A Secular Religion?

This is the second  installment in which I discuss ideas presented by Stephen Bachelor in a series of dharma talks in late 2010. You can hear them at dharmaseed.org.

The debate about whether Buddhism is a religion or not is a classic case of the futility of dispute. Much heat is generated, little light is shed, and at the end of the day no one’s mind has changed.  That we keep at it, though, is an indication that there is something about this word we just can’t let go of.

It is clear that what we call Buddhism, as it is practiced by the majority of humans who would consider themselves followers of the Buddha, is clearly a religion by any recognizable standard. These traditions elevate the Buddha to a divine or semi-divine status, advocate devotional worship, and are preoccupied with the metaphysical concept of rebirth.

Even many of those who believe that Gotama was a human being are still impelled by the metaphysics of karma and rebirth, if not the pantheon of deities that dominate Vajrayana practice. While some of them may not want to think of their practice as religious, it clearly is.

But what about secular dharma practice? It pointedly avoids doctrines and beliefs that are not susceptible to empirical evidence, and so would appear to preclude any metaphysics, to say nothing of gods, merit, past life karma, and so on. Is it a religion, nonetheless? And is the answer to that question important?

As he began talks on secular Buddhism in late 2010, Stephen Batchelor argued that the vision of secular dharma practice he offers is, indeed, a religion, and that the notion of a “secular religion” is not an oxymoron. He stressed that he uses the term secular in both its senses – as the opposite of “religious”, and in the original Latin sense of “being of this time and of this world.” Because secular dharma practice provides a systematic way to confront the existential condition of humanity – our birth, our death, our suffering, and the beauty and tragedy of living a brief life – it counts as something more than a practice or a philosophy. Batchelor prefers the “weight” of the term religion, especially in comparison to the term spiritual, which strikes him as having a light-weight New Agey quality.

Several participants in the various The Secular Buddhist web ventures share Batchelor’s instinct that, despite its worldly focus, secular dharma practice is a religion. As much as I hate to argue with those whose work I hold in such esteem, I still do it. Not only do I think secular dharma practice is not a religion, I think calling it one is conducive to several disturbing problems with Western Buddhism in general, problems that I hope secular dharma practice can avoid.

For one thing, with its various difficulties of translation and the panoply of cultural traditions behind it, Buddhism in the West already has a linguistic clarity problem (my initial post on dukkha details one such issue). We should avoid, I think, adding to that problem by committing an act of linguistic gerrymandering of our own. To define religion in such a way that it contains secular dharma practice is to create a definition so broad as to ignore the central characteristics of most of the world’s religions.

Every religion I can think of is a systematized approach to conduct in the physical, spacio-temporal realm that is intended to have some kind of effect in a non-physical, non-spacio-temporal realm. Whether one is praying for the intercession of Jesus, mollifying the ancestors, surrendering to Allah, currying favor with animal or plant spirits, practicing yoga to merge Atman with Brahman, transubstantiating wine into blood, casting disease into the body of a chicken, adjusting someone’s chi, sacrificing a sheep to Yahweh, or any of the other religious practices humans have invented, the dichotomy between the physical and spiritual, mundane and sacred, worldly and heavenly, is the foundational element. Indeed, without this split, religious practices would not be necessary.

It may be true that secular dharma practice helps us confront the same desires and anxieties that religions help their adherents confront. But so do many other things – philosophy, interpersonal relationships, intoxicants, or even good old consumerist escapism. Are these also religions? In fact, behaviors that assuage our anxieties through the distractions of pleasure or denial have, perhaps, more in common with religion than does secular dharma practice – at least to the extent to which they can avoid an embrace of the impermanent, tragic and empty nature of human existence.

This is one reason why it’s important not to confuse secular dharma practice with religion. The dharma presents a fundamentally different way of relating to life, one based not on belief but on seeing, one that does not denigrate human existence but embraces it, one that does not devalue our capability but stresses our self-reliance. As Gotama said, such an approach goes against the stream, a stream to which the comforts of religion are a significant tributary.

Another problem I have with defining secular dharma practice as religion is my suspicion that the motivation behind that definition is an essentially conservative one. As such, it is consistent with a conservative streak that permeates Western Buddhism. As I listen to Batchelor, I can’t avoid feeling that he wants to preserve the word religion because he wants to feel religious. He did, after all, spend many years as a Tibetan monk, a tradition he reports embracing warmly and enthusiastically as a young man.

I think that instinct is akin to the one that preserves, sometimes quite intricately, the forms of Asian Buddhist practice in the West – offerings, prostrations, foreign names, robes, chants, guru veneration, Tantra, and on and on. In these instances also, a process of redefinition is part of the conservative project. Typically, this involves mapping psychological interpretations onto these practices, often something having to do with ameliorating our attachment to ego. I suspect, however, that the central function of the psychological interpretations is to get Westerners past the woo factor of what are clearly religious devotional practices.

As Gotama warned us, religion is an attachment. We cling, perhaps more tightly than we realize, to the notion that there is a power in charge, one we can commune with and even manipulate, a power that can give us what we want and ward off what we don’t. I suspect the conservative impulse in Western Buddhism stems at least in part from the deep-seated projection that the mysterious and exotic practices of the East maintain their power to influence a sacred realm (a realm before which our own religious traditions appear utterly impotent).

Calling secular dharma practice a religion, I feel, would be one more manifestation of that conservative clinging, a longing, half hidden from ourselves, for comfort and power. Clinging is the nature of our samsaric existence, so I say this not to condemn anyone. But the goal of secular dharma practice is the release of craving, and I don’t think calling this practice a religion contributes to that end.

So what would I call it, if not religion? “Practice” works for me. I also think that there’s a bit of dharma to be found in not knowing quite what to call it, in the fact that dharma practice, like everything else in life, is ultimately indefinable.