Stephen Batchelor is a celebrated proponent of dharma practice stripped of ritual and other cultural trappings in order to reveal the power of the basic Buddhist teachings. His 1997 book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, is a manifesto in that direction. In it, he reminds us that Buddha himself was no mystic but rather a pragmatist with a recommended method for putting an end to suffering. Belief, he argues in the vein of André Gide, is an anathema to wonder and curiosity, and as such kills the true spirit of Buddhist enquiry. In this passage, he talks about the original formulation of the term agnosticism that addresses a state of not knowing and how a truly agnostic approach would opt for confrontation over consolation.
The force of the term “agnosticism” has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say “I don’t know” when you really mean “I don’t want to know.” When allied (and confused) with atheism, it has become part of the attitude that legitimizes an indulgent consumerism and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media.
For T. H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as: “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as: “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it the “agnostic faith.”
First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (“dharma Practice”) rather than another ‘-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable. Dharma practice has become a creed (“Buddhism”) much in the same way scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism”.
Just as contemporary agnosticism has tended to lose its confidence and lapse into scepticism, so Buddhism has tended to lose its critical edge and lapse into religiosity. What each has lost, however, the other may be able to help restore. In encountering contemporary culture, the dharma may recover its agnostic imperative, while secular agnosticism may recover its soul.
An agnostic Buddhist would not regard the dharma as a source of “answers” to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, etc. An agnostic Buddhist is not a “believer” with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense is not “religious.”
An agnostic Buddhist looks to the dharma for metaphors of existential confrontation rather than metaphors of existential consolation. The dharma is not a belief by which you will be miraculously saved. It is a method to be investigated and tried out. It starts by facing up to the primacy of anguish, then proceeds to apply a set of practices to understand the human dilemma and work toward a resolution. The extent to which dharma practice has been institutionalized as a religion can be gauged by the number of consolatory elements that have crept in: for example, assurances of a better afterlife if you perform virtuous deeds or recite mantras or chant the name of a Buddha.
An agnostic Buddhist eschews atheism as much as theism, and is as reluctant to regard the universe as devoid of meaning as endowed with meaning. For to deny either God or meaning is simply the antithesis of affirming them. Yet such an agnostic stance is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know. It confronts the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the consolation of a belief. It strips away, layer by layer, the views that conceal the mystery of being here—either by affirming it as something or denying it as nothing.
Such deep agnosticism is an attitude toward life refined through ongoing mindful awareness. It may lead to the realization that ultimately there is neither something nor nothing at the core of ourselves that we can put a finger on. Or it may be focused in an intense perplexity that vibrates through the body and leaves the mind that seeks certainty nowhere to rest.