Can religion survive without all the hocus-pocus?

Scientists and atheists tend to be naturalists. Owen Flanagan, a professor of philosophy at Duke University, has written an article titled Buddhism Without the Hocus-Pocus in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 13, 2012, page B4, unfortunately behind a subscription wall) which provides as good a definition of naturalism as any.

Naturalism comes in many varieties, but the entry-level union card—the famous empiricist David Hume is our hero—expresses solidarity with this motto: “Just say no to the supernatural.” Rebirths, heavens, hells, creator gods, teams of gods, village demons, miracles, and divine retribution in the form of plagues, earthquakes, and tsunamis are things naturalists don’t believe in. What there is, and all there is, is natural stuff, and everything that happens has some set of natural causes that produce it—although we may not be able to figure out what those causes are, or were.

Why be a naturalist? World historical evidence suggests that naturalism, vague as it is, keeps being vindicated, while the zones “explained” by the supernatural get smaller everyday. Naturalism is a good bet.

The more sophisticated religious people realize that the supernatural is getting steadily squeezed out and they often make the case that all the magical and supernatural elements of religion that run counter to science are not what gives their religion its value and can be dispensed with. Rather they claim that it is the moral and ethical teachings that the religious texts espouse that are central to the religion. I hear this claim all the time in the circles that I move in.

But can religions really be drained of all the magical and supernatural elements and still retain any coherence? If you systematically eliminated the hocus-pocus from the religious texts of (say) Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, what would be left? In general, it would be a complete mess, with stories, aphorism, and teachings that are all over the place.

You could, of course, comb through the debris and pick out bits and pieces to construct some kind of coherent philosophy but what would be the point? You would, in essence, be using some external philosophy as a template to decide what aspects of that religion were worth saving and what to discard. But if one already has that template at hand, what is the need for those religions at all?

It is the supernatural elements of those texts that give them any authority. How many Christians would take Christianity seriously if they were told that the resurrection of Jesus did not happen? Why would Muslims venerate the Koran if it had been composed by a mere man? Without Yahweh behind them, the ten commandments would be seen as a fairly pointless, and even silly, list of suggestions. All the religions would be reduced to some banal version of the golden rule that could just as easily be found in any basic ethical system.

But what about Buddhism? Flanagan poses the following question:

It is a fair question to ask of Buddhism, or any other great spiritual tradition, whether it contains a useful and truthful philosophy for our time, a philosophy that is compatible with the rest of knowledge as it now exists. Can Buddhism be naturalized, tamed, and made compatible with a philosophy that is empirically responsible and does not embrace the low epistemic standards that permit all manner of superstition and nonsense?

Flanagan, while not a Buddhist himself, thinks that it would be possible to carry out that exercise in the case of that religion and that Buddhism can be demythologized to appeal to those like him who are allergic to ‘hocus-pocus’. He says that its metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics are philosophically sophisticated and not merely superstitions or karmic mechanisms for moral control or an opiate for the masses.

Imagine Buddhism without rebirth, without a karmic system that guarantees ultimate justice, without nirvana, without bodhisattvas flying around on lotus leaves, without Buddha worlds, without nonphysical states of mind, without deities, without realms of heavens and hells, without oracles, without lamas who are reincarnations of lamas. What would be left? What would remain would be an interesting and defensible philosophical theory with a metaphysics, a theory about what there is and how it is; an epistemology, a theory about how we come to know what we know and what is possible to know; and an ethics, a theory about virtue and vice and how best to live.

This philosophical theory is worthy of attention by analytic philosophers, scientific naturalists, and anyone who wants to lead a good life. It is plausible, even philosophically defensible. Buddhism naturalized, if there could be such a thing, is compatible with the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution and with a commitment to scientific materialism. Buddhism naturalized would be a total philosophy, if it could credibly be called “Buddhism” after subtracting the superstition and magical thinking (although those aspects are psychologically and sociologically understandable).

Such a theory might shed light on the human predicament, on how finite material beings such as human animals fit into the larger scheme of material being. Buddhism naturalized, if there could be such a thing, delivers what Buddhism, possibly uniquely among the world’s spiritual traditions, promises to offer: no false promises, no illusions, no delusions. False, self-serving belief, moha, is a sin for Buddhists.

I grew up Sri Lanka, a majority Buddhist country, and it was obvious that most practicing Buddhists had drifted far away from the austere philosophy envisaged by Flanagan. The religion was riddled through and through with hocus-pocus, followers having adopted many of the beliefs and practices of theistic religions. So the demythologized Buddhism that Flanagan admires would likely be as hard a sell to practicing Buddhists as Christianity without a divine Christ.


  1. says

    Also, isn’t the philosophy of Buddhism world-denying? i.e. everything we see is illusion, the mind is a separate entity from the body, and “enlightenment” comes from focusing on that? To me, that sounds like the opposite of naturalism, which says there’s no evidence to suggest that there is anything beyond what we can observe and that the mind is just another property of the body.

  2. Mano Singham says

    As far as I am aware, Buddhism is not world-denying but says that nothing in the world is permanent and so one should not try to hold on to things that are of this world. But the point of the article is not that Buddhism is naturalistic. There are many elements that are opposed to naturalism, and he lists those in the excerpt I provided. But he says that if one eliminates all those elements, one is left with a coherent and even useful philosophy.

    Of course, would it still be reasonable to call what remains Buddhism? Does it even matter what one calls it?

  3. Henry Gale says


    Buddhism doesn’t deny the existence of the world. It says that we filter the world through our perceptions. The world we perceive is an illusion due to all the baggage we bring to the table.

    In other words, a rainy day is not a bad thing like a birthday girl may think or a good thing like a farmer might think. Instead, it’s just rain.

    Thinking that rain is good or bad is the illusion. Not the rain.

  4. Kevin says

    Without all the woo, it turns out that Buddhism can be boiled down to:

    Be nice to one another. Including animals.
    Meditate a little bit every day.

    By those standards, I’m already a Buddhist…though my definition of being “nice” to animals doesn’t include eschewing them for food but rather chewing them (and supporting ethical, humane animal husbandry practices).

    But maybe not. It’s my impression, born of no evidence other than a complete and utter lack of female Buddhist role models of my ken, that patriarchy is every bit a problem there as it is in every other religion.

    So, no.

    If you de-mythologize and de-spiritualize religion, what you’re left with isn’t religion. It’s Kiwanis or The Barbershop Harmony Society.

  5. says

    Shalom Mano,

    My favorite statement attributed to Siddhārtha Gautama was his last words: “burn everything lest they build shrines over the bones in my little finger.”

    I’ve never counted Buddhism as a religion, but rather a philosophy (which I do find attractive) because all the hocus-pocus was layered on after Siddhārtha’s death (the same may be said of Jesus as well, I suppose) and his essential teachings had to do with how to reduce and eventually stop personal suffering by eliminating attachments (Walmart would have really, really hated this guy).



  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Hocus-pocus meets certain psychological needs found in varying degrees across the human population. Remove that from any major religion and you have some behavioral rules, a body of art, an organizational structure, etc – some of which may even be useful on a societal level.

    But until we develop ways of raising children without that hocus-pocus-shaped hole in their heads, and/or harmless ways of satisfying that h-p craving, trying to extract same from religion will be – at best – bailing out a boat with a unplugged hole in the bottom.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Ha! Well so much for Siddhartha Gautama’s last wish. The biggest Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka is the one that supposedly houses his tooth. It is called in fact the Temple of the Tooth.

  8. says

    I hold a minority position among freethinkers, that there is no good definition for “the natural,” and that the distinction between natural and supernatural is largely rhetorical. Neither the resurrection of Jesus nor the mating behavior of Nessie are ruled out because they conflict with our current understanding of the world. So what? We’re always bumping into things that with our current understanding of the world. Some of the older philosophical definitions of “naturalism” — and some still — would rule out quantum mechanics. The world is not subject to philosophical rules about its nature.

    What puts both the miracles of Christianity and the mating habits of Nessie outside the realm of science is simply that there is paltry evidence for either. Fairies, ghosts, and gods aren’t pushed aside because they behave strangely. But from lack of evidence. Quantum entanglement isn’t believed because it fits with preconceptions of how the world should behave, but because of hard and bountiful evidence for it.

    In short, I view the issue as 100% epistemological, and 0% metaphysical.

  9. Tim says

    My (limited) understanding is that Zen Buddhism is exactly this, Buddhism without the hocus-pocus. (At least, that’s what a few of the Zen teachers I had have taught me.) I agree with Jeff, I see it more as a philosophy than a religion. But, as Kevin points out, patriarchy is a significant problem, even in Zen.

    Finally, to Mr. Henry Gale: beautiful example, sir. Well said.

  10. Greg P. says

    I’m nowhere near being a Buddhist, but of all the world’s religions, Buddhism comes closest to being aligned with the worldview I’ve naturally gravitated towards.

    The notion that suffering is caused by desire, and that by re-thinking and re-framing our desires, we can reduce our (and others’) suffering is a very powerful idea.

    The Dalai Lama is supposed to have said that the essence of Buddhism is: “Help people as much as you can. And if you can’t help them at least try not to hurt them.” Good, simple words to live by.

  11. HP says

    I think much of the middle-class, educated Western obsession with Buddhism stems from ignorance and unexamined privilege.

    I like to imagine an intelligent, wealthy, educated person growing up in a majority-Buddhist country, whose only exposure to Christianity consists of highly edited collections of aphorisms attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King, punctuated by some of the more ecstatic texts attributed to medieval mystics and an endless rehash of the Beatitudes. “Oh, my! What a beautiful, loving, rational religion! And such an antidote to all the poison I see spewed by these ignorant Buddhists all around me, what with their divination and ancestor worship and Bodhisattvas and reincarnation!”

    Sure, you can be a Buddhist without the hocus-pocus, just as you can be a Christian or a Muslim without the hocus-pocus (sorry, Taoism, you’re out of luck 🙂 ). But only if you’re privileged to do so; only if you’re not poor or uneducated or subject to blasphemy laws or surrounded by hostile peers.

    Religion doesn’t exist in a social/political/economic vacuum.

  12. danielrudolph says

    Somebody send in Eric Steinhart. He wanted to do thsi with Wicca, which is an even harder sell.

  13. HP says

    By the way, is everyone aware of Greco-Bactrian Buddhism? There’s a whole lot of “East is East and West is West” post-Kipling bullshit we have to overcome in order to place these various religions in the correct context over the long term.

    Around the 5th c. BC, there were large numbers of Greek-speaking Eastern Hellenes enthusiastically converting to Buddhism in what is now Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. A thousand years later, Nestorian Christians were achieving similar success in eastern China.

    History is full of contingencies, and as skeptics we need to be extra careful not to confuse the agenda of European imperialism with some sort of ethnic essentialism.

  14. Jared A says

    What about the classical greek religion? People have been practicing that one atheistically for millenia.

  15. Carol Gronli says

    Basically here’s my input.

    Humans are merely cavemen with blinders on. They understand only that which doesn’t (a) threaten them (b) inconvenience them and (c) is easy.

    Life isn’t easy, nor is it meant to be. Humans have been given the gifts of free will and higher intelligence. That second part is dubious. If religion gives anyone any part of Peace of Mind and Heart who cares what is “real” and what is “imaginary”?

    Just the ability to tear religion apart, whether it is a mental exercise or a truism from your experiences, Life goes on. Enjoy it.

  16. sugarsail1 says

    Naturalists are a lot more religious than they’d like to admit, they’ve just deified Nature as Mother Goddess. Nor is a preoccupation with the supernatural the only criteria making one religious. Besides, if one has deified Nature as Goddess even if subconsciously, then the superNatural is a superordinate threat to the deity’s omnipotence and MUST either be explained away by “science” or dismissed as superstition. Also, the notion of natural phenomenon as violent retribution for mankind’s sin is alive and well among naturalists. Look no further than the global warming narrative which prophecies that the sea levels will rise and the weather will become wrathful and destroy us all due to our collective “sin” of burning fossil fuels. Heretics that don’t believe are labeled “deniers”. This is a primal and universal religious narrative known as a Deluge myth. The behavior of Gore and his ilk is that of a religious fundamentalism not scientific empiricism, yet they constantly appeal to scientific authority as if it were their bible, and like any fundamentalist, they take it out of context, cherry pick and misconstrue it to fit their belief. Take the big bang theory…I believe it, but no one has empirically witnessed it. It’s at best a logical extrapolation based on current understanding, but then every Creation story in the history of religion was a logical extrapolation of the present understanding by the people that believed it in their day. The big bang theory is a better religious cosmology than it is empirical science, and I suspect every naturalist believes it. If we were to describe Naturalism and environmentalism (they are essentially the same now days) religiously it would be an matriarchal, animist monotheistic religion with anti-humanist pseudoscience as its authoritative scripture. Religious behavior is instinctual, and isn’t going away just because we call ourselves “irreligious” or “scientific”, however it may take on new clothes from time to time as it is now.


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