Buddhism for Skeptics of Religion

I’m not a Buddhist. I subscribe to no traditional religion (though as I argue here, like everyone else I am religious). I am an agnostic atheist who values secularism, science, reason, mindfulness, and the pursuit of individual and collective wisdom and wellness. As an expression of these values, I would like to highlight key aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practice that I believe can be palatable, useful and positively enriching for even the most ardent skeptic.

Concepts to be addressed:

  • Monism
  • Atheism
  • Impermanence, Emptiness and Dependent Origination
  • No Self (or No Soul)
  • Attachment as source of Suffering; Letting Go as source of Freedom
  • Pursuing Wisdom, not Happiness
  • Mindfulness as a path to Wisdom and Wellness
  • Reincarnation and Rebirth
  • Karma

I. Monism

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are dualist; they divide reality into spiritual/mental reality, on the one hand, and physical/natural reality, on the other. Buddhism has always viewed the mental and physical as being interacting parts of a greater, unified whole. Modern science has favoured monism. For more, see Solving the Mind-Body Problem in Five Minutes.

II. Atheism

Buddhism is also atheistic. The Buddha is not the God of Buddhism. He was just a guy that thought of some useful ideas and practices that a lot of people found value in. Contrary to theistic religions that view reality as comprising a natural realm for mundane materials and mere mortals, and a supernatural realm for God(s) and spirits, Buddhism holds that all there is is this world; and this world has no Gods.

III. Impermanence, Emptiness, Dependent Origination, and No Self

Impermanence refers to how there is nothing that has a permanent, unchanging existence. Reality is dynamic, not static. Everything is constantly in flux and in interaction with its environment. This applies to what we call the physical world, from orbiting electrons, to bonding and breaking molecules, constantly changing cells, tissues, organs, organ systems, organisms, ecosystems, and so on. It also applies to us as individuals. Our personalities, attitudes, beliefs, habits, and everything about us is in constant interaction with our social and physical environments, all susceptible to modification or termination, though some tend to be more enduring than others. No Self, or No Soul, refers to how there is no such thing as an enduring personal essence or soul.

Dependent Origination refers to the transactional nature of everything. No part of the universe gains its nature independent of the universe. Everything that is is a part of the greater system.

Emptiness refers to each thing’s lack of any sort of permanent identity or essence. Everything is made of and through the interactions of other things. Science has yet to find anything that can be described as true atoms of the universe – genuinely indivisible, elementary particles.

IV. Attachment as Source of Suffering and Letting Go as Source of Freedom

There are many things that a person can become attached to, cling to or crave. They can range from possessions, to social positions and eras (e.g., rank, job, relationships, the university years, “the good old days”), body shape, physical health status, self-concepts, happiness ideals, and so on.

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

– From The Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr

Where attachment often leads to suffering is when the individual fails to appreciate that some things in life are controllable and some things are not. Clinging to or hinging one’s sense of self, well-being or reason for living on things that are beyond our control makes one unnecessarily vulnerable. Possessions can be broken, stolen or never had; relationships can end or never be had; valued social positions can be lost or never had; the last 5 pounds may never be lost or may continue to pop back on upon; there’s almost always someone else that can do what you love to do better than you can; the college years end; vacations end; hips break.

In life, there will always be pain. Suffering joins the pain when we fail to accept that which is and which cannot be changed. Letting go  is about moving past attachment to that which we cannot control. Notice that this is not pacifism. It’s not about doing nothing. It’s about having the wisdom to recognize that which is beyond our control; it says nothing about acting when action can produce positive outcomes.

V. Pursuing Wisdom, Not Happiness

Pursuing happiness is risky. Happiness is one of those things that we cannot fully control. Sometimes we “get up on the wrong side of the bed”; that is, for whatever reason, some days we wake up and are in crappy moods. Sometimes we get rejected, insulted, broken up with, fired, downsized, lied to, beaten up, injured, sick, hungover, and so on. If being happy is our goal, we’re often going to be frustrated. What is more, sometimes our emotions are not willing to be bossed around by our pre-frontal cortices. Telling negative thoughts or feelings to go away and happiness and positive emotions to come out is often about as effective as singing “rain, rain go away….”. This can lead to even more frustration, as now we’re not only upset about what initially upset us; we’re also upset that we are not happy and don’t have the foggiest clue about how to make ourselves happy. So, 

not only is happiness not fully within our control, when we try to control it we often push it further away.

The pursuit of wisdom is the continual honing of one’s understanding of his or her thinking, feelings, and behaviour, the world, how these facets of reality interact, and striving to apply this understanding skillfully. The cultivation of wisdom is far more within our control than is happiness. Incidentally, pursuing wisdom is far more likely to bring us happiness, wellness and serenity than is pursuing these ideals directly. Put another way,

the path is a key concept in Buddhism. Buddhism is very much about process and path, not product and destination. Pursuing the destination of happiness can create an arduous trip that never gets us to where we want to go. Focusing on traveling in a way that builds and exercises wisdom can have the effect of enabling us to travel happily to wherever we are going.

VI. Mindfulness as a Path to Wisdom and Wellness

Mindfulness practices, most notably meditation, has enjoyed an explosion of interest, excitement and inquiry in the West in recent decades. Originating largely from Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, mindfulness meditation has received extensive support in the medical and psychological research communities as an effective therapeutic approach for dealing with depression, anxiety, emotion dysregulation, chronic pain management, addictions recovery, impaired concentration and more.

What is Mindfulness Meditation?

There are various approaches to meditation. The form that I practice involves focusing on the breath. Because it is a dynamic process that happens *right now*, the breath can serve as an anchor to the present moment. By practicing maintaining an attention to the breath, one develops a recognition of what it feels like to be mindful of the present moment. As this recognition becomes more learned, the individual gets better and better at noticing when their mind has wondered off to thoughts about the future, the past, hypothetical wondering, judgment, and so on. The individual likewise becomes more adept at returning their attention to the present moment. What is more, the individual gets better at recognizing thoughts as thoughts, and emotions as emotions, and learning that neither are synonymous with either the “self” or reality. Relatedly, a terrific adjunct to mindfulness is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which comprises strategies for rational thought/emotion analysis and behavioural modification.

By enabling one to continually recognize that the thoughts and emotions that run through them are simply thoughts and emotions – not definitive statements on the nature of oneself, the world and how one must think, feel and act – mindfulness empowers the individual.

Mindfulness also offers an effective approach for reducing suffering. In life, pain is guaranteed. When confronted with pain people often respond by attempting to fight or flee from the pain or its source. Sometimes this is effective. However, sometimes the source of the pain is unfightable and/or unfleeable. Trying to fight or flee from these types of pain only makes things worse in two ways. Firstly, by getting ourselves all worked up and frustrated as we try but fail to fight off or flee from the pain, we increase the total pain experienced. This secondary pain often includes the anguish that comes with thoughts of how many times one has experienced such pain in the past and failed to snuff it out. Secondly, by attempting to stop the pain as soon as possible, we build the pain up in our mind. Each time we attempt to beat the pain down or run away from it and refuse to just be with hit, we are reinforcing the notion that what we cannot tolerate it.

By mindfully being with the pain in this one moment, we reduce the total amount of pain that we experience by eliminating the anguish tied to frustrated fight-or-flight responses and memories of previous bouts with similarly painful experiences. What is more, by exposing oneself to the pain – often necessarily in gradual, incremental doses at first – one often comes to find that the pain isn’t as painful as they had previously imagined. By being with the pain moment-to-moment, simply observing it like a single wave on the ocean, not trying to push it away, one also notices that the pain will often dissipate in time on its own accord. In one of the great ironies of the universe, attempting to crush or flee from pain often strengthens and prolongs it, while steadfastly confronting it often shrinks and shortens it (that’s what she said).

VII. Reincarnation and Rebirth

There is no scientific reason to believe in literal reincarnation. This is one of those Buddhist ideas that can be more constructively viewed in metaphorical terms. My way of looking at is that each time we change our path, our previous path dies and the next one is born. In terms of wisdom and wellness, not all paths are equal. Some turns will bring as more wisdom and wellness than others. Moreover, not all forks in the road (i.e., decision points) are as big and monumental as others. In fact, most are so trivial as to make talk of reincarnation and rebirth ludicrous. But some are huge. Some beliefs and life orientations can be very destructive to the individual and/or others. Others can alleviate suffering, bring one closer to others, lead to increased confidence, and so on.

As an individual matures in their ability to mindfully observe their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in the moment, as they come to recognize their thoughts as thoughts and emotions as emotions, and becomes more adept at recognizing in real time that this or that thought or emotion may or may not be in harmony with reality or one’s best interests, they may feel like a new, wiser person.

VIII. Karma

Except in physicalist of terms – i.e., Newton’s each action is opposed by an equal and opposite reaction – I dismiss literal interpretation of karma. I see no reason to believe that if I do something nice for someone there is some sort of universal force that will ensure that something equally nice happens to me at some point. However, I think that a useful metaphorical interpretation of karma is possible.

This interpretation is based on the notion that acting against others often serves to separate us from them and isolates us. It separates us in terms of decreasing our social supports and increasing the chances that others may wish to act against us in the future. In terms of empathy, it reflects and/or creates an increased need to exhibit decreased empathy. It isolates us by reflecting and/or creating a gulf between self and others. Preoccupation with the self and the fostering an unnecessarily adversarial view of the self in relation to others can be a hot-bed for anxiety, depression and social problems.

What is more, acting with consideration of others can make us feel good, give us the sense of mastery that comes from knowing that one has the ability to improve the lives of others, expand our social supports, decrease the chances of others acting against us, and can decrease obsessing over the self. For these reasons, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) – a leading clinically validated cognitive behavioural therapy for people with significant emotional dysregulation – recommends doing things for others as one of many approaches to tolerating distressing emotional states. Though developed in America in the 1990s, ideas and practices from Zen Buddhism form part of the core of DBT.

Final Thoughts

I suspect that skeptics may view the arguments made here for metaphorical interpretations of karma and reincarnation/rebirth as the weakest arguments offered in this post. I acknowledge that they do not have the precision nor the breadth or consistency of application of purely scientific ideas. Nevertheless, they do have a certain metaphorical sensibility to them. It is these sorts of metaphorical interpretations that many – though not all – Buddhists sympathize with.

While I do not call myself a Buddhist, I’ve been told that many of my beliefs and practices are very in-line with Buddhism. What is more, as far as I can tell, no religion has generated more theoretically rich and actionable philosophy than Buddhism. Well-known atheist author and speaker Sam Harris has made similarly favourable comparisons between Buddhism and other Eastern wisdom-based religions and other world religions.

Buddhism is not perfect. It’s not intellectually flawless. But no philosophy is. If you do not want to be connected with ideas that you do not ascribe to, or with the very practice of religious affiliation, don’t call yourself a Buddhist. But if you want to open yourself to a wealth of valuable ideas and practices for cultivating wisdom and wellness, I humbly suggest that you resist any urge to not consider ideas connected to Buddhism simply because they’re Buddhist or religious. Likewise, try not to trust the ideas just because they’re Buddhist. Look into the scientific research literature, reason through the ideas yourself, try out meditation and talk to others that have been doing it for a while.

The Buddha and Sam Harris would both endorse this type of skeptical due diligence 🙂


7 thoughts on “Buddhism for Skeptics of Religion

  1. i disagree that Islam teaches dualism – on the contrary, it teaches Oneness – not only of God but of the entire universe and our deeply intertwined energies …

    Alot of the other stuff: emptiness, effacement of Ego, mindfulness as path to Wisdom … these are covered in the Sufi expression of Islam to which I subscribe …

    I love Buddhism – devoted Buddhists some of the nicest most sincere people you will meet (like Sufi’s) 🙂

  2. actually, in at least one version of Buddhism with which I’m acquainted (Tibetan Buddhism) there are in fact deities, but even gods can die and be reborn.

    I grew up with Buddhism, though I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, and I find that, of the major religions, Buddhism is probably the most compatible with science. Presumably you are aware of the fairly substantial amount of cognitive science research being done on/with Buddhist monks? I had the pleasure of attending a conference on the subject back in 2003. the Dalai Lama was one of the speakers and they did the Stroop test on him. 🙂

  3. M: I wasn’t aware that Tibetan Buddhism involves deities…

    I have absolutely heard about research in cognitive science and psychology on mindfulness practices. It was reading about this research that initially led me to get into mindfulness meditation!

  4. Pingback: Finding Happiness the Epictetus Way : #1 « Ritu’s Weblog

  5. Pingback: Finding Happiness the Epictetus way #2 « Ritu’s Weblog

  6. Very well thought out ideas!

    The first step in understanding generally means looking at something one does not yet understand. It simply is, whatever it is, and is valid as a creation in our field of God. Or whatever you want to call this space we peer into.

    A useful way to see, then, is to have no judgement whatsoever of what one is seeing. Once understood adequately in context (a completely subjective call), add it to the mix. Move on.

    The game of attachment, which can also be named a game of identities, puts one into the field of play, with rules. There’s nothing wrong with that. But one is then subject to rules one has created and forgotten. In a life form that can seem to be particularly unpleasant, since one of the rules is one dies.

    In the overall game there is only one rule. You are you. My experience.

  7. Mubin, unfortunatelly besides the points to which you agree, what you said about being united in god and all of universe is considered illusion in Buddhism and harmful for human development of wisdom and insight of the universe. That is closer to Hindu religion, also very different from Buddhism mainlly because Buddhism (Theravada Buddhism at least, cause that’s what I practice and only that I can talk about) is non-sectarian non-theistic… here’s a good article:

    Nature is impartial; it cannot be flattered by prayers. It does not grant any special favours on request.

    Man is not a fallen creature who begs for his needs as he awaits mercy. According to Buddhism, man is a potential master of himself.

    Only because of his deep ignorance does man fail to realize his full potential. Since the Buddha has shown this hidden human power, man must cultivate his mind and try to develop it by realizing his innate ability.

    Buddhism gives full responsibility and dignity to man. It makes man his own master. According to Buddhism, no higher being sits in judgment over his affairs and destiny. That is to say, our life, our society, our world, is what you and I want to make out of it, and not what some other unknown being wants it to be.

    Remember that nature is impartial; it cannot be flattered by prayers.

    Nature does not grant any special favours on request.

    Thus in Buddhism, prayer is meditation which has self-change as its object.

    Prayer in meditation is the reconditioning of one’s nature. It is the transforming of one’s inner nature accomplished by the purification of the three faculties. Thought, word, and deed.

    Through meditation, we can understand that ‘we become what we think’, in accordance with the discoveries of psychology.

    When we pray, we experience some relief in our minds; that is, the psychological effect that we have created through our faith and devotion.

    After reciting certain verses we also experience the same result. Religious names or symbols are important to the extent that they help to develop devotion and confidence.

    The Buddha Himself has clearly expressed that neither the recital of holy scriptures, nor self-torture, nor sleeping on the ground, nor the repetition of prayers, penance, hymns, charms, mantras, incantations and invocations can bring the real happiness of Nibbana.

    Regarding the use of prayers for attaining the final goal, the Buddha once made an analogy of a man who wants to cross a river.

    If he sits down and prays imploring that the far bank of the river will come to him and carry him across, then his prayer will not be answered.

    If he really wants to cross the river, he must makes some effort; he must find some logs and build a raft, or look for a bridge or construct a boat or perhaps swim. Somehow he must work to get across the river.

    Likewise, if he wants to cross the river of Samsara, prayers alone are not enough. He must work hard by living a religious life, by controlling his passion, calming his mind, and by getting rid of all the impurities and defilements in his mind. Only then can he reach the final goal.

    Prayer alone will never take him to the final goal. If prayer is necessary, it should be to strengthen the mind and not to beg for gains.

    The following prayer of a well-known poet, teaches us how to pray, Buddhists will regard this as meditation to cultivate the mind:

    ‘Let me not pray to be sheltered from danger,

    but to be fearless in facing them.

    Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain,

    but for the heart to conquer it.

    Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved,

    but for the patience to win my freedom.’

    By : Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda

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