agree that the dangers of sub-rationality (is that better than “irrational”, which could be either beneath or beyond reason?) are very much present and growing within the Buddhist community. This is something I have spoken out on on many occasions. One difference between Buddhism and the monotheistic religions, though, is that there is no possible justification for such things in the early texts. It’s quite possible to read the Bible or the Koran to justify all kinds of wonderful deeds; but it’s equally possible to read them as justifying heinous deeds. I don’t think it’s really possible to read the suttas in that way. The rejection of violence and ignorance is just too consistent and clear. Buddhist extremism doesn’t owe anything to early Buddhism, it is entirely a product of Buddhist cultures, which have never really taken on board more than a tiny fraction of what the Buddha taught. This is one reason why I am so proactive on encouraging people to read the suttas. If more Buddhists knew what the Buddha actually taught, there would be less room for this kind of nonsense.

    • Of unicorns, the best we can say scientifically is that they might but have not yet been falsified. God cannot be falsified, requires circular axioms, or is by definition outside our empiric universe, namely fantasy.

      Gödel provides an elegant framework for thinking of consistent systems where 2+2=5 may be true and inconsistent systems within which God may be possible. Probability has nothing to do with it, only the grammar of a particular system; Consider a clock with a prime number of hours. 2+2=5 may be possible in a consistent system in the same way as God may be outside of the axioms of her creation. Likewise discussing the merits of 3D Euclidean geometry from a 4+D perspective. God is not possible within a Universe that consistently requires 2+2=5 (or =4). But in an inconsistent Universe, such as ours, all absolute bets are off.

      I believe people sincerely cling to God precisely because it is unfalsifiable. It allows them grace in their inexplicable world. They don’t want to transcend it, they want to embrace it. Logical arguments are futile against those who consciously and stubbornly choose ignorance. Indeed they may fight to the death for their bliss.

    • Thanks for the Godel, Alex, I hadn’t thought of this in this context. Not that I ever really understood Godel’s mathematics, but the general ideas are fascinating.

  14. Thank you, Bhante, for supplying this link (http://suttacentral.net/en/an3.61/5-6) — it doesn’t exactly address a thought I had earlier the Buddha said something to the effect that he could see no evidence of the participation of a god or gods in this world but it is very helpful. Again, I come back to my initial thought: there is no such thing as belief in “god”, there is only belief (whatever that might be) in one’s own beliefs, for which so many lamentable atrocities have been committed. It is an ego-centric world from which we endeavour to be free.

    It’s a crazy world and I have often joked with friends: why do you think the Buddha encouraged people to find a secluded place in the forest!

    I will make do with my secluded place in front of the monitor, when I’m not practising.

    Again, many thanks, Bhante.

  15. Dear Bhante

    Thank you and sadhu again for another excellent article. I’m wondering if I can share this on my Facebook?

    Thanks in advance for your reply.

    With Metta

    Thim Fook, Law Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

  16. Dear Bhante
    I don’t think you need to prove that a (mono) god does not exist. All you need to prove is that the concept is irrelevant.
    The monotheists argue that in since you cannot prove god’s non existence, they will continue to believe. But the same can be said for unicorns etc. Just because i cannot prove that unicorns do not exist, my default position is not that I’ll continue to believe in them. Also, importantly, i do not live my life as if they exist. The same for a god. The mere possibility does not compel me to behave as if there is one.

    Metta
    Yas

    • What a great observation, Баян Купи-ка!

      In this regard, Sam Harris’s constant anti-theism rings true. I see the barbaric eruption of egoism in Paris as ignorance-personified, not recognizing that Charlie Hebdo “cartoons” are NOT mocking either the Prophet or Islam, but, most likely quite without intention, illuminating the corruption of the teachings of Islam and the Prophet as embodied in the fundamentalist(ic), terrorist(ic), buffoonery of unbridled-ego and the thirst for control over mind and understanding. For me, Charlie Hebdo has revealed the completely barbaric, bullying, infantile nature of terrorism … “This is what fundamentalists have made of the Prophet and Islam” ! ! ! ! ! ! !

      I cannot help but wonder why more people do not see this! It is not the Prophet or Islam that is being ridiculed but the non-Prophet, non-Islamic nature of vile, childish, selfish, ego-maniacal behaviour that is making both Islam and the Prophet look bad.

      Well, that’s getting redundant.

      Recently I quipped to a friend that most likely, on the 7th day, the creator took a much needed vacation to another galaxy and has not been heard from since — i.e. “god” doesn’t give a hoot, s/he/it just likes to make things to see how they turn out … or more likely, to let them turn out given their own abilities.

  17. Thank you, Bhante. Interesting blog post. I appreciate this discussion. My personal (Buddhist) practice is not affected by whether there is, or isn’t a God, simply because neither position has ever been needed for me to practice. Whether there is a God or not, is immaterial since clearly, however the universe structured itself, awakening is possible. The metaphysical question of God is one that I find not very useful on my path to awakening. Your use of Sectarian Sutta is useful, but not convincing to me since those two positions highlighted by you appear to me to be just two specific theistic positions, and are not the whole of theistic thought. These positions, if I understand them correctly, have been roundly condemned and repudiated by (as an example) mainstream Christian theologians.

    I was also interested in your statement that kamma is moral. I don’t disagree but seems like certain aspects of kamma are not directly related to morality. For example, say that due to habitual behaviors, or even your embodied form, I prefer to look at an object and not sniff it. These habitual intentions lead to specific acts (and forms of becoming) that are not directly moral, though of course, could lead to acts that do have a more overt moral dimension. These habitual actions, I would guess, would lead whatever is present after death to prefer certain types of existence (becoming), such as being reborn as a human versus being reborn as a dog.

    Again, thank you for the post, Bhante. Be safe and happy.

  18. Reblogged this on ลุง ลิง Loong Ling: A Sagacious Simian in Siam and commented:
    An excellent post from Ajahn Sujato on the subject of certainty (which I touched upon in a very different context in a post I wrote yesterday). Well worth reading in full, but to cut to the chase, here’s the bit that I found most interesting:

    “This points to, I believe, something more subtle about the notion of God. For some, he is a signifier of a higher reality, a reality that cannot be captured by words and reason. And there is something true about this: there are genuinely higher levels of consciousness that are not accessible to the rational mind, and in this sense the notion of God can genuinely lead towards spiritual development.

    “The problem is that God is a confused bearer of this meaning. Some things are not rational because they go beyond reason; but other things are not rational because they fall beneath reason. So while God can raise some people to a higher spiritual realization, he is just as likely to drag his followers beneath reason, back to the mire of irrationality, fundamentalism, and dogmatic immorality.”

  19. Dear Bhante
    I would just like to write the notion that why people believe in God. Is it not because people are afraid of death, and the idea of non existence is frightening to people in a troubled world beset by birth, ageing, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress and despair? And rare is the appearance of a Tathagata in the world. It is rare to encounter the true Dhamma. Rare indeed is one who practices and teaches the Dhamma.
    Theism shows just how powerful peoples faith actually is, and the hope it gives, that there is something or someone good that cares, who can lift them out of their difficulties and carries them to a better place? May they be protected, and not be troubled. With Metta

    Thank you Bhante for your talks.

  20. Hello Bhante,
    Great article first of all. But I would love to know your opinion on mystics/mystical traditions within other religions, like Meister Eckhart for example. He like many other mystics have had blissful experiences that seems to be quite similar to some Jhana’s in Buddhism, yet finds ways to adapt them into their own religious views. My question is do you see some of these mystical experiences and Jhana’s(perhaps lower stages of Jhana) as one in the same? And by mystical experience I don’t mean visions or hallucinations, I’m more referring to an experience where the senses become depleted(for lack of a better word) and intense feeling of bliss occur.

    • I think the default Buddhist position would be to agree that such things may well be experiences of jhana or similar. This is taken for granted in the context of the rishis of old, who in the Suttas and Jatakas, etc., are regularly said to have developed the jhanas, or even the five abhiñña, i.e. the various knoweldeges except, of course, the one that really counts…

      I don’t see any reason to doubt this, and it seems plausible that contemplatives in other religions, or none, have had similar experiences. But of course without a detailed examination it is difficult to say whether this is in fact the case. Even if you’re talking face to face with someone it can be difficult to know whether they have had a jhana or not!

      As you suggest, not all mystical experiences will be jhanas. Some may be lower levels of samadhi. In many cases, however, it may also be pathological symptoms, and not a higher consciousness at all: hallucinations, voices, dissociation, and so on. Without knowing the person and how the experiences integrated with their life as a whole it can be hard to tell the difference.

  21. Hold on a second.

    If God doesn’t exist, how can he have a Twitter account?

    And to prove that it really IS God and not just someone pretending to be, this is his latest tweet: @TheTweetOfGod: Your unprovable interpretation of Me is better than his unprovable interpretation of Me, and you should express that through violence.

    Clearly that was divinely inspired. Keep up the good work, Bhante.

  22. This is like a “good old boys” club where everyone in the club continuously pats each other on the back in self-assuring group think.

    In the Zen, Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions there exists a curious phenomena that manifests the Buddha’s enlightenment exactly as Buddha describes. It’s not based on his words or teaching. It’s variously called: satori, kensho, rigpa, Natural State, the Mind of Clear Light. It’s the immediate recognition of one’s changeless Buddha Nature. It’s an unconditioned non-dual Awareness beyond the dualistic, karmic consciousness of the fifth skandha. Because it is unborn, unestablished and non-arisen; it is not the result of conditions nor is it dependently originated. Something empty,unborn and non-arisen requires no cause. This non-dual ineffable “aware knowingness” is the pure unchanging Mind of a Buddha. Knowing this directly is what nirvana is. The insight automatically knows reality as the prajna of twofold emptiness. It is this unestsblished Buddha Mind Nature that is revealed in cessation of the personal consciousness of the fifth skandha. It is that conceptually designated “self” that is itself the ignorant mind that is the root of the twelve nidanas. In satori this false center ceases suddenly and nirvana is revealed directly. The twelve nidanas’ root has been cut and the remainder dissolve. As it’s happened here and with countless others, our “spiritual” nature is recognized and all issues regarding “God” and “creation” are known with total certainty. It’s not that there is a god, but that all of Reality is Itself a Universal Intelligence who embodies it’s wisdom as what everything is. 🙏

    • In my previous reply, I admonished you for your impolite comments. Now, I’m afraid, you begin with an insult. Sorry, but this is not acceptable and I will ban you from making future comments.

  23. I was born in a Hindu household, and for the past year I’ve been heavily into reading the Dhamma and practicing Vipassana. In fact, I’ve spent more than 5 months in the last 1.5 years in some meditation center or the other mostly in SEA and Nepal. My mother, who is a very faithful and joyful person is certain of the existence of God. She simply defines God as goodness, and like most Hindus likes to see God in everything. She vividly remembers when her consciousness/soul entered the body at birth and remembers vowing that this will be her last birth. She is a very moral and upright person and I’m blessed to have her. Whenever I discuss the Buddha Dharma with her, she is in accordance with most things I tell her. Therefore, I do not feel the need to argue her views on the existence of God. I tell her I call God by a different name (Dhamma, Nibanna).

    My point being there may be many more people with a more nuanced and sophisticated view of God than you might think, perhaps more so in Asia. Haven’t seen too many anti-Darwinists here. Therefore, the belief in such a God in my humble opinion is not necessarily a hindrance in spiritual development.

    In fact, I was quite boggled when I debated an atheist online once on an atheist forum. I’d joined this when I used to be one. I was discussing about my experiences at Wat Chom Thong. He asked me how meditation worked obviously with extreme doubt. Trying to give the best rational sounding explanation, I said something along the lines that you see the mind and matter and the impermanence of both. He asked me for proof, and I said that I’d experienced this first hand and so had hundreds of people in the Wat. He accused me of magical thinking. He chastised me of not being a true atheist and used a lot of harsh language and banished me from ever coming to the forum again.

    Moral of the Story: Belief or disbelief in God is a very nuanced topic and has nothing to do with virtue and living the Dhamma. Therefore, there is no necessity to pester virtuous and morally upright people into stop believing in God as long as they are developing Sila, Samadhi and Panna.

    • Thanks, Luv. I certainly don’t want to pester anyone into believing anything. Believe all you like! These things have an intrinsic interest for me, so I sometimes think about them and write about them, that’s all; and I think there are some others who might also be interested, so I put it on here. I’m not trying to persuade anyone of anything, just perhaps learning to think a little more clearly about matters of importance.

    • Fair enough. Agree with you fully. Forgive me if the comment seemed it was pointed to you. It wasn’t. Also, appreciate this forum for civilised debate and fully support your right to share whatever you feel are matters of importance. Just hypothesising that virtue, panna and an open mind seem to be more relavant in intuitively grasping the 4NT (which leads to walking the path which ultimately leads to the cessation of suffering) than a belief or disbelief in God. And, perhaps a belief in rebirth or reincarnation. But, I may be wrong. Just coming at the topic from a different direction.
      I didn’t mention anything about me personally believing in anything. I keep an open mind.
      Cheers
      Luv

  24. Hi Sujato,

    I respect your right to say what you believe. And I do believe that you’re a very intelligent person.

    Consider this:

    Let us look at the theory that our concept of reality is entirely based on agreements between people. For example: You agree with your child that Unicorns exist. To that child, unless the child is given reason to negate or replace that agreement, Unicorns exist. Example two: You agree with your students that 2+2=4, and again, unless they have reason to negate or replace that agreement, then 2+2=4. Regardless of whether you can show it on paper, observe it with your eyes, or feel it in your soul, an agreement between people creates a shared reality. You can see then, that all beliefs or ideologies are simply agreements between people that create shared realities, and it is this that bind people into friendships, groups, cultures, religions and even our species.

    In that respect, to give the blanket statement that God does not exist is to say that because your beliefs do not equate with mine then they do not exist. So imagine someone came to you and dismissed everything you believed as non-existent because they didn’t believe as you did, ask yourself, how would that make you feel? These sort of statements are only really “headlining” your argument for a new framework for spiritual enlightenment. My challenge to you, is to entitle your next post. “A new framework for spiritual enlightenment”. You see, there are enough critics in the world, you’re more intelligent than that, show us something new.

    Good fortune in life,
    Peter

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks, first up, for disagreeing with me kindly and making a meaningful response. Perhaps there is hope for humanity after all!

      But I’m afraid i don’t find your argument persuasive. The unicorn does not exist for that child: the child merely has a mistaken belief. Sooner or later they will come to a clearer understanding or reality, albeit imperfect, and they will abandon that belief. If you ask them why, they’ll say, “Because Unicorns don’t exist”.

      Some kinds of realities are indeed created by agreement between people, like a contract or an emotional sharing. But the rest of the world sails on, blithely ignoring whatever you may or may not believe. A shared belief is not a shared reality; it’s just an idea.

      On the subject of criticism, do you mean to imply that it is always wrong to criticize? Because the Buddha used to criticize things all the time. Criticism is essential: you have to clear out your wrong ideas before you can start anew. The spiritual world is full of people who simply don’t know how to use criticism well, or who think criticism is inherently wrong; and as a result, it is full of all kinds of woolly thinking, superstitions, and mistaken byways.

      If you want to look at what I teach, there’s plenty of material on the web. I give perfectly straight “positive” teachings all the time. But from time to time a bit of critical thinking does you the world of good!

    • To presume that a shared belief/concept is “real” is to reify, isn’t it? I like Piya Tan’s “thingify”. It’s really unsteady ground for the edifice of “religion” when everyone agrees upon an intangible “reality” called god. Most religions make more sense (and are less desirable to me) when I know that “everyone” has agreed upon a reification of concept of god … because, as Napoleon quipped about history, it is the most agreed upon lie.

  25. Hello Bhante

    At the moment, I must confess, I’m rather fascinated by the concept of “God”…so how funny to come along and read this!🙂 Lol…maybe it’s not so coincidental…maybe it’s because we inhabit a similar energetic space…afterall, isn’t the current theory in vogue that space isn’t empty? That’s it’s full? Lol…leaving that aside…cos even if any of that is true (and as an aside, to me, it feels and works as a possible truth), doesn’t mean it has to be God!

    You said:
    “This points to, I believe, something more subtle about the notion of God. For some, he is a signifier of a higher reality, a reality that cannot be captured by words and reason. And there is something true about this: there are genuinely higher levels of consciousness that are not accessible to the rational mind, and in this sense the notion of God can genuinely lead towards spiritual development.”

    So I’ve heard God referred to as being synonymous with love and freedom and peace. (Leaving aside the whole morally superior being who shouldn’t be allowing any evil for a bit…) And so when I hear those who use the word in reference to this or to, as you say, “a reality that cannot be captured by words and reason…genuinely higher levels of consciousness”…well, I don’t have a problem with it…I leave aside the label “God” and link in with the feeling/perception behind it…kinda nice on the whole.

    I think the problem here, coming at it with all my Buddhist conditioning, is not “God” exactly…but “self”. Not God’s self either…but ours.

    If we believe that our notion of ourselves as eternal beings, unbound ultimately by any conditions, to be true and accurate…then we’ll view the world/the cosmos/our meditation/spiritual lives accordingly. We as little selves, reflections of a creative higher self, need to “keep learning”…hence all the bad stuff…they’re lessons to be learned. Basically, the notions is that the bad stuff happens out of “love”.

    To me it still doesn’t explain things in terms of God’s “all powerfulness”… But then, bring that sense of self in again and it does… Because our individual sense of self is sooo important that we, independent even of God (like a good mother, he’s letting us go you see…not controlling us…can’t really, cos he created us to be independent…his fault…) …anyway…we’re soo independent of our ‘Creator’ and so much a ‘self’ that we need to figure things out. But to what end…to merge with him again in eternal bliss? Really, you have to ask, what he was about…it all seems so meaningless…why create an independent being that is just going to merge with you after learning things the hard way…why not just create us dependent? And why create other beings to merge with you? Sorry, but that notions feels kinda icky to me… Why create this at all?

    With the greatest respect to those beautiful…and I know some of these lovely, intelligent people…who believe this… To me…speaking personally, it just doesn’t cut the mustard… From an emotional/visual/felt place, I get it. But I don’t get the reasoning behind it…

    Bring non-self into it…somehow…then…it makes all kinds of sense. Look through the view of the non-self window and your entire perspective and spiritual life shifts…all manner of things fall into place…

    That’s why people believe in God…cos they believe in a ‘self’.

    Sometimes I get a sense, when talking to some truly kind and compassionate and intelligent and sensitive “eternalists” that to them, God is also Truth. As a Buddhist, I would say “Dhamma” or the “Truth of the way things are…”… Here’s another way that I can gel with the notion of God. It works for me on a felt/emotional level and I’ve no problem with linking into the meaning behind the word when I sense it’s being used like this. But in Buddhism, Truth is without centre, is empty of self.

    So love can work without the notion of a self. Peace can grow, without the need for a creator’s push. Wisdom can penetrate, because, at it’s heart, wisdom uncovers non-self and how we are not nothing, but how we are, according to the Buddhist teachings, Dependently Arisen. What is this soul that transmigrates? A process, dependently arisen. And yes, I believe, when we see it, it will be amazing, powerful, magical in quality to witness…not something found in the realm of dusty books and cold intellect…but a vivid, energetic, emotional process that is alive…it would have to be, in order to generate life. No wonder then that even a brief glimpse into this vista, would have us, with our deeply entrenched delusion of self, come out speaking about the wonders of God. No wonder, that we would do this, when, with our return to the mundane we are confronted on almost every physical plane with materiality of the coarsest, kind…the kind that almost encourages a disconnect with such, if you will forgive the use of the term, ‘Divine’ forces.

    I’ve not read Dawkins’ book…but perhaps he should’ve written about the “Self Delusion” instead? Oh wait…that’s kinda been done…by an emotionally intelligent, incredibly clever, spiritually advanced sage 2600 years ago…

    I’m reminded of a couple of stories as I write this… 1.) How, in the Agnostic Gospels, God is said to be “going on” about how awesome and infinite he is and a little voice pops up and says ‘no you’re not’. … which reminds me of the vastness of Buddhist cosmology and how it spans more than the creation of this Universe or the birth of this God. Lol, I know, I know… some stuff in Buddhist cosmology might come across as being a bit suspect to some. But to me, it’s all kinda cool. I particularly like that bit in the Digha Nikaya (is that right?) where they talk about these beings subsisting on joy who get increasingly material bodies as they first, eat the froth on the oceans, then plants, then animals…well…not exactly this order perhaps…but you get the idea. Lol…getting side tracked but to me, shamelessly using “scripture” as inspiration for my actions…it tells me that human beings can go further back than the paleo diet. Anyway…
    2..) I’m reminded of the story in the Buddhist suttas of the fellow, (he must’ve had awesome meditation…) gets to the Brahma realm and asks God some fairly pertinent questions..and in the end…God takes him aside and basically says, “look, not so loud…these others here…believe in me…you should ask the Buddha…” something like that…
    3.) I’m also reminded of what I’ve heard about the teachings on consciousness: there are 6 of ’em…one for each sense, including mind..and they sorta take turns to arise…mind always taking each alternate turn…pearls on a necklace, each alternate pearl a moment of mind consciousness and each moment of consciousness a pearl…and the thread running in between them and keeping the necklace together? Well, my purely intellectualy perception is that there is no thread…emptiness…or perhaps an energy which is generated by the preceding pearl…which conditions the one that arises next… Or perhaps it’s other things that are involved in this conditioning process… According to Buddhism, the web of kamma, of action: through body speech and mind. I was just briefly reading about astral travelling and how, apparently on the astral plane, thoughts become far more effective/obvious as actions. And of course, it’s interesting…indeed…fascinating to look at Dependent Origination through this light…to see how it is all about conditioning energies and how they can span more than one life…

    The universe is vast… If the past – past lives – can affect us now… if this is true… Well it’s huge. Huge enough for some of us to believe in an eternal self and then the jump to an eternal God is not so far fetched.

    You can kind of understand why the Buddha refused to teach anything but the Suffering and the Way Out of It. Bring everything else in and the potential confusion would’ve led to all manner of cerebral headaches and dead ends…just imagining how it would’ve impacted on me you know… So he kept his teaching “narrow”…be good so your mind is clear, so your mindfulness is bright, so you can let your body go, so you can let aspects of your mind fall away too, so you can actually experience, not just intellectualise, that you’re like an onion with nothing at it’s core…then come back and view yourself and reality through this lense…then see what happens… Just really cool, cool stuff…doesn’t get any cooler…arguably…lol and I’m sure some would argue…

    Fascinating topic really… I’ve never really said any of this to anyone that believes in a self or God…frankly I always felt it would be too troublesome for me and also I have strong sense of respect, indeed honour, for the necessity of others to find the path that brings them peace and meaning and joy…I confess…I’ve never ever felt that it ever felt right to put my own view forward…the moment never seemed right and I never felt any benefit would come out of it for any concerned.

    So it’s nice to see that a polite debate is encouraged here. It’s nice to keep these things friendly. Hard to do when we invest so much into our beliefs. But really, if we are kind and friendly, regardless of our beliefs, now and later, we’ll only get kindness and friendliness back. I mean, it really shouldn’t matter to us that the whole world doesn’t believe as we do! What has that got to do with our beliefs, which are always, no matter what community may foster them, deeply personal.
    🙂

    Oh…I should say, I’ve not read what all the other commentators have written…so apologies if I seem to be rebutting anyone or repeating anyone… Actually, this has wound up being sooo long (some one just came into the room I’m in and asked what I was doing…and I said…”just having fun”…so yeah it’s really long)…so long… that I don’t really expect anyone to read this either. But it has been fun to articulate this stuff…so thanks for the forum and opportunity Bhante!🙂

  26. This is great and tonight I will read it / and yes our concept of God is flawed and so is everything else . In short the book that has given me the greatest insight is Nisargadatta Maharaj I Am That . there is no anwser

  27. Terrific thread of comments under a clear and well-argued post — my gratitude to all for taking the time to write. But I do wonder what the original post’s purpose is, as far as the dhamma is concerned, if, as seems likely, you tend towards perceiving everything you do in your life as necessarily having factors of practice included in it (nothing we do gets a pass as “not having to be within the scope of the dhamma’s morality”). If I understand correctly, you addressed its purpose, above, as:

    “The whole point of the argument was to
    establish that the truth of any metaphysical
    conception of God is so unlikely as to be
    beyond anything we might sensibly consider
    to be impossible.”

    But I wonder what purpose that argument serves along a path that is all about reducing suffering in the world? I ask this mostly because I have recently been noticing in the suttas how often the Buddha, when describing the belief systems of others, takes them to task for saying, “idameva saccaṃ moghamaññan’ti.” “Only this is true, anything else is foolish,” and while it is true that you are not “pestering anyone into believing anything” this post has sure sounded to me as though it is saying that “God does not exist” is true, and as though it is calling out other’s beliefs as foolish — so unlikely as to be impossible!

    You said, “… the Buddha used to criticize things all the time.” And I could be wrong — I imagine I have not spent as much time studying the suttas as you have, so maybe you can correct my understanding if I am mistaken — but it seems to me as though the Buddha was very precise in the choices he made when he criticized things: that rather than saying that a particular understanding of the cosmic order Could Not Possibly Be True (ala your “Why God Doesn’t Exist”) what he criticized was something more along the lines of why such a system wouldn’t work morally speaking. So, for example, he does not make the very general statement you summarized with, “The Buddha dismisses the idea of a creator deity out of hand, saying, for example, that it would render the holy life impossible,” which makes it sound as though he has dismissed all creator gods, and that was just one reason. In that case, “creator diety” would seem to include the Abrahamic god — but in the sutta quoted, he is not dismissing all creator gods, but a belief in a god which is the sole cause behind pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain:

    “There are other ascetics and brahmins who
    hold such a doctrine and view as this: ‘Whatever
    this person experiences—whether pleasure, pain,
    or neither-pain-nor-pleasure—all that is caused
    by God’s creative activity.’ — AN 3.61

    So what he is dismissing is not creator gods, but that we live in a world where our experience of feeling is determined by a god who creates our pleasure and pain. An Abrahamic God who gave us free will would not fall into that category because it would be the choices we make (as in the Buddha’s system) that lead to the experience of those feelings. In criticizing the reasons why the system, as explained by its believers, would not work morally (because it gives us no options to do anything that changes our fate), he confines himself to what we can all see for ourselves, and allows believers room to (1) examine what he says for themselves and (2) modify their belief systems in a way that brings it into better alignment with observation when they do. He is teaching them skills, not telling them that creator gods cannot exist.

    But we are walking and talking fine lines, here, between saying some cosmic order is impossible, and showing why certain aspects of it make living a moral life impossible. Yet what I hear the Buddha saying, in the hundreds of times he frowns on telling people that their beliefs are wrong, and the even more numerous times he tells us we have to directly experience what he’s talking about to actually know it — and what I see him living by example — is the conviction that views based on guesses and suppositions drawn from anything other than direct experience are dangerous, and that we should not only not have such views about what is, ourselves, but we should not go about waggling our views of what cannot be either, at those who hold those views dear. Because to do so is a source of suffering.

    My observation, from my own life, is that announcing that God Does Not Exist doesn’t reduce dukkha in the world. Those who already think so get the pleasure of having their views confirmed, and those who disagree tend to get more entrenched through defensiveness. Both are (it seems to me) reactions the Buddha described, in ways reflective of the philosophies of his times, as the very human tendency to see our views as “self” and gain pleasure from having those views stroked, and pain from having them attacked. The number of people teetering between “God exists” and “God doesn’t exist” who will be convinced by the argument you’ve made is small, and all that convincing them will do is put them into a camp in which they now come to hold a dogmatic view about things they will not have any direct experience of. “There is no God” is not an experience one can have and directly know. And, as you have so skillfully pointed out, “There is a God” is not an experience that relies on logic, but “God must be understood in a way that is beyond the reach of reason and evidence,” so logical arguments against it will not touch the true believer.

    But you’ve said you aren’t trying to convince anyone to hold a belief — and this leaves me wondering what dharmic purpose you do see in your original post?

    • Hi Linda,

      Sorry about the long delay in my reply to your excellent and carefully thought-out comment. I will try to do service to it here.

      As for the basic purpose of the post, I don’t know if it does have a single purpose, and any Dhammic relevance would probably be up to the reader. For myself, I am interested in the existence of God as a purely philosophical exercise, as it was, in my own life, the first “Big Question” that I pondered and came to my own conclusions on. Being brought up within a liberal Catholic background, God was always there, but not taken as seriously as I think he deserved.

      On a broader scale, I am concerned with the energetic evangelizing of Buddhists by extreme Christian groups. To make myself clear, I don’t see Christianity as a threat to Buddhism, and if someone wants to try to persuade someone of their religion, good luck! However there is a lot of unscrupulous and distorted messaging going on; and the real problem is that the Buddhist community is so undereducated in their own religion that they have no way of responding. So in general I try to provide an example of how, from a Buddhist point of view, we can respond thoughtfully and with energy to such challenges.

      Another aspect of Dhammic relevance is the fact, which is alluded to be several commenters, that many people have an exerience of Christianity that is stressful, confusing, or meaningless. To facilitate a rational consideration of first principles is, to my mind, one way we can help people come to grips with their past.

      Finally, there is the most obvious point, which is that Buddhism is a religion without a creator. Theist commentators on Buddhism sometimes try to obscure this fact by suggesting that the Buddha really believed in a God, but shied away from admitting it. I think we should show why Buddhism is not theistic.

      Anyway, so that’s a few reasons why I wrote it.

      in the sutta quoted, he is not dismissing all creator gods, but a belief in a god which is the sole cause behind pleasure, pain, and neither-pleasure-nor-pain

      That’s true, but that is only one passage. The real evidence for the dismissal of God is the fact that in all of the thousands of suttas were the Buddha talked about what he considered to be meaningful and useful for the spiritual life, God is not mentioned a single time. This is, if anything, an even stronger position. The Buddha didn’t think the God hypothesis was even worth bothering dismissing at length. He just ignored it most of the time. But this essay is, at the end of the day, just a blog post, not a detailed article, so I have not gone into the textual situation at length.

      An Abrahamic God who gave us free will would not fall into that category because it would be the choices we make (as in the Buddha’s system) that lead to the experience of those feelings.

      This is dubious, mostly because the notion of a creator god who gives us free will is dubious. At the end of the day, God has still created our capacity to feel pleasure and pain, and I would argue that the very idea that God created everything and still gave us free will is philosophically incoherent, and that the extensive efforts of the Catholic theologians to argue the case merely betray it’s weak basis. It’s a position that is rejected, I believe, by the Koran and by many Christian schools, and rightly so.

      the conviction that views based on guesses and suppositions drawn from anything other than direct experience are dangerous

      But this is exactly my argument: that a creator God can never be based on evidence, and must always be nothing more than a flight of imagination. If I am wrong, then show me: what kind of evidence might possibly establish the existence of the Creator?

      Because to do so is a source of suffering.

      Really? For who? I see that in the world there are many people who suffer because of blind belief. There is a lot of really gross, terrible suffering directly caused by irrational and ridiculous beliefs every day. I am not at all convinced that a rational discussion of matters of importance is a source of suffering: quite the opposite. I see it as an instrument of freedom, for questioning blind beliefs and learning to rely on one’s own understanding.

      My observation, from my own life, is that announcing that God Does Not Exist doesn’t reduce dukkha in the world. Those who already think so get the pleasure of having their views confirmed, and those who disagree tend to get more entrenched through defensiveness.

      There are a lot of people who are in neither of these categories. And even if we are merely having our existing beliefs confirmed, it doesn’t hurt to try to think it through in a more coherent fashion.

  28. What we seem to have, allowing that this is just the way I see it, is an idea called ‘god’ upon which few agree and many disagree. I see in Bhante’s excellent essay a way out, a means of letting go that satisfies the “what if” principle with which we so often torment ourselves. While the true believer will always remain untouchable, immune to reason and logic ‒ intellectually and emotionally seeing for ourselves the absurdity of our notions about the unknown gathered into the cubbyhole called “god” is a relief.

    I have no qualms considering that the notion of “god” is relevant to some people in a good, decent and useful way. But when “god” becomes an obsession that outweighs reason and sanity (being able to distinguish right from wrong), then the notion of “god” shifts from idea to ideology and from there into the reification of evil in this world. We see this in ISIS, for example. We see this is the lamentable case of Lee Rigby, murdered in the most cowardly and malicious way by two young men who thought they were soldiers and that killing a soldier was pleasing to “god”.

    Our notion of “god”, after all, is so contradictory, perhaps the quintessential oxymoron, that the hubris with which we imagine we could or should or must or are able at all (!) please “something” able to bring our universe into existence is beyond ridiculous. Better, it seems to me, to see impermanence, understand the Dhamma and use our energies to bring our lives to fulfilment as the Buddha has indicated lies entirely within our abilities.

  29. This is a great post and clarifies many things, but I still have a question regarding taoist (possibly) point of view. My understanding is that in theravada, we’re made up of these kilesas from the time we’re born, or from endless cycles and all we do is accumulate more, but isn’t there the possibility of fluctuation?
    Within my understanding of taoism everything comes from the source, and a baby shows a lot of that innocence when its very young and it seems as if that innocence and wonder is admired. to make an opinion, could the mind state of a baby be one that has recently come out of jhana? of course they are born because there’s still attachment left, but isn’t a baby’s innocence and wonder something that should be regarded as wholesome instead of just seeing that a baby is just wrapped in a tight ball of suffering?
    Animals are very close to this source as well. when they aren’t obsessed with reproduction and food, they completely surrender to the moment. maybe their intentions or sampajanna are quite off, but their present moment awareness seems impeccable. my observation of that comes from them being able to sleep more sound than a lot of us humans. could there be more to admire or learn from within nature rather than just disregarding these things as unwise and full of filth?
    Maybe the original nature or god can be perceived as something unknown until it’s known, just like a certain tool we can use until we can throw it out, just like the body and then the hindrances and then the jhanas. maybe my understanding of this is completely off, so it’d be nice to have a new perspective. -i meant to email this, but i don’t know how to navigate this site well. this post seemed relevant.

    • Hi Paul,

      It’s an interesting idea, and I wouldn’t want to be too definitive about it. But the early Buddhist idea is that rebirth is driven by kamma, and kamma, importantly, is both good and bad. So it’s not the case that a baby has only defilements, they also have lots of good stuff.

      The interesting bit is this, though. It does seem that near death experiences have a lot in common with jhana. You let go of the body, of life, and have an experience of lightness and bliss. If a baby has recently been through this experience, if the last major impression on consciousness is such a huge letting go, perhaps this is why they have a sense of radiance and innocence about them.

  30. I ‘HAD’ to go to Catholic Mass every Sunday for 17 years. I never believed. The stories sounded so Masochistic..the story of Noah’s Ark or Abraham being told in his OLD AGE, that he must sacrifice his only child (born in his elder years with his wife, Sara) and then God said practically ‘only kidding before Abraham was about to ‘murder’ his only child. I was an Agnostic for decades.. and then formally became an Atheist last year. It just sounded more peaceful to be an Agnostic..🙂.. but now in my early 50s I thought best to be honest…~~

    When someone I knew died in May of 2005 so many things happened after his death… for about 18 months.. I thought for a time is there a GOD?? .. was my dead friend/ex-lover trying to tell me to rethink my position(he always wore a cross around his neck even if his lifestyle was a bit hypocritical : )??

    No, there is not a GOD…. and whatever the events were.. some type of energy/consciousness (whatever that means??)…there is not a GOD in the traditional sense… I wonder what it was.. (the things that happened were not just random things… but very specific messages (for want of a better word). (too long to type)…~~

    Would be nice if there was a GOD and a Heaven… the people that I know that believe it earnestly seem to have some type of peace (but it is just a fantasy); and try as I may I can not delude myself.. ~~ it just does not add up to some benevolent father figure .. and happiness every after in heaven ~~

    (thank you and Ajahn Brahm for all those wonderful Youtube talks.. been listening for 4 years.. ~~ as a pacifist/environmentalist/simple soul… it does me so much good..~~ less dukka these days..~~and starting to meditate; thought it would numb me but instead it is bringing me more clarity… and I’m able to make better decisions ~~

    emma..

    P.S. Just like I do not believe in a God… as much as I adore the Buddha … I still on the fence if he reach ultimate Enlightenment.. he was just a human like all of us. ~~~ and nor does it matter to me..because the words .. the teachings feel more natural to me than anything else.. just common sense too. ~

    • Hi Emma,

      Thanks for your heartfelt comments.

      I just wanted to remark on one thing, that is, the story of Abraham and his son. This is something I know a little about, perhaps because I used to sing Highway 61 in my busking years!

      When we look back at the story, we see it as outrageous that a God could force someone to commit sacrifice of their only son. However, this is not how the original audience would have seen it. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was not merely normal but expected across much of the ancient world. It is one of the civilizing trends of the great religions to replace such cruel conduct with more humane practices.

      There is an extensive genre of mythological texts, found as commonly in Greek myth as in Indian, where a cruel sacrifice is substituted with something less cruel. This is one of the major themes of James Frazer’s classic study, The Golden Bough (which, BTW, everyone should read!)

      In the Buddhist texts, the substitute is typically rice and other vegetarian fare, as in the classic story of the taming of Alavaka the yakkha. In the story of Abraham, things have not yet progressed so far, so a human sacrifice is replaced by and animal. Later, of course, animal sacrifice was also removed from the Jewish and Christian traditions, as they moved to purely symbolic forms of sacrifice.

      So for my part I see the story of Abraham as one step in the long process of developing a civilized and compassionate form of religious expression, a process which happened right across the world, and for which the Bible remains one of our most interesting source texts.

  31. I was an atheist for most of my life and shared the atheist (nihilist leaning) views of many here. Thankfully Buddha Dharma has brought my mind to the middle (its no longer ensnared in for or against thinking). God/Atheism is such a non-issue for me now. Here is an almost 50 year old talk from Buddhadasa…his wisdom still shines thru. Thank God for Buddhadasa!!🙂 http://www.abuddhistlibrary.com/Buddhism/B%20-%20Theravada/Teachers/Buddhadasa/No%20Religion/NORELIG.HTM

  32. Thank you for the discussion…not sure I agree or disagree, not sure I have to. But what is sure, is that language, ordinary language used by ordinary human beings is very limited compared to what actually exists. This holds true in all religious texts, Buddhism included, and how much more so on an internet forum or floating around our own heads?

  33. If science can show that God does not exist, then I think science will also be able to answer the following question:
    If the universe has actually originated from nothing due to the quantum energy fluctuation in a void as claimed by some scientists, then not only its total matter and energy, but its total space-time as well have originated from nothing. So not only its total matter and energy, but its total space-time also should always remain zero, because space, time, matter and energy – all the four of them have originated from nothing. Scientists have successfully shown how the total matter and energy of our present universe always remain zero, but they have forgotten to show how its total space-time also always remains zero. Again the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. So the relevant question that requires an answer from the scientists is this: How does the total space-time of an ever expanding universe always remain zero?
    If science fails to provide a suitable answer to this question, then the naturalistic world-view of modern science will prove to be inadequate for explaining the real world.

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