Enlightenment Buddhism

Buddhist counterparts of theologically liberal Christianity

Although there were many kinds of response to the revivalist movement, among the most consistent critics of that form of Christianity were offered by the Unitarians, the Universalists, the Quakers, the Congregationalists and one wing of the Disciples of Christ. There is an organization known as the Unitarian-Universalist Buddhist Fellowship,and it is not uncommon to find Buddhists regularly attending Quaker meetings.

The Unitarian and Universalist movements both have roots in Protestant Christianity in Europe. In the 18th century the Unitarians were made up mostly of highly educated and socially prominent people; Harvard University, which had strong albeit unofficial ties to the Unitarian church, was symbolically, if not actually, the center of their universe. The Universalists were made up mostly of rural farmers and unskilled laborers with relatively little formal education. Both congregations tended to be involved in social and political movements such as the labor movement, prison reform, abolition of the death penalty, abolition of slavery, and gender equality.

Theologically, the principal conviction of the Unitarians, and most Quakers, was a rejection of the doctrine of the trinity, and therefore a rejection of the doctrine that Christ was a savior and that his death on the cross was an atonement for human sin. Jesus was seen as an exemplary human being and a great teacher; many Unitarians saw Jesus as the very best human teacher who had ever lived, but many saw him as simply one great teacher among many the world has known, including Socrates, Confucius, the Buddha, Moses and Mohammad. Jesus was a man whose life was to be studied and imitated as much as possible, but he was not a living presence who could be directly experienced. To such Christians, the “born again’” experience of Christian revivalism could be dismissed as a mob-induced form of hysterical delusion, perhaps even as a fit of insanity.

The Age of Enlightenment

Unitarianism and Universalism can be seen as a manifestation of ways in which American thought, in the early decades of the newly independent nation, was influenced by the principal thinkers associated with the European Enlightenment. Favorite philosophers among the architects of the American Constitution were John Locke,

Thomas Reid and David Hume, and many American intellectuals were influenced by the way these philosophers viewed religion. Sydney Ahlstrom1 outlines some of the principal features of the Enlightenment theology that informed the thoughts of such influential “founding fathers” as George Washington, John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams (both Unitarians), Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson—and later of such popular literary figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain.

  • A tendency to emphasize the role that human beings play in their own salvation, rather than on the role that God or an external savior plays.
  • A tendency to emphasize simplicity in doctrine and practice and to ridicule the complexity of medieval systematic theology.
  • A tendency to see ethics as the principal aim of religion, and to see moral reasoning as the most important enterprise of the human mind.
  • A tendency to regard the sacraments and rituals as superstitions, and to regard the ministry as superfluous, except in the capacity to provide well-reasoned moral instruction.
  • A tendency to mistrust tradition and scriptural authority and to see reason as the only reliable means to free humanity from oppressive institutions and mind-numbing superstitions.
  • A tendency to believe in progress and to take an optimistic view that human consciousness will evolve into ever more refined forms that will result in an overall increase in human happiness and well-being.
  • A tendency to see God in increasingly impersonal terms, not as a personality but as a force of impersonal goodness, sometimes as an intelligence that indwells the entire universe and manifests itself in the orderliness of nature.2

It is significant that many Western Buddhists prefer to translate the Sanskrit term bodhi, which literally means awakening, as “enlightenment” and to think of the Buddha, literally the awakened one, as “the enlightened one.” In so doing they are, whether consciously or not, following the influences of the European Enlightenment. Like their liberal Christian counterparts, many Western Buddhists seem to wish to avoid an authoritarian Buddha who expects his disciples to follow his teachings out of blind faith and whose teachings pose a conflict with the scientific findings of our age. What such people seem to be seeking is not an external savior figure or an object of worship, but a psychologically sophisticated therapist who gently nudges people in the direction of deeper self-understanding. Buddhists of this temperament may find themselves in broad agreement with the Indian philosophers Dignāga and Dharmakīrti. Those who like an intellectual approach that has room for science but has room also for a more transcendental dimension may be more attracted to some version of what we may call Theosophical Buddhism.


  1. Ahlstrom 2004, pp. 357–358. ↩︎
  2. The tendency to see God in impersonal terms is often referred to as Deism, partly because people who take this view prefer to avoid the term “God” and to use the term “Deity.” To get some idea of how influential these Enlightened theological values were, consider that the first six Presidents of the United States (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and John Quincy Adams) had either Deist or Unitarian leanings, or both. ↩︎

Work cited

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E., and David D. Hall. A Religious History of the American People. Second ed., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.

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