I've been on many forums, and in some discussions, about weather Buddhism is theistic or atheistic. The fact is, is that it's neither, and it's both. For some time, I had seen Buddhism called 'non-theistic'. But this descriptor is only part of the story. Then, I seen another term applied to Buddhism, transtheistic. This works a little better, but still isn't perfect. So, just how does theism and atheism work in Buddhism? (Barring, of course, the idea of some that Buddhism is pantheistic)
The first thing we notice is that, in the Pali canon, the Buddha never denies the existence of the Hindu devas. Some of them even make appearances. However, he did teach that none are almighty creators, or are to be worshiped.
Now we come to the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. We use the term 'deity' to describe these beings. But how does this work? Each of these beings describes some aspect or characteristic that is in ourselves that is hidden, but needs to be brought out. We may revere these beings, and even pray to them, but ultimately, they are not different from ourselves. We are Guan Yin, we are Manjusri, we are Amitabha, and they are us.
So what does this mean? A Buddhist can call themselves a theist, an atheist, or neither, and they all would be right. But it would be improper to call Buddhism theistic or atheistic.
Glad you asked that question. I agree very much with your last statement. I am from a Christian cultural background, and even though I declined confirmation in the Anglican communion, I have never been atheist and I don't like atheist philosophers. So I have thought about this question a lot, and I don't feel any conflict between the theistic belief I retain and Buddhist meditation practice.
I notice that if you raise this question on the sister forum, Dhammawheel, the general consensus tends not to favour any concessions to theistic belief. (In fact they are generally pretty hostile to mysticism too now that I think of it.) I think that is the influence of Theravadin commentators such as Buddhaghosa. It might also be a consequence of the way that the Theravada orders were treated by Colonial evangalists. I can truly understand why you would not want anything to do with that. I think, generally, the experience in the Mahayana countries of incoming Christians was less confrontational. Also the Mahayana does accomodate the kind of mystical spirituality that is found in many different religions, and the mystical aspect of the Christian faith is quite compatible with Buddhism. That is explored by people like Suzuki in books like Mysticism Christian and Buddhist. Of course that type of Christian thinking is hardly typical of popular Christianity but it is what has always appealed to me.
I have about the same view of the question as expressed by Soyen Shaku (D.T. Suzuki's Roshi) in his The God Conception of Buddhism
. And I am also very interested in Platonic philosophy which tends to attract me towards Eastern Orthodoxy, philosophically speaking. But I am quite happy to interpret all this from the Buddhist perspective.