This is an abridged version of the full article which can be found on the Absurd Being website here.
All religions are full of supernatural nonsense. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be religions. But there is another way to think about them. Rather than asking how much supernatural nonsense a particular religion contains, we can instead ask, “How dependent on that supernatural nonsense is it?”
Most religions don’t fare well under either question. Consider Christianity. Removing the notions of God, heaven and salvation leaves pretty much nothing behind. You might argue that we can shunt the supernatural aside in which case Christianity will be all about community; strengthening social bonds, loving thy neighbour, etc. Possibly. But in that case, how is Christianity different from secular humanism which attempts to ground modern values and ideals on reason rather than the supernatural crutches religions rely on? Specifically, where would Christianity’s authority come from if we reject the ideas of God and eternal salvation? Bottom line: in the case of Christianity (and most other religions), you can’t throw out the bathwater without also throwing out the baby.
Buddhism is not like this. Sure, Buddhism, as it is practiced almost the world over, is just as supernatural as any other religion but there is a solid core to Buddhism that isn’t dependent on these supernatural trappings. To see this, we must ask ourselves what the goal of Buddhism is. Why should we meditate, be compassionate and read Buddhist texts? There is one goal only; to achieve enlightenment.
Ah ha, enlightenment is steeped in the supernatural, right? It’s a merging with the universe or some such gibberish. That is definitely how it has been seen by some but if we expel these supernatural leanings and take a look at what’s left, we find that enlightenment, as the goal of Buddhism and as codified in the Four Noble Truths (the absolute centrepiece of Buddhism), is nothing more than eliminating suffering.
This is the difference that makes a difference between Buddhism and other religions. Taking away the supernatural nonsense doesn’t hollow out Buddhism the way it does Christianity. Ultimately, Buddhism is a system, not for cosmic salvation after death (although one certainly can pursue such nonsense in Buddhism), but for achieving serenity and peace here and now. Buddhism emphasises observing the mind, noticing how it creates suffering and training it so that suffering is eliminated. It is telling that the Buddha explicitly refused to answer any of the metaphysical questions his students invariably asked; doing so on the grounds that whether death is final or a transition, whether the universe is infinite or finite, whether we existed before birth or not, etc., our goal in this lifetime won’t change either way; overcome suffering and find peace.
You might argue that I have just chosen to interpret Buddhism in non-supernatural ways when I could have easily done the same with Christianity. This would be to miss my point though. The core of Christianity is God; everything refers back to Him and if you take that away, you take away Christianity’s whole raison d’etre. The very essence of Christianity is supernatural and inextricably tied up with notions of an eternal soul and an afterlife. Buddhism, although it can play supernatural ball with the best of them, has a core which survives even after a supernatural culling.