Alternative theisms and atheisms (part 1)

One of the main advantages of dealing with worldviews other than the one you grew up in is the fact that you are exposed to doubts and alternatives. One of such cases regards the nebulous category of religion (to which Amod dedicated some illuminating posts on his blog), which in Europe and America is often confused with just “belief in (a) god(s)”. Part of the definition of religion is its being other than philosophy, so much that philosophy is looked upon with suspicion when it is mixed with “religious” purposes, like in the case of soteriology.

However, as soon as one encounters Buddhism, one is faced with the alternative: Either Buddhism is a religion (in which case, one would need to update one’s definition of religion) or it is a philososophy (in which case, one would need to update one’s definition of philosophy).

A similar case regards categories such as “Atheism”. Atheism as it is common nowadays is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Euro-American world, so much that one risks to postulate that it is a result of the Enlightenment, of Positivism, of the success of Science etc. A glance at South Asia shows that this is not the only way atheism can find its place in the history of philosophy. As shown by Larry McCrea, atheism might have been the rule rather than the exception in South Asian philosophy until the end of the first millennium. This also means that the later shift towards theism has a completely different flavour, insofar as it comes out of a different background.

I am especially intrigued by the moment in which this turn took place, with thinkers composing theistic texts and/or reinterpreting their texts and traditions in a theistic way. A typical example is the adoption and adaptation of Mīmāṃsā (originally an atheist philosophy) within theist Vedānta in the first centuries of the second millennium CE. I have already discussed about the various steps of this incorporation by Rāmānuja and Veṅkaṭanātha. What remains fascinating is

  1. how Mīmāṃsā was rebuilt through this encounter, with its atheism reconfigurated as negation of a given form of theos, but not of any form whatsoever.
  2. how Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta was challenged to produce a sustainable version of theism.

To elaborate: Theism in South Asia needed to grow in an environment in which atheist objections where the norm. It had, therefore, to inoculate itself with possible answers to these objections and to rethink an idea of the divine which could resist these attacks.

How could this phenomenon be studied? As usual with South Asian philosophy, many of the fundamental texts have never been edited and remain in manuscript form. Of the ones which have been edited, only a tiny minority has been translated. Of these translations, only a minority can be understood on its own right and independently of the Sanskrit (or Maṇipravāḷa) original. Still less common are works elaborating on the theology entailed in these texts (among the exceptions let me name Carman, Clooney, Mumme and Oberhammer; Ram-Prasad’s Divine Self especially focuses on Rāmānuja’s different concept of God). In short, texts need to be edited, translated, studied, compared with each other and read keeping in sight the goal of understanding the phenomenon of the convergence of theism and atheism.

Why at all should it be studied? The Mīmāṃsā author Kumārila Bhaṭṭa writes that without a purpose, even a foolish does not act, and in fact Sanskrit authors regularly announce at the beginning of their treatises the proximate and remote purpose of their works. In the present case, the proximate cause is the desire to understand the interactions between atheism and theism by looking at them from an unexpected perspective and to throw light on a fundamental chapter in the history of South Asian philosophy.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

16 Replies to “Alternative theisms and atheisms (part 1)”

  1. I’ve often thought about these and related issues. Some form of “spiritual atheism” is creeping into the Western discourse through “Buddhist” philosophers like Sam Harris, but clearer conceptualization is much needed as noted by Elisa.

    I do wonder if Buddhists and Mimamsakas are really “atheists”, at least as the word is used in the West or whether we, in the West, just need to really expand our concept of atheism.

    Surely there’s an ontological sense in which Buddhists and Mimamsakas are nontheistic (although is shunyata, while not a state or condition, not some sort of divinity; and is not the apaurusheyaveda not some type of divinity too?), but in terms of an existential sense Buddhism and Vaidika ritualist are surely some of the most theistic people around since they saturate their day with rituals, meditations, offerings, etc. to “higher” beings, even if those higher beings have no or very little ultimately “real” being.

    In short, while there is Indian religious atheism, it is an atheism pervaded by theistic practices unlike anything I am familiar with in the Wester/European/American sense of atheism.

    • Dear Jonathan,
      you are right. “Atheism” in contemporary Europe and in the Anglophone world tends to be a synonym of “scientific positivism” and “denial of religious beliefs and practices”. This is clearly not the case in South Asia, which means that we need to rethink the meanings we associate with “atheism”.

  2. Of course the meaning of religion when used in conventional or popular discourse can be nebulous, but students of religion can clarify it (using a stipulative or perhaps better even a ‘precising’ or ‘theroetical’ definition that eliminates the troubling aspects of conventional and lexical definitions) in such a way that it need not be, indeed, in a way that also allows for porous or permeable boundaries with what is often meant by “philosophy.” I used to give my students a handout on the “characteristics” of religion derived largely from an elaboration of same by William P. Alston that was modified by a few things yours truly and what I learned from Ninian Smart that allowed these students to see how religion need (or should) not be defined by (or include among its essential characteristics) “belief in (a) god(s).”

    I am glad Jonathan described Sam Harris as a “’Buddhist’ philosopher,” as it allows us to question whether or not his appropriation of Buddhism remains recognizable in terms of normative conceptions of same studied and documented by “experts” in the field (be they Buddhists or non-Buddhists). I would argue that his attempt to reduce (as if through a sieve) Buddhist beliefs and its corresponding practices through a notion of evidence that effectively eliminates śraddhā (saddhā) in Buddhism, a term that strongly overlaps with (even if it is not identical to) what is usually mean by religious faith, is untenable or unsustainable, and thus no longer Buddhism (i.e., it deviates in essential aspects from a normative picture of what we understand counts as Buddhism; just the very act of ‘taking refuge’—triratna or ratnatraya—in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the samgha, illustrates this). I would argue something similar is the case with the so-called agnostic or “secular” Buddhist, Stephen Batchelor. Of course such individuals are perfectly free to describe their personal worldviews or lifeworlds as they see fit, much like many avowed Christians who are profoundly ignorant of their own tradition are no less free to state their adherence or fidelity to or identification with Christianity (it is their ignorance on this score that allows us to ‘critique’ their understanding, to identify cases of hypocrisy or misuse and so forth). Now of course I am not claiming those like Harris or Batchelor are ignorant in just this way (and Batchelor is far more knowledgeable about Buddhism than Harris), only that their reductive and selective appropriation of aspects of the Buddhist worldview effectively eliminates properties or characteristics intrinsic to the tradition. In effect, their reconfigured formulations of “Buddhism” render it more amenable or acceptable to those who’ve been raised in “the West.”

    It is possible that those who are non-theists may not be atheists in a strong or even lexical sense insofar as they are not actively engaged in arguments against theism, in other words, they are not preoccupied with proving the truth claims of atheism (and thus rebutting the truth claims of theists) like the so-called New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris). In addition, their non-theism may not even be a conspicuous or foremost element or property of their worldview. This would make them closer to agnostics (and perhaps in some cases they’re better described as agnostics), and elevate the principles and practices of toleration and respect as well as the value of heterodoxy. One could discuss this with regard to epistemic and metaphysical questions and questions of truth more broadly, but that would take us too far astray from the original post.

    Which brings me to another and related point broached by Jonathan: perhaps we might find it more availing to speak of a non-religious or secular spirituality rather than “spiritual atheism” as it would appear to be a broader, hence more inclusive category. This would be in keeping with the Dalai Lama’s recent if not relentless attempts to get people to appreciate the value and urgency of a “secular ethics” outside of or beyond, as it were, religion (although he seems to have in mind a model which would call upon what John Cottingham calls ‘spiritual exercises’ as found, say, in Stoicism, Christian monasticism and Buddhism, intrinsic to what others term ‘therapeutic philosophy’ or ‘philosophy as therapeia,’ as well as invoke notions of love, compassion, and forgiveness that are, strictly speaking and in essence, human emotions and virtues, thus not in the first instance religious). Of course such secular ethical traditions exist in Western philosophy predominantly in the form of utilitarianism (or consequentialism), Kantian or deontological ethics, virtue ethics, an ethics of care, and so forth, but many people around our planet still reflexively associate ethics with religion(s). One reason this stubborn association persists into our own time may be owing to the fact that these ethical theories (the term ‘theory’ speaks volumes here) are often too abstract and one-sided if you will (they’ve emerged more or less from the greenhouse of professional philosophy), being defined largely in opposition to competing theories and allegiance of some sort to this or that philosopher philosophical theory (they have a conspicuous ‘agonistic’ quality that comes across in the rhetorical style and the ends of argumentation). Also germane here is the fact that they are somewhat—when not largely—impoverished by their neglect of a plausible or robust moral psychology, one that does some manner of justice to our emotional lives. Here is where these ethical theories have much to gain from a sustained and open-minded dialogue with the psychoanalytic tradition, as well as deeper engagement with the moralists of yesteryear, dramatists, novelists, and poets. This would be analogous to the manner in which our notion of secular or non-religious spirituality (the Dalai Lama has also spoken of the need for a conception of spirituality ‘beyond religion’) is capable of embracing forms of existentialism, Marxism, humanism, and so forth,* at least when such worldviews refuse to define themselves by acting in an aggressive or combative manner—intellectually or otherwise—toward religious ideas and practices in toto, or toward sincere adherents of religious worldviews (‘sincerity’ here is in reference to the absence of a yawning gap or abyss between word and deed, belief and praxis or aspiration). I have provided a preliminary canvass of a few examples of same in the following:

    (i) “[A]t the richer end of the spectrum [of spirituality], we find the term used in connection with activities and attitudes which command widespread appeal, irrespective of metaphysical commitment or doctrinal allegiance. Even the most convinced atheist may be prepared to avow an interest in the ‘spiritual’ dimension of human existence, if that dimension is taken to cover forms of life that put a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our relationship to others and to the natural world.”—John Cottingham in The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy, and Human Value (2005)
    (ii) In Mad and Divine: Spirit and Psyche in the Modern World (2009) the Indian psychoanalyst and writer Sudhir Kakar, reminds us that
    “Spirituality, like culture, has many definitions and yet manages to give a sense of familiarity to most of us. For me, the spiritual occupies a continuum from moments of self-transcendence marked by loving connection to an object—nature, art, visions of philosophy or science, the beloved in sexual embrace—to the mystical union of saints where the sense of the self completely disappears. The spiritual, then, incorporates the transformative possibilities of the human psyche: total love without a trace of hate, selflessness carved out of the psyche’s normal self-centeredness, a fearlessness that is not a counter-phobic reaction to the fear that is an innate part of the human psyche.”
    Finally, from the neurosurgeon, and philosopher Grant Gillett:
    (iii) “Spirituality lifts our eyes from the possibilities defined by the everyday and economic. The divine wind recalls the breath that gives us life and the cleansing water that allows healing and refreshment in the arid wastes of suffering is a figure with meaning that goes beyond the material. In the most unlikely places we find loving and transformative touches, that are the things of the spirit in that they are ways not only of understanding but also beatifying what we do, however bloody, messy and unromantic it is. We are beset by directives and discourses that reduce, demean, and obscure our humanity, that are not noble, uplifting, inspiring, and fulfilling. We can render life in operational (or narrowly functional) terms and make it tolerable through escapism and pleasure but there is another way. We live and love in a world where real tragedies happen, real joy is found, and real connections are forged through time and across barriers of culture and position. In those things we discover the resonance in ourselves of inscriptions, utterances, and works that deepen our understanding.” — Grant Gillett, Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics (2008)

    * See, for example, the special issue of the journal Rethinking Marxism on “Marxism and Spirituality,” Vol. 28, Nos. 3-4 (July-October 2016).

  3. Thanks, Elisa. As you know I have not found “religion” to be a helpful category. I am starting to soften a bit on that – I am wondering whether it might be helpful to use the term to refer to traditional practices of ritual and cultivation – but I would want to see such use heavily qualified. I’m still not sure it helps to speak of “religion” in the context of brahmanical-Buddhist debates.

    As for “atheism”, my next post on LoAW (a week from Sunday) will be on why I don’t call myself an atheist even though I don’t believe in God. Stay tuned. 🙂

    • Thank you, Amod. I agree that the category of religion can be of some utility, if it is strictly defined (as suggested by Patrick above). I also agree that the main point is understanding what it is exactly at stake in the debate. Which conception of god is established or negated? Which conception of atheism? In this sense, I very much look forward to reading your post!

  4. I was also thinking the Nyāya proofs of a god should be mentioned in this context. The Dasti-Phillips translation of the Nyāya Sūtra includes some of that material in English (as do older and harder-to-find translations of the sūtra and bhāṣya), and Parimal Patil gives it a chapter in Against a Hindu God.

  5. There seems to be an ambiguity on ‘theism’, where sometimes it is used to mean belief in any ultimate reality that is worthy of uniting with/identifying with/surrendering to/realizing/etc., and sometimes it is used to mean belief in a non-material personal creator of the universe who has a lot of power and with whom one can have a personal relationship.

    On the former definition, it may not be the case that atheism was the norm in South Asian philosophy at any point.

    • Dear Sikander,

      yes, the definition of theism is as problematic as that of atheism. I wrote a couple of articles on how to understand “god” in Sanskrit philosophy* and basically distinguish between four aspects, which I somehow arbitrarily labelled devatā (the Vedic deities), īśvara (the god of rational theology and Nyāya), brahman (the impersonal absolute of Vedānta) and bhagavat (the personal God of bhakti).

      *It is also worth repeating that I have no direct access to the way common people were thinking and sharing their religious beliefs. I am only talking about what intellectuals wrote and discussed about them.

  6. As we know, Classical Yoga largely assumed or took over Sāmkhya metaphysics, for Patañjala Yoga “as a philosophical tradition is unintelligible without the Sāmkhya ontology and epistemology” (Gerald Larson), sharing many of the latter’s basic philosophical presuppositions and assumptions, but most importantly, the aim of disassociating pure consciousness from the mind-body complex (the latter a product of prakṛti). Unlike Sāmkhya, however, Yoga introduces a deity essential to contemplation (īśvara-pranidhāna) and a model of the yogi’s ultimate goal, for “[t]he Lord is a special [kind of] puruṣa, untouched by hindrances, karma, its fruition, and latent-deposits [of karmic actions]’ (Yoga Sūtra 1.24). This is a peculiar deity indeed, for the Lord does not create the universe, remaining in one sense an utterly transcendent deity never in touch with the world (thus completely set apart from the manifestations of prakrti). This is, I believe, a topic deserving of more exploration and elaboration, as īśvara appears to provide primarily a functional role by way of meeting largely psychological and pedagogical (with regard to spiritual praxis and development) needs, and thus this deity’s ontological or metaphysical status is not paramount, indeed, it appears comparatively insignificant! Richa Pauranik Clements thus refers to the “inherent contradiction” (or ‘paradox,’ which may not, in the end, and strictly speaking, remain a contradiction) in Patañjali’s concept of īśvara as puruṣaviśeṣa:

    “The paradox lies in the notion that other souls achieve final isolation upon mokṣa while the Lord is shown to be forever involved in the world. Moreover, īśvara is permanently in contact with matter, ‘for his eternal perfection is from perfect sattva.’ Sattva is a prakṛtika guṇa (natural quality). Is He then permanently united to the quality of sattva, that is, having sāttvika upādhi? [….] Unlike all the other puruṣa-s, he is eternally aware of the phenomenal world and a mere object of contemplation.”

    In short, with liberation, God becomes, as in Advaita Vedānta, superfluous. The question naturally arises in both cases: how can one practice sincere devotion to that which one knows, at least intellectually and in the end, is not “real” or Ultimate Reality? Is Patañjala Yoga truly theistic?

  7. Dear Patrick,
    In the YS (assuming that this level can be distinguished as such) the puruṣaviśeṣa seems to be only a model for one’s attempts and the object of īśvarapraṇidhāna in case one cannot perform abhyāsa and vairāgya. In this sense, I agree that with liberation he becomes superfluous, in the sense that one has reached the same or almost the same level. Something similar could be said about the Buddha once one has achieved bodhi.

    The quote by Richa Pauranik Clements seems to refer to a different stage of Yoga, since Īśvara is said there to be for ever involved in the world. I would say that this is not the case in the PYŚ.

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