Secular Humanism and Secular Buddhism

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.