What is the difference between theism, supernaturalism, and secularism?
In Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, one or more gods intervene in the affairs of mortals. If you pray to a being, you are likely praying to a god. This is “theism.” Most Buddhist philosophies have no supernaturally powerful beings. So Buddhism is an “atheist” religion, because you don’t pray to a god, if you pray at all.
To discuss the term “supernatural,” we must first define “natural.” Natural in this post means measurable and verifiable. Supernatural means something beyond what we can measure, examine, and test. There is a hard-core science magazine called Nature. I can barely read half the articles, but all are based on verifiable data.
Although the majority of Buddhist groups are atheist, many Buddhist groups believe in supernatural rebirth. Agency (a “soul”) passes from a human being’s death to another’s life. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes this when the death of a lama (religious leader) leads to a concerted search for their reincarnation, to trigger training and reverence. No legitimate science verifies the value of reincarnation for lamas: as far as scientists know, we could pick a random person who passes a test and get a similar outcome. Some adherents view the reincarnation idea as the harmless perpetuation of an inspiring ritual, but others accept it lock, stock, and barrel.
Some Buddhists believe in “boomerang karma,” that your bad actions will come back to get you eventually. Even without rebirth, this is, as far as I know, a supernatural belief. Nobody has proved scientifically that boomerang karma is a thing. It is so easy to corrupt a religion with boomerang karma, similarly to modern “Prosperity Gospel” where one’s wealth reveals God’s blessing. Nichiren Buddhists, for example, think chanting “Nam myoho renge kyo” over and over can purge boomerang karma and heal the world. So they chant, a lot. It would be cool if it worked, but there’s no evidence.
For good or bad, I am a scientist and a secularist. If it’s important, we can measure it. And if we can measure it, we can construct theories and test them. We might discover a new truth, and that is Good in itself. I may currently dismiss some beliefs as supernatural, which ultimately measurement and experiment verify; those beliefs then move from supernatural to secular. And then I believe them. “Proof first, (skeptical) belief second” is a secular perspective, reverse the order and you get theism and supernaturalism.
A scientist is trained to assert something strongly, and dare people to disprove it. So being of some ancient age of 60, I have long been asserting “there is no God,” “astrology is random,” “boomerang karma is a passive aggressive fallacy.” No disproof so far. When the disproof comes, I’ll change my tune, but until then the howling banshees are just noise.
I like Secular Buddhism, because adopting this philosophy has made me more sane, focused, and deliberate. Its premises are testable, and many have been proven by the positive psychology folks, the goal theory psychology folks, etc.
It is cool that Gautama (“the Buddha”) figured most of this out a few thousand years ago. But the dude was just a really smart guy, as fallible as you and I. I am a member of a Secular Buddhist group. When people say, “Gautama said, ‘You should do X,’ so therefore you should do X,” I roll my eyes. It’s as if someone said, “Einstein said time is relative, therefore time is relative.” No scientist would ever say that, in fact most scientists would say “Einstein said time is relative, I wonder if there are situations where it isn’t?”
Here’s a story: The other day I read an article from some wild haired scientists who thought quasars were caused by a plasma effect and their ideas might lead to a disproof of the Big Bang Theory (which would be huge, and probably destroy many careers). Their thought-provoking theory delighted me, and I posted it on Facebook. Scientists love this sort of thing, we are a bit perverse that way. Such challenges help us uncover more useful truths, and many of us sacrifice our careers in the pursuit of truth.
The universe is a beautiful place. No supernatural powers are needed to love, to stand in awe, to wonder. The more we know, the more beautiful it becomes.
- Stephen Batchelor, “A Secular Buddhist,” Tricycle (Fall 2012)