Is religion in society dispensable? The Dalai Lama vs. Will Durant

This week these words from the Dalai Lama have gone viral:

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.

People are reading this quote as though he were saying, “Religion’s taken us this far, but we’ve got it now; reason alone is adequate for the realization of societal utopia from here.” But I think both this understanding of what he’s saying and what I think he might actually be saying are off track.

A lot of the people trumpeting this quote seem to be putting a decidedly “New Atheist” spin on it. And they might be correct. But notice that he still wants to talk about “spirituality”–just a spirituality not based in “religion”, by which I surmise he means religious institutions; of course, he’s not abdicated his own position yet, but he has said that he expects to be the last Dalai Lama. So I wouldn’t understand this as saying that we should abandon all metaphysical discipline because it’s not done the job. It sounds more like he wants everyone to enjoy the benefits of “spirituality” and ethics without depending upon the trappings of religion. But that’s not a particularly bold statement, so maybe the atheistic ethicists are correctly surmising what he intended to say.

Actually, what he did intend to say is a bit muddled. I’m not at all convinced that the degree to which the major religions – Christianity included – have emphasized love, compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness has yet reached its acme. The enterprise of pursuing those ideals with these religions has, as Chesterton wrote of Christianity, “not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Judaism with its predominant disinterest in public expressions of faith and disavowal of proselytism effectively refuses to allow its people to influence anyone else, so that “inner values” stay locked away inside; on the opposite extreme the Muslim world has been struggling to free themselves of their legacy of forcing their “inner values” under the threat of violence (which in some ways seems like a caricature of what the Tibetan cleric is proposing; see the following paragraph). On the other hand, Buddhism, which may have more society-altering potential than either of those, has only recently risen to a place of influence in the consciousness of the world. And even more so than Buddhism, Christianity is just now coming into its own, with the shackles of correct-beliefs-as-paramount finally falling off left and right, and with the seeds of universal kindship that its philosophy planted millennia ago finally sprouting and, increasingly, bearing the fruit of social concern. Now we want to burn those fields and start over again?

While conceding that religions can help us cultivate “inner values”, the Dalai Lama contends that we need something more nowadays. But what apart from “inner values” can ethics ever be based upon? If he’s suggesting anything coherent, it’s not a non-religious set of ethics, but a non-religious implementation of ethics, ostensibly realized by raising behavioral constraints in society to a higher level than personal convictions. He’s suggesting something tantamount to a secularly imposed structure of ethics – an effective legislation of morality – to fill the gap left by the “inner values” that he apparently thinks have been insufficient to constrain our behavior. So it seems His Holiness is suggesting that people may continue to pursue the goals of personal religion if they wish, but we need an ethical system that has the ability to control behavior without bothering to discipline the character, motivations, and “inner values” of the society’s constituents. You know, the opposite of Jesus’ teaching about the importance of the internalization of morality and the dangers of rote legalism.

Historian and popular philosopher Will Durant, although raised Catholic, lost his faith in the following years, but always maintained a high respect for religion, and particularly for its role in society. Here’s a quote (HT Wikipedia) from his multi-volume magnum opus, The Story of Civilization.

Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a “conflict between science and religion.” Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.

The Story of Civilization, volume 1, p. 71.

Dangerous CliffIt seems our society is perched upon a precipice, with one foot planted on the unmodified, rote religion of our forebears and the other foot posed mid-air, as we yearn to venture off into a secularism that scoffs at the philosophical foundation for those behavioral constraints. Will we, as the Dalai Lama suggests, lunge forward past the cliff’s edge and take flight without any of the intricately designed mechanisms of universal, absolute meaning, morality, and ethics sustaining us, supported only by the breeze and impelled only by our muscles as we beat our arms in self-confident exuberance? Or, as Durant predicted, are we destined to veer headlong and plummet down far below to be gathered with the bones of the societies that preceded us? Or do we still have a chance to turn around, chastened by the hubris of unexamined religion and unrealistic confidence in our reason alike, and walk away to apply ourselves to reworking the land our ancestors left to us?

It’ll be interesting to see where we go from here.

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