Why Secular Buddhism is Not True

What, you think I’m just stirring the pot with that title? Have you met me?

A fairly recent publication in the genre of “secular Buddhism” has come to my attention, Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright:

It’s received a lot of mostly positive mainstream press:

And it’s currently sitting pretty at number 5 on the New York Times non-fiction list. Kudos!

It’s fairly standard in early Buddhism circles to dismiss the central claims of secular Buddhism, but I am not one of those who thinks secular Buddhism is a Bad Thing. Sure, it’s problematic, but, as the success of this book shows, it reaches people in ways that normative Buddhism, so far, has failed to do. This is, of course, normal, and happens every time Buddhism goes to a new land: it is not assimilated all-at-once, but bit by bit, with people swallowing what they can digest.

The problem is not that the secularists present only a small part of Buddhism; it’s that they, implicitly or explicitly, regard their own small viewpoint as better. In doing so, they don’t just misrepresent the Dhamma, they undermine its transformative potential.

I haven’t read the book, so I won’t comment on it. But prominent in all the reviews and interviews are some of the stock secular Buddhism ideas, and I wanted to take the chance to address these head on.

The key to secularist Buddhism is, of course, that it dismisses “religious” and “supernatural” ideas, most importantly rebirth, and addresses only what is claims are scientific and observable truths.

The core problem to this is that the Buddha:

  1. Accepted the reality of rebirth based on his own meditative experience
  2. Placed this reality at the core of his teaching.

Secularists either ignore these inconveniences by dealing rather vaguely with “Buddhism” (by which they usually mean Buddhism as interpreted by moderns like themselves) or by trying to explain away the references to rebirth in the EBTs. I won’t go into the details of the latter project; suffice to say, it’s a failure. It doesn’t just get the points above wrong—it gets them catastrophically wrong. These things are not difficult, they are not things that can be interpreted away: they are bleeding obvious.

Secular Buddhism snorts out the gate roaring that it’s based on reality not faith. Yet its very first rhetorical move is to dismiss plain facts based on uncritical faith in its own ideology.

There are three rational positions that secularists can take with regards to the teaching of rebirth in the suttas.

  1. The Buddha taught rebirth, but rebirth is not real, so the Buddha was wrong.
  2. The Buddha taught rebirth, and rebirth is real, so the Buddha was right.
  3. The Buddha taught rebirth, and I don’t know whether rebirth is real, so I can’t say whether the Buddha was right.

Any one of these is, I think, a reasonable and defensible position. I personally accept the second position, but I understand why someone would not be persuaded. Don’t worry, it’s okay! You can disagree with the Buddha! He never objected because people had a different view than him.

What the Buddha came really strong down on, though, was when people misrepresented what he said. He could hardly have made his position on rebirth clearer: he stated it again and again and again, smack bang in the middle of pretty much all his core analyses of the problem of suffering.

Bear this in mind when secularists say things like this, to quote the Vox article on Wright:

By “true” Wright means that Buddhism’s “diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” That diagnosis goes something like this: the human condition is defined by constant and ultimately inexplicable suffering.

Of course, the Buddha’s actual “diagnosis of the human predicament” is not that suffering is a psychological tension you can overcome with some mindfulness courses. It is the fact that we are stuck in the endless transmigration of rebirth. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the EBTs should know this. By leaving out “superstitious” elements, the secularists aren’t just shedding Buddhism of unnecessary dross, they’re completely redefining the whole thing, starting with the four noble truths, in a way that has little to do with the Buddha’s intentions.

This wrong-headedness stems from the root conceit at the heart of the secularist program. The secularists are not prepared to question their own deep assumptions. They use materialist rationalism to critique Buddhism, but never imagine that Buddhism might critique materialist rationalism.

This is an essentially psychological, or better, existential lack. The secularist ideology is shallow and arrogant. It’s afraid to suspend it’s own self-view and deep beliefs. It uses its own rational self-image to dismiss things that are problematic: and this is why it remains blind to its own errors, and after many years is still unable to correct them.

Symptomatic of this lack, and one of the greatest tragedies of the secularist project, is their failure to really understand what the Buddha was doing when he spoke of these things. They spend their time and energy explaining away rebirth as a mere superstition, rather than putting in the effort to figure out what it is all about. To put it plainly: rebirth is not a superstition. To claim otherwise is to misunderstand both rebirth and superstition.

This is a classic example of Ken Wilber’s pre/trans fallacy. I refer to this a lot, even though it’s been years since I read Wilber, because it’s one of the most useful ideas for sorting out these kinds of mistakes in spiritual contexts. I’m going to repeat myself here, so if you’ve read my past explanations of this, feel free to skip ahead.

The pre/trans fallacy essentially says that more primitive things always share something in common with more advanced things, and they are apt to be confused.

To give a simple example, let’s say I’m driving to the village of Bundanoon. Before I get to Bundanoon, I see fields, cows, a train line. At Bundanoon, I see a village. After I’ve passed through the village, I also see field, cows, and a train line. Of course, they’re not the same as the ones I saw before, but they are somewhat similar.

The point here is that if someone is still in Bundanoon, and has not passed through to the other side, it’s impossible for them to know what is there. If someone says, “It’s fields, cows, and a train line”, they will naturally assume that it is identical to what came before. That is, someone in the middle state will normally make the mistake of collapsing the pre and the trans state. Only someone who has gone through to the other side can clearly know the difference.

But there is more. The one who has gone through to the other side stands at a higher plane of understanding. They not only know the pre, middle, and trans states: they understand why it is that the person in the middle thinks the way they do. They know this, because they used to be that person. They used to stand in exactly that spot and think exactly those thoughts.

And here is where the problem of arrogance arises. A person standing in Bundanoon might talk with someone who has been to the other side and say, “It sounds just like what came before.” “But no,” says the other, “it may sound the same, but actually it’s quite different; I know, I’ve been there.”

What to do with this? An arrogant person would simply dismiss the testimony of the other, assuming their own perspective to be the highest. A gullible person would blithely accept anything they’re told. But a rational person would inquire, ask as to details. They’d see whether the testimony held good, and check the person’s reliability. If it all checked out, they’d accept the claim provisionally, while still reserving final judgment: “Hopefully one day I’ll go there myself, and then I’ll know for sure.”

In modern or secular discussions of spirituality, the most common form of the pre/trans fallacy centers around scientific materialism. The secularists take their ideological stance on rationality, empiricism, evidence. For them, the paradigmatic form of rationality is modern scientific materialism, so they assume that this is the highest vantage point from which to survey reality. From here, everything non-materialist looks the same, and it is all dismissed as “superstition”, “religion”, or “belief”.

But it is not all the same. It is true, in Buddhism, there are many things that are mere superstitions—magic amulets, mystical tattoos of protection, curses, astrology, and the like. These are not just non-rational, they are pre-rational. They are more primitive than rationality, and in many cases, more harmful. For Buddhists who are at this level of understanding, the appropriate course of action is not talk of transcendence, or even meditation, but to learn to apply principles of rationality and evidence, to learn to disentangle the true Dhamma from superstition.

But of course, such things are not a part of the Buddha’s teachings in the EBTs. Where they appear, they are usually dismissed, or at the very least marginalized. Belief in lucky charms is not the same kind of thing as acceptance of rebirth. But so long as the secularists simply dismiss rebirth, they will never understand this.

The teachings on rebirth in the EBTs are not in need of being divested of metaphyscial assumptions. On the contrary, that is precisely what the Buddha already did. That is what “not-self” is all about. Rebirth is an observable, empirical phenomenon, which can be understood as a simple extension of the same psychological principles we observe here and now. It no more requires metaphysics than does looking through a telescope.

This understanding of rebirth, and the anti-metaphysical nature of the Buddha’s teachings, was developed by some of the greatest modern Buddhist philosophers, K. N. Jayatilleke and more explicitly his student David Kalupahana. If you’re interested in actual Buddhist philosophy from a modern perspective, which is deeply grounded in a serious study of Buddhist texts and teachings, as integrated by people who have really studied modern philosophy, choose these writers, not the lightweights of Buddhist secularism.

Kalupahana argued at length that the Buddha’s teachings were fundamentally anti-metaphysical, in the sense of rejecting anything that is unknowable on principle. Questions such as the ultimate beginning of things are unknowable, so the Buddha refused to answer them.

The difference between an empirical and a metaphysical claim is that an empirical claim may be inferred from observation. A metaphysical claim, however, can never be inferred from observation. “God is eternal” is a metaphysical claim; it can never be tested and must forever remain an article of faith. “The Universe is billions of years old” is an empirical claim; it can be tested and may turn out to be either right or wrong.

Consider the way that science extends the scope of our knowledge with observation and inference. We normally live on a scale of distance that ranges from under a millimeter to several kilometers. That’s about what we can observe. Of course, we can see the stars, which are much further away, but we have no scale to estimate their distance. We can, however, make very careful and precise observations of the stars. We can even extend the capacity of our biological eyes with the help of telescopes and other machines. We can interrogate this information with questions based on our assumptions, and repeatedly correct or refine our assumptions, driving even more detailed observations. Eventually we can have detailed and reliable information even about events and objects that are millions of kilometers away. It’s really amazing, the power of science! Yet no matter how remote it gets, it is still grounded on the two principles: observation and inference. (In the EBTs, these are called dhamme ñāṇaṁ and anvaye ñāṇaṁ.)

Of course, to someone who doesn’t understand science, this is all just nonsense. They don’t see it, they don’t understand this whole scaffold of inference that we call “theory”, so they feel free to say that the earth is flat, or that god made the universe 4000 years ago. It’s difficult to argue with this, as it really is hard work to sort this stuff out. We either spend years of study and training to learn it all, or we have to rely on faith in the scientists. In fact, whatever we do, we have to rely on faith in scientists; even if we have mastered one niche in science, there’s plenty more we have to take on trust.

The Buddha’s procedure when it came to the study of rebirth was similar. He began with plainly observable phenomena. When this was insufficient, just as scientists expand their sphere of observation by means of physical instruments, he expanded his sphere of observation by means of mental development. Sure, it’s hard to do this, and you can’t verify the claims easily. But it’s also hard to build a particle accelerator. No-one said it was going to be easy! It took scientists 2000 years to meaningfully test the theory of atoms. Science has only just begun its investigation into states of enhanced consciousness, and it may be another 2000 years before the results are in.

And just as scientists connect the many diverse phenomena with explanatory inferences which we call “scientific theories”, the Buddha drew together his observations in overarching theories such as dependent origination.

None of this shows that the Buddha was correct. It merely shows that his claims are rational and empirical. Any empirical hypothesis may be fully rational yet still false—something that was, indeed, pointed out by the Buddha himself. This is why I said above that, even though I believe the Buddha was right about rebirth, I think it is rational to believe that he was wrong.

It does, however, show that the secularist dismissal of rebirth as metaphysics or superstition is wrong-headed. If they want to fulfill their claims of making a truly rational, scientific account of Buddhism, they must start by accepting that rebirth is an empirical theory, and investigate it as such.

This then requires consideration of the evidence regarding rebirth and other non-materialistic phenomena. I won’t discuss this here; suffice to say I think there’s plenty of evidence to question the materialist position.

Perhaps the most disappointing outcome, for me, of the secularist philosophy is that it undermines the capacity for Buddhism to make a real difference. It seems to me that one of the most damaging and toxic legacies of the West is dualism: mind vs. body, faith vs. reason, religion vs. science, fact vs. value. This is not only a debilitating intellectual fallacy, it has catastrophic effects on our society, underlying the whole fundamentalist rejection of science, including climate change denial, which threatens the very survival of our civilization.

The secularists dodge this challenge. When push comes to shove they fold to the “science” wing of the duality. But the real insight comes when you realize that dhamma means both “fact” and “value”. In the Dhamma there is no divorce of mind and body, faith and reason: these things support and enhance each other. When you accept the imposition of these alien, limiting dualisms, and refactor the Dhamma to make way for them, you’re not reforming the Dhamma; you’re only betraying the shallowness of your own understanding.

We should recognize that the Dhamma stands beyond these limitations. It has never made enemies out of emotions and reason, faith and science. If we are to heal the wounds of our broken and bleeding world, surely this is where we must start.


I agree with you. I think Buddha is the first person to start the secular Buddhist movement.
If I am not mistaken, Sutta “Safe bet” is promoting the same idea as secular Buddhism.
Perhaps Kalama Sutta also pointing to secular Buddhist ideas.


Oh, essays like this make me pine for the days of Sujato’s Blog, when these kinds of game changing essays would spill forth from the heart and mind of Bhante Sujato. So glad SC holds a place for this kind of unique and powerful expression. Bravo.


Thanks for the support! Normally I’m too busy working on translations, but I had a morning off, so …


First, to be clear, I totally agree with everything you’ve said. But, to be fair, one more thing rationality might bring you to is the possibility that the Buddha meant rebirth in another way (metaphorically or whatever), but before it was written down, it had been misunderstood through a 500 year game of telephone. I only say this because I’ve heard this argument from others. I often tell them that it may be the case, but everything else makes total sense so it’s unlikely that this one major thing was the one that was twisted in time so to speak.


yes it’s ironic the secularists are so quick to dismiss rebirth yet so quick to accept and hold to “this is the only life.”


I’m not sure if you overemphasize the Buddha as a rebirth-scientist, bhante. The idea of rebirth is older than the Buddha, and while in the Vedas it was mostly an automatic cycle to the ancestor realm and back, even the ethical dimension of rebirth was introduced before the Buddha in the early Upanishadic times.

It seems to me not so much a theory he had and validated but a paradigm that was ubiquitous. The interlocutors of the suttas were not doubting rebirth and the Buddha convinced them. It was rather that he specified the particular (ethical and spiritual) dimensions of rebirth that people were in general accepting anyway.

I don’t think it affects your necessary critique much, I would just shift the discussion of rebirth a bit further from the person of the Buddha and add the time and place his life was situated.


Hi Jimi,

I understand your point, and I have addressed this in more detail elsewhere. And no, the Buddha did not mean it metaphorically when he spoke about rebirth. Metaphor is used constantly throughout the EBTs, it is addressed explicitly in the texts themselves, and we can for the most part make clear and meaningful distinctions between metaphorical and literal passages.

Of course we can question what it is that the Buddha said, and how we know that. That is what we do here, and you can find plenty of sceptical positions and alternative positions proposed.

If the secularists were serious, they’d take a similar approach. They’d start by identifying passages and show how they address rebirth from a metaphorical perspective. They’d use the basic methods of text-critical inquiry, for example by comparing different versions of a text, examining it closely in the original language, and so on. And they’d show how these metaphorical passages relate to other passages that are non-metaphorical. They’d demonstrate that the passages they have adduced are key doctrinal passages. And they’d explain how the problems emerged. But they do none of this, and if they do, they do it poorly. The reason is, in my humble view, that despite their rationalist rhetoric they’re just not intellectually serious.

What they usually do is start from an ideologically predetermined position, and when it runs up against the facts they explain them away, saying things like, “It could have changed in the oral tradition.” This is a classic avoidance technique: because they don’t understand the oral tradition, they assume that no-one else does, and so they can safely invoke it to magic their problems away.

On the other hand, I actually do understand the oral tradition: I’m a part of it. Here’s my proof. I memorized the following passage over twenty years ago, and here it is, typed from memory.

Suṇātu me bhante saṅgho. Ajj’uposatho paṇṇaraso. Yadi saṅghassa pattakallaṁ, saṅgho uposathaṁ kareyya, pātimokkhhaṁ uddiseyya. Kiṁ saṅghassa pubbakiccaṁ? Pārisuddhiṁ āyasmanto ārocetha. Pātimokkhaṁ uddisissāmi. Taṁ sabbeva santā sādhukaṁ suṇoma manasikaroma. Yassa siyā āpatti so āvikareyya, asantiyā āpattiyā tuṇhī bhavitabbaṁ. Tuṇhī bhāvena kho pan’āysmanto “pārisuddhā”ti vedissāmi.

Did I make any mistakes? We can check it against the text on Suttacentral. Here’s a diff of the two texts.

The differences are highlighted in a darker blue. In fact, all of these are meaningless: variations in capitalization, use of ṃ vs. ṁ , some spelling variants, punctuation, etc. The version I learned had paṇṇaraso, this version has pannaraso: both are acceptable spellings for “fifteen”. (Incidentally, I’d guess this is the first ever use of modern diff tools for checking oral text!) I did make one correction to this file: I originally had arocetha, not ārocetha. Also, I misspelled pātimokkhhaṁ, duh! But these were errors of typing, not of memory.

This is only a few lines from a much longer text: I could type out the whole thing, but it would get pretty boring for both of us. Over a longer span, would I make mistakes? Sure. That’s why, as a standard part of the oral tradition, when it is recited, other monks are there to correct the reciter, and correct they do.

I’ve put in the work to do this, and I’ve seen the sincerity and effort of countless monks who have applied themselves with diligence and intelligence to master such tasks. Of course, these days the tradition has mostly gone over to writing, and I recite much less than I once did. But still we keep it alive and we understand what it takes. The oral tradition is a perfectly good means of transmission of texts, no less accurate than any other.

So you can understand how it’s a bit frustrating when people with no knowledge of such matters, no investment, who have made no effort to so much as read a decent article on the oral tradition, still less to actually memorize texts themselves, opine that recitation is no better than “a game of telephone”. It’s the Buddhist equivalent of “I’m not a climate scientist, but …”

I know I probably haven’t communicated this very well, but I actually really like the secular Buddhist movement, and I think it has a lot of promise. In Sydney, I was the first monk to teach the local secularist groups, and we have a very nice connection. Most of the people at such groups have no great ideological investment in the ideas I discuss above; they just want a like-minded group of people to practice and discuss with. I just wish the popular teachers were a bit more straightforward in their approach. Please, just say it: “I disagree with the Buddha. I think he made a mistake when talking about rebirth.” That’s all that’s needed, a simple bit of honesty. But it would put their whole movement on a much sounder intellectual footing, and lay the groundwork for a positive direction in the future.


The suttas repeatedly say that the reality of rebirth is based on the direct experience of the Buddha and his disciples. This is why these knowledges are placed in core doctrinal categories such as the six abhiñña and the three vijjā. You can’t compare it to other mere cultural accretions, because those things are not found in such categories and are not claimed to be confirmed by the Buddha’s direct experience. Moreover, when other things from the Vedas, etc., are mentioned they are usually criticized.

Also, it’s simply not the case that it was a ubiquitous paradigm. Rebirth is not really found in any more than a vague and ambiguous sense in the Vedas, and the sramana movements had all sorts of ideas about rebirth, including outright rejection. There was no consensus, and even if there was, the Buddha wouldn’t have hesitated to reject if it it conflicted with his experience.


I don’t see that it’s necessary to buy the rebirth thing in order to practice, any more than it’s necessary to think there are magical beings, magical powers, and myriad heavens and hells. I have no need of those hypotheses, and I don’t need any extra beliefs in order to follow the path. For me, it’s not about what I believe, but what I discover, and what I then do with my discoveries. There’s plenty of support for my approach in the suttas, e.g. the Atthakavagga.

In order to accept the idea of rebirth, it would help to have some idea of a mechanism of action. What is it that happens? I have no idea and have never seen or heard anything plausible. If that changes, then so will the way I think about it, but I’m content to be agnostic on the topic in the meantime.

I don’t think much of Wright’s book, as he takes psychology way more seriously than I do, but Batchelor has led me to some very interesting places in contemplating the times and circumstances of the Buddha’s life, as well as ways in which the teachings may have been altered (or simply evolved) in the early years. Perversely, he has helped me to become more of a “religious” Buddhist than I might have been otherwise. :grin:


And as well they only need to be serious enough to be able to sell books, run retreats, mindfulness programs etc.

In my view Buddhist secularism is closely related to the commodification and commercialisation of the Buddha Dhamma. :sweat:


It depends on the level of practice you are talking about.
The way I understand you can’t become an Arahant if you don’t believe in rebirth.

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I don’t think believing in rebirth is necessary to become an arahant. As I understand it, becoming an arahant means realizing the truth of rebirth!


Sorry to be so elementary, but what exactly are the central claims of secular Buddhism and are there any ‘authoritative’/universally accepted documents outlining The Secular Buddhist position on whatever it might be?


I meant realising dependent origination.


@AndyL I think an agnostic approach is reasonable. The Buddha invited us to investigate the Dhamma for ourselves. As we progress along the path of practice the benefits and our experience condition our views.

There are still aspects I’m agnostic towards. Mainly the particularities of the heaven and hell realms. It’s just not worth my time getting caught up in such things.

When I first came to Buddhism the idea of rebirth bothered me but when I examined it I saw it was conditioned by western/Christian eternalist ideas. The idea of this life being impermanent and what comes after being permanent seemed like ‘after Bundanoon there’s an eternity of cows’, when really there’s cows and then what seems like an eternity of the Hay Plains and then there’s sheep… anyone who hasn’t driven from Bundanoon to Adelaide probably doesn’t understand the near eternity of the Hay Plains.

For me DN15 was very useful to understand this. Ajahn Brahm covered this sutta in detail a few years ago and the discussion makes it very easy to follow. This is part 2… part 1 audio is linked on the page.


On the contrary, you can’t become an arahant if you do believe in rebirth.

It is the stream-enterer who sees the four noble truths, dependent origination, i.e. the reality of rebirth and samsara. They know and see it for themselves and have no need for “belief”. But they still have attachment to samsara, and it is the arahant who lets go that attachment.


This sort of makes this article I stumbled across, while looking for something else, half an hour before seeing this thread a moot point! Lol

I’m not even sure I understand the secular view of Nibanna. Why not take Valium?



So true, but I hope you won’t be quoted out of context… you might become the standard bearer of the secular movement! :grin:

(just noticed that the quotation in SC don’t maintain the italic font that was in the original post…)


I’m not sure if there is such a thing, and to be fair, I think most or all secular Buddhist teachers would reject such an attempt and say that there is no accepted doctrine in that sense.

Generally speaking, the secular Buddhism movement, which is most closely associated with Stephen Batchelor, tries to present the Dhamma in a way that’s relevant to a “modern”, western lay practitioner. They divest their practice of bowing and chanting and the like, and embrace meditation, Dhamma as science, and to some degree, study of the suttas.

From my experience (mostly in Sydney) such groups are pretty typical meditation groups, with some discussion and teaching. Generally the demographic skews 40+ (actually more like 50+ these days) and white. It’s probably more male-oriented than most lay meditation movements. I haven’t seen strong youth presence.

Teachers would see themselves as working in a similar way to someone like, say, Sam Harris. They acknowledge that much of what they teach is contrary to normative Buddhism, and calls into question whether what they’re doing is usefully regarded as Buddhist at all. Nevertheless, by definition they still see themselves as “Buddhist” in some sense, rather than “buddhist-influenced.”

For the most part, they focus on the standard themes of modern Buddhism: mindfulness, etc. They do sometimes introduce broader themes, such as a sociological perspectives, historical analysis, or philosophy. They tend to be somewhat more intellectual than your typical meditation group, and the teachers often have an academic background or at least some qualifications. They may be psychologists or therapists of one sort or another.

Apart from the rebirth thing, their special teachings usually tend towards a smallification of the Dhamma. They tend to diminish the role of the ordained Sangha, treating Dhamma as a part-time activity. Rather than seeing awakening as a final state of perfection, they see it as an imperfect process. They don’t believe that suffering can be truly overcome, just diminished. They treat jhana as a weak state of pleasant peace with a gently wandering mind, rather than true unification. And so on.

While many of these ideas might seem shocking to an EBT purist, in fact they are pretty standard fare for most forms of traditional Buddhism, in one way or another, and can be traced all the way back to the Mahasanghika schism. King Mongkut didn’t believe in rebirth, and he founded modern Thai Buddhism.

I don’t have any problem with seeing secular Buddhism as an authentic expression of Buddhist modernism, and it’s one that I think traditional Buddhists have much to learn from. We might complain about the fact that a book based on this approach makes it to the NY Times best-seller list. Well, fine then—write a better book and get it up there instead.