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.

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  1. Andrew on June 28, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    If it’s not going to be a religion, then how about calling it Secular Dharma, or should it be secular dharma? If you use the word Buddhism, I think you’ll always be fighting the tendency for people to associate it with religion.

    Personally, I like much of the atmospherics in Buddhism. I don’t need the grand metaphysical elaboration, but I do like the aesthetic of serene Buddhas, temples and stupas, incense, chanting and so on. Where does all this fit in a secular approach?

    It seems that the emotional swoon that ‘religious’ people like to have, that perhaps comes with feelings of devotion and surrender to something larger than themselves, would have to be let go of. That sense of wonderment may go out the window in a secular approach, but not sure about that.

    I think there may need to be a number of strains of modern secular Buddhism. Trying to get people to sign on to a set of tenets seems so old school. What about just being a clearinghouse for ideas? Create a community that is willing to ask the questions, and lay out the choices for everybody – do away with all the have-to beliefs. Somehow we’ve got to get to the other side and not create something this is just another dogma.

    • frank jude on June 28, 2011 at 11:04 pm


      Two points came up for me in reading your comment.

      1. The sum of reality (Dharma) is larger than any one of us, so I believe a letting go of grasping after ‘self’ has the corollary of ‘surrendering to something larger than self.’

      2. As a secularist, I also do not at all see why ‘wonderment’ would have to ‘go out the window.’

      Here is Ann Druyan speaking of Carl Sagan: “He never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire and awe. His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed. Sciences’s permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe it revealed.”

      I personally think “awe” is the religious sentiment par excellence, but like Sagan, I think what we find through naturalistic methodology is awesome enough and there’s no need to seek awe in some transcendent supernatural realm!

      Just my thoughts….

      frank jude

      • star on June 29, 2011 at 7:40 am

        Yes on “surrendering to something larger than the self” — I believe it’s reality we’re talking about here. Buddhism asks us to face the fact that we don’t control everything… can’t, won’t, shouldn’t try, shouldn’t make our happiness contingent on our power to get all the ducks in a row.

        I see this as akin to monotheism’s Surrendering To God, which probably does have a similar short-term effect on people (“It may be true that secular dharma practice helps us confront the same desires and anxieties that religions help their adherents confront.”) — that relief we feel when we stop trying to arrange the world to suit us, as if we ever could.

        The difference is in the long-term effect: Buddhism tells us we do have power. We cannot order everything to our liking, but we can re-order our priorities. On the other hand, “It’s God’s will” gets the short term benefit, but does not empower us to do anything but surrender.

  2. frank jude on June 28, 2011 at 10:51 pm


    I have to respectfully disagree with both your overly narrow (from my perspective) conception of religion, and with your reasons for arguing against the use of the term “religion” for Secular Dharma; see in particular my final two paragraphs below.

    The following is a post from my Zen Naturalism Blog. Please note that, as Gombrich found, the traditional buddhist understanding of what defines a ‘religion’ is completely ‘upside-down’ from the typical western one:

    Is Zen Naturalism a Religion?

    The question may arise, “Is Zen Naturalism a religion?” And of course, the response completely depends on how “religion” is defined. Richard F. Gombrich, in his excellent book, “Theravada Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo,” mentions a monk who told him, “Gods are nothing to do with religion.” For traditional Buddhists, gods are powerful beings who are seen as capable of granting worldly boons, but who themselves are not omnipotent nor omniscient, nor are any seen as a creator. And, like all other beings throughout the world system, they are subject to birth, decay and death.

    For Buddhists, religion is a soteriology. Religion is a matter of proper understanding and practice of the Dharma with the purpose of attaining liberation which is seen as the complete eradication of greed, hatred and delusion. For traditional Buddhists, a person who accomplishes this is truly happy – the only happiness which is not transient and conditioned. For such a person, once the body dies, he or she will not be reborn, and thus will never have to suffer and die again. As Gombrich makes clear, “For Buddhists, religion is what is relevant to this quest for salvation, and nothing else.”

    This soteriological approach to religion is akin to yoga, and the words themselves have a similar meaning. Religion comes from the Latin religio which means ‘to bind back’ and yoga has the meaning of uniting or yoking. Such a religion is often characterized as a ‘path.’ While Gombrich states that such a religion is primarily one of belief, I think it more accurate to say that the only belief needed is one that agrees with the hypothesis that life as commonly lived and thought about is a state of delusion and bondage, and that it is possible to wake up to truth or reality. Then, a kind of faith or confidence is required that is open to testing the practices to see for oneself. It is actually less an orthodoxy than an orthopraxy. And this has been true, historically, for Buddhism. Splits in the sangha were generally based upon differences in practice and not in doctrine.

    Another kind of religion is one Gombrich calls “communal” and is characterized as a pattern of action, solemnizing major milestones in a person’s life such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death as well as celebratory rituals, benedictions etc. It is more social and centered around the ordering of society.

    Hinduism, while giving forth various soteriologies, is primarily a communal religion, conceptualized and codified in Brahmanical law books. For instance, marriage occupies the most important position among the sixteen sacred rites of India, after which, one is seen as entering into the householder’s stage of life. The Buddha couldn’t care less about marriage, and in fact saw it and all other aspects of communal religion as something to be left behind as having nothing to do with liberation – and even, in fact, being obstacles to it! For most of its history, Buddhism had no such rite as a Buddhist wedding.

    So, Zen Naturalism is, and can be considered, a kind of ‘secular religion’ or yoga as it too is soteriological at base. Only here, liberation means to be liberated from our conditioned reactivity and false identifications. It is not the world-wary attempt to leave the world altogether that is found in early traditional Buddhism. But also, as a contemporary movement, and one that does not reject the world, it is also a ‘communal religion’ that celebrates life in community and society. As such, it calls for active engagement to better life and the world for all beings. And rituals of celebration are designed to create meaningful relations among the various beings and experiences of the world.

    In any event, Zen Naturalism does not need to seek meaning and validity in any transcendent realm. Zen Naturalism leaves most metaphysical questions open, including whether there is anything truly existent that is ‘metaphysical.’ That this may mean we must re-define ‘physical’ is also an open question.

  3. frank jude on June 28, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    PS: As I frame “Buddha-Dharma” as a form of Yoga, thoroughly yogic in both its soteriological purpose and it’s practice traditions of meditation, I thought the following piece might shed more light on the perspective that “Secular Religion” is not an oxymoron.



  4. star on June 29, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Very clear presentation of your argument, Mark. When you said, “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…” I think you hit on what religion is for me, which was well-expressed in William James’ comment: “Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” — (The Varieties of Religious Experience: a study in human nature, 1902), which seems an apt description of Buddhism to me.

    Subjective experience, while it no doubt requires a support in the physical, is certainly perceived as “non-physical”, and so a system that addresses our conduct in the physical world and how it affects our non-physical world is right in that same sphere.

    “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? ”

    No. Do they use “systematized approaches”? (philosophies are systems but don’t seem to offer skills we can apply as an approach) Do they address the “unseen order”? (intoxicants may give us pink elephants, but that’s not what we mean). They fail James’ definition of religion by failing to give us what we need for that harmonious adjustment which is precisely what Buddhism aims to provide, and the things we work on in our practice, to get there, are generally “unseen” (the dharma) . That they aren’t mystical or supernatural is not particularly important. It’s what religion aims to do for us that matters, not *how* it aims to get there.

    And religions do more than just help us with harmonious adjustments to the unseen that will benefit us; they also provide community and support, and Buddhism can do this, and does (and should do so even more).

    “As I listen to Batchelor, I can’t avoid feeling that he wants to preserve the word religion because he wants to feel religious.”

    Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe his experience, like mine, starts with the feeling, and looks for a word to label it. Where he gets it from is undoubtedly different from where I do, but Buddhism stands in my life where religion stands in others’. It’s not that I *want to feel religious” — I am a bit shocked to find not only that I feel religious but that I get called a fundamentalist, and I like it! (I’ve certainly never had any desire to “feel religious”) — but when I notice what I feel, it is that I feel I am participating in a religion that will help me harmoniously adjust to unseen aspects of the world around me, to my improvement, and the betterment of those around me.

    “As Gotama warned us, religion is an attachment. ”

    Did he? What word are you translating as “religion”? How does it map to what you define as religion; how does it map to what Stephen Batchelor defines as religion?

    “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.”

    I think you are taking the term “religion” and the reasons for using it too seriously — it is just an empty word, and language is born to change.

    Maybe seriousness is the bottom line for me: I find it amusing that something (Buddhism) designed to be a cure for all that ails religion is also a religion. That you could see it as an anti-religious religion is just too cool. But it’s not really anti-religion; it’s anti-wrong-headed-motivation, and wrong-headedness is so much a part of many modern religions that it makes the one seem the equivalent of the other. The Buddha didn’t warn us about religion, he warned us against foolishness. In his day, he actively promoted (what we would call) “religious ideas” — karma and rebirth — because they were a force in favor of reducing suffering. He just *slightly* redefined them in order to nudge people to an even better way.

    • mknick on July 2, 2011 at 7:45 am

      Star –
      Thanks for taking the time to read my post and to write such thoughtful responses.

      I agree that James’s definition of religion jibes with mine, but I disagree that secular dharma practice is about harmonizing with an “unseen order.” For James and the Romantic tradition he comes out of, that order is a transcendent Truth that informs the visible world, immanent within it yet not identical to it. The dharma, conversely, is what is there to be seen, what’s right in front of us all the time. It is the phenomenal reality of our lives, if we will settle down and learn to examine it closely. Gotama’s admonition is to “come and see,” and he advises us not to waste time with ontological speculation.

      Your point about subjective experience is a good example. Rather than defining mind as something non-physical, as Western philosophy did for most of its history, Gotama emphasizes that consciousness is a process that is not alienated from the world. It begins with contact, which leads to eye-ear-nose etc consciousness, all of which are the necessary preconditions for perception and awareness. This certainly is consistent with what neuroscience tells us about the biological prerequisites for consciousness. And one of the insights that arises in practice is that there is no ghost in the machine looking out on a separate world.

      I’m reading sīlabbata-parāmāso, one of the fetters, as religion. As Gotama says, anyone who mistakes rites, rituals, austerities, or even merit making, as essential to awakening is missing the point. I also think his redefinition of terms that originally referred to Brahamin religious rituals is part of his message that the “unseen world” is not something we should be preoccupied with.

      Finally, as far as linguistic evolution is concerned, the biological example is instructive. Reproduction is an individual act; evolution is a species response. Similarly, we are all individual and collective players in the development of language, but language will always exceed our control. Certainly, with enough skill, energy and effort, you can have a big impact (the genius of Gotama is one example, the perfidy of political spin is another). My point is a pragmatic one: relieving the word “religion” of its baggage is a huge task that offers no assurance of success. In fact, as I point out in the second part of my post, it could backfire by facilitating the creep of magical thinking back into our practice. Rather than gerrymander the word, it is my hope that secular dharma practice will help encourage people to realize that what they are accustomed to thinking of as religion is not necessary to lead a fulfilling, compassionate, engaged human life.

  5. mknick on June 29, 2011 at 9:22 am

    I will leave detailed comments later when I have more time but I’d like to give a general challenge to those who disagree with the way I have defined religion. If you are going to adopt a broader definition that can include a secular dharma practice, can you name me five identifiable non-metaphysical religions? Ones I could look up on, say Wikipedia? I’ll even let you include Secular Buddhism.

    Certainly we can subscribe to whatever definition we want. The question for me is a pragmatic one — does the resulting definition create more clarity or confusion? Does it support a clearer understanding of what dharma practice is about, or not? A definition that only specialists can use because it requires a non-intuitive reworking of a common term doesn’t pass my pragmatic test.

  6. Dana Nourie on June 29, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Excellent post! I couldn’t agree more. In the US in particular, we need to be especially careful of how we use the word “religion.” Religion here in the US is strongly wedded to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. When people hear the word religion, they think of god, of one who believes in a diety. Whether or not that is the true definition of the word religion, that is the mentality we are dealing with.

    I have to admit to dealing with an aversion to religion, and because of that avoid the word entirely. But I also agree that secular practice does not fit well, as it helps us clear away the delusions, the beliefs, and even the way we often fool ourselves. The dharma is reality without all the dressings, the wishful thinking, the illusions that so many religions adhere to.

    Secular practice fits very well with atheist, and I hate to see them avoid this practice because it’s been associated with religion, which it is not.

    Great post!

  7. Brad Potts on June 29, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Wow. Quite a lengthy post just to quibble over the word “religion.” I agree with many of the above comments but would also add this: If you are uncomfortable with using the word “religion” to describe secular practice because you consider it “linguistic gerrymandering” I wonder what you make of Gotama’s frequent appropriation of the religious terminology of his day? Kamma, Brahma, nibbana — all these words and more were used by Gotama in a unique way that was similar to previous definitions but ultimately different. As one person said the Buddha was “the ultimate bait-and-switcher.” Was he being devious in his use of language? Or was he using the terminology people were familiar with and altering it a bit to make his point?

    Language evolves. Get over it. 🙂


    • star on June 29, 2011 at 10:46 pm

      But Brad, look at how much trouble all that gerrymandering of language got the Buddha’s teachings into! We have a hard time making sense of it in part because he tweaked the language. (Oh, wait, which side of the fence am I on?)

      • Brad Potts on June 30, 2011 at 8:16 am

        Star: Haha. One of the differences may be that we know what Stephen Batchelor means by religion because he has told us exactly what he means by the term. Gotama didn’t do this and we have to imply what he meant — on top of outright deleting certain passages in the suttas which may be later additions by monks putting words in the Buddha’s mouth.

        So there would even be less confusion with Batchelor’s language then there would be for Gotama’s: which is funny because Mark is criticizing the former for his sloppy use of language and using the latter as a reference
        (!) for his criticisms. If anything it should be the other way around!

    • mknick on June 30, 2011 at 9:27 am

      Language certainly does evolve, but, like biological evolution, it’s not an intentional process. That’s precisely why we should not be redefining words to suit our convenience — we can’t change the way people understand them just because we’ve changed the way we use them.

      Sorry you think this is a quibble, although I thank you for putting the effort into reading my post and responding. As I tried to make clear, the reason this is important is because dharma practice is pretty much the opposite of religion as 99.9% of English speakers would understand the term. I think that’s part of the point that Gotama was making when he inverted the meaning of vedic terms. A good example is his metaphor of the three fires, a direct reference to a Brahmanic religious ritual. What’s important is not keeping ritual fires burning, but putting out the fires of greed, hate and delusion. Dharma practice asks us to embrace the human condition, not escape or distract ourselves from it.

      • Brad Potts on June 30, 2011 at 9:38 am


        Any use of language is going to be an intentional process because humans are intentional creatures. To say language evolution is unintentional doesn’t make sense. At some point people intentionally started to use the term “gay” to refer to homosexuality, not simply being happy. Also: biological evolution is a messy, destructive, often clumsy process — why would you want language evolution to be like that?

        Dude, you said “we should not be redefining words to suit our conveniences” and then you seemingly approve of Gotama for doing just that! You need to address this rather large inconsistency in your argument!

        I have to laugh at your statistic about “99.9% of English speakers”. Really?
        Where did you get that from?

      • star on June 30, 2011 at 7:12 pm

        “If you are going to adopt a broader definition that can include a secular dharma practice, can you name me five identifiable non-metaphysical religions?”

        Why would I? I only want a box big enough to share common ground when I talk to my Christian friends about morality and community, and practices that help us be better at living our lives.

        “The reason this is important is because dharma practice is pretty much the opposite of religion as 99.9% of English speakers would understand the term. I think that’s part of the point that Gotama was making when he inverted the meaning of vedic term.”

        On the other hand, he chose to modify the language rather than invent a new language, and might this be in part because he understood that bridging definitional differences was more conducive to conversation than making sharp distinctions that wall others out? He certainly speaks a great deal about being flexible in our use of language, and in finding ways to not argue so much. Inclusion, rather than exclusion, seems to have been his style.

        “Language certainly does evolve, but, like biological evolution, it’s not an intentional process.”

        Is that the truth? Do you think the Buddha was not intentionally changing the language to have different meanings? I’m told Shakespeare, too, quite consciously modified language. Certainly a lot of the evolution of language is not intentional, but I’m pretty sure that some of it is.

  8. Dana Nourie on June 29, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    Brad, personally I find it confusing when people, even Gotama, apply new meanings to old words. We have definitions for a reason, and when we change them, it just causes confusion and bickering.

    For this reason I avoid kamma and instead say cause and effect or consequences. And Brahma is meaningless to me so I don’t use it at all. Nbabana creates volumes of discussion to which which I won’t even go into. Personally I avoid the word, and just say the point of MY practice is to lessen suffering and to be as delusion and attachment free as I can steer my way into.

    I think the Buddha was a bit confusing, using terms as he did, or the people writing the stories of the canon were unclear. Or the translations are fuzzy, or, or. It would have made more sense to use precise words with very definite meanings so there is no confusion, instead of using words people are used to with new meanings. Why not just teach new words! That’s what I like about the majority of science.

    I have no problem understanding Neil Tyson when he describes the universe, Richard Dawkins when he talks about evolution,and I think we can use the same precise clarity in secular Buddhism, and leave out the pali and sanscrit entirely! We can accept the word “religion” is commonly associated with god(s) and divorce ourselves from that description.

    Note: I’m not referring to those of you are are learning pali to translate the canon.

    • frank jude on June 30, 2011 at 1:16 am


      “New meanings applied to old words” is exactly how language changes, grows, develops and morphs! Definitions are always changing. A fun example is the word “silly.” Many contemporary people are confused and somewhat insulted when they read Shakespeare or other older writers who speak of a ‘silly woman.’ Back then, the word meant helpless, plain and then humble before it ever became defined as ‘foolish.’

      I take my strategy of using the word religion in a radical way from queer theorists, who have taken a word meant as an insult and subverted it’s meaning to the point that many universities now have classes (and some even departments) for “Queer Studies.”

      The Latin word ‘religio’ was used in a similar way to the word ‘yoga’ and Buddhism IS a yogic culture. And there have been many non-theistic yogas. I enjoy the frisson often created when discussing religion with those who believe in god and supernatural realms when I tell them I practice a religion free of gods and anything supernatural. It confronts their pre-conceptions, and usurps their general monopoly of the discourse.

      frank jude

    • Brad Potts on June 30, 2011 at 8:30 am

      Dana: You are taking an extremely conservative approach to language! Actually, though, I somewhat agree that I find words like nibbana and kamma problematic. I think the solution, however, is simply to define your terminology — as Batchelor clearly does. I frequently use the term “Bodhisattva” to refer to extremely kind and giving people, even if they know nothing of Buddhism. Why? Because it’s poetic and has meaning for me (and a few others). My use of the term, however, is far looser than traditional Buddhist definitions.

      I really think this discussion has far more to do with some people’s aversion to anything that smacks of religion. You admit this yourself! It’s unfortunate that in the United States — especially certain areas, e.g. the South — religion basically means “Crazy for Jesus.” But that’s because *those* people have misused the word religion to mean something altogether too specific!

      I question just what the actual importance of this discussion is, to be honest. So, if a complete stranger comes up to Stephen Batchelor and Mark Knickelbine and asks “are you religious?” and the former says “yes” and the latter says “no” — what practical difference would this make? If a secular dhamma group forms and lists itself on the city’s website under “religions in the area” would you not want to be part of the group?


    • star on June 30, 2011 at 6:47 pm

      “It would have made more sense to use precise words with very definite meanings so there is no confusion…” is a little bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking.

      We can make judgments about what the Buddha should have done, as if he lived in our times and the conditions were just the same, but we weren’t in his situation, and when we are unfamiliar with the conditions he had to work with, it’s easy for us to say what would have been a better way.

      I was writing about this earlier today — about where the confusion comes from — and I can see much of the bind he was in. What I would have liked is for him to have had the range of changes in the doctrines of the day before him, so he could have seen enough of the sweep of history, to see what we now have of meme theory — and then watch what he would do to get his teaching to “take” and then “transmit” and still stay accurate. It would be no mean feat, doing that, even *with* meme theory. But since it’s cler that he didn’t know how ideas travel over long sweeps of time, or have some magical method to keep it all accurate, it’s at least good evidence that he was not, after all, all-knowing, all-seeing, and godlike.

  9. frank jude on June 30, 2011 at 9:47 am

    Well, reading through these comments, it seems Secular Buddhists — just like ALL Buddhists, just like all humans — are a diverse bunch. There’s no one “Secular Buddhism” because there’s never been one “Buddhism” to begin with!

    Mark, you can think of yourself as a “non-religious Secular Buddhist” and I (when I even take the time to peg an identity on myself and my practice) will think of myself as a religious Secular Buddhist.

    And, if you argue that what I practice and teach is not “true Secular Buddhism” I don’t see how that would be any different from any other fundamentalist view.

    frank jude

    • Brad Potts on June 30, 2011 at 10:27 am

      I think the real real discussion here is on the nature of language: should it be narrow and “fixed” or should it be open and dynamic? I think that an understanding of annatta/sunyata would necessitate taking the latter, anti-essentialist, view.

      At the very least secular Buddhism or dhamma practice would have to be considered “quasi-religious” since, although not dependent on supernaturalism, it does involve an “ultimate concern” as well as some of the attributes of the religious life commonly understood: ethics, group meetings, contemplation, meditation, exhortation, (perhaps) chanting, etc.

      Where I do see this as relevant to our individual practices is when we cling to one view or another. It’s already been mentioned that there is an aversion some people have towards being connected with religion. Last I checked Gotama had something to say about “aversion” ;). Also: Are there some identity views involved in all this? “I “am” not religious! No, surely I don’t want to be associated with *those* people!”

      All is flux. Including language and religion. Peace out…

    • Andrew on June 30, 2011 at 1:30 pm


      My sentiments exactly. We need a big tent. Then we can carry on a lively conversation, such as we are doing. Nobody has to be right and nobody has to be wrong. Each of us shines in a slightly different way. A multiplicity of views is to be cherished. If we all agreed, then soon we would find flaws or divisions so we could separate again and start the process all over…

  10. Dana Nourie on June 30, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Mark, you might be interested in know in this book I picked up Me and Mine: Selected Essays of Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, there is a chapter called No Religion! He even goes as far in it to say, there is No Buddha, No Dhamma, and No Sangha . . . well of course, because everything is empty. But he also talks about how religions form after the fact and really muck up the teachings and create enemies of people. There is no Buddhism. There is only this.

  11. mknick on July 1, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    @ Brad, not sure where the hostility is coming from.

    Of course the use of language is intentional. What I said is that the evolution of lanugage is not. The meaning of a word is not, say, what Brad Potts wants it to mean, but what the majority of people who use a word think it means. Can one individudual, Gotama, say, or Plato, or Freud, have a tremendous impact on that process? Certainly. But the meaning of words is not under the intentional control of a person or a group (as much as marketers and propagandists might wish otherwise).

    As for your judgement of my “identity views,” I will readily confess to my aversion to religion. In my defense, however, I think I come by it honestly. I live in a world .in which religion is one of the most effective mechanisms for the organization of hatred,intolerance and exploitation one can identify. It’s effects include convincing people that feeding their children and going to the doctor when they’re sick is less important than keeping gay people from getting married; that murdering strangers in a suicide bombing will send you to heaven; that I can’t tell what the priest did to me because he’s the representative of God; that failure to believe in a particular Tibetan pretector deity is justification for murder; that the burning of a book is a good reason to riot; that because my daughter married outside the faith I won’t talk to her again; that if I send my last pocket money to some faith healer on the radio Jesus will bless me; that having sex with the Roshi will lead to my awakening; and on and on and on and on and on. Because it relies on metaphysics, religion relies on irrationality; it tells us that we can’t trust our senses or our common sense, but must surrender those things to the authority of the Book or the Prophet or the Rimpoche or whatever. This is why religion as an institution has always been so adept at enabling man’s inhumanity to man. Perhaps this is aversion — if so, I experience it in a similar way as I experience aversion to walking into busy traffic.

    As for the 99.9%, I have no citation. I stand by the statement, however. Glad you got a laugh out of it.

    • Brad Potts on July 2, 2011 at 12:28 am

      @ Mark: No hostility intended. I admit that my comments came off stronger than they should have. Nothing personal at all. Apologies if my way of expression was a bit much. Right speech is a bit of a problem at times for me. 🙂

      “Religion” is far too broad a term to pass overarching judgment against it, however. For every act of aggression and small-mindedness you mention one can call upon an act of charity and self-sacrifice. It’s all too easy to harp upon the negative — trust me, I know, I do it all the time! 🙂

      I do have to point out, however, that the main point of disagreement in this discussion is not upon the value of “religion” (again, too broad a term to pass global judgment on) but upon the role of language. You did not address the inconsistency in your argument regarding Gotama’s crafty re-languaging of terms versus Batchelor’s far less problematic use of the word “religion.” I stand by this assessment and am kind of bewildered that you don’t seem to see an inconsistency.

      Personally, I have all sorts of problems with popular religion but I’m not so put off by the term to pitch it into the trash bin. I think dhamma practice devoid of supernaturalism is still quasi-religious as I said above. Honestly, it’s such a small point that I don’t care to argue my position further. Again, apologies if I sounded harsh in my judgments. I do think a multiplicity of views is important in these sorts of discussions however.

      Be well,

  12. star on July 2, 2011 at 12:37 am

    Mark, I submit that the conscious choice to use a word differently than it has been used in the past — to redefine it, in the hope that it catches on — is intentional evolution of language, and so Gotama’s redefinition of words wasn’t just intentional use of language, but also the intention to make language evolve. Of course the intender does not have control over evolution. Does anyone or any thing have control over evolution? We breed dogs to try to improve them; sometimes our attempts work out, sometimes they don’t. Language is no different.

  13. mknick on July 2, 2011 at 8:00 am

    A quick example of how even Gotama’s experiments with language could backfire. One of the vedic words he repurposed was “unconditioned.” The Brahmins used it to refer to the transendent reality of Brahman; Gotama uses it to mean being unconditioned by greed, hatred and delusion. But by the time the dharma comes to China, that word was back to being taken at face value and presumed to refer to the transcendent Mind (per Huang Po, for instance). And see Bikkhu Bodhi for modern Theravadin transcendentalist use of the term. Not even the Sakyan Sage could manage the evolution of a term all by himself.

  14. earl on July 6, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Mark, I’m really enjoying these talks by Stephen. They are incredibly rich, I think, and appreciate your posting on them. Obviously a really important meme we are working on here. What are we really getting at with the word “religious”. Stephen is clearly Homo Religiosus, and has spent his life as a monk, and is now functioning very much as a prophet of “secular Buddhism”. He clearly understands the distaste that the word has for many and mentions this as a preface to his talk. But then goes on to state that there isn’t a good alternative for matters of, and human concerns with “life and death”. But I think the term existential does quite nicely actually and without any baggage at all. Even spiritual is preferable, because religious is necessarily tied up with the dogmatic institutions which have been the corporate entities which have defined actual religions. At the same time, I agree with Stephen that our fundamental conundrum as living creatures who know we will die is an essential existential anxiety, existential quest, and ever present potential for existential despair in the face of modernity’s perception of the essential randomness of evolution and existence. And so, and as I think Andy Hagel on FB is so good at pointing out, the intuitively deepest approaches to connecting with the Ground of Being necessarily involves an openness to the non-analytic and mysteriously irrational, primal and metaphoric elements of our nature.

  15. mknick on July 6, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Earl — So glad you’ve been checking out those talks — one of my goals in blogging about them has been to get more people to go listen to them. So much of our online conversation seems to revolve around questions of what secular buddhism might be and what it’s not. I think Stephen’s presenting a vision of secular dharma practice that is clear, consistent, and compelling, and that speaks both to our intellectual understanding of what Gotama taught and to the personal and interpersonal essence of our practice.

    Thanks for the positive comments. Just be careful about capitalizing Ground of Being!

  16. NaturalEntrust on July 19, 2012 at 5:58 am

    Haha so typical I am one year too late. You guys have already stopped exchanging views on this topic.

    So what conclusion did you all come to? What does the word religion really means.
    Can we use it the way that SB suggests or is that too confusing.

    I am an anti-religious atheist and strongly anti-religious too. Hating maybe is a too strong word but I feel strong aversion and deep skepticism to anything religious. But I am equally skeptical to anything claiming to be spiritual or philosophical or something.

    Maybe I am anti-claim that assert things? But I do feel very religious and I feel very embarrassed about admitting that I do ahve these feelings.

    So what I want is natural scientific research on what it is to be religious. Is it like being musical or being artistic or creative or innovative or imaginative or intuitive or …?

    Now one year later how do you practice this within Secular Buddhist Association. Do you see this Buddhism as religious?

    I rather see it as religious than to see it as spiritual or philosophical. But that is my weird way to relate.

    Formally I guess all kinds of Buddhism has to be a religion by default or else it only pretend to be Buddhist and could be accused of stealing a term using false pretentions or something.

    Buddhism counts as one of the major religions so it is not easy to deny such facts 🙂

    And as an aggressive atheist I do find the 4NT as highly religious in the way they express themselves.

  17. Linda on July 19, 2012 at 8:31 am

    Never too late, NE.

    A year later, I haven’t changed my views about religion and my relationship to it, but that’s because I’m comfortable with it. I don’t see religion as inherently evil and something we need to run away from — I do recognize that it does many bad things in the world, but I don’t think it has an inherent nature of doing bad things in the world. I think if we, as individuals, have the power to change, religion does too — and since religion is made up of people, it’s in our power to change it. The first step I’d take is by defining what religion is to me, and the second is to make that visible in the world.

    Mark and I have disagreed on this topic from our earliest encounters. I think he (and others) are experiencing aversion and should deal with it, but no doubt they think I’m missing the obvious.

  18. Mark Knickelbine on July 22, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Natural, you’re welcome here regardless of your timing, and as you can see the discussion hasn’t gone away!

    Rather than coming to a decision and making a formal declaration one way or the other, I guess I’d prefer to see this topic as part of the ongoing cultural conversation in which the meaning of language evolves. We can’t define religion, or any other term, however we want. In the end, the culture as a whole will always determine what words “mean”, not through agreed-on dictionary definitions but through useage. If the word “religion” will ever be understood on the street the way Linda would like it to, it will take many thousands of people many years of usage to make that happen. Today, the definition of religion that could include a set of practices that eschew the supernatural entirety would be recognizable to only a relative handful of people and would not encompass the single most important defining element of the world’s religions, great and small — namely, that religion is conceptualized as a relationship with the supernatural. How the supernatural and humankind’s relationship to it are defined is how all religions are distinguished and understood. We could admit that there is one exception to this otherwise totalizing rule, i.e. secular dharma practice, but that starts to look like the exception that proves the rule. Because the practice that Linda and I share is, in its intents and strategies, so thoroughly different from what any non-specialist understands as religion, I don’t believe it is helpful to use that term, because the confusion it will cause and the people it will turn off are of more consequence, in my opinion, than salvaging a word that has so much negative baggage. Have I aversion? Not having achieved Enlightenment, of course I have. A perusal of the wrongs facilitated by, in fact the wrongs that might well be impossible without, the recourse to supernaturalism that 99.99% of religions are founded on, would suggest that at least I come my my aversion honestly.

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