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Stephen Batchelor, Atheist Buddhist?

Stephen Batchelor, author of "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist"

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Stephen Batchelor is definitely one of the more popular contemporary authors on Buddhism. He has lived as a monk and worked as a chaplain for many years, but he is mostly known for his books: "Buddhism without Beliefs," and his latest writing, "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist."

The idea of a "Buddhist Atheist," is very appealing to our contemporary, secular culture. One might consider Batchelor the leading "authority" on translating Buddhist practice in an entirely secular, agnostic or atheistic way. He was recently featured on Buddhist Geeks to talk about his latest book, so I thought I'd give a listen.

Like a true modern skeptic, he questions the validity of many of Buddhism's metaphysical claims, such as karma and reincarnation. While more favorable to karma, he sees no reasonable evidence or necessity in adopting the belief in reincarnation or higher planes of reality.

During the interview he was admittedly gentler in discussing the subject. At most, he believes an agnostic approach towards these metaphysical matters is the safest bet. Not to mention, he doesn't believe that reincarnation or any other metaphysical suggestions have any relevance to the Buddha's teaching:

Reincarnation and the existence of an afterlife, let alone a soul, were distractions from the central practice of cultivating insight in the present. He later comments that he finds the adoption of reincarnation in Buddhist lineages puzzling. After all, doesn't that create a mind-body duality? If something exists beyond the death of our form, that would imply a duality in which we have a separate "soul" that exists beyond and before the body--or so the description goes. But this seems counter-intuitive to me. Isn't there a non-dual relationship between form and formlessness?

At any rate, Batchelor is definitely worth checking out. He presents a sophisticated view that walks a delicate fence between skepticism and spirituality

There is a missing element in his work that I would like to hear him address. The idea that these metaphysical claims are "dogma" is misconstrued. Metaphysics are often the result of "gnosis," which is the direct perceiving of an aspect of reality that isn't based on speculation or the reasoning mind.

In Western Esotericism, this is often called the "Divine Intellect."

Silencing the mind in contemplative practice opens us up to experiencing these "higher realities" directly. When the contemplative and esoteric practice is destroyed in a culture, the metaphysical claims degrade into dogma, but they did not start out that way.

The reason the Buddha, and many other spiritual masters do not emphasize these spiritual realms is that they can distract the practitioner. They become dogmatic baggage for the initiate who has not yet experienced them.

They also become distractions from the central path, which is mystical union with the ultimate (you are "That"). In short, it's not so much that these metaphysical claims are invalid, as they are not the central point of practice.

That being said, I'd love to hear Batchelor's thoughts on gnosis. He might go into it more in his book, so I'll certainly be checking out Confessions at the bookstore.

For more info: For related articles on gnosticism and spiritual practice in the modern world, check out Single Eye Movement.


  • Hugh Kramer, LA Atheism Examiner 5 years ago

    Buddhist-atheist? Why not? I've also heard of Jewish Zen masters... Though you've got to wonder what kind of questions a Jewish Zen Master asks? Maybe something like "What is the sound of one hand schlepping?"

  • montreal women's issues, health and mental health 5 years ago

    well I am not a Buddhist but my university courses have ascertained that Buddhist are indeed atheist, there are no Gods in Buddhism, the Buddha was a man, but not a god. reincarnation and karma are about the soul, not a god

  • Terry Hurlbut - Creationism Examiner 5 years ago

    @Carol--I see. So "Buddhist atheist" is entirely consistent. But I had had the impression that, for an atheist, there was neither karma nor reincarnation--just as "there is no god, no devil, no heaven, no hell, and no immortality." In which case, "anything is permissible."

  • Ken Elder 5 years ago

    Batchelor is wrong on many levels. Buddha referred to the agnostic philosopher debaters as eel-wrigglers and speculators. They lack the deep intuitive realization of the nature of reality. Batchelor obviously has not attained Nirvana not even the least level of the Stream-entry attainment of Nirvana. Buddha specifically said that you cannot say that body and mind are absolutely separate nor can you absolutely say that body and mind are absolutely the same. They have a conditioned relationship. Mind does have a relative limited independence from body, that gives us the spiritual potential to attain Nirvana and become free from the limitations of form. The two extreme mind-body views are the twin delusions Buddha talked about, the eternal self view of some unchanging eternal individuality and the nihilist view that there is only physicality and there is no life after death. Since Batchelor is an agnostic tending towards nihilism by Buddha’s own definition Batchelor tends to be philosophi

  • Ken Elder 5 years ago

    Since Batchelor is an agnostic tending towards nihilism by Buddha’s own definition Batchelor tends to be philosophically deluded. Buddha spoke against the monotheistic delusion but he frequently talked about gods or deva which means shining ones, the same Indo-European root word as divine in Latin. A deva is not an eternal omniscient being or beings but higher suble beings with very long lifetimes and great mental powers. The Buddhist pantheon of gods is similar to that of the various pagan polytheistic pantheons except for Buddha’s statement that even life in heaven or purgatory is temporary, that all beings are impermanent. It is an every-changing mental process that goes from life to life not some unchanging spiritual ego. Apparently that is too subtle a concept for concrete minded Batchelor. Unfortunately concrete mindedness is common in Academia, reason without intuition is mere cleverness without depth.

  • Sharm 5 years ago

    Atheism is just another "ism" to be let go of. The Buddha advised that you should suspend judgement regarding things you are not (yet) able to directly know (gnosis, as noted above). All else is simply speculation, which may or may not be concordant with reality (absolute or relative, another big metaphysical knot!). Therefore to state that all buddhists are atheists is incorrect. The only thing we are required to have faith in is the possibility of an end to suffering through practising the way - that is all. you may or may not choose to believe in god/s - it is rather beside the point either way.

  • Scott Knutson - Philly Mystical-Spirituality Exami 5 years ago

    This guy sounds pretty interesting.

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