Atheism-Theism – Differing Traditions

What’s noticeable about this debate is just how much people’s worldviews and beliefs are defined by the traditions of the cultures they grow up within.

Many Theists arguing for God, who designed the cosmos, gives us hope, meaning, purpose, and kindness, don’t seem to have little or no knowledge of religions in other parts of the world.

I’m explicitly talking about Eastern mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism. But there are others like Shinto, Jainism, and Confucian philosophy. What’s notable is how absent Eastern religions are from this debate, showing just how much this it’s a western phenomenon. 

To a Buddhist, this question of God’s existence is unimportant. The argument for an anthropomorphic God only comes from within the western framework, originating in the pre-Socratic philosophers, through Plato, and Aristotle, into other theologians like Aquinas, Anslem, and into the modern era.

The questions they raise and their answer is meaningless to Buddhists. The apologists who argue for God don’t seem to see they’re channelling Aristotle and Plato without ever proving them. 

For a thousand years, Aristotle was never questioned or doubted. Such oversight has allowed his ideas far too much credence.

Different Metaphors

The Difference in worldviews can be seen in two metaphors, and the language we use to convey them. The metaphors I use, the Artefact and the Organism, which I found from the educator Alan Watts.

Artefact Metaphor

Image of a pottery wheel

The western metaphor for the cosmos is that of Artefact, lie a a Pot, painting or a Watch.

In the design argument for God for example, the argument is a Watch needs a Watchmaker, a pot need a potter etc.

For the Cosmological argument, the cosmos must have a cause: God, a Cosmos Maker. The Free Will Argument for God claims there has to be a god who makes choices, and therefore a will and so on.

The idea is based a lot on ideas from Plato and Aristotle, further developed by later thinkers like Aquinas.

They all use the same metaphor, a creator/designer making an object. It picks up on the Subject-Object distinctions in western philosophy (That its western is a crucial point). It looks at Subjects like ourselves who manipulate Objects with our ability to make choices, our will or our agency.

God is considered outside of space and time, who make plans, choose and creates, care for his creation and more.

Organism Metaphor

‘A tree does not require a tree maker, therefore a cosmos doesn’t require a cosmos maker.’

The alternative to the artefact model, the Organism model. Think of a Web or net; every thread is interconnected with other threads.

In the Buddhist view is, nothing is separate; the cosmos is an interconnected web of causes and conditions. It’s also always changing, so nothing lasts, this is Annica, or Impermanence.

What transpires or unfolds is because of causes and conditions in a complex web of influences, and feedback loops. Therefore, the cosmos is like a tree, a self-organising complex system.

This is to say, the cosmos, like an organism, has a ‘life of it’s own’. It exists beyond it’s origin, or outside control.


The Abrahamic ReligionsEastern Tradition
Artefact MetaphorOrganism Metaphor.
Hierarchies, like the folder system in Windows.Web image of the cosmos. Interdependent Co-Origination.
Aristotle, PlatoInspired by Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism
Essences and EssentialismAnti Essentialism
SelfNon Self – Anatman or Sunyata
Linear Causality is often mentionedCircular time
Dualism, between the Cosmos and God exterior to it. Natural – Supernatural.Non-Dualism
PermanenceImpermanence
Naïve Realism. Seeing ideas as reality, ideas of the supernatural as real.Two Truths Doctrine
Finely tuned – Designed (by supreme being)Self organised cosmos
AuthorityAutonomy
MetaphysicsSpiritual minimalism
Bedrock of certaintyOcean of uncertainty
People are basically sinful, evil, flawedPeople are basically good
Comparative Worldviews

What all this does is outline two different Cosmologies, two different ways of understand how the cosmos work, and our place in it. It’s linked towards how we understand ourselves, thinking there is this essence, this soul or self, that exists and we have to find it, protect it.

Non-Dualism

The Eastern ways of looking at the cosmos are often described as Non-Dual. This attitude accepts there will always be a mystery to our existence.

The ideas we have, the hierarchies, systems, maps, and opinions will always be caught up in Dualistic thinking. (Or more than two). Right, or wrong,, good or evil, up or down, superior, inferior, etc. These are the man made systems and labels we use to talk about our existence.

Non-dualism rejects this artificial world because the cosmos is not here to follow our rules; we follow its rules.

We own and use words, so people mistakenly think the Truth is in terms. The belief is reality can be apprehended and fettered with words.

But a Non-dual idea like Sunyata is beyond models, maps, schematics, diagrams, and stories. Therefore no one can own the Truth because no one can put it into words.

Sunyata cannot be captured, held, or taken prisoner with the concepts and ideas we created.

You can’t capture reality into a conceptual cup. Reality and Truth are always bigger than our ideas – this is the notion of Non-Dualism.

Linear vs Circular Time

Another point worth making when comparing Western vs Eastern Cosmology is in the West, we think of time and the cosmos as following a linear path, with a begging to end. But in the Eastern religions, time is seen as circular. There is no beginning or end, just cycles of change, like the seasons. It’s a line of thought not addressed in the debate between atheists and theists.

Modern Cosmology

Shiva-statue-CERN as the Nataraja

The theists don’t seem to realise how much modern thought has progressed from the ancient Greeks. Outside the CERN laboratory in Switzerland is a statue of Lord Shiva, the deity of Hindus dancing the Nataraja, the divine dance.

The symbolism represents the similarity between science and its view of the quantum realm, cosmology, and eastern thought.

The debate between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig illustrated this point. Carrol was pointing out how we had left Aristotle and Plato behind, even as WLC tries to use them to argue for a God.

Science has moved away from the essentialism ideas of Aristotle and Plato and more towards the anti-essentialist thoughts of Eastern religions.

In their worldviews, there is no essence bedrock to existence; all change. It’s the dance of the Quantum always fields in motion and the dance of Lord Shiva.

Closing Thoughts

Our understanding of how the cosmos works have moved on from the ancient Greeks with their essence or substance. The Atomos as the ground of all being.

Modern ideas from the disciplines of physics, cosmology and complex systems seem far more like the ideas of the Eastern religions of Indian and Chinese thought.

With these ideas, there’s no need for an agency like a God to create or manifest the changing cosmos, the cosmos is a self organising system than unfolds or its own accord.

In philosophical terms, the Aesity (quality or state of being self-derived or self-originated) is not with God but with the Cosmos. In Daoism, this is called Ziran (of its own; by itself, it is spontaneous, free, in the course of events). The universe manifests itself through its interconnection and causality.

It shows how far apart the Theist, Atheist/Naturalist are in how they view the cosmos and themselves.