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Hawaii_Jake's avatar

What do you think of this quote from the Dalai Lama?

Asked by Hawaii_Jake (25563 points ) September 14th, 2012

On Facebook, he wrote:

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

How would you suggest we think about spirituality and especially ethics beyond religion?

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29 Answers

wonderingwhy's avatar

I’d suggest we think about them with reason, compassion, and unity. Moral good doesn’t require religion, but it does require thinking of others, considered action, and recognizing the world beyond ones own doorstep.

Blackberry's avatar

There is no logical need for religion. Humans can be spiritual and believe in god all they want without making things up to explain them.

We’re religious because we were taught to be. How else would a rational adult react to you telling them the basis of christianity, and then telling them that is the answer to life? They’re going to think you’re off your rocker.

jerv's avatar

I like it! Then again, I’ve always had misgivings about formalized religion anyways.

DigitalBlue's avatar

Couldn’t agree more.
People think about spirituality and ethics beyond religion all of the time. You don’t need religion to tell you what is right and what is wrong, we define that as a society, and it’s ever changing. While, I am not a spiritual person, I definitely believe that people can be spiritual without religion. You can seek to connect with something larger than yourself, even something that may not be easily explained, a god or an energy or whatever motivates you, and still not need religion to gain satisfaction from that.
I would say, from my personal standpoint, that the best way to express spirituality and ethics without religion would be to practice compassion. That’s if I had to nail it down to one point, and that is simply my personal opinion.

Sunny2's avatar

Sounds like a good approach, if only we could get beyond the bickering, self righteousness and competition between different religions, different beliefs, different sects. I think Protestant Christians have made some headway in that direction. But there are still killings going on between people who have different beliefs in the method of handing down power in the same religion. And the insistence that some groups who believe their way is the only way, is another obstacle.

flutherother's avatar

Spirituality is personal, religion is for groups and ethics is universal. Spirituality and ethics go hand in hand but religion is always divisive with the exception maybe of Buddhism.

bkcunningham's avatar

The Dalai Lama has a FB? Cool.

tom_g's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake: “How would you suggest we think about spirituality and especially ethics beyond religion?”


filmfann's avatar

Reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

I found the Dalai Lama’s quote interesting, because I have long thought that Buddism was a religion, but he seems to present that it is not, but a discipline.

Trillian's avatar

Seems in line with my views of his holiness already, I like it.
Religion does not stop people from acting like total shit bags.

dabbler's avatar

Before the kinds of mass media we have today, religion was the way people learned about ethics and morality. Religions have all sorts of known bad side effects unfortunately.
One’s religion was the go-to source for lots of information.

There are alternative information sources today and people seeking answers often get guidance from several.

Maybe it never was, but it’s not possible now to trust any one source for guidance.—With the possible exception of looking within one’s self, deep, deep within.

thorninmud's avatar

The religion of Buddhism grew around the central premise that wisdom (and, by extension, ethical behavior) is “original equipment” in humans, already there in the core of our being, and not acquired from or mediated by any external source. The practices associated with Buddhism aim at digging down through our accumulated neuroses and delusions to expose that core. The Dalai Lama’s statement is rooted in his conviction that compassion and ethical behavior don’t come from religion at all.

His stance is pragmatic. Mythology used to be an accepted and valued way of understanding the world, and even seen as a way of pointing to inner truths. Now mythology gets in the way; we’ve gradually lost the ability to reconcile rationality and mythology, so more and more people resolve the cognitive dissonance by abandoning mythology in favor of rationality. When you do that, religion looks patently ridiculous, and appears to be an impediment rather than an ally in truth seeking.

mazingerz88's avatar

I wonder what would happen if he made the statement directly to fanatical Muslims.

wonderingwhy's avatar

Here’s an link that talks a little about his statement and has some other links you might be interested in exploring on the subject.

Linda_Owl's avatar

@mazingerz88 I don’t think that any fanatical believers in any religion would react well to the Dalai Lama’s observation. Most fanatics would feel that their particular religion had been insulted & probably would react with violence (Muslims or Christians – like the Pastor in FL who has been burning copies of the Koran, or like the Westboro Baptist Church members, etc.)

geeky_mama's avatar

I agree entirely – and the quote reminds me of many of the quotes attributed to Gandhi

I particularly agree with/like these two:

“I worship God as Truth only. I have not yet found Him, but I am seeking after Him.” (1936)


“Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different road, so long as we reach the same goal. Wherein is the cause for quarreling?” (1942)

It is unfortunate that the moderate, tolerant and deeply spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama and Gandhi (back in his time) are not “heard” and that people choose to follow radical or extremists in Christianity and Islam.

It makes me wonder if some people may be “wired” that way to choose that extreme path – even when it grows hateful and contradictory to the exact scriptures or holy teachings they study/cherish. What causes that sort of disconnect from reason and how do they rationalize their actions?

On a related side note.. you don’t hear of many Buddhist extremists do you?

Trillian's avatar

@geeky_mama you mean aside from the ones who immolate themselves as a form of protest? Not really, no.

lifeflame's avatar

Religion requires an authority to set down guidelines.
Spirituality emphasises personal experience. So it’s great to have all these guidelines, but it’s the actual practice and experience of these values that

@geeky_mama – I haven’t heard of Buddhist extremists in the aggressor sense, but yeah, self-immolation is quite extreme. Truth is, Buddhism comes in so many branches and forms (and there’s definitely a “religious worship” branch in South Asia, that is arguably something very very different from the philosophical and spiritual Buddhism)

wundayatta's avatar

I don’t know why a religious leader might say something like this. Of course we need a common ethos among humanity, and if it is religiously based, it can never be common, because the religions could never agree. But then the ethics of various religions always came from something deeper than the religion. Ethics belongs to some basic principles that are common to all humanity. Or it should belong, in my opinion.

But the Dalia Lama is a peculiar kind of religious leader. He was chosen as a child and raised and trained to be the leader. However, since his authority comes from being reincarnated, he has the power to make changes if he can sell them, I think.

So maybe he feels he can call for a universal ethos because of his peculiar position as being born to his job and also due to his political position of being in exile. Whether his call will be heeded by anyone but a few Tibetan Buddhists and a bunch of atheists around the world, I don’t know.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@wundayatta, if ethics were “common to all humanity,” there would be no war or other types of violent disputes. Cultures exist. Cultural differences are real.

The quotation in the OP calls for common ground above what religion supplies. My question, as stated, is how to accomplish that?

The Dalai Lama also said “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” (Source)

Here is a world religious leader, revered by many inside and outside his own religion, calling for a scientific revolution of thinking. It’s remarkable. All over the world, there is strife between factions of the same or opposing groups. This man succinctly states for an end to that physical force and entices us to a better alternative.

I think I’m going to have to add some Spinoza and some Sam Harris to my reading list.

tom_g's avatar

Yes, @Hawaii_Jake – Sam Harris for sure. Check out The Moral Landscape. Note: Sam also has a serious meditation practice and has talked about his thoughts on Buddhism. Useless tidbit – apparently Sam Harris was one of the Dalai Lama’s bodyguards for a short time.

But as for the Dalai Lama’s actual statement…it’s true, like everything I have ever heard his say. He might be a “religious leader”, but he honestly seems like a genuine, beautiful person.

wundayatta's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake You write eloquently and passionately about the Dalai Lama. But your call leaves me cold. He’s religious. I don’t think he can transcend that, not without giving up his religion.

I am glad he is calling for a universal ethos, but I don’t feel like it will help. Frankly, I think it is the people who figure out stuff on their own who are the ones who are most likely to make this happen. If you have been brought up in a religious tradition, you will not be able to think this way until you have separated yourself in some way from your religion. As long as you view the world through your tradition, I don’t see how you can reach universal principles.

Buddhism may be different from most religions in that it may be a path, not a set of answers. I think Taoism is a path, too. Probably there are other traditions like that.

The way to reach common ground is to have a universal discussion, where all voices are equally respected. I think that voices can be equally respected when it is clear that everyone is doing their own thinking and not parroting the words of others. In other words, we must work. We must work together. We must engage in a process that helps us respect each other and listen to each other and allows us to create agreement on basic principles that will help us figure out how to interact with each other.

For example, one idea that came to me as I was writing that was that I would like to see us all interact with love. Then I asked myself, what is love? And I know we discuess that occasionally on fluther, but can you imagine a worldwide discussion where we try to not only figure it out, but come to a consensus? How the hell would that work?

Wouldn’t we have to improve on the fluther model if our goal was to build consensus? I think I would have to love the people here that usually make me so mad. How could I do that? How could billions of people do this? How can we see through each other’s personalities to the kernel within and the love that kernel contains?

Ah well. First ask the question. Then imagine a vision. Then see what is in the way. Solve those problems, one at a time. And of course, all along, we asking more questions and generating more visions and trying to make them become real. It’s a process. It’s a path. And you can’t say at the beginning where the path will lead. All you can do is commit to walking the path.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake I think he nailed the whole problem in the world today. A lot of the religions are so committed to their way as the right way, they’ve forgotten their job is to make the world a better place, not to promote their view as what’s right.

Symbeline's avatar

As Bart Simpson said, all the small crap that separates you is nothing compared to the mountain of crap that unites you. or something like that anyway

SavoirFaire's avatar

How would I suggest we think about spirituality and especially ethics beyond religion? If I may be so bold: philosophically. Only reason and discourse will get us to a place where we can get along. The “discourse” part is especially important—as well as especially philosophical—as it recognizes the fact that no declaration of a universal ethics could possibly be sufficient. We must actually engage one another in dialogue before we can work out a way to live together.

@tom_g Sam Harris has some interesting things to say; but given that he was a philosophy major himself once upon a time, it is disappointing to see that he does not recognize the inherent limitations in his approach. Science cannot tell us what is good. It might be able to tell us what will make us happy, but it cannot tell us that happiness is the proper subject of ethics. It may be, but that is a question for philosophical reflection. Harris’ project starts up rather late in the game, and thus is resting on a whole heap of unstated assumptions. Indeed, he isn’t even clear about which of the possible definitions of happiness he is using.

tom_g's avatar

@SavoirFaire – Admittedly, I am probably not qualified to defend Harris’ position. I could be wrong, but isn’t he rejecting that the claim that there is more philosophical reflection required to determine if happiness (“well being” is what he often uses) is the subject of ethics? He seems to be advocating for re-framing of the discussion of ethics for the common, non-philosophy student. He’s attempting to get science involved in a discussion that is often assumed to have nothing to do with science. In this respect, I completely agree. Many of the questions in ethics are not merely philosophical – they’re dealing with reality claims, which is the realm of science.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@tom_g Harris’ position just reveals why he had to drop out of Stanford before finishing his philosophy degree. Moral philosophers have always been interested in how science bears on ethics. Indeed, philosophers invented science. We recognized that some matters are empirical and got right on doing the necessary research. Eventually, science became its own discipline.

Harris himself recognizes this, which is why he admits that his argument is ultimately a philosophical one. But that just shows how dishonest he is when he claims that it is a way of getting the answers from science. It is a hybrid case that he is making, and it is bewildering that he goes back and forth between admitting and denying this fact.

So while it is true that Harris denies that any approach to ethics that does not consist in maximizing well-being is worth considering, he should be well aware that argument by assertion is a fallacy. One of his consistent weaknesses, however, is in demanding more rigor from his opponents than he is willing to put into his own arguments.

For example: Harris attempts to push a fairly straightforward and unsophisticated utilitarian view of ethics while refusing to deal with any of the historical problems faced by that view. His use of “well being” is a slight nod towards the need to evolve beyond Bentham, but he never acknowledges that the content of this term is contested. He cannot simply help himself to the notion as if it is clear what it means to all.

The other notion that he simply helps himself to, despite the fact that it is likely incompatible with the particulars of his view, is that of moral realism (i.e., the claim that ethics is objective in the classical—as opposed to the Randian—sense of the word). He has reasons for doing this that relate to his argument with religious people, but he completely mischaracterizes the notion of moral realism at play in that debate. Once again, Harris’ work lacks the rigor he demands of others.

Finally, I reject the view that reality claims are solely within the purview of science. Philosophical claims are often about reality as well. Plato holds that there really is a realm of Forms, despite the impossibility of empirical verification. Aquinas holds that there really is a God, despite the fact that he can not be seen or touched. Berkeley holds that there really is no such thing as an external world of material things, despite the way some people have told you to interpret your sense data. The list goes on.

tom_g's avatar

Thanks @SavoirFaire. It’s great to have a philosopher in the house.

Is there a good article/source you would recommend for average, non-philosopher, common folk like myself that would be able to lay out not only a good foundation for dismissing Harris’ claims, but one that would explain why concepts of “right” and “wrong” must be separate from human suffering? I’d seriously be interested. Is the alternative a kind of moral relativism?
Also, for those of us without a background in formal philosophy, what are the current philosophical concepts of ethics? Are we making any progress here?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@tom_g To clarify, it was not my contention that the concepts of right and wrong must be separate from human suffering. Every major moral view has something to say about suffering, though each gives it a different significance. It’s not that Harris’ utilitarianism is definitely false, it’s that he goes about arguing for it in a seriously deficient way. Indeed, his basic starting point of assuming that most secularists assume a form of moral skepticism is flatly incorrect (and ill-defined, though he seems to take “moral skepticism” to mean “moral anti-realism,” which strikes me as misleading given the breadth of anti-realist positions available).

When I said that Harris’ position reveals his status as a philosophy dropout, then, I did not mean his foundational moral position. What I meant to be referring to was his position on the relationship between philosophy and science. I could now add that his views about the contemporary state of play in ethics also reveal that he stopped studying philosophy too early. Harris’ eagerness to contrast his so-called “scientific approach”—he should have said “empirical approach”—with religious approaches leaves his argument against alternative secular moral philosophies underdeveloped. This is a serious gap in his argumentative strategy.

I am not personally a utilitarian, but I am very interested in moral psychology (both on the philosophical and the scientific sides). As far as I can tell, Harris’ evidence does not straightforwardly support utilitarianism in the way he thinks it does. He doesn’t even consider whether that same evidence could be employed by, say, a virtue ethicist (whose theory begins in human psychology and is based on achieving a state that considered by the views proponents as the height of human welfare). Given that such views exist, and given that they are concerned with the same set of issues that Harris considers paramount in moral philosophy, it seems odd for him to ignore them.

If you’d like some criticisms of Harris, it might be best to start with three of the better critical reviews of his book: those of Thomas Nagel, Troy Jollimore, and Russell Blackford. As to the question of what progress we’ve made, I’m not quite sure how to answer. I could tell you what the most popular theories are at the moment, but it’s not in the horse race that we see the progress made by moral philosophers. One of the interesting things about ethics is that there is not a whole lot of disagreement about which actions are right and which are wrong. The only reason it might look otherwise is that the focus is always on the so-called “hard cases” that continue to plague us.

There is a real concern, however, that such cases may not even be the best way to proceed. Classical virtue ethics sets them aside in favor of an investigation into the conditions for a happy and successful life (with a focus on the character traits needed for this, as they are the elements both within our control and within the scope of ethics). I personally see the resurrection of this concern as a major step forward in recent times. Hard cases need resolving, but they are the outliers. A theory of ethics must first focus on the issues one is likely to face every day of one’s life. This is to address not just the obvious cases of suffering we see in the world, but also the one’s that hide all around us.

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