Secularity, religion and being human

This talk was given to Bluegum Sangha, Sydney, in August 2012.

As many of you know, for a while there’s been a new kid on the block called secular Buddhism, and she has attracted both admirers and detractors. But even her admirers tell different stories about her and where she’s coming from, and those stories tell us more about where the storytellers are coming from than the new kid herself.

Secular Buddhism aspires to a deeper acculturation of the dharma in the west, particularly the English-speaking west. This means it has to come to grips with facets of western cultural development that relate to religion and spirituality. But some of the admirers hail secularity as the bane of religion (which they often dismiss as superstitious nonsense), while others see secularity as a progressive stage within western religious development. You don’t have to listen to these discordant voices for too long to realise that they express a lot of confusion about how secularity and religion are to be grasped, and how they inform and articulate our life process.

I want to clear up some of this confusion, but also, at the end, pose a problem to which I don’t have an answer. Another thing I can’t do is offer you a satisfactory definition of religion, because none exists. But we can look at what it has meant for many of its adherents historically, and at very least honour it as a storehouse of cultural history.


‘Secularity’ is almost as slippery a word as ‘religion’. The English word ‘secular’ comes from the Latin saeculum, originally meaning a human life span, but over time also acquiring the connotation, ‘of this world’, or this-worldly. Some people think religion is about divine mysteries, which are other-worldly. In venerable Roman Catholic usage, then, parish priests are called ‘secular’ because they minister to the laity who are absorbed in worldly affairs; while the ‘religious’ are monks and nuns who contemplate divine mysteries. So clearly full-time celibate religious professionals can be secular in this sense.

But many of those who extol secularity today assume it to be hostile to religion. Certainly there are indications of this opposition that are regularly cited as secular: over the centuries our public institutions have largely abandoned their original religious flavour and legitimation, and call themselves ‘secular’ instead; and census statistics and other data show an inexorable decline in religious observance and belief, in western countries like ours.

The prominent moral philosopher Charles Taylor – a liberal Catholic with a whole lot to say about secularity – gives us a much more interesting focus: ‘conditions of belief’. To many people, myself excluded, religion is centrally about wholehearted belief in other-worldly truth-claims. In any event, for most of us now, the truth-claims of natural science trump the religious ones which contradict them.

Our culture takes for granted the law of gravity, the theory of evolution, the big-bang explanation of the universe, and the origin of all mental experience in the physical brain and nervous system. We don’t get reborn when we die, virgins don’t give birth, the dead don’t come back to life, God didn’t create the universe in six days 5,000 years ago, and neither he nor the angels exist. And so on.

If religion is just about belief, then, its prospects aren’t great in a culture like ours. And quite a few secular Buddhists take this view of things, and admire, for instance, the best-selling militant atheists (Richard Dawkins, Michael Hitchens, Sam Harris). Many such secular Buddhists live in America, where religious belief (often linked to reactionary political activism) remains exceptionally high, so questions of belief loom exceptionally large there. However, the rest of us can afford to take a wider view of religion.


Religions – like so much else in human affairs – rely on narratives. But where they really do viscerally inform and articulate human experience, they don’t stand or fall on actual belief. Rather, their strength lies in weaving themselves into the warp and weft of people’s daily lives and big life events. To illustrate this – and to create a world first in the annals of Buddhist history – I’m going to introduce you to the (Anglican) Book of common prayer. In particular to Brian Cummings’s recent edition of its texts from 1549, 1559 and 1662.

As Cummings argues, this text enjoys a unique stature. For centuries the greater part of the population of England, then also Wales, and later Scotland, enacted it on a weekly basis. They would have known slabs of it off by heart. It similarly permeated the lives of a significant part of the populations of north America and the British empire for hundreds of years. Its publication and sales figures over nigh-on five centuries have been stellar. As a cultural and linguistic influence it overshadows the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. In fact, Shakespeare and the authors of that bible grew up intimate with its linguistic brilliance, just as I did in the mid-twentieth century, in an Anglican school in Sydney, on the other side of the planet.

The word ‘common’ in the book’s title refers to its focus on everyday human experience. An example of its humanity: its principal author, Thomas Cranmer, had earlier gone to Nuremberg to consult with Andreas Osiander, a leading Protestant theologian there. Osiander impressed our Tom, but the theologian’s niece, Margarete, impressed him even more. He successfully sought her hand in marriage, and then he was mightily impressed with the marital bliss that followed.

When he came to pen the wedding service for the Book of common prayer, he felt that the pre-existing reasons for marriage stated in the rite – the procreation of children, and suppression of fornication and debauchery – didn’t really cut it, so he added to them in a flourish of creative theology: marriage is ‘for the mutual societie, helpe, and coumfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperitie and adversitie’. [Brian Cummings (ed.) The book of common prayer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) p.64.] In the mid-C16, this was a stunningly progressive view of marriage, with more than a dash of secularity.

Ever since I went to my first funeral as a teenager, another piece of Cranmer magic has echoed in my head, not least since learning about suffering and impermanence in the dharma. In the burial service, at the actual graveside, the priest says:

Man that is borne of a woman, hath but a short tyme to lyve, and is full of miserye: he cummeth up and is cut downe lyke a floure, he flyeth as it were a shadowe, and never continueth in one staye.

In the myddest of lyfe we be in death.

[Brian Cummings (ed.) The book of common prayer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) p.82.]

Especially that last short sentence now brings Heidegger to mind – his idea that constant awareness of our mortality, our ‘being-towards-death’, our finitude, is one of the keys to an authentic life. I’ve found funerals that make this point well to be extraordinarily uplifting, well evoking the Chinese Buddhist sense of ‘this great matter of life and death’.

What about religion – and the BCP in particular – in everyday life? Cummings quotes the bon viveur and posthumously great diarist, Samuel Pepys, as an illustration. Here’s his entry for Sunday, 13 November 1664:

This morning to church, where mighty sport to hear our Clerke sing out of tune, though his master sits by him that begins and keeps the tune aloud for the parish. Dined at home very well. And spent all afternoon with my wife within doors – and getting a speech out of Hamlett, ‘to bee or not to bee’, without book. In the evening to sing psalms; and in came Mr Hill to see me, and then he and I and the boy finely to sing; and so anon broke up after much pleasure. He gone, I to supper and so to prayers and to bed. [Quoted in Cummings, p. xi. From The diary of Samuel Pepys, eds Robert Latham and Wm Matthews, 11 vols. (London: Bell & Hyman, 1970-83), vol. 5, 320-1]

Pepys – no doubt like millions of churchgoers before and since – is no devout bore or ‘true believer’: he goes to church twice on Sundays because he enjoys it. With its poetry, singing and fellowship, for him it’s integral to a life well lived. Even when, the year before, he imagines his wife is eyeing off Mr Pembleton, the dancing master, during the service.
I think Cummings makes a vital point about the role that religion once played in people’s lives, when the sensibility of the BCP was at its height:

More than a book of devotion … this is a book to live, love and die to. This is no other-worldly or unworldly book of the spirit removed from the body, but a book of the daily experience of the body, and of ordinary routine temporarily endowed with a quality of the eternal. Nor is it only a book of prayer, narrowly conceived. It is a book of ritual, of practices and performances used to transform the activities of a life. Rituals, anthropologists now tell us, are what make the human animal different. Mankind is a ‘ceremonial animal’, Wittgenstein tells us. Ritual is the social act basic to humanity, the means by which we draw our lives together into a mutual practice. The rituals of the Book of Common Prayer … help us to understand the wider processes by which human beings communicate with each other and incorporate their lives in structures beyond the individual self or a single lifetime. But they also give us a precise historical window onto the complex initiations and rites of passage which have filtered the experience of a broad cross-section of the world’s population through several centuries. Why do people bless themselves, or kiss each other in a gesture of peace, or give each other rings, or lay hands on their children’s heads, or throw soil or herbs or flowers onto the coffin of a friend? These questions, and ones like them, punctuate this edition as a record of human memory and meaning which shows the depth of ritual influence on everyday life. The purpose of this edition is to present a religious book to the common reader. In the process, religion is revealed as a much bigger, less private, and less sanctimonious phenomenon than many modern secular readers assume. [Cummings, p. xii, emphasis added.]

The decline of lived religion

Under the individualising, disenchanting influence of Protestantism and the European Enlightenment, this communal religious sensibility gradually began to fade. The magnificent marker of its passing is Matthew Arnold’s poetic lament, Dover Beach, penned on his honeymoon in Dover in 1851. And note (for the benefit of those who believe science has killed religion) that this was eight years before Charles Darwin published his fateful On the origin of species:

The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; —on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This last image appears to refer to Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war, in which a battle takes place on a similar beach during the Athenian invasion of Sicily. It plays out at night, and the Greek invaders become disoriented while fighting in the darkness, so many inadvertently kill each other. Now Arnold’s image reads like a terrible prophesy of the American civil war, and the first world war, when mechanised killing enormously increased the senseless slaughter.

In conclusion

This bleak picture of a world without religion should give us pause. Precisely this picture led in the 1980s to the emergence of the Sea of Faith movement among English-speaking Christians, Anglicans above all. It takes its name from the metaphor in the poem, and seeks to maintain the ethical, spiritual and cultural continuities and communal practices of religion while abandoning its no longer tenable supernatural truth-claims. It takes for granted that all religions are human artefacts that serve human purposes.

An inspiring, instructive narrative doesn’t need to lay claim to literal, cosmic truth, as the Greeks in their classical period demonstrated in their relationship to their own pantheon. It’s an interesting strategy for the secular age. With due humility we should acknowledge that secular Christians appeared some time before secular Buddhists did, and perhaps have much to teach us.

Of course, we should not fall for the furphy that only religion can foster an effective ethical framework and a meaningful life. Just as we should not fall for that other furphy that secularity represents the victory of science over religion. The problem for us is rather: do we need – and can we generate – the gripping language, rituals, fellowship and sensibility that Cummings ascribes to religion, as a way of living our this-worldly lives more consummately.



2 Replies to “Secularity, religion and being human”

Fraser Williamson

What a lovely article. I think there is a need to look to the best of what each tradition has to offer rather than the lowest common denominator which always tends to be divisive. Another person who speaks for the secular is Thomas Moore. In his book ‘The Soul’s Religion’ he says “The ultimate goal of a new religious vision is a world so fully secular and so fully sacred that there would be no way to tell them apart. Yet we need an articulation of religious and spiritual vision to achieve a deeply humane secular existence. The old forms of religious teaching and ritual need to revised radically, but most of all we need the capacity to see the sacred in the ordinary and the mundane.”

The realms of religion and science are really saying much the same thing at both their better ends. The problems begin where you either have religious text treated as pure historical fact or you have science referring to a bird bath shallow concept of religious faith. I heard a very eminent scientist mockingly refer to “the old man with a grey beard in the clouds” the other day. Our science and our theology needs to be equally deep to be worth talking about.

Also I think religion and spirituality is a process so we need to be very compassionate towards all expressions in some ways. If we look at out own lives we can see a move from one level of consciousness to another. I was much closer to the ‘grey beard in the clouds’ type of faith twenty years ago and now it is entirely different. I’m sure all the secular buddhists in the house can attest to very profound shift from one type of faith to another.

I think Father Thomas Keating was right when he said that to tolerate one another is no longer adequate. We have to learn to love one another’s traditions and embrace our oneness below the forms.

Namaste Fraser

Jim Champion

I could easily write this on any of Winton’s articles published here, but thanks for sharing something that really speaks to me in a helpful way! Jim

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