It has often been suggested that Buddhism is an atheistic system of thought, and this assumption has given rise to quite a number of discussions. Some have claimed that since Buddhism knew no God, it could not be a religion; others that since Buddhism obviously was a religion which knew no God, the belief in God was not essential to religion. These discussions assume that 'God' is an unambiguous term, which is by no means the case. We can distinguish in this context at least three meanings of the term. There is firstly a personal God who created the universe; there is secondly the Godhead, either conceived as impersonal or as supra-personal; there are thirdly a number of gods, or of angels not clearly distinguished from gods.
(1) As for the first, Buddhist tradition does not exactly deny the existence of a creator, but it is not really interested to know who created the universe. The purpose of Buddhist doctrine is to release beings from suffering, and speculations concerning the origin of the universe are held to be immaterial to that task. They are not merely a waste of time but they may also postpone deliverance from suffering by engendering ill will in oneself and in others. While thus the Buddhists adopt an attitude of agnosticism to the question of a personal creator, they have not hesitated to stress the superiority of the Buddha over Brahma, the god who, according to Brahminic theology, created the universe. They represent the god Brahma as seized by pride when he thought to himself: 'I am Brahma, I am the great Brahma, the King of the Gods; I am uncreated, I have created the world, I am the sovereign of the world, I can create, alter, and give birth; I am the Father of all things.'(from Dirghagama T1.xxii, T24.i; Vibhasa T1545.iic)The scriptures are not slow in pointing out that the Tathagata is free from such childish conceit. If indifference to a personal creator of the universe is atheism, then Buddhism is indeed atheistic.
(2) We are, however, nowadays, if only through the writings of Aldous Huxley, familiar with the difference between God and Godhead as an essential feature of the Perennial Philosophy. When we compare the attributes of the Godhead as they are understood by the more mystical tradition of Christian thought with those of Nirvana, we find almost no difference at all. It is indeed true that Nirvana has no cosmological functions, that this is not God's world but a world made by our own greed and stupidity. It is indeed true that through their attitude the Buddhists express a more radical rejection of the world in all its aspects than we find among many Christians. At the same time, they are spared a number of awkward theological riddles and have not been under the necessity to combine, for instance, the assumption of an omnipotent and all-loving God with the existence of a great deal of suffering and muddle in this world. Buddhists also have never stated that God is Love, but that may be due to their preoccupation with intellectual precision, which must have perceived that the word 'Love' is one of the most unsatisfactory and ambiguous terms one could possibly use.
But, on the other hand, we are told that Nirvana is permanent, stable, imperishable, immovable, ageless, deathless, unborn, and unbecome, that it is power, bliss and happiness, the secure refuge, the shelter, and the place of unassailable safety; that it is the real Truth and the supreme Reality, that it is the Good, the supreme goal, and the one and only consummation of our life, the eternal, hidden, and incomprehensible Peace.
Similarly, the Buddha who is, as it were, the personal embodiment of Nirvana, becomes the object of all those emotions that we are wont to call religious.
There has existed throughout Buddhist history a tension between the bhaktic and the gnostic approach to religion, such as we find also in Christianity. There is, however, the difference that in Buddhism the gnostic vision has always been regarded as the more true one, while the bhaktic, devotion, type was regarded more or less as a concession to the common people. It is generally found in philosophical thought that even philosophical abstractions are clothed with some kind of emotional warmth when they concern the Absolute. We have only to think of Aristotle's description of the Prime Mover. In Buddhism, however, in addition, a whole system of ritual, and of religious elevation, is associated with an intellectually conceived Absolute in a manner which is not logically very plausible, but which stood the test of life for a long time.
(3) We now come to the thorny subject of polytheism. The Christian teaching which has to some extent pervaded our education, has made us believe that polytheism belongs to a past period of the human race, that it has been superseded by monotheism, and that it finds no response in the contemporary mind. In order to appreciate the Buddhists' toleration of polytheism, we must first of all understand that polytheism is very much alive even among us. But where formerly Athene, Baal, Astarte, Isis, Sarasvati, Kuan-Yin, etc., excited the popular imagination, it is nowadays inflamed by such words as democracy, progress, civilization, equality, liberty, reason, science, etc. A multitude of personal beings has given way to a multitude of abstract nouns. In Europe, the turning point came when the French deposed the Virgin Mary and transferred their affections to the Goddess of Reason. The reason for this change is not far to seek. Personal deities grow on the soil of a rural culture in which the majority of the population are illiterate, while abstract nouns find favour with the literate populations of modern towns. Medieval men went to war for Jesus Christ, Saint George, and San Jose. Modern crusades are in aid of such abstractions as Christianity, the Christian Way of Life, Democracy, and the Rights of Man.
Literacy, however, is not the only factor which differentiates our modern polytheism from that of ancient times. Another factor is our separation from the forces of Nature. Every tree, every well, lake, or river, almost every type of animal, could once bring forth a deity. We are now too remote from Nature to think that. In addition, our democratic predilections make us less inclined to deify great men. In India, kings were held to be gods and, ever since the days of Egypt, the despotism of a divine ruler has been a most efficient way of keeping vast empires together - in Rome, in China, in Iran, and in Japan. However much people may think of Hitler, Stalin, and Churchill, they are disinclined to grant them full divinity. The deification of great men is not confined to political figures. The inveterate polytheism of the human mind broke out in Islam and Christianity, through the crust of an official monotheism, in the form of the worship of saints. In Islam again the saints fused with the spirits which since ancient times had inhabited different localities. Finally, we must realize that religious people everywhere expect also immediate advantages from their religion. I saw, recently, in an Anglican shop window in Oxford, that at present Saint Christopher seems to be the only saint who appeals to those circles. His medals protect from car accidents. Similarly, the Buddhist expected from his religion that it would protect him from illnesses and fire, that it would give him children and other benefits. It is quite obvious that the one God, who soars above the stars and has the entire universe to look after, cannot really be bothered with such trifles. Special needs, therefore, engender special deities to provide for them. At present, we have developed a kind of confidence that science and industry will provide those needs, and our more superstitious inclinations are reserved for those activities which contain a large element of chance.
Among the populations which adopted Buddhism almost all activities contained a large element of chance, and a great number of deities were invoked for protection and help. The Buddhists would find no objection whatsoever in the cult of many gods because the idea of a jealous god is quite alien to them; and also because they are imbued with the conviction that everyone's intellectual insight is very limited, so that it is very difficult for us to know when we are right, but practically impossible to be sure that someone else is wrong. Like the Catholics, the Buddhists believe that a faith can be kept alive only if it can be adapted to the mental habits of the average person. In consequence, we find that, in the earlier scriptures, the deities of Brahmanism are taken for granted and that, later on, the Buddhists adopted the local gods of any district to which they came.
If atheism is the denial of the existence of a God, it would be quite misleading to describe Buddhism as atheistic. On the other hand, monotheism has never appealed to the Buddhist mind. There has never been any interest in the origin of the universe - with only one exception. About 1000ad Buddhists in the north-west of India came into contact with the victorious forces of Islam. In their desire to be all things to all men, some Buddhists in that district rounded off their theology with the notion of an Adi-Buddha, a kind of omnipotent and omniscient primeval Buddha, who through his meditation originated the universe. This notion was adopted by a few sects in Nepal and Tibet.