Secular Humanism and Secular Buddhism

| November 29, 2012 | 40 Comments

Recently I attended a meeting of the Center for Inquiry, a Secular Humanist group, where I got into a discussion about Secular Buddhism. It raised the question of how to distinguish Secular Humanism from its Buddhist counterpart. What were their strengths and weaknesses? What did they each have to learn, and how could they be brought together?

Ted Meissner introduced the topic awhile back in an interview with Scott Lohman of the Humanists of Minnesota. What follows builds on that interview, and is intended to have a dual audience: Secular Buddhists interested in contemporary Humanism, and Humanists who want to learn a secularized Buddhist approach. By “secularized Buddhist” I mean Buddhism shorn of its supernatural claims, such as literal rebirth, effective karmic causation, and the like.

There are issues around how such approaches are defined, but I will sidestep them for the purposes of this post. The International Humanist and Ethical Union‘s “Minimum Statement on Humanism” reads:

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.

This is a claim that could be made of Secular Buddhism as well, since it is non-theistic, and does not accept the supernatural. Further, the “elements and principles” of Secular Humanism as put forward by the Council for Secular Humanism are broadly applicable to Secular Buddhism as well. So Secular Buddhism should be seen as a subcategory of Secular Humanism, and in fact the organization could become a member of the IHEU if its leaders so desired.

There are, however, some plain differences of emphasis between these approaches to life. (In what follows I’ll leave out the term “Secular”, in the name of concision).

 The Path

Perhaps the biggest difference between Humanism and Buddhism is that Humanism is a set of principles to be believed and followed, and Buddhism is a path to be practiced. Essential to the notion of a “path” is the distinction between where we are now and where we are headed. Humanism has philosophical parents, such as the Stoics, that recall Buddhist principles, but it will perhaps be instructive (following philosophers like Owen Flanagan) to use Aristotle’s approach to ethics as an apt comparison to the Buddhist path.

For Aristotle the aim of philosophy is to bring us well-being or “eudaimonia”. One who lives a life of eudaimonia is distinguished from the the many (“hoi polloi”), who do not aim at the highest good. Similarly, Buddhism distinguishes samsaric existence, unstable and hence unsatisfactory, from the potential to attain a more reliable state of well-being or “nirvana”.

Aristotle defines his goal as more overtly social (aiming towards virtues such as courage and justice), while the Buddha defines his as more overtly psychological (aiming towards the extinction of greed and hatred). For Aristotle, one should do good because the virtues constitute what it is to live the good life, whereas for the Buddha, one does good because in so doing one promotes purer states of psychological well-being. That is, for the Buddha, morality is subservient to psychology.

Nevertheless, in both instances one is to reach the goal by guiding mind and action towards moral ends. For Aristotle this means using reason to discern one’s proper aim, aided by lived experience that provides practical wisdom. However Aristotle provides no systematic guide to achieving this end, and what he does propose is complex and theoretical enough that its audience was limited to an intellectual elite. Indeed, for Aristotle the only true “eudaimon” is the rational philosopher. This intellectualized approach to well-being persists in large part until today, within contemporary philosophy and Humanistic circles. (Some of the founders of contemporary Humanism, such as the late Paul Kurtz, were themselves philosophers).

The Buddha’s central teaching is the Eightfold Path, which encapsulates virtually all of the dharma in a single, deceptively simple formula. It can be understood and followed by the many, from nearly any walk of life. Most elements of the path have correspondences in one or another school of Humanist thought, but the elements particular to Buddhism involve meditation: rigorous mental training outlined under the topics “Right Mindfulness” and “Right Concentration“.


The Buddha emphasized meditation because he realized it was difficult to improve attitude and behavior by reasoning and force of will alone. Knowledge of right and wrong is all too often powerless to effect action. In Hume’s famous phrase, reason is “a slave of the passions”. It is the passions — desire, greed, ill-will, hatred — that motivate action, not reason. Reason guides the passions to their ends, for good or for ill.

Contemporary scientific study backs up this view of emotion and reasoning: as psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued, “… moral emotions and intuitions drive moral reasoning”, rather than the reverse. Hence the Aristotelian — indeed, the broadly Humanist — program of promoting reason alone for moral ends gets off on weak footing. Greed and hatred will often derail our best, reasoned attempts to do what is right.

To avoid this problem, we need a reliable method of calming and abating the emotions, de-personalizing and focusing non-judgmental attention on moral and other life problems, in order to make better choices and gain better understanding and control over our mind and actions.

Right Concentration” (sammā samādhi) is a mental practice aimed at calming emotions by focusing the mind, typically on the breath. Allied to this practice are others such as “Loving Kindness” (mettā), which aims at countering negative emotions such as ill-will and hatred by substituting for them emotions of kindness, care and friendliness.

Right Mindfulness” (sammā sati) is a mental practice, undertaken after reaching an adequate level of concentration, whereby one attends to the impermanent nature of experience (among other things), in a de-personalized, non-judgmental manner.

By regularly using these techniques over long periods of time we are able to gain some insight into the impermanence of all things, and the unreliability of certain of our concepts, such as those involving the self, and our tendency to self-identify. This can aid us in seeing through and hence letting go of self-motivated passions like greed and hatred. At least for most of us, reason alone is not strong enough to achieve these ends. Most of us are intellectually aware of the impermanent nature of reality, and of the unreliability of our notions of self identity, but few are able to use that awareness to attain much well-being.

In the Buddhist system we do not mitigate greed and hatred by reason alone. Instead we work by calming and focusing the mind, then attending to the passions when they arise. This allows us to see directly their problematic nature, over and over again, in a state of calm and non-judgmental attention.

Calmness reduces the potential for passions to run away with us. Otherwise they all too easily catch us up in their stories, diverting our focus and decreasing our capacity to absorb and understand.

Non-judgment allows us to retain as much objectivity as possible, so we don’t dismiss or accept unthinkingly, as Haidt points out happens when we allow emotions to drive reasoning.

The Buddhist path is simple, but far from easy. It is a long term, gradual undertaking, but one that provides a clear methodology.

The question for an interested Humanist is whether such a methodology can be trusted to work, or whether it is simply a waste of time. I will, of course, say that it works up to the limit of my own success in the practice. However in matters such as these, personal anecdote should not convince. It is all too easy to fool oneself, as the Buddha’s own well documented forays into esoterica and the supernatural attest.

There are numerous studies showing beneficial effects of various forms of meditation (many discussed on this website), but it is early days, and most of the claims outlined above have not been tested to any adequate degree. Meanwhile, as the Buddha said, one can try it and see for oneself. I believe that the practice is enjoyable enough on its own terms that it would be worth doing even if it did not produce the more profound, path-directed effects. This, the fact that meditation does not cost anything, and that it can be done at one’s convenience, makes it attractive for casual experimentation.

Social Justice

Above we saw that one central distinction between Aristotle’s eudaimonia and the Buddha’s nirvana is that the former is more outward-focused on socio-political virtues, and the latter is more inward-focused on psychological ones. The Buddha’s focus on psychology made him more attuned to where the problems in motivation actually lay, and how they could be effectively counteracted. This made his system more credible as a path for practice. However, Aristotle’s vision has its own advantage: a clearer focus on politics and justice.

The Buddha’s path was universal, but intended mostly for a monastic context, where significant time could be devoted to mental training. He was clear that the path would be more difficult to practice in the tumult of everyday life. Aristotle aimed his teaching at the elites of ordinary society, who he expected would pursue normal lives. This more worldly focus has persisted down through the centuries until we see contemporary Humanist organizations dedicated to Enlightenment goals such as the separation of church and state, political freedom, human rights, and “working to benefit society“.

By all accounts the Buddha was socially forward thinking in his time, allowing the ordination of women, and not recognizing caste distinctions within the sangha. He was nevertheless not an agitator for social improvement outside of a monastic context.

The case is different when we come to Ashoka, the first Buddhist king: his 3rd c. BCE edict pillars, set up around India, tell of a ruler who upon converting to Buddhism became pacifist, and instituted a system of social welfare that included uniformity in law and punishment, free medical treatment for humans and animals, and religious tolerance.

That said, it must be noted that as a religion with its roots in monasticism, Buddhism has been late to the game of social justice. Contemporary Buddhists, particularly those of a more secular bent, can look to the social ideals of both Ashoka and contemporary Humanism for input and inspiration.


It sometimes seems that worldwide secular movements lack a sense of shared effort, or real lived community that a church, temple or mosque can provide. Such communities are based on path and practice: unity in purpose with clear goal and teaching. A secularized Buddhist orientation around goals of personal ethical and psychological improvement provides the potential for such unity in diversity, without sacrificing naturalism in the process.

Secular Buddhism should be seen as one version of the broader Secular Humanist movement: it is non theistic, and naturalist in its outlook. It views everyday life as unstable and hence unsatisfactory, yet open to improvement using a defined path and clear methodology. The Buddha’s view of ordinary life as requiring improvement is not that different from Aristotle’s, to whom many contemporary Humanists look for inspiration. However a secularized Buddhist practice provides the well defined practice that Aristotle’s theory lacks. Its practice of meditation holds out the promise that the passions can be diminished and controlled at least to the extent necessary to moderate and hence improve thought, speech, and behavior. Perhaps they can also provide a route towards true well-being.

Humanists may find they have something to learn by undertaking such a practice. Buddhists as well may find much of value in the broader Humanist message, and important guidance from its focus on human rights and social justice. There is little that separates them. However, by sharing a secularist prefix, there is much that separates both from traditional views of God-oriented or supernaturalist religion.

One question we should perhaps leave ourselves with is what the difference might be between a “Humanist Meditation” group and a secularism that is fully Buddhist. My own feeling is that Buddhism is more than simply Humanism plus some form of meditation. It is also a deep, subtle teaching of the unstable self and its place in the blooming, buzzing confusion of reality, in William James’s terms. These amount to a difference, or at least one potential difference, in emphasis rather than substance: fully compatible with the Humanism outlined above. But it is also a critical element of the Buddhist path and understanding.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. As a long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tripiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma.

Comments (40)

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  1. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Good article, Doug. And you bring up a very good point that we may want to examine more closely on the podcast in another round table, the difference between a Humanist who does meditation and a secular Buddhist. We probably have a sense of it, but would be good to help clarify for others curious about the topic.

    Also, you mentioned Owen Flanagan, and I wanted to direct readers to the podcast interview with him on his book here —

  2. mufi says:

    Doug: Nice work.

    Speaking as someone who more readily identifies as a secular humanist than as a Buddhist, my sense is that (Buddhist-derived) meditation is like yoga or tai chi in that one needn’t feel any pressure to adopt any new beliefs (even naturalistic ones) in order to practice and enjoy it (although some purist, woo-friendly enthusiasts might argue otherwise). And the more we hear or read reports of scientific research, which touts their health benefits, the more likely we are to feel that the practice is rationally justifiable (or at least sensible).

    Taking Buddhism on board, however, is a taller order for a secular humanist. I say that, not because it’s logically impossible to secularize/naturalize Buddhism. (On the contrary, among religious/wisdom traditions, I’d say it’s relatively easy work to do so.) I’m thinking more along the lines of public relations problems; in particular:

    1) The secular humanist community features a variety of heroes (e.g. Darwin, Einstein, Sagan, Kurtz, Dawkins, Harris, deGrasse Tyson, etc.), and perhaps there’s a place for Gotama in that pantheon, as well (or should be). But there’s something presumptuous about the suggestion that the religious/wisdom tradition that bears his title deserves top billing. One might even go so far as to say that the choice of “Buddhism” over the relatively impersonal “humanism” smacks of guru worship. (I know that would be uncharitable, but I admit that the thought has crossed my mind more than once – and I consider myself sympathetic towards the SBA cause!)

    2) Even if some subset of secular humanists are so moved by Gotama’s teachings as to get past #1, they will then face the daunting “But is it still [fill in the name of the religious/wisdom tradition - in this case, Buddhism]?” question that afflicts all religious naturalists/humanists – particularly those who attempt dialogue with more orthodox/traditional adherents, who in all likelihood perceive the secularized/naturalized version to be like an alien co-optation of their sacred tradition.

    Sorry to play the critic, again. But you brought up a topic that speaks to me on a visceral level, so I thought that there might be some practical use in sharing these thoughts with you (and anyone else who might be reading).

    • mufi says:

      PS: Funny, I just realized that nearly all of the secular humanist “heroes” that I listed are scientists (and I’ll add two more: Gould and Hawking). Since you already mentioned some philosophers (including Kurtz), I suppose that’s acceptable – particularly given the charges of “scientism” that one occasionally hears from both within and without the community.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      I’m sympathetic to that criticism, mufi. Personally, I wouldn’t put the Buddha in the pantheon of Secular Humanist heroes, because he wasn’t a Secular Humanist; nobody was in his day. Secular Humanism is a 20th century concept, one intimately related to modern science.

      Part of the reason why I liked Flanagan’s use of Aristotle is that it’s a fruitful comparison: Aristotle and other classical philosophers should basically be in the same relation to Secular Humanism as the Buddha. These are great thinkers — historical geniuses of one stripe or another — whose work was flawed in one or another way but to whom we still look for guidance in certain basic matters, particularly of ethics and comportment. Just look at the amount of stuff Aristotle got wrong! It’s the same for Gotama.

      That said, if we are looking to the Buddha to inform secular belief and practice, and looking particularly to him because we feel he had something special to say, then I don’t see the issue with labeling what we are doing a form of “Buddhism”. If we are particularly inspired by Aristotelian virtue ethics, or by Plato’s theory of forms, we might (and some in philosophy do!) call ourselves Aristotelians or Platonists. That doesn’t mean we have to take onboard Aristotelian momentum! What’s the real difference with the Buddha?

      As to your question two, it’s one of those matters of definition. Of course, any reworking like we’re doing will lose some things and gain others. It seems to me we lose the woo and gain scientific credibility. Others will pitch it differently. If by “Buddhism” others mean something non-secular in the relevant sense, by definition that’s not what we’re doing. Or to use another analogy, one can be a Platonist without being a religious neo-Platonist, an Aristotelian without being a follower of Aquinas.

  3. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Mufi, as Doug points out, what makes Buddhism relatively unique is that it does more than offer ideas about the nature of the human condition and the possibility of happiness; it prescribes a specific course of practical action whereby we can move toward greater flourishing. While people from all times and cultures have had many of the same insights, this particular package of ideas has been associated with “the Buddha” for a couple of millenia, so I think that referring to it as “Buddhism” is merely recognition of that and need not imply exclusivity or guru worship (there are Secular Buddhists who don’t even accept the historicity of the Buddha). Exercising mindfulness to achieve freedom from negative mental and emotional reactivity does not require putting Gotama at the head of your hero parade, or even identifying one’s self as a “Buddhist.” As far as the “is it still Buddhism” question is concerned, the short answer is, “Who really cares?”, at least if one is concerned with eudaimonia rather than taxonomy. As we keep being reminded, partisans of particular religious traditions will not be satisfied by anything we say, anyway; and that’s ok, since disputation isn’t the point of what we’re trying to do.

    • LordranBound says:

      ”Exercising mindfulness to achieve freedom from negative mental and emotional reactivity does not require putting Gotama at the head of your hero parade, or even identifying one’s self as a “Buddhist.”

      Mark, that’s exactly where I fit in. I’m so happy to have found this site. I would call myself a ‘cafeteria Buddhist’, but I don’t think I’m even that since I’m barely beginning the steps of the practice. I guess I just want a place where I’m able to question Gotama & the writings’ precepts without a ‘Buddha said’ wall shooting up in front of me. Not that I don’t want to know what Gotama said about something, but even if he was the most insightful person ever to have lived, we have so much more information now about things that directly affect the human condition (evolution, genetics, etc), that I think it’s certainly fair to hold up the traditional ideas to the light of logic given what we have learned.

      Now, I’m also not a rabblerouser, I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m simply trying to flesh out my own belief system. The insight I’ve gained from mindfulness and meditation has been humbling, and so, here I am.

      • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

        We’re a group representing a wide variety of approaches to the teaching and practice. There are those of us who see Gotama as brilliant and human, which includes all of the human potential for error, and as being a product of his time and culture.

        Glad you’re here.

  4. mufi says:

    Doug: I think we’re largely in agreement. Just to respond your question to me:

    That doesn’t mean we have to take onboard Aristotelian momentum! What’s the real difference with the Buddha?

    You may recall that I, too, appreciate Flanagan’s use of Aristotle as an analog for Gotama.

    I also appreciate the way he frames his general philosophy, “platonic hedonism”, as the pursuit of spaces where (naturalized versions of) Plato’s ideals – the good, the true, and the beautiful – intersect. I’d say he’s located such spaces in (naturalized) Buddhism.

    These terms work well enough in the context of a book (or an academic journal), where definitions can be carefully (and provisionally) laid out in advance, marked up (e.g. super-scripted, according to Flanagan’s wont), and fleshed out as needed so as to effectively convey the author’s intended message. Yet, even in writing, Flanagan for some reason disavows the Buddhist label, and I doubt that “platonic hedonist” has much currency outside of his work – probably for good reason.

    Saying that “it’s one of those matters of definition” is technically true, but then that’s also true for, say, the Brights movement, which was (quite predictably) criticized for it’s (unintended) connotation that ‘individuals with a naturalistic worldview are more intelligent (“brighter”) than non-naturalists.’

    Words are hard to control, which is why I prefaced my comments above by stipulating that “I’m thinking more along the lines of public relations problems.”

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi mufi,

      Yeah, I wasn’t so much responding to you with the momentum thing as just making a general comment.

      I can’t speak to Flanagan’s disavowal of the Buddhist label. Many philosophers, of course, are leery about anything even faintly religious, since it smells of the irrational and faith-based. And many in the academy are leery about undertaking anything overtly or publicly religious for the same reason. (I recall hearing — maybe it was in one of Ted’s recent podcasts — that up until recently there were few scholars of Buddhism in the west who were practicing Buddhists).

      The Brights is a good contrast. Like many, I think it was a poorly chosen label. But if it had caught on, I’m sure I’d have made my peace with it.

      In the end, labels are rules-of-thumb that (except in very rare circumstances) don’t reveal anything very substantial about the world. This goes doubly for labels like “Buddhist”, “Humanist”, etc. Make of them what you will. I have no particular need to label myself. I’m content with the practice, and if something doesn’t agree with me, I’m content to investigate further or leave it aside.

      • mufi says:

        Doug: Having read some more of Flanagan’s books in recent months, I can now say that he used to use the “Buddhist” label more freely – either describing himself as a “Buddhist practitioner” or a “Catholic-Buddhist-[along with some other hyphenated terms that he identified with].” I think that, by the time he authored The Bodhisattva’s Brain, he had decided to avoid the fray that Stephen Batchelor had wound up in and to drop the label entirely.

        In any case, Flanagan seems less averse to the “faintly religious” than most naturalist/secular-humanist thinkers that I’ve come across. For example, aside from the “once a Catholic always a Catholic” message that I pick up from his books, he once confessed that he attends Quaker services on occasion. (Note: I believe there is a naturalist/humanist wing in the Quaker movement.)

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Labels, after all, are forms of self-identification that very easily become further forms of clinging.

  5. mufi says:

    Mark: I posted my latest reply to Doug before reading your comment, but I think it at least partly speaks to your comment to me.

    I’ll just add that, in my experience with the Secular Humanist movement, it’s rare for an individual or group to identify publicly as “Aristotelian” or “Platonist”, even though these historical figures are usually credited as the founders of a (largely secular*) wisdom tradition that is roughly as old as Buddhism.

    I suspect that outcome relates somehow to the concept of progress in Western philosophy & science. The tradition features a long chain of fallible links – too many to choose a label from, even with hyphens between them.

    Whatever the reason, I would consider it almost as much of a novelty and a curiosity if an “Aristotelian” branch were to suddenly emerge within the Secular Humanist movement as if a “Buddhist” branch were to do so. (I say “almost” because I still associate both Aristotle and Secular Humanism with the West and Buddhism with the East.)

    * religious cooptation and apologetics notwithstanding

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Good points to consider, mufi. In Secular Humanism you get different sorts of groups: largely those that self-identify as atheist and those that don’t. Sometimes they don’t get along. I think it would be odd to have a Platonist or Aristotelian Humanist group, because first, they are both accepted as progenitors of the movement; second, because within the western tradition they are considered to have been superseded; and third, because the distinctions between them would be too petty and useless to get hung up enough over for all but a handful of Secular Humanists.

      Part of the issue here, of course, is that any expressly secular organization is going to be very small. Even in Europe where arguably secularism is triumphant, it is so not because everyone belongs to large, Secular Humanist organizations, but rather because people just do other things. Given how small the movement is, differences are going to have to be pretty significant before one would want to form another branch. I’m arguing above that this is a significant difference.

      The distinction between “Aristotelian” and “Platonist” (etc.) occurs among philosophers, even contemporary ones who do not necessarily do history of philosophy. But it is within a secular context. One can also be a Hamiltonian or Jeffersonian about US politics, or a Keynesian about economics, etc., without engaging in guru worship. That’s the kind of model I’d like to look to when recommending Secular Buddhism.

      • mufi says:

        Doug: The distinction between “Aristotelian” and “Platonist” (etc.) occurs among philosophers, even contemporary ones who do not necessarily do history of philosophy. But it is within a secular context. One can also be a Hamiltonian or Jeffersonian about US politics, or a Keynesian about economics, etc., without engaging in guru worship. That’s the kind of model I’d like to look to when recommending Secular Buddhism.

        I’ll take your word for it that those labels still have currency in academic circles (which reminds me of: “These terms work well enough in the context of a book (or an academic journal)…”). I guess that I had more of a general audience in mind when I referred to certain “public relations problems.”

        If that general audience is anything like me, then the first image that comes to mind when they see the word “Buddhism” or “Buddhist” is either a statue of the Buddha or a monk (shaven head, robes, etc.) – in other words, religious icons.

        Words are hard to control – even in our own heads.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          This reminds me of the debate about the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” in secular/skeptic/atheist discussions. Some people don’t like them because of their supernatural connotations, others like them because they feel that a substantial core of the connotation can be recovered in a naturalistic context. I’m in the latter group. (Along with people like Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson).

          Personally I don’t mind that the image of “Buddhism” is a statue of the Buddha. An image of “Socrates” is a bust of Socrates. So long as we are explicit about our beliefs, and don’t try to fudge there, I don’t see a problem.

          • mufi says:

            Doug: Unless you want to argue that Western philosophy is a religion, I think we’re dealing here with apples and oranges. To make it an apples to apples comparison, we need another religion, like Christianity, which musters images of the cross and of (a different brand of) clergy.

            That said, I’m aware of movements such as religious naturalism and religious humanism, which can be found within Christianity and other traditions (e.g. Judaism and Hinduism), of which, in my experience, secular humanists tend to be critical.

            Secular Buddhism may have more in common with those movements than the analogy to Western (or ancient Greek) philosophy acknowledges.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Dunno, mufi, it depends how they do their epistemology, and what the beliefs are. I don’t have much of a problem with (atheistic) reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, the Society for Ethical Culture, Quakerism, etc. My personal issue is that I don’t find much of interest in the Bible; very little of it speaks to me, apart from Ecclesiastes. So I wouldn’t see the point of a secularized Christian or Jewish practice. Insofar as those are oriented around the Bible, they wouldn’t interest me, for that reason. But I don’t have a *philosophical* problem with them.

            Also, frankly, they all lack the path-aspects I mentioned above. They amount to a sort of generalized ‘spiritual’ enterprise in a naturalistic vein. Well and good so far as it goes. And perhaps it goes particularly for community, which is worth a lot. But I’m not really that interested in generalized ‘spirituality’, as a personal matter. (Not as a philosophical matter, so long as it’s naturalized. But as a personal matter).

            The word “religion” per se doesn’t bother me, in the sense that I don’t have a knee-jerk reaction against something called “Buddhism” being naturalizable. The problems about religion for me are the epistemology of blind faith, the non-naturalistic belief system, and at times cultish, dogmatic and politically conservative aspects. Shorn of those, I have no problem with it.

          • mufi says:


            The problems about religion for me are the epistemology of blind faith, the non-naturalistic belief system, and at times cultish, dogmatic and politically conservative aspects. Shorn of those, I have no problem with it.

            Yes, I suspect that most secular humanists have such features in mind when they criticize religion.

            I’ll say this much: They and religious conservatives have one thing in common: history is on their side.

            That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t have our religious cake and eat it, too. But we should also be realistic about the challenges involved.

            Insofar as Marx had a point about religion’s being “the opiate of the masses”, then religious humanism/naturalism (which – despite the ‘Secular’ in the title – seems a better fit for Secular Buddhism than secular humanism) might actually serve for some of us as “gateway drugs” to harder stuff.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Free will! The bottomless pit of internet philosophy discussions. Read Dennett’s Elbow Room and have done with it.


      That said, I’ve certainly seen a tension in Buddhism with regard to freedom of the will, and I think at least contextually it seems sometimes that Buddhists are unwilling to entirely accept a compatibilist account of free will, much as one might think dependent origination would help force it upon them.

      • Ben says:

        You’ll be happy to know that Owen Flanagan shares your view of free will (he calls it the blackhole of philosophy: huge amounts of energy go into discussions of it, but no light comes out of them). His basic argument in this talk is that we should be happy that the Buddhist tradition has no conception of free will as such.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Yes, and it surprises me that they don’t have such a concept. The charitable interpretation is that because of dependent origination, Buddhists are just naturally compatibilists. I’m not sure how accurate that interpretation would prove in practice, however.

    • Jett Hanna says:

      Personally, I think free will/determinism arguments belong in the same realm as the unanswerable questions. Not very useful in figuring out how to live…assuming we do figure it out and it isn’t preordained. :) I’m not saying compatibilism is the answer, but it’s what I think choose (or have no choice not) to use as a working assumption.

      My favorite story about free will, from

      The Dilemma

      The story is told of a group of theologians who were discussing predestination and free will.

      Things became so heated that the group broke up into two opposing factions.

      But one man, not knowing which to join, stood for a moment trying to decide. At last he joined the predestination group.

      “Who sent you here?” they asked.

      “No one sent me,” he replied. “I considered the facts and decided on my own.”

      “Free Will!” they exclaimed. “You can’t join us! You belong with the other group!”

      So he followed their orders and went to the other clique.

      There someone asked, “When did you decide to join us?”

      The young man replied, “Well, I didn’t really decide–I was sent here.”

      “Sent here!” they shouted. “You can’t join us unless you have decided by your own free will.”

  6. Jay Roche says:

    Hi Doug
    Thanks for the article. It expresses well the current relationship that seems to be growing between secular humanism and secular buddhism.

    I just wonder if this is a healthy relationship? Coming from a secular and naturalised approach to Buddhism I still find it hard to see how even a secularised buddhism can affiliate with humanism on a philosophical level. Of course as you point out there are similarities but it seems to me that at their core they both offer very different approaches to the human condition. Humanism as I understand offers a linear and progressive understanding of human endeavour – somewhat borrowed from the christian idea of eschatology – that somehow history has an evolution toward something coherent and more advanced or indeed ‘an end’ ( see the philosopher John Grey on this). Humans being of course the main players in this drama. Science is the flag waving at the vangaurd of this march moving us onward and upward…

    What the Buddha offered seems to me far more intuitive than this vision – he saw life(history) as cyclical and although he placed importance on ‘being human’ he stressed the interdependence of our existence which echoes the ecologists of today. Let’s face it – the belief in some sort of human ‘specialness’ or centrality to the natural world has led us to the brink of self destruction either through war or more seriously environmental destruction. Humanism although admirable in many ways is for me is a legacy of that way of thinking.

    I think as secular buddhists we should be stressing how unique and relevant to our current age is Gotama’s teaching of interdependence and in particular how this relates to our relationship to other species and the Biosphere in general. Cosying up to humanism just feels like a regressive step when I feel the Buddha offers something far more radical and exciting.

    thanks again for starting the discussion…

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Jay, and thanks.

      I do see Humanism as suggesting that humanity advances through knowledge, and that science is the central epistemological program, yes. And I agree with that take.

      But this is very different from saying that humanity is heading for some sort of rapturous “end” (If there is an end to humanity, it will come from the bad sort of armageddon, not the good, I fear. Though I suppose in the fullness of time, who knows?)

      There is a lot of contemporary thought around the Buddha stressing our unity with ecology, but I think that is a later interpolation. The Buddha was interested in human psychology, not politics or ecology per se. It’s true that his message can be interpreted from within an ecological framework, but the Buddha himself was interested in renunciation: leaving the world behind. While secular-minded contemporary practitioners may nuance this point, preferring to pursue the Path from within the saeculum of daily life, I don’t think one can point to Buddhism, at least as traditionally understood, as *particularly* informative re. the natural world. (To be fair, there are ecologically minded Christians who also believe that it is our duty to care for the planet as part of God’s creation).

      The Buddhist vision of cyclicality is not particularly ecological; indeed, it tells us that no matter what we do, our efforts will eventually fail. While this is arguably a more accurate vision of our future than the ‘onwards-and-upwards-forever’ vision of some Humanists, it is no more ethical, I think.

      As well, many Humanists take effort to stress the interdependence we humans have with the planet. The IHEU, for example, has a lot of laudable statements on the environment:

      If there is a problem with Humanism, I think, it’s that Humanism is too inconsequential to make much of a difference, for however good its aims are.

      So my impression is that Humanism backs up the concerns you mention. Insofar as a Buddhist approach might be helpful to the world’s ecology, it will be because it helps individual people to better live up to broadly Humanistic aims.

      • Jay Roche says:

        Hi Doug
        Thanks for that – yes you are correct that I am stressing an interpretation of Buddhism in relation to ecology – such issues were certainly not to the fore in Gotama’s time. Yet I do see it ‘within’ the teaching – even as an application of the middle way. And of course I have no doubt that humanism is mindful of these issues too – particularly modern secular humanism.

        I think my trouble lies in the very humanocentric (not surprisingly!) thrust of Humanism that stems from it’s origins in greek philosophy but more particularly the enlightenment and more recently modernist idealism. Buddhism, at least as I understand it seems to chime better with recent developments in post-modernism and relativism ( both looked on with great suspicion I might add by the current crop of scientific skeptics). Having said that I think it is better than both of these recent movements in that it also offers a moral structure and not just a sense that every view is valid.

        (Bearing in mind that the buddhism I am refering to is a naturalised and non-sectarian one…)

        I also wouldn’t disagree with the idea that the more cyclical view of life(history) contains with in it it’s own pessimism, however it does at least re-position humanity within the natural world which hopefully reminds us that the harm we do – we do to ourselves. In this sense I think it has an ecological aspect.

        I’m also slightly unsure that buddhism’s failure to engage in the political and social spheres is necessarily a bad thing but certainly it has most to learn here from humanism in terms of it’s applications of these concerns. Much like the old saying that all politics is local – I also feel that all political and social action is personal – from how we make a decision on how to vote to deciding to give to charity to how we treat and bring up our children. Buddhism, as a path of training, offers a good starting point from which to engage with our more worldly concerns….

        Many thanks again and I look forward to any future contributions…


        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Hi Jay,

          I think one shouldn’t take the “human” in “Humanism” too seriously: as I say, all the Humanists of which I’m aware view humans as part of an ecological whole, and all of them are interested in environmental issues. None of them view humanity as having dominion over reality, as per the ancient Biblical notion. Indeed, often they are quite firmly opposed to such notions. If there is a problem among secularists, it comes from the more Libertarian branch, that sometimes has political issues with Humanism’s perceived left/liberal bent.

  7. mckenzievmd says:

    Great article, Doug. Your usual outstanding clarity of thought and writing.

    I wonder if some of the differences in emphasis between Secular Humanism and Secular Buddhism don’t lead them to serve fundamentally different, if complementary, roles. For myself, I find Sec. Hum. appeals to my intellect and political/social feelings but leaves me a bit cold emotionally. Sec. Buddhism, as you say, has more of an emphasis on the psycholgy and psychological progress of the individual, and I find it appeals more to me on an emotional level than Sec. Hum. One feels like a world view and the other like a spiritual practice. My guess is that most people need both a formal, intellectual world view to guide them and also some form of spiritual practice, to varying extents depending on temperment, and so both can have a role in a full secular life.

    Just my impressions. Keep up the thoughtful articles!

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Brennen.

      I think your description is accurate for me as well. Humanism is an intellectual enterprise, sometimes overly intellectualized though with a good heart. It doesn’t connect emotionally, the way shared path and practice can. (It may be that people working for Humanist organizations get this, but if so it’s for the very few).

      It makes a difference when you see people actually practicing something beside you, something that makes a difference to your daily experience and emotional life.

      What gives many of us shivers about the notion of ‘spiritual practice’ is that ordinarily that means some form of supernaturalist faith. Can we have the practice without the magic? I think so.

      Another interesting question is whether this sort of spiritualism might be a good, naturalist bulwark against the sort of new agey woo that tends to flourish when traditional religion evaporates.

  8. Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

    “One question we should perhaps leave ourselves with is what the difference might be between a “Humanist Meditation” group and a secularism that is fully Buddhist. My own feeling is that Buddhism is more than simply Humanism plus some form of meditation. It is also a deep, subtle teaching of the unstable self and its place in the blooming, buzzing confusion of reality, in William James’s terms. These amount to a difference, or at least one potential difference, in emphasis rather than substance: fully compatible with the Humanism outlined above. But it is also a critical element of the Buddhist path and understanding.”

    Sorry for arriving late to this excellent discussion, Doug.

    I faciliate the Humanist Mindfulness Group in Cambridge, Mass. We are very much interested in Buddhism. However, I would say, and it relates to your distinction above, that we start with Sec. Humanism and add in Buddhist elements that seem true based on how Humanists assess things.

    I get the sense that some folks who might identify as Sec. Buddhists may start with Buddhism and then subtract the things that seem untrue, like rebirth and karma.

    The difference, then, are Buddhist ideas that are naturalistic in form, but not neither proven or unproven. I put Buddhist ideas about the self in that category. And I don’t give Buddhism the benefit of the doubt even for ideas that are naturalistic in form. After all, Karl Marx and Ayn Rand also present ideas that are naturalistic in form. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re true.

    Besides meditation, which seems to work based on both personal experience plus academic research that validates it, I do believe that the Four Noble Truths are consistent with the way the brain operates, and that the Eightfold Path seems to be consistent with humanist values. With regard to the Three Poisons, I definitely get with the critique of Greed and Hatred, but I’m not so sure about delusion–which brings me to the question of the self.

    The doctrine of anattā or not-self does not resonate with me, does not seem to be self-evidently true, and I don’t see a lot of laboratory research that validates it. I don’t want to get off onto a big tangent about this, but it just feels like ideology to me rather than something that has a strong empirical and theoretical basis (yes, I know the self is in some sense an illusion produced by the brain, but so is vision and hearing, yet there is no doctrine of not-vision or not-hearing).

    Ultimately, I think this glass half-empty, half-full distinction can be worked out, so I do think that humanism can and should absorb elements of buddhism, especially meditative practices. I agree that most humanist activities are too intellection/oriented toward the prefrontal cortex and not connected enough to our emotions.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Rick, and thanks for your insightful reply.

      … we start with Sec. Humanism and add in Buddhist elements that seem true based on how Humanists assess things.

      You may be interested to know that I also, in a sense, started with Secular Humanism, having been associated with the Center for Inquiry for several years, and before that in philosophy. (Where we didn’t really call the approach “Secular Humanism”, but that’s what it amounted to).

      I would say that I begin, though, with scientific skepticism: a skeptical outlook on reality, informed by the sciences. That leads to Humanism and away from organized religion. All the “isms” have to go through that filter.

      Re. anattā, I think lab research validates pretty completely that the self is a neural construct, and that there isn’t anything remotely approaching the brahminic atman or the Cartesian self, everlasting substances that the Buddha — and the tradition following the Buddha — was most concerned to refute. Philosophically, in the West this take goes back to Hume at least, but contemporary philosophers in the same vein include Derek Parfit and of course Dan Dennett’s discussions of the ‘Cartesian theater’. The self is a conventional, everyday construct, useful for certain purposes: this is the Buddha’s point. He wasn’t concerned to refute the claim that we exist as conventional social, psychological (or even biological) constructs.

      One can in fact, using similar arguments, construct a position against certain features of vision and hearing; they are rampant in epistemology. (If one completely tosses them out one ends up with a radical skepticism that gets us nowhere). The difference is that the self has a much greater emotional and existential weight than does vision or hearing. One can be blind and deaf, yet one still has to confront oneself, who one really is, and one’s own mortality; these are questions that confront all complex, sentient beings, even Secular Humanists.

      As I say, my sense is that Secular Buddhism is simply a version of Secular Humanism with certain emphases regarding practice, and regarding which are the deepest and most interesting existential questions. Far as I can tell, once we ditch the supernaturalisms, there need be no real issue of fact on which they disagree.

    • mufi says:

      Rick: For whatever it’s worth, I have to engage in some creative interpretation before I’m able to rest comfortably with certain Buddhist concepts, such as those related to the “three marks of existence”. I’m not sure if my willingness to do so qualifies as “Secular Buddhism” or “Secular Humanism with a side of Buddhism.” Either way, I’m aware of it and it’s what probably keeps bringing me back to this forum.

    • Jett Hanna says:

      I thought I’d give you my two cents worth on not-self. Translation is a difficult business…and heck if I know what a Buddhist scholar would say about whether anatta is translated appropriately. However, my take is that “no-self” doesn’t really mean there is nothing that is the self, just that whatever self is is influenced by and composed of so many different elements that we can fail to understand it when we try to put it in a little neat and tidy box. We find it convenient to slice and dice things so we can get a handle on them, and doing that is very useful. However, doing that inevitably misses something. I see the concept of anatta as being about keeping your mind open to unexpected connections between what you consider self and the rest of the universe.

      No, not and nothing in Buddhism don’t really mean no, not and nothing-but those words can help shock us into realizing there’s always more to the story, and interdependence between all things. At times, I find substituting total, complete, all or everything makes as much or more sense than the negative words. Total self, for example, gets across that self encompasses far more than we usually associate with self. Illusion doesn’t mean there is no phenomena to observe; illusions depend upon something causing them. Empty is quite similar; for something to be empty, it has to be full of something. The “empty” part of a cup makes it useful, and the emptiness of a cup can’t exist without the cup…and you can’t really have a cup without the empty part.

      Anatta isn’t something to be proven, to me. It’s just a convenient way to remind me to keep learning.

      • Rick Heller Rick Heller says:

        I definitely prefer the idea of identifying oneself with a larger we, rather than diminishing the self to nothing.

        I also think this is consistent with the way the brain’s reward system works. We can attain motivation when we empathically connect with others, and make their joys our joys, whereas negation leads to passivity and inactivity.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          The Buddha certainly did not diminish the self to nothing; indeed he had rather a robust notion of the self, in that it was the focus of ethical properties like kamma that followed us from life to life.

          It’s a common misunderstanding to say that anatta means “no-self”. It’s more accurate to say it means “not-self”, in that none of the mental or physical aggregates can be identified as “self”, where “self” is taken to mean the brahminic atman, which is a permanent, unchanging substance. Since all of the aggregates are constantly changing (and one can witness this in meditation), one can directly see that they are not the atman. They are also not “self” in not being entirely under one’s control.

          The Buddha also did not intend us to identify the “self” with all of reality; that is a feature of Advaita Vedanta that views reality (brahman) as essentially pristine and god-like. The Buddha’s view was a bit more jaundiced; saṃsāra is more problem than solution. The way out is to cease clinging to it, and to cease identifying with it.

          • LordranBound says:

            I think it would be more useful to state beliefs in new vernacular rather than keep trying to parse 1400 year old, pre-scientific, inconsistently translated, often misunderstood, vagaries. This might strike a the heart of what is meant by ‘Secular’, whether we should give Buddhism the benefit of the doubt except in cases like reincarnation where there now seems to be ample evidence againstm, or we should use the Buddha’s ideas as a building block, holding each up to the light of modern knowledge and reason. It might be the fact that ‘Buddha was right all along’, but because of how much misplaced faith there is in the world, I’m not ready to accept it ‘on faith’. To me, that is Secular.

            I’m not at all advocating throwing out wisdom, but one of the things that has kept me from embracing Buddhism is the following cycle:

            potential Buddhist: I’m not sure I agree with tenant ‘X’

            Buddhist: Well, Buddha didn’t say ‘X’, he say ‘xy’

            Other Buddhist 1: And there are difficulties in the translation. ‘x’ in pali is really more like aAa. So what he was really saying was ‘aAay’

            Other Buddhist 2: No, that’s not what he was trying to say, he was saying ‘Z’. In pali cannon, he specifically said “‘x’ is part of the delusion”. So it’s more liks ‘Zy’

            And on and on. It’s very frustrating. I hope this doesn’t sound disrespectful. I’m just trying to share my experience. It makes far more sense to me to say something like (this is very off the cuff so I’m not sure it’s worded all that well):

            “The self is a construct that is very difficult to define. The further down you dig, the more it seems to not really be there, just like the solids we see around us are just patterns of atoms. Still, there is a usefulness in the abstraction of ‘self’, as it refers to the thing that can suffer, experience joy, and introspect. But looking at the world around us through the lens of ‘self’ plays into the more selfish and destructive parts of our nature that natural selection has imbued us with, and it makes you miserable to boot.”

            And if there is an argument against that, great! Let’s hear it. But without the cycle above.

            Perhaps this should have been a forum post. If so, my apologies. I’m not trying to hijack a well written blog post.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Hi LB,

            A lot of this depends upon one’s interest. Personally I find that the Buddha’s early teachings are quite wonderful in many ways, and well worth reading and understanding. This process, of course, necessarily involves textual interpretation and disagreement. It’s a messy undertaking. One can cut out the messiness and just read a finished text, but then one will be unaware of all the messiness that went into making it.

            Your description of the Buddha’s concept of the self sounds pretty decent to me, particularly from a contemporary perspective. (“Patterns of atoms” and all). But to get there one needs to have made certain interpretive moves rather than others.

            I’m inclined to agree with you that often it’s just simpler and easier to start at the finish line, using the contemporary vernacular rather than having always to look back at the Pali, for example. That can be done quite well, but it also has the danger that one gets oneself lost down the garden path, and ends up with something that isn’t Buddhism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — most of the good stuff out there isn’t Buddhism. But I think clarity in one’s subject matter is a virtue.

            Personally, the early texts interest me, as does scholarship, and I don’t mind a bit of back-and-forth on meanings and interpretations. I think the texts are well worth the effort one puts into understanding them, as well. But to each his own. If you find it pointless, then please give it a pass!

          • Mark Knickelbine says:

            Lordran –

            You make a very insightful point. My own path has been to begin a mindfulness practice that was not dependent at all on Pali Sanskrit terminology; as that began to take hold of my life I turned to the Pali texts to see if they had anything that would enrich my practice. My tendency then has always been to read them in light of my own experience; a term like anatta holds less mystery to those who have already spent time examining the process we call self.

  9. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Part of the reason this effort is seeing the growth it is, comes from that big tent approach. We don’t *have* to think exactly alike, we don’t *have* to hold one particular ratio of Buddhism : Humanism as the “right” one. We can simply move forward in a direction of well being for self and others, how we engage with one another has real world impact, and through our own efforts we can create the conditions to help us make better choices.

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