Two misconceptions about secular Buddhism

There are two common misconceptions about secular Buddhism:

1) Secular Buddhism is an attack on religion or God, a form of militant atheism;

and

2) Secular Buddhism is a self-help technique, the same as some of the forms of secular mindfulness which have become very popular in contemporary society.

In his 2015 book After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor explains why these common views of secular Buddhism are incorrect.

Two notions of religion

Stephen points out that there are two notions of religion. On the one hand, religion can be defined as a concern with ultimate values and a deep concern over the issues of life and death. On the other, religion involves the formal means to connect with these concerns, such as sacred texts, rituals, and the institutions of a particular religion. He points out that:

…Secular critics commonly dismiss such institutions and beliefs as outdated, dogmatic, repressive and so on, while forgetting about the deep human concerns that they were originally created to address. (AB, p.15)

In this sense, because secular Buddhists do have a concern about ultimate values and the fundamental issues of life and death, they are religious in the first sense.

The goal is human flourishing

At the same time, secular Buddhists do not view the dharma as merely a technique for reducing stress in a capitalist society, but rather as a challenging ethical path oriented toward human flourishing, based on fully experiencing the mystery and uncertainty of our lives. As Stephen says:

I do not envision a Buddhism that seeks to discard all trace of religiosity, that seeks to arrive at a dharma that is little more than a set of self-help techniques that enable us to operate more calmly and effectively as agents or clients, or both, of capitalist consumerism. (AB, p.17)

So, rather than being a militant, anti-religious perspective or a self-help method, secular Buddhism requires us to live a life in which the core values of compassion, wisdom, and awareness are realized to the greatest extent possible.


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2 Replies to “Two misconceptions about secular Buddhism”

Very succinct and easily accessible explanation. Thank you.

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