On Buddhism Without Beliefs
‘In 1995, Helen Tworkov, the editor, asked me whether I would consider writing an introduction to Buddhism as a part of a new series of Tricycle Books. She was looking for someone to present the basic ideas and practices of Buddhism to a lay audience without using any foreign words or technical jargon. I agreed. The result was called Buddhism Without Beliefs, which was published in March 1997. Instead of being the non-contentious introduction to Buddhism that was initially conceived, Buddhism Without Beliefs triggered that Time magazine, in its cover issue on Buddhism in America the following October, called “a civil but ferociously felt argument” about whether it was necessary for Buddhists to believe in karma and rebirth. I had proposed in the book that one could hold an agnostic position on these points, i.e. keep an open mind without either affirming or denying them. Naively perhaps, I had not anticipated the furor that this suggestion would create.
The ensuing controversy showed that Buddhists could be as fervent and irrational in their views about karma and rebirth as Christians and Muslims could be in their convictions about the existence of God. For some Western converts, Buddhism became a substitute religion every bit as inflexible and intolerant as the religions they rejected before becoming Buddhists. I argued that Buddhism was not so much a creedal religion as a broad culture of awakening that, throughout its history, has showed a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions. For a while I hoped that Buddhism Without Beliefs might stimulate more public debate and inquiry among Buddhists about these issues, but this did not happen. Instead, it revealed a fault line in the nascent Western Buddhist community between traditionalists, for whom such doctrines are non-negotiable truths, and liberals, like myself, who tend to see them more as contingent products of historical circumstances.
What is it that makes a person insist passionately on the existence of metaphysical realities that can be neither demonstrated nor refuted? I suppose some of it has to do with the fear of death, the terror that you and your loved ones will disappear and become nothing. But I suspect that for such people, the world as presented to their senses and reason appears intrinsically inadequate, incapable of fulfilling their deepest longings for meaning, truth, justice, or goodness. Whether one believes in God or karma and rebirth, in both cases one can place one’s trust in a higher power or law that appears capable of explaining this fraught and brief life on earth. One assumes the existence of hidden forces that lie deep beneath the surface of the contingent and untrustworthy world of day-to-day experience. Many Buddhists would argue that to jettison belief in the law of karma - a scheme of moral bookkeeping mysteriously inhering within the structure of reality itself - would be tantamount to removing the foundations of ethics. Good acts would not be rewarded and evil deeds punished. Theists have said exactly the same about the consequences of abandoning belief in God and divine judgment.’
- Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.