DEFINING ‘SECULAR’

Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism (1) explores what a “nonreligious, this-worldly, secularised Buddhism” might look like. This post is part of my own inquiry into what it means to feel ‘secular’ whilst  engaged in ‘spiritual’ practices and connected with modern Paganism. Batchelor uses ‘secular’ in three overlapping senses:

  1. A general contemporary usage where ‘secular’ stands in contrast to whatever is ‘religious’ – the two terms being clearly polarised whilst not very clearly defined.
  2. A Latin derived sense of ‘this age’ (saeculum) – referring to “those concerns we have about this world, that is, everything that has to do with the quality of our personal, social and environmental experience of living on this planet”.
  3. A Western, historical-political sense, acknowledging a 2-300-year period of ‘secularisation’ that has transformed the whole culture to the point where most people can live “almost their entire lives without giving religion a thought”.

Stephen Batchelor talks about an “uncompromisingly secular reading” of the Buddha’s teaching, in which “one returns to the mystery and tragedy of the everyday sublime. Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human”. He is an admirer of Ludwig Feuerbach, a student of Hegel who came to reject his teacher’s emphasis on the primacy of Spirit in the unfolding of history and advocated instead a liberal, materialist and atheist view of the world. “Feuerbach’s basic idea is simple. ‘Religion’, he wrote in the preface to his most famous book, The Essence of Christianity (1841) ‘is the dream of the human mind. But even while dreaming we are not in heaven or the realm of Nothingness. We are right here on earth’”.

In this way, Batchelor acknowledges all three senses of ‘secular’: a distancing from traditional religious belief, an affirmation of the world and time, and the rise of modern secular belief systems – Feuerbach was an early influence on Karl Marx. I like the way Batchelor teases out these meanings, especially his acknowledgement of ‘movement in time’ aspects as well as ‘not religious’ ones. I am more open and agnostic about the language of ‘heaven or the realm of Nothingness’ alongside that of being ‘right here on earth’. If we treat these as states rather than places, then I can see them intertwined dimensions of being. But I do not hold this as an ideology.  I stand, rather, in openness and unknowing: the direct experience of At-Homeness in a flowing now is my ground and source, with or without a cosmic warranty.

Another sense, that of interconnectedness in the web of life, grows out of my At-Homeness – and this is firmly situated in place, time, and history. That place and time, right now, is one of distress, division and confusion, facing runaway climate change as a collective existential threat. My inquiry asks to to be alive to this collective wounding, and to contribute to a healing. In previous inquiry phases, I worked with modern Druidry and Paganism, focusing largely on the ‘nature’ aspect, but also on the powers of imagination and deep cultural stories. I then turned to other paths with a stronger emphasis on contemplative practice and its benefits. There is a treasure trove of resources in all of these these explorations, and I shall continue to draw upon them in my new inquiry cycle.

(1) Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017