As the West becomes increasingly secular, Christianity gets increasingly pushed to the margins. This is no surprise as secularism and Christianity are at odds with one another. In the midst of this shift, however, I have observed a very curious development. Another religion seems to be thriving, moving from the margins to the centre, to the “mainstream” of our secular culture. The ideas of this religion are taught freely in our public schools and openly in our community centres. Nobody from the secular worldview seems to mind. What is this religion? Buddhism. How does that happen? Stephen Batchelor’s book Buddhism Without Beliefs has been immensely helpful in answering this question.
Buddhism is the preferred religion for secularists for the following reasons:
- To start with the Buddha was an agnostic himself. He never taught on God, heaven, or anything metaphysical. These were unknown to him. After Buddha’s death, his followers created a religion that developed dogma on these and a whole host of issues. According to Batchelor, true Buddhism resists all dogma on that which cannot be known. A return to authentic Buddhism is at its core a return to a “great unknowing”. Secularism can live with that.
- Buddhism believes not in moral certainty but rather in ethical integrity. Moral certainty creates superiority and guilt. Lists of rules don’t relieve anguish, they cause it. Ethical integrity is arrived at through trial and error. Someone’s life path has to be figured out on their own, not shaped by a holy book of do’s and don’ts. Secularism can live with that.
- Buddhism believes that all anguish comes as a result of craving. Letting go of craving is the key to the centring path. Since nothing lasts and death is certain the most important thing is not to wish for more, or be consumed with greed, or long for heaven that may or may not be there, it is to live in the moment. To simply be fully present. To be undistracted by past failures or future concerns. Meditation, breathing, mindfulness are all techniques that attempt to help people be fully present. Countless numbers of people in our secular world have chased one craving after another all without fulfilment. Buddhism offers a chance to escape that rat race, without having to commit to any sort of “this is God’s way” kind of teaching. Secularism can live with that.
- Rebirth/reincarnation. Buddhism certainly has some thoughts on the afterlife. However, Batchelor goes to great pains to say that good Buddhists will wonder and puzzle over these things but they will never conclude about them. Secularism can live with that.
- Life is not meaningless nor is it meaningful. It just is. Secularism can live with that.
- Buddhism is about individual creativity and friendship, not about dogma or the constraints of a group. Western individualism and democracy provide the fertile soil needed for these ancient forms of Buddhism to thrive.
- In dealing with negative impulses, and potentially destructive emotions, like hatred, bitterness and anger, Buddhism resists any moral judgement on these emotions. They just are. The key is to ask questions about those feelings, realizing that they too will pass. Two soft Buddhist encouragements not to act on these impulses would be to realize that living creatures are all one. This belief in the interconnectedness of us all gives the reason for empathy and compassion instead of revenge and violence when we are hurt by people. To hurt a fellow human would be like hurting a part of your own body so revenge is not necessarily wrong it’s just that it doesn’t make sense. The second is self-image. In Buddhism, it is important that the self is perceived well in the community, acting out on negative impulses rarely accomplishes that.
- Buddhism is about resolve not faith, it’s about doing not believing. Secularism can live with that.
Much good can be said about this version of Buddhism. Embracing a measure of mystery about the divine with a profound sense of humility would probably do us all some good. Living fully in each moment of life, without being distracted, very sound advice. Living a life of strong resolve and calculated discipline, no one would fault that. Believing that the tireless chasing of one craving after another will only result in anguish, no argument there.
Where Buddhism falters in my estimation is in it’s fundamental understanding of what it means to be human. Buddhism attempts to de-human the human. The be human is to live with dreams, hopes and aspirations. These realities found in the heart of every human are not the great evil as Buddhism seems to suggest (without of course being dogmatic :)) They should not be eradicated with gritty resolve, into the realm of emptiness, where the self is finally un-selfed. Rather they should be redeemed. Christianity is the only story that offers just such a redemption.
To be human is to embrace story, it’s who we are, we all have a story in our heart, fairy tales with happy endings will never stop being told, received, and loved. To be human is to live a story, tell a story, and receive a story. Buddhism has no story, but Christianity is built on the ultimate story, into which all our human stories find their fullest and deepest meaning.
Redeem the human, yes, un human him? No.