I don’t believe in god. Can I still study Vedanta?
Yes, because Vedanta isn’t a belief system. At its core it’s simply a means of removing erroneous notions about yourself. While it’s true that Vedanta often employs theistic symbolism to accomplish this, it does so because of its target audience—followers of the Vedic religion—most of whom believe in some kind of creator God. Being a sensible teaching, Vedanta initially meets its students where they’re at and conditionally accepts the existence of a creator, only to later demonstrate that the creator is ultimately unreal, a mere appearance caused by ignorance of the true nature of reality. Now, if you don’t believe in God in the first place, you can ignore that part of the teaching and move on to the part about yourself, because surely you believe in the existence of your own self.
Despite Vedanta’s religious context, not believing in God or even the religious context of Vedanta itself is more common than you’d think. I have a few friends like that. And it’s interesting to note that Hinduism, the religious tradition that Vedanta is associated with, has branches such as Samkhya and Purva Mimamsa that are considered orthodox parts of the religion despite being atheistic. To my mind, that there have undoubtedly been Samkhyans and Purva Mimamsakas that have taken up the study of Vedanta over the years gives additional justification for you approaching Vedanta as a secular atheist. Welcome! If you look past the theistic symbolism of the teaching, understanding that it’s simply a means of conveying certain ideas, you’ll be just fine.
All my best – Vishnudeva
P.S. – For anyone reading this who does believe in God, it’s important to know that Vedanta doesn’t negate belief in God, merely the belief that God is real. There’s a difference, because in Vedanta the word “unreal” is not synonymous with “non-existent.” That’s why Vedantins can—and often do—continue to lead religious lives even after understanding Vedanta for themselves. Why someone would continue to worship something they know to be unreal may seem confusing but there’s a reasonable justification behind doing it. But that’s a topic for another day. The important thing to understand is that Vedanta can accommodate believers and non-believers alike.
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