Philosophy and Ethics

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Saturday, 13 April 2013

Secular religion through 'thick' and 'thin'.

An interesting recent article on the Secular Buddhism website introduces two contrasting policies by means of which secular Buddhism might present itself.
The first option takes a 'thin' approach, offering meditation and Buddhist practice as something that can benefit anyone, whatever their existing religious beliefs or affiliations. It does not seek to impose particular Buddhist teachings, but simply offers secular Buddhist practice to as many people as possible, excluding none by avoiding doctrinal confrontation.
The 'thick' approach seeks to explore secular Buddhism in a way that is most compatible with science and with an exploration of the basic Buddhist teachings, even if that then conflicts with the beliefs of other people who might have benefitted from Buddhist practice.
There's far more to both approaches that I have sketched here, and both have their advantages and difficulties. For anyone interested in Buddhism, it's worth reading and pondering on the issues raised in that article.
But there seems to be a parallel here with any attempt to explore natural or secular religion against a background of Western religions and particularly Christianity.   This would not be a matter of doctrine or philosophy, but more of practice and strategy.  A 'thin' approach might suggest that one could continue to attend Christian (or other) forms of worship, taking a demythologised and secularised interpretation of the beliefs that are proclaimed. In this way, one might be able to get some benefit from the social, aesthetic and moral aspects of religion, while sitting lightly on its metaphysical teachings.  That's all well and good, and many of the most articulate of religious people are good at presenting the secular implications of faith - having just put down the Guardian, Giles Fraser springs to mind; his comments are always relevant in a secular context, even if linked to a fundamental theological point. And, of course, it is possible to argue that a fully 'incarnational' theology requires just such a teasing out of the values that apply in a secular context.
But I've tried being 'thin' and I find that it's difficult not to bend over backwards to accommodate the most crazy of supernatural beliefs only to feel that your own integrity is threatened - and once that happens, what's the point?
The other option is to take a 'thick' approach, argue with all who hold supernatural beliefs, and end up in a kind of limbo where one's integrity remains intact, but one becomes isolated.  To take any 'thick' approach to religion is likely to provoke those of different views and a secular approach to religion is always going to offend those for whom traditional doctrines are personally important.
I sense that the atheist and humanist community face a similar 'thick' and 'thin' dilemma.  There are plenty of people who attend religion, or at least give a nod in its direction, and yet acknowledge a 'thin' veneer of atheism - if only through the agnostic approach of acknowledging the limitations of human knowledge and therefore of the impossibility of affirming doctrines literally.  A 'thin' form of secular religion pervades many a funeral service that appears to be Christian, easing off on the teachings about death and resurrection and emphasising the celebration of a life.  By own experience of being within the Church suggests to me that a substantial number of 'believer' are functionally atheist, but emotionally and socially attracted to religion, as a means of exploring profound aspects of life.
The 'thick' approach is typified by the new atheist thinkers. They will not - in contrast to the 'thins' -engage seriously in debate about religion and metaphysics, nor are they likely to be found engaging in a little bit of soft religious practice, but prefer to stake out their position by way of rejecting a caricature of religious beliefs.
Sometimes, of course, you have the worst of all possible worlds - a 'thick' position attempting to look a bit 'thin' by offering a secular alternative to a cherished religious icon, as we have seen in the publication by Anthony Grayling of his 'good book', a sad imitation of the style of the King James Bible that mashes together some wonderful secular writing from the past couple of millennia, while denying (through lack of references) the possibility of following up on any of the very sound advice it includes.
To return to Buddhism... 'Skilful means' is the Buddhist policy by which teachings are always to be adapted to the needs of their hearers, seeing the task of helping people to overcome suffering as taking precedence over any form of doctrinal purity, or clinging to fixed doctrinal formulae.  Perhaps we need a similar approach in looking at the possibility of secular forms of religion. The crucial thing is not to find some philosophical formula that we can impose on others, or to which all would willingly subscribe (a formula that would certainly be 'thin' in the extreme), but to start from the other end and ask what it is that people actually seek from religion. Whether we respond in a 'thick' or 'thin' way is then a matter of pragmatic judgement.

To see the article on the Secular Buddhism website, click here.

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