Stephen Batchelor, in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs, describes an agnostic Buddhism. He does not describe Buddhism as a religion per se but as a method. Buddhism, he says, is not so much something to believe in, but is something to do. It is an activity, a lifestyle and a practice that we can integrate into every aspect of our experience. To be a Buddhist, do you have to be someone who believes certain propositions such as the four noble truths or reincarnation? According to Batchelor, the answer is no. He says Buddhism is not particularly religious or spiritual in the usual ways we understand these terms. It is simply a way to be in the world. Rather than being focused on deities, beliefs and supernatural claims, Batchelor claims Buddhism is founded in the agnostic tradition.
T.H. Huxley first coined agnosticism in 1869. He explained it as a method “realized through the ‘rigorous application of a single principle.’” This principle has both positive and negative aspects. The positive aspect exclaims, “Follow your reason as far as it will take you.” The negative aspect asserts that one should “not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. “ An agnostic Buddhist would not regard Buddhism as a source of answers to questions of where we came from, where we are going or what happens after death. Batchelor says an agnostic Buddhist would seek knowledge in the appropriate domains such as science. As for supernatural claims and questions about the origin of the universe or what happens after death, the Buddha himself remained silent. These questions were seen as distractions, as irrelevant to our human condition, irrelevant to the reality of suffering.
Buddhism however can become a dogmatic system when we elevate the matter of fact-ness of the four noble truths to holiness. They can become propositions to believe in. (Western scholars even superimposed the term Buddhism. This label allowed Buddhism to become a creed, which could be then compared to other creeds around the world. It can be easy to reduce a tradition and a religion such as Buddhism to a list of beliefs and practices that obscures its agnostic heritage and complexity.) Supernatural questions are seen as mysteries, not problems with answers that can be solved through meditation or prayer or through belief in a set of doctrine. Arbitrary answers to supernatural questions that are not demonstrated or demonstrable are simply irrelevant. Strategies such as prayer and beliefs in doctrine merely replace mystery with beliefs in an answer that are often clinged to with such fervor that they distract from true ethical conversation and can even cause a great deal suffering, hatred and divisiveness.
Batchelor makes an important distinction between existential confrontation and existential consolation. Most of what we understand as religion can be seen as consisting of condolatory elements such as assurances of a better afterlife. Buddhist practice can be said to start not with belief in a transcendent reality but through embracing the “anguish experience in an uncertain world.” This is the essence of the first noble truth. We must have the courage to face whatever life throws at us without recourse to supernatural claims or consolations. To accept whatever comes with equanimity, and the humility to learn from every situation. Agnosticism shifts concern away from the future life and supernatural dialogue and brings it back to the present moment. Agnosticism is not passive. Instead, it is a dialogue, an ongoing encounter and existential confrontation with the unknown and mystery of our existence. Buddhism in this way, Batchelor says, might have “more in common with godless secularism than with the bastions of [western] religion.”
We must also make a distinction between ethics and morals, or more specifically ethical integrity as being distinct from moral certainty. A priori certainty about right and wrong is simply at odds with a changing and unreliable world. An ethical question should not be framed as ‘what is the right thing to do?” but “what is the compassionate thing to do?” This question can be approached with integrity but not with certainty. Likewise, agnostic Buddhism demands ethical conversation rather than moral claims based in supernatural hope and fear. This dialogue inevitably forces an encounter with our moral conditioning, which is based largely in psychological and social habit. We tend repeat the gestures of parents, authority figures, or religious texts. And while this sort of moral conditioning may arguably contribute to some aspect of social stability, it is nonetheless inadequate as a paradigm of ethical integrity. Encountering our socialized norms of morality, ethics, and supernatural claims and assumptions is precisely the type of encounter that agnosticism and Buddhism seek out. It is a creative and ongoing process that can be said to be the very basis of a genuine religious lifestyle, of genuine ethical conversation, both as individuals and collectively. Moral certainty based in supernatural claims that are not demonstrated or demonstrable, also inevitably lead to fantasies of moral superiority. As Batchelor said, “Instead of creatively participating in a contemporary culture of awakening, we confine ourselves to preserving those cultures of a vanishing past…we repeat the clichés and dogmas of other epochs.” We have seen many times how fantasies of moral certainty do not foster compassion or ethical dialogue, but usually result in arrogant, elitist and confrontational perspectives.
Our definition of religion itself is being challenged and expanded. Publishers Weekly, in reviewing Batchelor’s book said, “Buddhism is not strictly a religion, since it does not adhere to a belief in God; that the Buddha did not consider himself a mystic or savior, but a healer; and that Buddhism is less a ‘belief system’ than a personal ‘course of action’ that naturally instills morality, compassion, and inner peace in the practitioner.” The problem with this quote however is that it equates religion with theism and having a belief system. Buddhism is better said to be a nontheistic religion. After all, a tradition can be a religion even if it does not believe in a God or gods or have supernatural beliefs. Buddhism instead, can be thought of as a method. It is continuously evolving and adapting to the needs of the human condition without recourse to supernatural claims and without belief in a god or deities. Agnostic Buddhism is at its core, a confrontation and dialogue with our human condition. For further elaboration on the definition and understanding of evolving religion, see my previous post on Ken Wilber.
Batchelor, Stephen. (2008). Buddhism Withouth Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. Riverhead Trade.