What’s Wrong with Buddhism?:
An Atheist’s Perspective
By Cliff Willard
Some years ago I married a Thai lady who is a devout Buddhist. Every day she prays at the shrine she set up in the house, and nearly every Sunday goes to worship in the Temple. I became interested in these activities, visited a few temples, and was introduced to a few monks (charming people). I began reading books on the life of the Buddha & Buddhism. I was impressed. Why?
First, they didn’t believe in God.
Second, monks lead a very ascetic life. No sex, booze, luxuries, or comfortable beds for them. They must be, and are, very devoted to their cause.
Third, I don’t know of any wars carried out in the name of Buddhism. Indeed, Buddhists seem very laid-back when it comes to proselytising their religion (or philosophy as they like to call it).
So, is Buddhism the ideal for me? For a while I thought so, but then came the doubts. First, I couldn’t understand why Buddhists appear to be praying. The statues and idols didn’t worry me; but if there is no God, then where do the prayers go?
Second, the monks are held in very high esteem. I believe that they should be given respect, but how much? They are not saints yet they appear to be treated as such.
Third, the concept of “Nirvana”, in Buddhist philosophy, is a state without desire, and completely at peace. A state of “nothingness” (Buddhists may correct me on this). To me, as an atheist, it is the same as death. I put this concept to a Buddhist monk and his reply was that if this was the case, a murderer would suffer the same fate as a virtuous and moral person, and therefore there was no incentive to do good deeds.
However the real ‘nail in the coffin’ for me is the Buddhist philosophy of cause and effect known as “karma”.
I bought a copy of Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The God Delusion. In his notes on chapter 7, under the heading ‘Is the New Testament any better?’, he writes:
Julia Sweeney is also right on target when she briefly mentions Buddhism. Just as Christianity is sometimes thought to be a nicer, gentler religion than Islam, Buddhism is often cracked up to be the nicest of all. But the doctrine of demotion on the reincarnation ladder because of past sins in a past life is pretty unpleasant. Julia Sweeney: ‘I went to Thailand and happened to visit a woman who was taking care of a terribly deformed boy. I said to his caretaker, “It’s so good of you to be taking care of this poor boy.” She said, “Don’t say ‘poor boy’, he must have done something terrible in a past life to be born this way.”
After reading this in Dawkins’ book I checked with my wife who confirmed this idea. I was horrified. As a board member of an organisation that cares for terribly deformed (both physically and mentally) adults, I cannot accept the idea that this is their punishment for collecting “bad karma” in a previous life.
Indeed, I find it difficult to understand the idea of previous lives at all. I can’t remember any, and I find it hard to believe people when they say they can remember previous lives. I was talking to a man recently (at a Buddhist function), who was sure that he had committed murder in a previous life. This begs the question “If I believe that I have committed murder in a previous life, and am now leading a comfortable life, why should I not do it again?”
Is the human ego responsible for the idea of life after death? Can’t we just accept that we have only one life? For if we accept that this is so, then surely we must try to make the best of the one and only life we have for ourselves, and others, without the dubious benefits of religion.