I am reading this book currently called Buddhism without beliefs. In this book the author claims that Buddhism is Agnostic. Now Agnosticism is a claim that you are ignorant, or not sure whether God is there or not. I am sure that Buddhist suttas mention several gods, like Brahma etc. Also most modern scholars promote Buddhism as Atheistic, as there is no central creator. What's your take on this?

2 Answers 2


Yes, it can be called any of these three things; and it is called different things by different people, for the reasons you described.

Three further comments:

  • The terms (like "atheist") were originally invented and used by other cultures for other religions; for example, Socrates was (legally) accused of atheism and condemned (to death) for it -- so the distinction (between "atheism" and "non-atheism") mattered. I'm not sure how or why the distinction matters in Buddhism, unless it affects practice etc.
  • Buddhism as I understand it doesn't deny there are Gods (it doesn't say "there are no Gods") so it isn't atheist. But it also doesn't say "God can save you" in the way that Christianity does, or that "The purpose of life is to obey God" etc. The importance of Gods is de-emphasised, people are responsible for their own karma and their own salvation, so it isn't exactly like a Theistic religion either. The story of Siddhartha's going forth and so on is told (at least n the West) as a more-or-less human story.

    Bhikkhu Bodhi's book In the Buddha's Words has chapter titles, "The Human Condition", "The Bringer of Light", "Approaching the Dhamma", "The Happiness Visible in This Present Life", which are this-worldly and human rather than other-worldly and Theistic.

  • Calling Agnosticism "ignorance" is a bit confusing when it's applied to Buddhism. "Agnosticism" means (etymologically) "without gnosis" or without knowledge (of God).

    I might describe myself as "agnostic about God" if I have no personal knowledge, no personal experience, of God.

    In the West people use "Agnostic" as a middle way between theist and atheist: "theist" means, "I believe in God"; "atheist" means, "I believe there is no God"; and "agnostic", "I neither believe nor disbelieve, I have no personal knowledge of it." (I probably wouldn't say that I'm "agnostic about Antarctica" -- I believe it exists although I haven't experienced it personally).

    "Ignorance" is a term which features in Buddhism too: Avidyā (Pali: avijjā). Avijjā too means "without knowledge".

    In Buddhism, though, it isn't used to mean "ignorance about whether God exists" (because, IMO, whether God exists isn't the important question). Instead it's used to refer to ignorance of dhamma, ignorance of right view, ignorance about topics like anatta (i.e. whether the self exists), anicca, and dukkha, and so on.

  • I haven't read Buddhism Without Beliefs and my answer isn't trying to comment on that -- only trying to answer the question asked.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 9:45
  • No, your answer makes sense...I understood what you say...I am just confused about this book which repeatedly maintains its stance that buddhism is agnostic...now this particular author has few books on Buddhism...so was just wondering what to make out of this...in my opinion if i have to choose between the three i will call buddhism as atheist...as we dont believe in some creator god whom we have to worship...
    – user13135
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 12:12
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    The Top customer reviews on Amazon say the book/author misrepresents Buddhism. I gather (from other topics on this site) that the author claims to be atheist, denies "rebirth", and is associated with "Secular Buddhism".
    – ChrisW
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 12:21
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    Look up for Buddhadasa. He has a lot of pdf datas free for download. Just google him. Many researchers use him to gain knowledge into Buddhism. He has a no non-sensd approach and refutes literal rebirth. For that you can also look up the User Dhammadhatu. He is also familiar with it.
    – Val
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 15:16
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    @ChrisW there is no reason why one needs to believe in literal rebirth. It is a worldly teaching. Even in right view it is only mentioned in mundane right view.
    – Val
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 15:19

You may have heard of "sabbe dhamma anatta", the Buddhist teaching that "all phenomena is not-self". A complete discussion on the topic can be found in this answer.

Basically, there is a self, but it is not standalone or independent. Rather, it is changing, arising and ceasing, dependent on other conditions. There is no permanent eternal self.

Buddhism can be considered theist, if you take into account the teachings on the existence of beings called devas and brahmas in the higher realms. Also see this question.

However, Buddhism can be considered atheist, if this refers to the non-existence of a permanent eternal God, because that would imply an unchanging permanent eternal self.

Also, Buddhism can be considered agnostic, if you are looking for an explanation on the origin of the universe and samsara. Was the universe and samsara created by someone or did it appear on its own or was it always there eternally? This is not commented on in Buddhism (see the Acintita Sutta and the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow).

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