copyright 2011 


The Limitations of Irony

Review of ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ by Stephen Batchelor                                                              Amazon link


…where Gotama explicitly addressed the question of God, he is presented as an ironic atheist. The rejection of God is not a mainstay of his teaching and he did not get worked up about it. Such passages have the flavour of a diversion, a light entertainment, in which another of humanity’s irrational opinions is gently ridiculed and put aside. This approach is in contrast to the aggressive atheism that periodically erupts in the modern West….Gotama was not a theist but nor was he an anti-theist. “God” is simply not part of his vocabulary. He was an “atheist” in the literal sense of the term.

                                    ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ p. 179


This passage helps to lay out some of the central values in Batchelor’s ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’. Several threads are woven into it. One is an explanation of Batchelor’s title: why does he consider himself an atheist, and what does he mean by ‘atheist’? Another is the way in which he assumes following the Buddha to be the starting point of Buddhism, even in the modern West. He is an atheist at least partially because he is a follower of the Buddha, and ironic atheism is how he interprets the Buddha’s position. Another element of this thinking, at least potentially, is Batchelor’s agnosticism (or at least, what I would call agnosticism, but which he here chooses to call ‘literal’ atheism). It is this agnosticism which seems to give Batchelor some sense of the Middle Way, and which has always made him seem to me a Buddhist writer worth taking seriously.


This book involves an odd combination of three elements: an autobiography, a presentation and interpretation of the life of the historical Buddha, and an account of Batchelor’s approach to Buddhism. These three elements are interesting in distinct ways, but they sit uneasily with one another. The autobiography helps to explain how Batchelor’s views developed, but don’t really provide any detailed justification of them or exploration of their implications. The interpretation of the life of the Buddha in some ways springs from Batchelor’s autobiography, but creates a big diversion from the autobiographical narrative. It is also simply assumed, without any justification, that the life of the historical Buddha provides information of relevance to what Buddhists should be thinking, believing and practising today: in an agnostic who has let go of his attachments to authorities in the Tibetan tradition, karma and rebirth, I found this surprising.


Thus this is an interesting and quite readable book, but it is not very coherent. In my reading of Batchelor’s other books I have also found them lacking in coherence or philosophical development. I am very sympathetic to his broadly agnostic position in relation to the Buddhist tradition, but we are not given any kind of intellectual framework to put in the place of that provided by Buddhist tradition. Though his emphasis is practical, we end up not really clear about what kind of justification can be given for following Buddhist practices rather than any other kind of practice, or how we can distinguish those aspects of Buddhism that are useful from those that are less useful. The Middle Way gets only a very brief treatment in the context of the life of the Buddha, and apart from this we seem to get only a postmodernist type of philosophical starting point, where the “middle path is… grounded on a groundless ground”. It may be that the autobiographical narrative of this book is intended to provide us with a justification of a merely personal kind – but this provides only, perhaps, a degree of inspiration, not a basis of judgement, for anyone else.


It is this lack of consideration for guiding our judgements that I think also creates the basic problem with the ‘ironic atheism’ that Batchelor is recommending, in the tracks of the Buddha. Irony does have various helpful functions in our society, but these are nearly always critical rather than constructive ones. The usefulness of the Buddha’s, and Batchelor’s, irony about God is that it detaches us from the assumptions of the debate, especially the overwrought emotions and the traditional entrenchments involved in the totally fruitless debate about whether God ‘exists’. Irony does offer one way of detaching ourselves – but what then? In the context of the Buddha’s time, ironic detachment from contemporary metaphysical debates presumably left Buddhists free to commit themselves to the Buddha’s teachings. However, in the modern context, it is no longer enough to merely go along with another tradition in the place of the one you have ironically distanced yourself from. The avoidance of dualism demands, not just one effort of ironic detachment followed by allegiance to traditional conventions, but continual critical scrutiny of our path. We need something much more constructive than mere irony to maintain a clear direction when we start to take responsibility for our own path.


Batchelor’s account of the “literal sense” of atheism is also based on too many questionable assumptions. The Greek prefix a- is generally understood to be a negative prefix, so all that this negative prefix tells us when put in front of “theism” is that an atheist is not a theist. There is no “literal” grounding for the meaning of any word, but just a way in which we choose to interpret the implications of this negative prefix. Atheism is often interpreted today to mean a denial of God’s existence, and thus to claim that it is more “literal” to use it to mean an agnostic position begs the question, and also leaves us without a clear term to refer to the denial of God’s existence that mirrors the affirmation of God’s existence. “Agnosticism” is thus a very much less misleading way of describing both the Buddha’s position and Batchelor’s position (and incidentally, my own position), because it clearly involves avoidance of both the affirmation and the denial of God’s existence, and the recognition that we are not in a position to judge. “Hard agnosticism” also making it clear that they are not just indecisive or waiting for more evidence, would be an even more precise term to use.


All of this apparent quibbling over words may have some importance if one’s main focus is on the Middle Way, because the Middle Way involves a process of navigation between positive and negative types of metaphysical claim. We cannot navigate between the rocks on either side without some clear idea of where they are, and the terminology helps us to place them in relation to one another. Batchelor’s willingness to be identified with atheism, which is also often identified with other negative metaphysical positions such as materialism, relativism and determinism, suggests at least a lack of caution here. It is not clear to me from Batchelor’s writing that he even recognises the importance of avoiding the negative metaphysical, or nihilist, rocks as well as the positive, or eternalist ones. But the process of dissatisfaction with dogmas, that he so interestingly narrates from his experience of his involvement with Tibetan Buddhism, could just as easily have been placed in, say, the Communist party, the Oxford philosophy movement, or a rock band, where the dogmas would have been nihilist ones instead.


About the nearest Batchelor gets to addressing these issues is in the following passage:


What is it that makes a person insist passionately on the existence of metaphysical realities that can neither be demonstrated nor refuted? I suppose some of it has to do with the fear of death, the terror that you and your loved ones will disappear and become nothing. But I suspect that for such people, the world as presented to their senses and reason appears intrinsically inadequate, incapable of fulfilling their deepest longings for meaning, truth, justice, or goodness. (p.176)


Batchelor so clearly has his heart and head in the right place here, yet at the same time this passage is just so inadequate as a response to one of the central spiritual questions of all time. He supposes one thing and he suspects another, but there is just no attempt at systematic enquiry beyond surface assumptions. The fear of death may sometimes lead us into wishful thinking about metaphysical claims, perhaps, but this hardly explains why people continue to be so attached to metaphysics in the large parts of their lives when they are not particularly aware of the threat of death at all. Nor does it explain why they are attached to types of metaphysics that have no relevance to overcoming the fear of death. In his final sentence here, Batchelor identifies metaphysical beliefs generally with just one type of metaphysical belief: idealism and/or belief in other worlds. But metaphysical beliefs are very much more pervasive and very much more varied than this. Even for eternalist philosophies they can take the form of belief in freewill, cosmic justice, destiny, or the absolute revelations of authority of one form of moral knowledge. The possibility of nihilist forms of metaphysics is just not recognised by Batchelor here at all.


Another aspect of Batchelor’s title also puzzled me. Why ‘confession’? Has he done something wrong that he wants to confess to us? If so, I cannot detect what this wrong action is supposed to be. He does not tell us about any important morally dubious actions in his life. Or is the title supposed to evoke the idea of a confession of faith, putting forward an account of what Batchelor believes and why he believes it? If this was his purpose, I feel that it has at best only been half-realised in this book. We are told very little about why Batchelor really believes what he believes, and given a great deal of incidental information which does not really throw much light on why he believes what he believes.


So, whilst in some ways this book is interesting, and whilst I sympathise very much with the direction it is moving in, it is certainly not the “stunning and groundbreaking” work that the overstated blurb on the back of the book would have us believe. In many ways it is a missed opportunity to tell us something useful about what hard agnostic Buddhism really implies and why it might be helpful to us. Perhaps Batchelor should write another book which tells us the things he should have told us in this one.

                                                                                                                                                    Robert M. Ellis, copyright 2011


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