In a recent article titled "America’s New Religions " which is concerned with political fundamentalism, the respected American journalist Andrew Sullivan makes a passing remark that "Buddhism’s genius is that it is a religion without God". How appropriate is that statement?
I think it's more a comment about other religions than about Buddhism, i.e. it's saying that:
- Some people find other religions unsatisfactory
- Part of that dissatisfaction is with religions' doctrines about God
As an aside I think that some of the same people may disparage, resist, or ignore elements of Buddhism which say seem supernatural or requiring faith, including e.g. rebirth, karma, psychic powers, other realms.
Some people find a lack of religion unsatisfactory too, e.g. that might imply immorality or what people disparage as moral relativism, and various other missing doctrines.
Conversely I don't think it's especially Buddhism's being without God that is its genius -- I think it's its being beneficial, practical, perhaps humanistic, offering hope, and so on.
Actually maybe "hope" isn't a standard Buddhist doctrine (i.e. "faith, hope, and charity" are overtly Christian, rather, and part of Buddhism may be to lose unwarranted hope in the wrong sort of thing, to become disenchanted) -- instead Buddhism might say something more like this about its own doctrine, i.e. that it is "visible in this life", "timeless", "conducive (to the cessation of suffering)", and "for the wise to know for themselves".
Of course that's not the only thing that Buddhism (e.g the Buddha) says about the Dhamma, e.g. another formula (i.e. description of it) is "good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end" (see also e.g. this answer).
From AN11.12 we have:
You should develop this recollection of the deities while walking, standing, sitting, lying down, while engaged in work, and while at home with your children.
The above was spoken to a poly-theistic culture 2500+ years ago. And preceding that statement we have:
When a noble disciple recollects the faith, ethics, learning, generosity, and wisdom of both themselves and the deities their mind is not full of greed, hate, and delusion
Note the qualities mentioned: faith, ethics, learning, generosity and wisdom. These are qualities with self-less tendencies upheld by many global religions. The suttas also emphasize a teaching that is:
realizable in this very life, immediately effective, inviting inspection, relevant, so that sensible people can know them for themselves
As such, the Early Buddhist Texts (EBT) suttas are quite compatible with many global religions. Oddly they also apply to atheists who have zero deities. One may need to substitute God for deities, however that substitution of interpretation does not really change what is taught: faith, ethics, learning, generosity, and wisdom. One might, for example, study Buddhism to strengthen a Christian faith in God.
Where things get a bit tricky is with discussions of souls. When discussing souls, we leave the domain of immediate effectiveness that characterizes many of the suttas and head deep into personal experience and faith. In such discourse there will always be argument. In Buddhism, identity view is a fetter. And yet we have saints being un-self-ish. How are these different?