Beyond Religion

I usually don’t recommend books written by religious leaders – but this is an exception: Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps the title is a give-away – the book acknowledges that religion cannot solve the problems of the modern world. We must go beyond religion.

Personally I find the authors justification for this position rather weak. He argues that in today’s global world no one religion can speak for everyone. Hence we must go beyond – especially as religions themselves cannot provide a common ground. However, even in non-pluralist societies where specific religions had overwhelming dominance they were still incapable of offering real solutions to people’s problems. That is because of the epistemological problem inherent in religion –  its inability to understand the real world.

Clear and simple

So the Dalai Lama argues for a secular approach. Here I find his writing valuable. He dismisses the arguments of religious militants who see secularism as the enemy of religion. Who actually fight against secularism. The Dalai Lama presents the correct understanding of secularism as an inclusive social arrangement, and not an atheist ideology. Because it is inclusive it provides a guarantee of human rights to all, irrespective of religion and belief. It provides the only real platform enabling us to solve today’s problems.

The beauty of this book is the simplicity and clearness of the author’s language. There’s none of the theological mental gymnastics and pretzel twisting we have come to expect from religious leaders. I found myself, as an unrepentant atheist, nodding my head at his clear description of secularism. I am sure that we would disagree over specific minor details, but I would be happy to use this text as a description of, and argument for, secularism in today’s pluralist world. And I think that many religious people would too.

The clarity and simplicity of the author’s arguments are also characteristic of his description of ethics for the modern world. A secular ethics. Here I use the word “simplicity” positively – I am aware that the Dalai Lama has a detailed understanding of modern scientific understanding of emotions, morality and cognitive neuroscience. But the beauty of his writing is that he explains it all so simply and clearly.

So I heartedly recommend this relatively short book (130 pages in my electronic version) as a clear, easily approached, overview of secularism and secular ethics. And of their importance in today’s world.

Mediation – if you are interested

But there is an extra which many readers will appreciate. The Dalai Lama also communicates some of the thinking behind Tibetan Buddhist psychology. In particular he argues the case for attention to thinking and mood. Even for this to be part of education systems for children. He provides an overview of a number of approaches to meditation as part of this attention.

Perhaps the section on meditation is not for every reader. If you aren’t into meditation you will still find his description of secularism and secular ethics valuable. If you are into, or considering, meditation you will probably also get something out of that section of the book.

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20 responses to “Beyond Religion

  1. The message pumped out by the Dalai Lama publicity machine is very in line with secularism… but i wonder how much of this is due to getting western support for political reasons… Tibetan Buddhism is notorious for having some of the whackiest supernatural beliefs in the world and the Dalai Lama (who is in that position because he is believed to be a reincarnation of a dead man after all) is no exception is promoting these ideas when not fishing for western support!

    Some of the ideas about reincarnation are worse than Christian ideas of Sin. People are told that they are poor due to being punished for a past life, and that the rich are rich because they were good in a past life. The strong caste systems and the lack of social welfare in the sort of nation the Dalai Lamas ruled over is not coincidental…. Ken. You are very good at seeing the evil Christianity has created at times in the world… don’t be blinded to the evils of other supernatural systems because of a slick publicity machine!

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  2. Well, what has brought that on Max?

    Which specifically of your charges relate either to this book or the three elements I commented on – secularism, ethics and meditation?

    And what makes you think I might be “blinded” to the evils of supernaturalism just because I have referred to the correct arguments used in this book?

    After all I don’t throw away the advances in science made by Galileo, Newton or Collins just because they held/hold silly religious beliefs.

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  3. Pet peeve… The Dalai Lama does not really believe any of that. It would be like the Pope coming out with that sort of thing but only after teh Vatican City had been taken over and he needed the support of the USA.

    Yes the content of a lot of his books is sound, but very insincere. I suppose if you ignore who wrote it there is a lot of sense in his books, but the divide between public statements and actual beliefs/practices and the hypocrasy of it always grinds my gears…

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  4. Richard Christie

    Some of the ideas about reincarnation are worse than Christian ideas of Sin. (…)
    You are very good at seeing the evil Christianity has created at times (…) …other supernatural systems

    wow.

    And I generally agree with Max’s comments.

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  5. OK Max – a pet peeve. A hangup of yours.

    Doesn’t mean I have to take it on board – especially without evidence. After all a person who claims to know what their god thinks will not be taken by me as a reliable witness for what someone like the Dalai Lama “really” thinks – although they may well suffer from that delusion.

    I can make up my own my about his personal sincerity – whether it is on secularism, ethics or his support for a scientific approach to understanding the human mind/brain.

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  6. Meh, Discussion board. Having a discussion.

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  7. Who claims to think what their god thinks by the way?

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  8. What I do or don’t think about god or gods is sort of a side issue here…. but:

    Personally the Dalai Lama has never struck me as a particularly wise man. He does not have the aura of holiness around him that someone like Thich Nhat Han does for instance. I suppose this is not surprising since he did not really get into the position he is in due to his own attributes but just due to an accident of birth (Like the Queen)

    I used to give him the benefit of the doubt despite my gut feelings, but his attitude to Americas wars made me lose some respect for him. He bordered on supporting the invasion of Iraq while preaching peace with his other face. The only reason I can think of for him NOT speaking out against these wars is that he needs the support of the USA to keep his community going. Ie. he has put politics ahead of conscience. This is the risk of having a leader who is both a spiritual and a political ruler. It never works.

    The other thing that made me question him further was his careless words (to be charitable) that lead to a lot of violence against a minority Tibetan Buddhist sect. A wise ruler would not have allowed this persecution to happen in his own community. Again he preaches tolerance and pluralism while disciminating against people who do not follow his particualr strand of Buddhism. Hypocrite.

    Now for me Buddhism is about letting go of a lot of our worldly attachments, and not letting things which are illusions control our minds and our actions. When I see monks setting themselves on fire (strictly going against the Buddha’s teaching on suicide) because the concepts of land/country/culture and so on have taken over their minds I see a failed form of Buddhism. When the Dalai Lama did not take the opportunity to say to his followers “No! Don’t kill yourselves! This is against all we stand for.” my respect for him fell to a new low. He stopped just short of encouraging suicide of his people in order to further his own political ambitions.

    His books are nice and fluffy and present a wonderful picture to the west – but the way he actually acts (like all the previous Dalai Lamas) is far from the wonderful pluralist peace lover story the western media laps up.

    Not really related to your original post but thought I’d have a rant😉

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  9. Strange – I don’t find him fluffy at all. There is none of the mental gymnastics and bafflegab common in theological writings. Sure I think he may well resort to that sort of rubbish talking to his own kind (and I have certainly heard it from other Buddhists) but certainly the writing in this book is very clear.

    I have also found his contribution to the Tibetan Buddhist-Western Neuroscientists seminars easy t0o follow.

    Mind you – I see him as exceptional because usually politicians and theological leaders are prone to spout a load of garbage. He writing is refreshing for that reason.

    I think most of your rant could actually be directed (and probably more justly) at many religious leaders – the catholic pope for example?

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  10. Anyway, speculation about what he “really” thinks is as silkly as speculation on what your gods “really think.” A mugs game.

    I would be more interested in hearing real comments on his ideas on secularism, ethics and the contemplation of thinking and mood.

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  11. …but i wonder how much of this is due to getting western support for political reasons…

    What would be a fair way of assessing that? No True Scotsman rears it’s head.

    Tibetan Buddhism is notorious for having some of the whackiest supernatural beliefs in the world…

    Glass houses. Stones.

    The Dalai Lama does not really believe any of that. (…)Yes the content of a lot of his books is sound, but very insincere.

    I’ve never read his books and am certainly no fan of the Lama. Yet in all honesty, I have no idea how you can know what he “really believes”. Again, No True Scotsman.

    Who claims to think what their god thinks by the way?

    Prophets are big on that. It’s their bread and butter. As are priest and political leaders. It’s a tradition.

    Some of the ideas about reincarnation are worse than Christian ideas of Sin. People are told that they are poor due to being punished for a past life, and that the rich are rich because they were good in a past life.

    How are they “worse”? Original Sin defies all logic and is based on a past life of mythical characters. As for rich people, well, it’s not like Christians haven’t gone down that path with “Prosperity Theology.”
    All religions use collection plates.

    Prosperity Gospel

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  12. “Anyway, speculation about what he “really” thinks is as silkly as speculation on what your gods “really think.” A mugs game.”

    But speculation about what I think is easy right?

    And my “speculation” is just listening to what he says about things. If a politician says “I support the war” it is not some whacky mugs game speculation to say that he perhaps supports the war…

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  13. Cedric for once I agree entirely. The prosperity Gospel is the same sort of nasty teaching which the Dalai Lama’s bunch push… the idea that if you are poor or suffering it is your own fault.

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  14. “What would be a fair way of assessing that? ”

    By looking at what he has said in press releases, in speaches, and in his books…. the same way you discover what any other political leader thinks. No mystery there.

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  15. By looking at what he has said in press releases, in speaches, and in his books…

    As I said, I’m not a fan. I haven’t read any of his books.
    If you want to make a case that the Lama is pumping out a secular message to get Western support for political reasons and you base such a case upon the press releases and whatnot….then fine.
    Otherwise it’s just speculation.

    If a politician says “I support the war” it is not some whacky mugs game speculation to say that he perhaps supports the war…

    That would not be speculation.
    That would be quoting.
    It’s not the same a speculation. BY all means quote something that shows that the Lama is does not believe “any of that”.

    …but i wonder how much of this is due to getting western support for political reasons…

    This is not a quote. This is you speculating.

    The Dalai Lama does not really believe any of that.

    How do you know this?

    The only reason I can think of for him NOT speaking out against these wars…

    You may be right or wrong. I have no idea. Yet there is nothing concrete to work with in the way of actual evidence. It’s just speculation.

    I don’t see any anything inherently more whacky or worse between the Pope or the Lama or saffron robes and dog collars. For me, they are all just well-financed mumbo-jumbo.
    Same dog, different fleas.

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  16. Good to see some consistency. So many Western atheists take off their atheist hat when confronted with the supernatural beliefs of the East.

    As for a treatise of the Dalai Lama’s politics over the last half century… too time consuming right now. Pretty easy to find though. Have a look and make up your own mind.

    My personal conclusion is that if you think religious leaders are bad… then someone who is both a religious leader and a political leader is a lot worse…. theocracy was often a horrible and oppressive system in christian europe, and is equally bad in islamic nations. For some reason I can’t quite understand a very similar theocracy in Tibet is seen as a wonderful thing and people who would not dream of supporting a western theocratic dictatorship line up to say how wonderful Tibet was under exactly the same system.

    But if looking at the evidence you disagree and think that this particualr theocratic dicatatorship was a good one… *shrug* thats fine.

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  17. Max, on this issue you may be too far gone and incapable of reasoned discussion. But in case it it helps go back and read what I have written.

    My support for secularism, human ethics, and the usefulness of contemplating one’s thinking is miles away from your complaint. It doesn’t imply support for supernaturalism of any sort. Or acceptance of any political position.

    Get stuck knot the Dalai Lamas position outlined in this book and we may have a fruitful discussion. I don’t see any possibilities debating your politics as being at all fruitful. No reasoning there.

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  18. Thanks for that video Cedric… they are a scary bunch. I sometimes forget these sorts of people exist.

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  19. M, no probs about the video. Glad you got something from it.

    I don’t have an issue with you not liking the Lama for spiritual or political reasons or anything like that.
    If you don’t think he’s wise or you’ve lost respect for him over something he did then more power to you. I know little about the man.

    Yet I read your comments on certain other things that you bring up and I find them unjustifiable. It’s not like I’m having a dig at you or I’m being sympathetic to the Lama or anything. I just don’t see how you get from here to there.

    Ken claims that the Lama’s description of secularism matches well with his own. He likes the arguments presented in the book and finds them clear and unburdened by theological gymnastics.

    There’s nothing in Ken’s review that says he’s giving a free pass to supernaturalism of any kind.

    You claim that the Lama does “not believe any of that” yet you cannot support your claim.

    If a politician says “I support the war” it is not some whacky mugs game speculation to say that he perhaps supports the war…

    If you quoted the Lama (or anybody else) and said “Look, this is what he said” then fine. No argument. Yet that’s not what you did when you claim that “he does not believe any of that”.

    As for a treatise of the Dalai Lama’s politics over the last half century…

    No, nobody is asking you for a treatise. This is a discussion. You made a claim. It’s a claim that you are unwilling to provide evidence for.
    This demand for evidence for a claim like yours is standard fare. It would apply to anyone on any public figure.

    But if looking at the evidence you disagree and think that this particualr theocratic dicatatorship was a good one…

    Based on what Ken or myself said, there’s no good reason to suggest this at all. I certainly don’t like theocratic dictatorships. Why you would even bring this up is a total mystery.

    So many Western atheists take off their atheist hat when confronted with the supernatural beliefs of the East.

    Name them.
    Seriously, name them and I will be happy to laugh at them for being morons.
    Atheism is not defined as being anti-Christianity.
    All claims of magic, invisible people up in the sky are treated the same no matter where they are from. Odin does not get a free pass. Neither does Baal.

    Why Are You Atheists Anti-Christian? (The Atheist Experience 448)

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  20. Ken: I don’t disagree about the content of the book. My comments were a side issue. If you are not interersted in the side issue then that’s fine… but no you are right it was not addressing your original point🙂

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