Is Buddha Dhamma (Buddhism) a Religion?

Buddhism (Buddha Dhamma) is a self-consistent worldview. That worldview explains the origin of suffering in this world and the way to be liberated from suffering. In that sense, it can be called a religion too.

October 21, 2015; revised November 8, 2015; rewritten December 7, 2022

Buddha Dhamma – A Self-Consistent Worldview and a Religion

1. It is best to learn (or even scrutinize) Buddha Dhamma with a mindset pretty much the same as when trying to learn about a new concept, say in mathematics or science. Some key assumptions (axioms) are involved, which cannot be proven but do make sense, especially if one takes time to contemplate. That is the approach followed in mathematics and science as well.

  • That worldview has embedded in it the root causes and conditions for suffering to arise and the way to stop that suffering. In that sense, it is a religion, too, even though without the concept of a Creator.
  • That is contrary to conventional religions, which are rooted in a “Creator God” based entirely on faith.
  • The foundation of Buddha Dhamma, Paṭicca Samuppāda, describes the entirety of this world (including mental phenomena).
  • However, if one needs to treat Buddha Dhamma (teachings of the Buddha) as a worldview, then learning Abhidhamma would be required. Finer details are in Abhidhamma
What Is a Religion?

2. Merriam-Webster defines “religion” as:

  • The belief in a Creator God or a group of Gods.
  • An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.
  • An interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.

The Oxford dictionary has the following definitions:

  • The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
  • A particular system of faith and worship.
  • A pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.
Buddhism Is an “Atheistic Religion”

3. Thus, the word “religion” invokes the idea of a Creator God in most people’s minds. Even though this is correct for most major religions of the world, it is not correct for Buddha Dhamma. 

  • The foundation of Buddha Dhamma is that the world has existed “forever” (no First Cause, and thus it was not created). Planetary systems like our Solar system (cakkavāla) come and go, but there have always been living beings. See “Buddhism and Evolution – Aggañña Sutta (DN 27).”
  • It may appear inconsistent with the current “Big Bang Theory,” which says our universe started some 14 billion years ago in a “Big Bang.” Religions embraced the idea of the Big Bang when it was first proposed since it had connotations of creation. However, the inflationary theory that describes the Big Bang (proposed in the 1990s) says there could be multiple parallel universes. Thus, the hope for a unique “event of creation” fizzled. The point is that modern science has no clear picture of how the universe behaves.
  • Of course, the “Big Bang Theory” is a theory; it is not yet proven. Some scientists do not believe everything “popped up” suddenly in a Big Bang. They believe that universes are cyclic, i.e., transform and evolve; see, for example, “Endless Universe – Beyond the Big Bang” by P. J. Steinhardt and N. Turok (2007).

4. Buddha Dhamma does not count as a religion if one takes the first two definitions from either Merriam-Webster or Oxford dictionary. Yet, it can be included in the category of #3 above.

  • One could say that the prominent religions are theistic, i.e., based on the belief in a Creator.
  • Buddha Dhamma can be categorized as an atheistic religion because there is no assumption of a Creator, yet it can lead to the end of suffering.
  • It must be noted that in Buddha Dhamma, there are beings called “Devās” (sometimes translated as “gods”) in other realms;  they cannot affect our lives in a significant way, much less than creating universes.
Buddha Dhamma Is the Grand Unified Theory Sought by Science

5. However, I prefer to label Buddha Dhamma as the “ultimate science.” It encompasses all of nature’s laws, not only about material phenomena but also about the mind. It is the Grand Unified Theory that scientists strive to discover, but they only focus on the material aspects. See “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma.”

  • Scientists are beginning to realize the importance of the mind. Many scientists are attempting to connect quantum theory and the mind. This will NOT work because any “matter-based theory” cannot explain the mind. Mind is the forerunner: “Manōpubbangamā Dhammā..“.
  • The mind takes precedence over matter; see the “Abhidhamma” section. Those who can spend time and learn Abhidhamma will realize no scientist can ever come close to a Buddha. 
  • The presence of innumerable planetary systems in our universe was known to the Buddha and is described in the Tipiṭaka even though science discovered that only within the past two hundred years; see “Dhamma and Science.” 
Current Debates Between Philosophers and Theologians

6.  When I listen to current debates between those who believe in a Creator and those who don’t (atheists), I think the following summarizes the key ideas from each group:

  • Atheists correctly point out that there is no evidence supporting the idea of a Creator God. Our ancestors could not fathom the workings of our complex world and envisioned a Creator who was supposed to have created humans and a suitable habitat for them. But many “mysteries” of our world have been resolved with the advancement of science, and these findings contradict key ideas in prominent religions.
  • Those on the other side insist that the idea of a “totally physical world” goes against our experiences and innate feelings that cannot be denied.  That there must be something in addition to a physical body, i.e., a “conscious experience” cannot be attributed to atoms and molecules in our bodies. Furthermore, they point out that science has not been able to explain even the working of a single living cell.
  • I have discussed that in detail at the beginning of the “Origin of Life” section.
Buddha Dhamma Has the Explanatory Power and Is Self-Consistent

7. Buddha Dhamma addresses both of those critical points. First, on the side of the atheists, there is no need for a Creator. Natural processes can account for not only what happens on Earth but an uncountable number of habitable planetary systems in a vast universe.

  • On the other hand, science can account for only how the material world evolves. As the theologians argue, there is something other than inert matter in this world, and that is consciousness. Consciousness cannot be derived from inter matter. 
  • However, consciousness was not imparted by a Creator either. Furthermore, contrary to what most theologians believe, animals are also conscious (even though their ability to make decisions is much lower than humans).
  • Introductions are at “Buddha Dhamma: Non-Perceivability and Self-Consistency” and “Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.”
  • This is why one could say Buddha Dhamma is an “atheistic religion.” It describes the way to liberation (from suffering) without the concept of a “Creator God.”

8. Some people tell me that Buddha Dhamma is not that different from other religions because certain “assumptions” need to be believed “on faith,” for example, that there is a rebirth process.

  • However, the axiom of a rebirth process is not be taken as a belief, like in the case of the Ten Commandments. It is up to oneself to examine and accept or reject that concept. Even a Buddha cannot make anyone be “forced to believe” in anything. See “Evidence for Rebirth.”
  • Thus, there is a difference in what is meant by “faith” in Buddha Dhamma compared to that in theistic religions. In any theistic religion, one has to accept the idea of a Creator without question; it is THE basis of any prominent theistic religion.
  • Furthermore, mathematics and sciences have built-in assumptions too. New theories must be developed if new findings contradict a given assumption. Buddha Dhamma (represented by the Tipiṭaka) has not changed over the past 2500 years.
  • Buddha Dhamma describes the nature of this world; The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma has some fundamental axioms, like geometry or the theory of relativity. These “assumptions” can be verified to be correct if one takes the time to examine the evidence.

9. Buddha Dhamma has the explanatory power to explain anything in this world, ranging from the existence of innumerable planetary systems (which was only accepted within the past few hundred years by science) to how morality comes about without a Creator; see, “Dhamma and Science” and “Origin of Morality (and Immorality) in Buddhism.”

  • It took us the workings of many brilliant scientists, from Galileo to Newton to Einstein, to realize the vastness of this universe, which the Buddha described 2500 years ago.
  • But the even more astounding fact is that the Buddha described in detail how consciousness arises in a living being, in addition to describing the material world. Science is still under the “wrong view” that consciousness can arise in the brain out of inert matter.
  • See the “Origin of Life” and “Abhidhamma” sections for details.
Main Points Against Both Materialism and “Creator-Based” Religions

10. There are many videos on YouTube explaining the shortcomings of modern science (based on a materialistic world) and “Creator-based” religions. Both sides are correct about the shortcomings of the other side. I will highlight only one key obstacle to be overcome by each side.

Arguments Against a Creator (Prominent Religions)

11. For those who would like to look into arguments on why theistic religions do not make sense, below is a compilation of arguments by Sam Harris, a prominent atheist.

First segment (up to 2 minutes): Buddha Dhamma is incompatible with any other religion.

Second segment (up to 5 minutes): Buddha Dhamma agrees with Mr. Harris’ points.

Third segment (up to 10 minutes): Buddha Dhamma agrees with Mr. Harris’ points. Some assumptions of prominent religions have no basis. However, science does not explain everything either.

Final Segment: Yes. God’s will has nothing to do with the suffering present in this world. 

  • I will skip the other videos in the series, which do not have anything contradictory to Buddha Dhamma.  
  • In the third video, at one point, he mentions Buddhism by name, clumped with other religions. That is because he has not been exposed to the correct version of Buddhism. Just because Mr. Haris has practiced “breath meditation” does not make him knowledgeable on Buddha Dhamma. As I have explained, Ānāpānasati meditation in Buddhism is not “breath meditation.” See “Is Ānāpānasati Breath Meditation?
Arguments Against Materialism 

12. Modern science can explain many phenomena involving inert matter. But it cannot explain mental phenomena, including the origin of consciousness. The following video provides critical arguments against “materialism” because it cannot explain the origins of the human body’s complex biology (the video starts at 30 minutes, where this point is discussed.) Dr. Stephen Meyer believes in a “Creator God,” but his arguments against materialism are valid. (Some scientists have moved to the “creation” camp simply because they cannot explain such phenomena any other way; they are unaware of the correct version of Buddhism.)

Buddha Dhamma can explain all the aspects being debated by both sides. It can fully explain the material world and mental phenomena, including consciousness. See “Origin of Life.”

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