Julian Baggini:

Buddhism emerged out of the same Vedic tradition as the polytheistic Hinduism, which is rich in supernatural thinking. From this, Buddhism inherited a number of beliefs that are starkly at odds with naturalistic thinking. The most obvious of these is karma. I’ve heard Hindus, Buddhists and Hare Krishnas bravely try to insist that karma is an entirely scientific principle, being “simply the extension of Newton’s law” that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. But this is grasping at straws: Newton’s three laws of motion concern the conservation of energy in a physical system and can only be extended to morality by either analogy or wild distortion.

There is no escaping the fact that Buddhism is full of, as the philosopher Owen Flanagan put it, “superstitious nonsense” and “hocus pocus”. Yet Flanagan has written a brilliant book in which he asks the question of what we have left if Buddhism is stripped of its supernatural elements, “naturalised, tamed, and made compatible with a philosophy that is empirically responsible, and that does not embrace the low epistemic standards that permit all manner of superstition and nonsense, sometimes moral evil as well, in the name of tolerance”. This would not be “authentic” Buddhism, and Flanagan says he doesn’t much care if we don’t call it Buddhism at all. But it could it be a coherent life-view nonetheless?

Flanagan’s slightly tentative conclusion is that it can. And this is what I think makes it different to many other religions. Take away the empty tomb and Christ is just a moral teacher. Take away Gabriel revealing God’s exact words to Mohammed in the Qur’an and you’re left with a deluded or deluding cult leader. Take away karma, rebirth, nirvana, deities, oracles, reincarnated lamas and the like for Buddhism, however, and you still have a set of beliefs and practices to cultivate detachment from the impermanent material world and teach virtues such as compassion and mindfulness.

Stoicism, in other words?

No, I kid. Sort of. I mean, I like Flanagan’s writings and agree with what he’s said about a naturalized Buddhism. I take issue with what I suspect is Baggini’s personal rendering of the idea as cultivating “detachment from the impermanent material world”, which sounds a little too tinged with asceticism in this instance. The realization, on an intellectual level, that all we are is dust in the wind is a useful perspective to keep in mind when it all seems too much. But it’s not a perspective we can inhabit while living day-to-day in a social context. Step back far enough, and absolutely nothing matters because it’s all just supernovas and black holes. Move close enough, and the most mundane daily activities are rich with significance. We vacillate back and forth between these poles, and neither one represents ultimate truth.