Tag Archives: Secular ethics

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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Advocating or explaining secular moral values?

Micheal De Dora raises an interesting question in  Belief in God hinders even basic moral discourse over at Rationally Speaking.

What are the correct tactics for atheists when advocating secular moral values?

  • Should atheists critique theistic moral values and their justification that appeals to a divine being? Should they challenge god beliefs head on?
  • Or should atheists concentrate on pointing out that one can lead a happy, fulfilled and moral life without belief in a god? Rather than challenging god-beliefs should atheist restrict their advocacy to challenging the myth that life without a god “means a joyless, meaningless, selfish, self-centred life.” A myth promoted by many religious apologists.

It’s a question which often divides atheists. Some argue against “in-your-face” campaigns challenging god beliefs because they can “offend” and alienate people. However, theists will often respond to the less challenging approach by arguing that, yes – the non-religious can be moral but their values still come from a god whether one believes it or not. So, many atheist conclude that challenging god beliefs is an essential part of the debate. We can’t avoid it.Michael de Dora concludes that “There is simply no getting around the fact that belief in God makes for an enormous stumbling block in discourse about morality.” It the same time she does not deny the importance of promoting secular values. In a previous article he said: ” The critic of religious faith and dogma is on the same side as the promoter of secular values.” Internal squabbles about tactics loses sight of the main problem – overcoming “the staggering amount of uncritical thinking that is putting society to ruin.”

All right as far as it goes and in the real world different people naturally gravitate to different tactics. But I think there is a third avenue which she doesn’t mention. It’s an important one, it requires more effort but is already underway.

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