Like all people, I have many different sides to my personality. The very fact that I write a blog like this one shows that I am a Buddhist, but I am also many other things. I am a husband, a son, a teacher, a dog-lover, a friend, a bibliophile, a Star Wars geek, a guitarist, a Welshman, a European, an activist. What is more, I am all of these things simultaneously, even if not all of them are apparent at once to the observer. There is no contradiction here, as all of these things fit together comfortably to make up the ever-changing, transient phenomenon that people identify as me.
One other side of me is that I am an atheist.
Some people, I’m sure, will find the fact that I am both a Buddhist and an atheist hard to reconcile. How on earth can I be both religious and atheist, at the same time? Well, as it turns out, it’s quite easy. Buddhism and atheism are not mutually exclusive.
A common misconception about atheists is that we believe in nothing. I come across that belief all the time, usually (unsurprisingly) from theists who misunderstand atheism. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If I say that I don’t believe in unicorns, does that mean that I believe in nothing? Of course not. It just means that there is one specific thing – unicorns – in which I do not believe. That says nothing about the things I actually do believe.
In the same way, as an atheist I do not believe in gods. That doesn’t mean that I believe in nothing; it just means that there is one specific thing – gods – in which I do not believe. That is all.
For most atheists, the only reason that we have to make a big deal about it is that we live in societies where the vast majority of the population are theists. That being the case, it becomes a big deal to them when they realise that some of us don’t believe in their religions.
If theistic religion weren’t so prevalent, there would be no need for us to identify as atheists in the first place, any more than we need to identify as non-unicorn-believers in a world where belief in unicorns isn’t considered normative.
So yes, it’s true that I have no belief in the existence of any gods. That doesn’t mean that I can’t see the sense in the teachings of the Buddha. As far as the Buddha himself was concerned, the existence or non-existence of gods was irrelevant anyway. Whether or not any gods exist, what is important for us is to live our lives in a meaningful and ethical way here and now. To me, Buddhism provides the best framework for doing that. As well as attracting the intellectual and analytic side of me, Buddhism has also captivated the emotional and intuitive side of me in a way that no other religion or philosophy ever has.
So yes, I’m a Buddhist. Yes, I’m an atheist. Those are just two sides of the same person, and they coexist without any friction whatsoever.