In an extract published in Tricycle Magazine, from his 1998 book Buddhism Without Beliefs, Stephen Batchelor writes:
THE FORCE OF THE TERM “agnosticism” has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say “I don’t know,” when you really mean “I don’t want to know.” When allied (and confused) with atheism, it has become part of the attitude that legitimizes an indulgent consumerism and the unreflective conformism dictated by mass media.
For T H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modem science. Huxley called it “the agnostic faith.”
First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (“dharma practice“) rather than another “-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable. Dharma practice has become a creed (“Buddhism”) much in the same way scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism.”
Just as contemporary agnosticism has tended to lose its confidence and lapse into skepticism, so Buddhism has tended to lose its critical edge and lapse into religiosity. What each has lost, however, the other may be able to help restore. In encountering contemporary culture, the dharma may recover its agnostic imperative, while secular agnosticism may recover its soul. An agnostic Buddhist would not regard the dharma as a source of “answers” to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. He would seek such knowledge in the appropriate domains: astrophysics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, etc. An agnostic Buddhist is not a “believer” with claims to revealed information about supernatural or paranormal phenomena, and in this sense is not “religious.”
But in order to practice, whatever method one follows, one must have faith: faith that something is possible, whether one calls it enlightenment, encounter with God, minding the Light, or something else. From within the Sōtō Zen tradition, Daishin Morgan writes:
Zazen is not an absence of thought, feeling, perception and volition, it is awakening to their emptiness. The same is true of purpose and the path. Some of the best advice is never to believe that you were lost in the first place, and never hesitate to do that which you know to be needed.
To awaken is to love, and in that love the tiresome need to put up and defend our views and opinions dissolves, and right there is an insight into things that nothing else compares with. We have to discover through personal experience how that insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate. For me, words and the effort to give expression to the truth continue to be of profound necessity in training. To awaken and not give expression to that awakening would be a contradiction. The struggle to find the words and the struggle to find the form our lives must take are the same struggle.Morgan, Daishin. Buddha Recognizes Buddha . Throssel Hole Press. Kindle Edition.
Faith and language may be more closely related than we know. But in love, as Morgan points out, much of the difficulty does not so much resolve as dissolve. Quakerism is sometimes described as an “experimental faith”. Daishin Morgan’s words, “We have to discover through personal experience how… insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate” could almost be a restatement of that. It is the wholeness of love that contains all things.