Secular Buddhism

A Way of Life for the Secular Age?

A Buddhist Monk Meditating in a Forest (image from Shutterstock.com)

Religion is something that has been dwindling in the west for some time. The latest polls from Britain indicating that 53 percent of the British public now belong to no religion. This is true mostly in younger generations where the belief in religious doctrine is clashing with the main values of young people today.

The advancement of science and exploration have been illuminating the mysteries of the universe, forcing God (in the literal sense) deep into the shade of the scientifically unknown. While the turn away from religious literalism is a positive one for the development of civilization as a whole, it would be naive to assume that religion is not without purpose. 

Religious Services

Religions have been around since the birth of human civilization, manifesting in different forms to suit the culture of that particular period. They mirror our insecurities and our need to belong, but they have handled this with fear and mysticism, shrouding the unknown in a cloak of superstition. 

The content of their holy scripture is full of fantasy and myth, which is interpreted in many different ways by various religious sects. It is this mythology of talking snakes, Gigantic arks, and living in the belly of a whale that has deterred many logical people from seeing what some religions have to offer. We are in danger of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

Let's get this out of the way, in the words of Alain de Botton:

"Of course, there's no God, now let's move on."

Religion isn't just its fairytales and deities; its core attributes and ritualistic systems would be a shame to lose in our secular age. Religion provides services and promotes values that are still beneficial to our lives in this day and age:

  • Education (repetition of important information)
  • Time management (religious calendars) 
  • Rituals (to recognize important feelings) 
  • Speak well (be a convincing speaker) 
  • Importance of the body (combination of the body and the mind)
  • Art (use art as good "propaganda")
  • Institutions and community (to fight for "the things of the mind")
  • pilgrimage (travel to reinforce values)

Now, these key aspects of religion have been picked out by the aforementioned Alain de Botton. He thinks that religion has a lot of things to offer those that do not believe, that we can "pick and mix" what we want, to create our own custom version of "atheism 2.0." 

However is there any particular religion that can easily slip its way into a secular framework, without the need to mix and match? 

Buddhism—will it do the job?

Buddhism is very different to many other religions such as Islam and Christianity, in that there is no supreme being or "GOD" per say. Lord Buddha himself (Siddhārtha Gautama) never claimed to be a supreme being. Buddhism also rejects concepts such as the soul in favor of anattā or "non-self/soul." In many ways, Buddhism doesn't indulge in the supernatural.

 However, aspects of Buddhism such as the cycle of rebirth (Saṃsāra in "Sanskrit") or the myths surrounding the Buddhas birth present obstacles to the secularisation of traditional Buddhist teaching. This is where the scholar "Stephen Batchelor" comes in. Batchelor trained as a Zen Buddhist in Korea and has closely studied the oldest Buddhist texts, "the Pali Connon." He later came to move away from organized religion, due to a falling out with its "mystification." He is said by "Kent Jones" to want to:

Remove "Buddhism from the realm of Dogmas" 

Bachelor would say that the mythological aspects of Buddhism are more closely related to ancient Indian beliefs about the cosmos. These concepts were adopted by many of the Indian religions during their infancy, such as Jainism and the Vedic/Hindu beliefs. They are not special to Buddhism; they're just a popular idea of the time.

In an interview with "MeaningofLife.tv" Batchelor says that the concepts of Rebirth and Karma have less to do with Buddhism and are more of:

"A reflex of classical Indian cosmology"

Batchelor would argue that the Buddha himself focused more on preparing us for what is and what might be, instead of promising an afterlife or stating that no such one exists. 

Batchelor uses the "Kalama Sutta" to enforce this point of the unimportance of Saṃsāra. In this Sutta, the Buddha states four solace's, the first and second, show the uncertainty of Buddhist rebirth by stating that we can encounter bliss if there is an afterlife/rebirth or not.

Batchelor says many teachings like this one are being swept away by Buddhists who are clinging to mysticism. 

Secular Buddhism

Bachelor believes that a secular Buddhism could work for people in the west. 

Many of us want to belong somewhere and want to base our lives on a common framework, without following a "pick and mix" strategy. Alternatively, some feel put off by the mystical and dogmatic qualities of religion. Buddhism only needs some minor tweaks in order to fulfill these conditions. 

Batchelor has written many books on this topic including his main achievement, After Buddhism, Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age. These works of literature could be a good foundation for building an atheistic Buddhism with a focus on the core principles of the Buddha. 

In Conclusion

To conclude I would say that Buddhism can provide us with all the services described by "Botton," without any of the mystical jibberish and supernatural delusions present throughout the religions of the world. But this is only possible through secular tweaking of Buddhist theology and a separation of the core beliefs and aspects of Buddhism; with less emphasis on early Indian cosmology. 

Secular Buddhism could be the popular way of life in the future as we head towards a more godless age.

What do you think?

Read next: Enliven (Part I)
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Secular Buddhism
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Enliven (Part I)