There are theistic and atheistic religions. Atheistic or non-theistic religions are a tradition of thought within the theistic context. There are several religions without gods and that should not be surprising because religion does not necessarily require God. Most of the non-theistic religions without gods have their source in the theistic tradition. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, non-theism plays a significant role.
It may appear quite surprising to many of us to learn that there can be religions without gods. However, it is surprising because we tend to associate religion with god/s. The definition of religion in most of the cases probably includes god, there are some inclusive definitions nonetheless. These definitions go on to show that religious beliefs and practices may be independent of the existence of god/s. The definition given by Peter Mandaville and Paul James, for instance, differentiates between religion and spirituality and define the term without taking recourse to religions.
Durkheim defines religion as a “unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things” (1915). It is evident from this definition that beliefs, practices, and symbols are central to religion. Religion is then a bounded system of beliefs and practices surrounding sacred things. There are certain common elements to religions with or religions without gods. These common elements are beliefs and practices, symbols, and themes like ‘sacred’ that address the nature of existence. Durkheim distinguishes between sacred and profane. This is to differentiate between the religious from the secular sphere. In other words, while ‘sacred’ is a realm exclusive to religion, everything outside of religion is profane. It is evident from this understanding of religion that god/s is not the central focus of religion as it is replaced with ‘sacred’.
Durkheim studied primitive religions. These religions are known as pagan religions, which are a variety of nature-oriented, pre-Christian religious traditions. They believed in soul worship, totem worship, or nature worship and were religions without gods. These religions were polytheistic and one may treat them as religions without gods because the pagan gods were anything but gods. They could be clan gods, tribe gods, or nature gods, which may be considered the metaphors of gods rather than gods in the religious sense. Just as one may treat the pagan stories as metaphors, so the pagan gods are metaphors. For pagans, the dead ancestors are as much gods as are trees and heavenly bodies. Their clan god is the totem they worship. In other words, paganism is treated as religions without gods.
We may consider the pagan gods as the most elementary gods, which did not resemble the evolved gods of the monotheistic religions.
Hindu Religion and Atheism
Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. Within the Hindu tradition, there are theists and atheists. There are believers in many gods and the believer in one God, who is central to creation. The Hindu tradition accepts the notion of nirishvaravada, which means the theory of no god. In other words, atheism is a tradition within the mainstream theistic Hindu tradition. The notion of nirishwarvada further attests to the existence of religions without gods within the large body of Hinduism. According to the atheistic tradition of Hinduism, the universe is a creation independent of God, and gods are themselves a part of the universe. Any god having less than the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence cannot be God.
The Hindu school of philosophy has several schools of thought. One of these schools is Charvaka. This is the materialist school that rejects gods, the afterlife, and the soul. This school is the most glaring example of an atheistic school. In addition, there are schools such as Samkhya and Mimamsa that reject the notion of God as a creator. These schools can be considered atheistic from the perspective of the Hindu religion. That does not mean these schools are naturalistic, but from the western religious theism, these schools follow an atheistic belief system.
Buddhism is universally acknowledged as an atheistic religion. If we are to enlist the major religions without gods, Buddhism will probably figure at the top. Buddha himself refrained from speaking on speculative topics like God, gods, the soul, and the afterlife, etc. Their scriptures do not actively promote the notion of a creator god. Neither does this religion reject the existence of gods. It maintains a distance from the topic of gods. It does not discuss lesser gods either that uphold the moral system as many other religious systems do. However, Buddhist scriptures do not refrain from the topic of supernatural beings that may be regarded as lesser gods.
Buddhist school was divided into two branches eventually, the Hinayana and the Mahayana. It is the Mahayana school that began believing in supernatural beings or gods. The practitioners of the Mahayana school can be said to be theists for their belief in supernatural beings with the status of gods. Those that do not believe in these supernatural beings are atheists. However, Buddhism as a religion is atheistic and it is easy to maintain this position for Buddhism.
It is important to remember that despite some form of theism in some traditions of Buddhism, it is still largely recognized among the religions without gods.
Atheism in Jainism
Religion can be spiritual and yet belong to the class of religions without gods. Jainism, like Buddhism, is an independent religion but it traces its source to Hinduism. This religion does not believe in the existence of a creator god. However, Jainism believes in individual soul or spiritual being. According to Jainism, each soul has the same status and importance as the other. However, Jainism believes some souls who have overcome darkness attain a higher status. However, Jains do not worship higher spiritual beings. They believe in the lineage of the Tirthankaras, who have attained the highest status of spiritual evolution. They do not worship or pay homage to idols.
According to Jain metaphysics, the universe has ever existed and will continue to exist. They reject, therefore, the notion of a creator god. That does not mean Jains do not believe in spiritual beings whose status is that of gods. A Jain who believes in the existence of supernatural beings similar to gods may be technically atheist. However, Jainism is an atheist religion from the western religious perspective. We may therefore enlist it among the religions without gods.
Atheism in Confucian and Taoist Religions
Confucianism and Taoism can be considered atheistic at a functional level and hence religions without gods. These religions do not posit god/s at the center of creation. It is quite unlike Islam and Christianity, founded on faith in a creator god. Neither Confucianism nor Taoism promotes or dwells on the idea of the existence of god. There is a description of “Heaven” in Confucian texts, which is akin to transcendent and personal power. However, whether it can qualify as a personal deity is a debatable issue. In sum, therefore, it is fully compatible to be a Confucian and an atheist at the same time. The same goes for Taoism. It is not absolutely necessary to believe in a deity of some form, even if it is included.
Atheism among Jews
When we try to enlist religions without gods, we may have to reject Judaism. This religion is founded on the belief in a creator god. It is the earliest form of monotheism to have come into existence. Nonetheless, there are modern Jews who reject belief in God without abandoning religion. In other words, it is quite possible to follow Judaism without believing in God. The term itself, in many instances, is an ethnic rather than a religious term. Jews are mostly identified for their culture and ethnicity. There are Jews who believe in God and there are Jews who do not believe in a creator god, but both the groups may be called Jews.
Atheism among Christians
Christianity descended from Judaism. Christianity is founded on a belief in God, the creator. However, we may include versions of Christianity among religions without gods despite the fact that in mainstream Christianity, atheism is sin. There are many modern-day Christians who reject the existence of god and yet call themselves Christians. They might adhere to some form of religious activities but that does not make them a believer in God. They are Christians for cultural rather than religious reasons.
Scientology and Atheism
Scientology may be counted among religions without gods. This religion is liberal to the extent of letting their members believe or not believe in the existence of a creator while acknowledging the existence of a creator god.
Atheism among Other Religions
There are several modern-day sects and groups that could be counted among religions without gods. Several humanistic religious groups focus on human needs while rejecting supernatural beliefs or touching them peripherally. A disproportionately large number of the members of Unitarian Universalist churches are avowedly non-believers in gods. These churches also include pagans, Christians, and others. Ethical cultural groups are the adherents of religious humanism that do not believe in gods.