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Religion for Atheists

Image courtesy of ‘nyoin’: www.nyo-in.com.

Today’s Telegraph is reporting that ‘secular sage’ Alain de Botton “has come up with an ambitious scheme that he calls Temples for Atheists. These will be secular spaces for contemplation, starting with one in London but then spreading across the country”. This is part of de Botton’s wider project of encouraging secular society to “steal religion’s most fruitful ideas” (Guardian), as set out in his latest book, Religion for Atheists, published last week.

I fully expected to dislike Religion for Atheists. It’s the title, you see: Buddhism is, after all, an atheistic religion, and I am quite contentedly living a meaningful spiritual life without any need for, or belief in, God.

And my feathers remained resolutely ruffled by the first sentence of the book: “The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings.’ There seem to be enough questionable views in this sentence alone to warrant another book in response! Is it so unreasonable to ground our spiritual life on truth, for instance? What is truth anyway? Are the truths of reason and science really so reliable? Is God-given truth the only game in town when it comes to spiritual life? What about the direct meeting with what is reality that can occur in meditation? The list goes on…

By the end of the Religion for Atheists, though, I felt more sympathetic. In fact, I felt quite warmly disposed to de Botton’s attempt to “reclaim atheism from strident anti-religion figures such as Richard Dawkins” (Telegraph). What is needed, though, from a Buddhist viewpoint, is a much stronger expression of the middle way – of the truth that lies between the extremes of scientific, rational, materialism on the one side and fundamentalist theisms of all flavours on the other.

So I’m left feeling that Alain de Botton moves in the right direction but doesn’t go nearly far enough. He seems to be promoting – in the book and in his School of Life – mere psychological wholeness as life’s purpose and goal. Whilst this is, of course, laudable and desirable, and an achievement in itself, it is, from a Buddhist viewpoint, just the beginning, the first stage of the path. On the basis of establishing the happy, healthy humanness that de Botton advocates, and the ‘skilful intentions’ that can be strengthened by meditation practices such as the metta bhavana, we can start to look at what life – and existence itself – is really about. And on the basis of that, we can start to loosen our attachment to a narrow sense of ourselves and the world, and find real freedom. And we do this all without recourse to anything ‘handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets’, without the intervention of ‘prophets and celestial beings’. Now isn’t that something worth building glorious, atheist-religious monuments to? Share

Postscript: Here is a link to a talk I gave recently about truth, as part of a series on Buddhism and Western Philosophy at the London Buddhist Centre. I include it here in response to some of the comments below.

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7 Responses to “Religion for Atheists”

  1. Sam says:

    I enjoyed this article. And the presentation is very pleasing. The concluding point rings very true – that mere psychological wholeness as life’s purpose and goal seems so limited and mundane.

    Regarding atheism itself, I have understood Buddhism to be non-theistic ie. a spiritual teaching and path that is not dependent on a deity. To assert atheism seems too naively certain about too much. Am I misunderstanding?

    I certainly laud de Bottons attempts to remind us that humans have what one might as well call an innate ‘religious nature’. It clearly needs exploring.

    I have not read his book yet and, from what you say, am not feeling enticed to do so!

  2. Manjusiha says:

    Glad you enjoyed the piece, Sam. And thanks for the comment. Re. Buddhism and atheism, I would definitely put my hand up to both. At the same time I wouldn’t want to deny the significant, meaningful – transcendent, even – experiences that some of us label as ‘God’. As Subhuti says in Re-imagining the Buddha: “The experience that some describe as God may be a genuine one. Something that appears as greater than oneself may have irrupted into one’s imagination. The problem of God is not the experience itself but the way we think about it and our relation to it, as well as the theological and ecclesiastical machinery with which the idea becomes surrounded… As Buddhists we simply do not use that language of God because it is unhelpful and easily becomes the justification of much evil.”

    So what I am doing, in calling myself an atheist Buddhist, is saying that I don’t believe in an eternal, creator God (although perhaps nobody can actually ‘know’ if God exists in this sense), whilst remaining open to the experience of transcendence that some might label ‘God’.

    I would recommend ‘Religion for Atheists’, by the way, although with the caveats that I include in my piece. It is well written and thought-provoking, with some beautiful and evocative photos. I hope to write a longer review of it at some point.

  3. Satyadasa/ David Waterston says:

    I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read and enjoyed most of Alain de Botton’s work. It may be that his opening sentence about the truth (or falsity) of a religion being an unproductive and boring question is pointing at the very shallow way in which religion is generally debated:

    Person A: “Do you believe in God?” (i.e. does God in fact exist, i.e. is it true?)
    Person B: “No” (ergo I am not religious)
    Person C: “Yes” (ergo I am religious)

    Religion is so often debated in terms of its truth content, which usually means entering the the very boring and needless debate of religion versus science – Revealed Truth versus Factual Truth deduced by some scientific method.

    Someone who won’t accept religion because it isn’t True (in other words cannot be reduced to demonstrable factual propositions) misses out on all the potentially transformative and life-enhancing benefits of religion. Its the fixation on a rather literal-minded questioning of Truth which blocks any further engagement with the very real questions about life and death which a religion (in practice) may (or may not) usefully address.

    As a Buddhist I always get fed up with religion v science debates and especially the Richard Dawkin type protagonists who seem to be attached to their own reductive statements as if the very Gospel Truth. Buddhism practically aims at transforming consciousness in the direction of wisdom and compassion. If we are to use such a word as Truth in a Buddhist context it is the direct seeing or experiencing of the way things are. This is the goal of the long transformative path known and not a belief you work out and conclude about at the beginning.

    So I rather agree with Allain de Botton’s opening remark and think it cuts right to the very point at which many people tend to reject religion wholesale – i.e. is it literally scientifically true that Moses was given some tablets or that Christ was born from a virgin named Mary? Christians rarely seem to be able to defend themselves against this sort of questioning because they too tend to hold things a bit literally (dramatic understatement).

    Even the question “is Buddhism true?” is a rather boring and literalistic question unless it is explored very deeply and in the context of Buddhist practice. Otherwise its just hot air.

    For example, anyone who concludes that the Buddha was wrong because enlightenment isn’t provable therefore they don’t believe in enlightenment has missed the point in a big way. Of course, we should all be allowed to hold such views – go ahead and disbelieve – but what then?

  4. wendy says:

    Dear Manjusiha,
    I have found my way to Buddhism and your website, through a reading of philosophy and in particular the thoughts of Schopenhauer to whom I was introduced by reading the Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee. As an atheist in search of something more than all that that entails, Buddhism seems to be a, maybe the only, genuine way to acknowledge metaphysical possibilities without pretending you know what they are, and a way to try to explore the human urge to find a basis and a motivation for the compassion that is needed to underpin a non utilitarian morality.
    I am not a philosopher but I have turned to it over the years to try to find answers/meaning. It is only this time, that I have found myself led to explore Buddhism and i find that the prospect is making me feel excited and full of anticipation.

    I was promptrd to write today because I understand the last writer’s rejection of the word truth but feel that it can be admitted into Buddhism and that therin les one of its greatest attractions to the atheist. I feel that a Buddhist should admit that meditation etc could serve no greater purpose than relaxation as there is no real evidence it can or has done more other than hearsay evidence. To say more than that woudl be to join the religions of the world in endorsing wishful thinking.
    Only if Buddhism accepts its limited access to assertions of objective truth can the rational atheist find a home there. Any benefits that emerge from Buddhist practice such as personal insights into the human condition and cosequent changes in personal behaviour, emotional responses and motivation, must surely be described as wonderful, mysterious but essentially subjective outcomes.
    Would you say that in order to call oneself a Buddhist you have to believe in the possibility or personal enlightenment or just that you have to be open to the possibility that it might be possible?

  5. Manjusiha says:

    Hi Wendy

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I found my way to Buddhism partly through reading Confessions of a Philosopher and Schopenhauer, and then more formally studying western philosophy, so I can relate to what you say about that. I co-led a series of seminars on Buddhism and Western Philosophy at the London Buddhist Centre recently, loosely based on Plato’s allegory of the cave and looking at ‘the good, the beautiful and the true’. I’ve attached a link to the talk about truth to the end of the original article above – I think this goes into some of the areas of interest to you. Hope you find it interesting and helpful.

    This is what Schopenhauer said about his philosophy in relation to Buddhism: “If I wished to take the results of my philosophy as the standard of truth, I should have to concede to Buddhism pre-eminence over the other [religions]. In any case, it must be a pleasure to me to see my doctrine in such close agreement with a religion that the majority of men on earth hold as their own.” The World as Will and Representation Vol. II.

    Buddhists weren’t historically that interested in objective truth – that’s probably a big factor in why science never emerged from Chinese society, which was otherwise very advanced. Ultimately, though, both Schopenhauer and Buddhism would say that the distinction between subject and object is actually mind-made – it is an illusion, it’s not how things really are. The world as it is in itself is not dualistic – that was Kant’s great insight, which Schopenhauer developed further. Kant said that we can never apprehend the (‘noumenal’) world-in-itself, only the (‘phenomenal’) world of appearances. But Schopenhauer said that we can access the world-in-itself since we have access from the inside, as it were, to ourselves and our own ‘inner’ experience of reality.

    This seeing through the distinction between self and other is one way, perhaps, of talking about the enlightenment-experience. I think each of us probably has some experience of transcending this distinction: whenever we act ethically or apprehend a great work of art, for instance, our sense of separateness is softened, and we can open into something much more expansive, positive and freeing.

    I would say that we don’t ‘have to’ believe or be open to anything as Buddhists. Buddhist teachings are there for us to test, to see if they are helpful. We trust our instincts, experience and those further along the path than we are to guide us towards a more and more beautiful, wise and compassionate way of being in the world. One thing I do know, though, is that there are people around who are much more spiritually advanced than I am and from whom I can learn and gain inspiration. And that, in a sense, is all I really need, regardless of whether this leads to Buddhahood (whatever that means).

  6. wendy says:

    Thank you for that reply Manjusiha. I will think deeply about all you say and continue to explore Buddhism. I have a long way to go.

  7. suyen says:

    a review of the book in the economist
    http://www.economist.com/node/21549915

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