Response to Faith and Belief in Secular Buddhism

What follows below is taken from an email I received today from Geoff, regarding one of the threads on Sujato’s Blog. I thought this audience might be interested in the full response, and I’ll also see if I can find the spot on Sujato’s site to respond there as well. Many of the topics here are very relevant and core to secular Buddhist practice.

As you probably recall you spoke with Glenn Wallis on the issue of beliefs and knowledge on one of your podcasts. I should listen to the podcast again but as I recall you mostly focused on the theistic (“blind faith”) aspects of beliefs.

Yes, Glenn is a good friend who has been on the podcast a couple of times, and will be more in the future. The interview where we chatted about that topic is Episode 40.

As you would know the traditional Buddhist approach claims to be a little more nuanced. Bhikkhu Bodhi, for example, says we should start by testing the teachings in fairly straightforward ways to see in everyday life the existence of impermanence and hence inherent dissatisfaction etc. Once we have gained confidence that the Buddha was on to something, we are then encouraged to place faith in aspects of the teachings that are beyond immediate experience eg rebirth, realms of existence etc. This we are told will be revealed to us eventually through deep meditative states.

Yes, and I certainly do understand that position. Let me also make perfectly clear that the secular approach is merely another way to engage with the dhamma, one that is a natural growth from Western contemporary culture, which does have a strong secular inclination. As we see from recent surveys, the American Religious Identification Survey in 2008 as an example, people identifying as having no religion whatsoever are showing the most growth.

Secular Buddhism is a newly forming branch of Buddhism distinct from the other “big three” Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana, in that the practice and teaching is not dependent on that which is not in evidence in the natural world. We are still Buddhists, we are still engaged in the Eightfold Path, and do not presume to tell other practitioners what should be more fulfilling to them. That is a matter of their own experience in what is most beneficial to them.

Where secularists may diverge from Bikkhu Bodhi’s encouragement in how to practice the Buddha sasana is the part where we put our faith in things unseen. This is a transition from the meaning of the Pali saddha from “confidence” to “faith” in the Judeo-Christian sense (“While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18, King James translation). Though our experiences in what we’ve been told in the natural world are bearing out in the practice, which is wonderful, that does not mean that the concepts about what is not seen, what is not demonstrable in the natural world, are factually correct. Secularists are not denying that may be a possible reality, just that we don’t have any reliable way to show it, and therefore to speak of it as factually correct is not something we can do in good conscience. It is disingenuous to call such claims True when we cannot demonstrate them.

Why do we have this suspension of willingness to assert such claims? Because there is a history and planet full of such claims, many of which are in conflict, and cannot be logically factual. The televangelist speaks with the same faith in the historical veracity of Jesus walking on water, and the Biblical flood, that the Buddhist does about the existence of the Tusita heaven as the place Maitreya awaits his birth in the human realm, as the Hindu does about the literal existence of Ganesha, as Harold Camping did and still does predict the literal Rapture in 2011.

Secularists ask for evidence for any such claim because it is the only way to tell fact from fiction. If we do not have a common framework for verification, all claims are equally suspect.

At the same time we find people like Ajahn Sujato, being a ‘progressive’ Western educated monk, acknowledging (having to acknowledge?) the importance of science in understanding reality and the need for empirical verification.

We do, yes. And even more helpful in the dialogue, I think, is Ajahn Sujato’s friendliness in the discussions, however much he may disagree with our particular approach. That is the kind of open, non-judgemental communication I had hoped would be common from my fellow Buddhists, but the people who have been most open to positive, meaningful dialogue have been from the atheist and skeptic communities. This may be an indication that the problem is not between different flavors of Buddhist ideology, but between tradition and free inquiry. I see positive benefits to keeping the discussions friendly and sincere in a desire to understand, and if so, disagree with that same friendliness.

I am interested in your response to Sujato’s attempts to bridge this scientific evidence based approach with his claim to ‘knowledge’ (not just belief) in the existence of devas, various realms of existence & rebirth (as found in the Pali Canon). I have quoted some excerpts below from Sujato’s recent posts on his blog under the secular topics. Firstly part of his response to Glenn Wallis (after I had asked Sujato for his thoughts on Glenn’s Buddhist Manifesto article), followed by Sujato’s posting on his blog on my queries titled Secular Buddhism – some more bits:

Happy to respond below, though Glenn is much more adept with words!

Much appreciated any feedback (if you can find the time!) Again I want to say what an excellent site TSB is. Cheers – Geoff

Thank you. Tell all your friends 🙂


“The argument that belief in devas, etc. contradicts the Buddha’s anti-metaphysical position is also wrong. This point has been analyzed at length by the Buddhist empiricist philosopher David Kalupahana (whose excellent work seems to be unaccountably ignored by the secularists). The basic point is that the Buddhist treatment of such things as devas rigorously removes any truly metaphysical aspects – for example, they are not eternal, all-powerful, creators of the world, and so on. Devas are, in fact, conditioned, impermanent, suffering creatures very much like you or I in all spiritually important aspects. And, crucially, knowledge of such things is an empirical knowledge, derivable from the meditative extension of ordinary sensory faculties, and confirmable, in some cases, by reference to socially verifiable external facts (as in Ian Stevenson’s research).“

I’m happy to read David Kalupahana’s work that addresses this, I’ve just not been given the reference in the past. It is not an intentional avoidance, simply a lack of introduction to his work. What would be best? History of Buddhist Philosophy: Continuities and Discontinuities?

The basic point made, however, is not correct in that it “rigorously removes any truly metaphysical aspects”. If that were so, there would be evidence. THAT is rigorous removal. Saying that invisible pink unicorns are not immortal doesn’t leap the gap of them being real, either; this is a flawed argument. Saying that God is not all powerful doesn’t *poof* him into existence, and it doesn’t do that for devas, either. We can suppose *any* kind of invisible and perhaps imaginary being we cannot detect externally, and give it whatever qualities we can conceive, including dukkha, anicca, and anatta.

Problem Number One, I would say, is that there is an expectation of a dichotomy between Buddhist metaphysics and naturalism. This is as false as Pascal’s Wager, which assumes a Christian God vs. atheism in its own false dichotomy, or Creationism vs. Evolution, which again assumes a Judeo-Christian ideology. The point of view is one’s own religious structure, and that means that every religious structure is equally correct, which they cannot be because they are in conflict.

The problem is not between Buddhist faith assertions and secularism, the *real* problem is between Buddhist faith assertions vs. Christian faith assertions vs. Hindu faith assertions vs. Islamic faith assertions vs. an endless number of faith assertions! Once *that* has been narrowed down in some impossible way, *then* we can talk about what is left vs. secularism.

Now, some will say they have seen devas. This is interesting, inspiring, a great story, but not evidence. People have seen lots of things that may not have been real, including angels and other beings from different (and again conflicting) pantheons. It does not mean that these people are lying or committing any kind of intentional misrepresentation. What we’re saying is that evidence is necessary to confirm such a belief, and in the absense of it, there are natural explanations for what people experience.

Problem Number Two, then, is once we’ve removed the false dichotomy of assertions between a particular faith vs. free inquiry, what is acceptable as evidence? Certainly people have very personally beneficial, positively transformative, and deeply meaningful experiences during meditation and other kinds of inspired moments. That is not in question, nor is it the intent of secular Buddhists to say one can’t and shouldn’t value such experiences. If they are beneficial to you, wholesome in their content and impact, fabulous. Secular Buddhism recognizes that not everyone is willing to accept such revelations’ explanations as being factually accurate, however.

This in itself opens secular Buddhism to others much more broadly than other traditions, which have a certain sense of necessary acceptance of “things unseen.” Those with other religious or non-religious traditions are welcome, and there is no expectation that they change their views. Secular Buddhism is about this world, and what is in evidence in human experience of the path that positively contributes to one’s engagement with this life. So it is not uncommon for atheists and skeptics to find this approach more suited to them, as would Hindus, Christians, etc.. One has exactly *zero* need to adopt any kind of culture, assertions, or religious tradition whatsoever with secular Buddhist practice.

Ah, Ian Stevenson’s book! As I’ve said elsewhere, these are cases even he acknowledged in his introduction were not evidence. They are stories. They are interesting, inspiring, cool as all get out. So are a lot of stories that may not be factually accurate, like Muhammad’s winged horse, loaves to fishes, or swallowing the ocean. Even Stevenson himself titled the book with the words “Suggestive of Reincarnation” — he did not say “Proving Reincarnation”. He was also a long time believer who did not have any kind of controls on his “studies”, some of which were done as interviews years after such events were reported to have happened. The fact is, and yes there is documented evidence, that memory is fallible and changes over time. What one says years after an event may not be an accurate retelling — how big was that fish Uncle Joe caught years ago? Like that!

Here’s an alternate and natural explanation: first, quite unintentional cold reading. Children making statements that adults put meaning into that may not be reflective of fact. The child says something interesting, the adult reads into it (as we see people do when John Edwards “speaks” to the dead). They may not even be aware this is what’s happening, as is the case with Facilitated Communication. Another aspect to this is the creation of false memories, as recounted in many scientifically controlled studies, that require a mere suggestion of the possibility, and a little bit of encouragement. How much more effective the creation of such memories under the conditions of meditative states!

Again, we’re not saying these are not convincing thoughts that arise, or that they are intentionally false. They *are* very realistic, they are totally without artifice, having had such thoughts arise in a quite convincing fashion in my own meditation. That doesn’t make them real, and this is a perfectly natural explanation for past life “memories.” I have an upcoming interview with Elizabeth Loftus on this very topic.

Also bear in mind that it is not very realistic to expect the brain to be a tape recorder. It isn’t. People who can’t remember their own childhood — or do, but incorrectly — are somehow remembering previous lives with much greater clarity? Using what as a storage medium after death? What is the evidence for the mechanism of that storage? In the natural world a damaged brain does not function normally, a truly dead one (not one that has an old wive’s tale about having been clinically dead for hours, but the person miraculously came back) does not function at all.

Problem Number Three is that we can’t accept someone’s personal experience, or even many people’s experiences, as evidence because of the inherent unreliability of the brain. If you don’t think that’s a valid statement, let’s take a look at some optical illusions, or the fact that many people are still preparing for Harold Camping’s predictions to come true because of the experiences they “know” they had with angels.

Note that the very language use is assertive: “… devas are, *in fact*…” No, they’re not. That’s an assertion not in evidence, and we can just as easily apply this thinking to any supposed being undetectable through any externally verifiable means. If it were fact, it would have evidence. Until then, this is an interesting idea and nothing more.


“Remember, empiricism as I understand it, and as presented in the Suttas, does not mean ‘direct experience only’. (This is a fallacy commonly found among certain modern meditation teachers, but clearly against the Suttas and the entire Buddhist tradition, in India at least.) It means ‘direct experience’ (paccakkha) and ‘inference’ (anumāna). What inference is exactly is hard to pin down. Practically, it means that we stay relatively close to experience. If I have never drunk wine, I will have hardly any idea what it tastes like. But if I have drunk wine regularly for many years, I may never have had a Chateaux de Chateaux (which I hear is very passable), but I will have a pretty good idea what it will taste like.

I don’t see any reason to expect there is such a thing as direct experience. Read Metzinger’s The Ego Tunnel for more about that, it’s just too big to handle here!

Similarly, if I have recollected, say 3 or 4 past lives, it is not such a big leap to 30 or 40, or 300 or 400 lives. The basic fact of the thing is more or less the same.

I respectfully disagree here. Our memories in a single lifetime are not accurate and correct, why should we expect that even if they did somehow carry over that they would be viable?

This contrasts with what I have characterized as ‘metaphysical’ claims. The difference is precisely the difference between a very very big number and infinity. The Buddha claims to have exercised his memory over billions of years. The difference between that and our ordinary experience of time is very great, but not outside the capacities of inference. After all, geology and astrophysics claim to tell us what happened billions of years ago, relying on inference from fairly sketchy data.

Yes, but it is also data that is *in evidence*. It is also not a single human brain recounting all the data from billions of years, it is a set of hypothesis and theories coming from a set of data points. And it’s tentative, even with evidence, yet scientists are accused of hubris while fundamentalists of every religion claim they are absolutely correct with *no* evidence!

Most religious doctrines, however, speak of eternity. God, the soul, the atman, heaven, or whatever lasts not for mere billions of years, but literally forever. It is not possible, and never will be possible, to infer from the data available in this temporal world to ‘eternity’. Any claim to ‘know’ this eternity is a claim to know something that is utterly and absolutely outside any experience of consciousness.”

I would agree with that!

PS fantastic podcasts @ TSB eg with Glenn Wallis, Stephen Batchelor & Winton Higgins etc!!

I would agree with that, too 🙂