CONTEMPLATING BELIEF

Spiritual commitment – faith in the path, and the perspectives underpinning it – need not depend on received understandings of ‘belief’. Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor discusses this issue below.

“The views that I hold about the things that really matter to me – meaning, truth, happiness, goodness, beauty – are finely woven tissues of belief and opinion. These views enable me to get by in my workaday world but would not stand up to a great deal of scrutiny from someone who was not sympathetic to them. I am prepared to defend some of them with greater vigor and passion than others. I drift and swim through life on a tide of derivative beliefs that I share with others who belong to the same kind of cultures as myself.

“Most Buddhists throughout Asia are and always have been polytheists. They believe in the existence of a range of spirits and gods whose worlds intersect with our own. These entities do not have a merely symbolic existence: they are real beings with consciousness, autonomy and agency … But since many of these spirits are fickle beings like ourselves, they cannot ultimately be trusted. On formally becoming a Buddhist, one ‘takes refuge’ in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, thereby renouncing reliance on those beings. But the spirits and gods are only downgraded, not abolished. They continue to play a role in one’s personal and social life. This is the thought-world one finds throughout the Pali Canon. Siddattha Gotama did not reject the existence of the gods, he marginalised them. He may have mocked their conceits, but he acknowledged their presence. At times they even functioned as inspirational voices that prompted him to act.

“However tempting it is for me to dismiss the existence of gods and spirits as outdated nonsense, I need to be aware of the equally tenuous foundations of my own beliefs. If challenged I would be incapable of persuading someone who does not already share my view of the universe or of human life that my beliefs about them are true. I once spent a couple of hours trying to persuade a learned and intelligent Tibetan lama that the world is spherical in shape – but with little success. I would have had even less success had I tried to convince him of other beliefs I held: those about the Big Bang, evolution by natural selection, or the neural foundations of consciousness. I believed in these on much the same ground as he believed in disembodied gods and spirits. Just as I unquestioningly accepted the authority of distinguished scientists, so he accepted the authority of eminent Buddhist teachers. Just as I trusted that what the scientist claimed to be true can be backed up by observation and experiment, so he trusted that what his teachers claim to be true can be backed up by direct meditational insight. I had to recognize that many of my truth claims were no more or less reasonable than his.

“Following the example of William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, I have relinquished the idea that a ‘true’ belief is one that corresponds to something that exists ‘out there’ or is beyond reality somewhere. For pragmatist philosophers such as these, a belief is valued as true because it is useful, because it works, because it brings tangible benefits to human beings and other creatures. Siddattha Gotama’s Four Noble Truths are ‘true’ not because the correspond to something real somewhere, but because, when put into practice, they can enhance the quality of your life. … What draws me to Buddhism is not because it has a more convincing explanation of the nature of reality than other religions, but that it offers a methodology which might actually work in addressing the question of suffering.” (1)

(1) Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist Atheist New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011