I read quite religiously. Last week I picked up a copy of the Dalai Lama’s most recent book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (2012). In it he makes the argument that the world will be a better place if humanity begins to focus on building a system of ethics that is universal to all groups of people. Religion, he believes, is unnecessary to ground oneself in objective morality.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama adopts the Indic version of secularism. While the word “secular” has been bastardized and vilified in religious circles in the West, who see secularism as “antagonism toward religion,” the Indian traditions of secularism espouse “a profound respect and tolerance towards all religions” (p. 6). In this sense, the Dalai Lama seems to believe that religion is to be afforded the same respect as the religious. To this, I wholeheartedly disagree. I believe that people should be respected more than their belief systems in supernatural agencies.
Yet, despite this disagreement over simple administrative matters, the Dalai Lama makes a compelling case that ethics and morals are grounded in the biological natural tendency of humans towards social inner fulfillment. He shows that, despite any religious upbringing, humans are inclined towards acts of compassion that serve two purposes: 1) to alleviate the suffering of others and in doing so 2) to enrich our own lives and happiness. In other words, people generally do the right thing because it makes themselves feel good. If we understand this natural tendency towards kindness, we can harness it and live by its rules (such is the universally accepted Golden Rule).
Beyond Religion is divided into two parts. The first part makes his case for looking beyond religion to design universal ethics. The second explains how the individual might put this into practice. To have ethics and not put them into practice, he writes, makes your ethics completely worthless.
This book is not for socially active atheists. In general the atheist reader will take home nothing new from reading this book. Atheists have already looked beyond religion in determining that theft, murder, rape, and even gossip at the expense of others are wrong. This book would better serve religious folk, even devoutly religious folk. The Dalai Lama goes out of his way to refrain from espousing Buddhism, and he leaves ample room for Christians, Muslims, and other religious peoples to continue to see the world through their respective religions’ lenses, while understanding that humans are moral simply because they’re moral, not because a book tells them to be.
In that case, I recommend this book to people of faith. Reading it might help to bridge the gap between those who believe objective morality can come only from god and those who have found morality without god.