I Guess the Dalai Lama’s a Humanist Now?

Earlier this week, the Dalai Lama posted a status update on Facebook that turned some heads:

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.

The American Humanist Association points out that his stance sounds vaguely familiar

io9 also adds that the Dalai Lama’s thinking “has aligned with [Sam] Harris.”

It’s scary that grounding ethics in religion was ever seen as a viable option in the first place. As the Steven Weinberg saying goes: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil, that takes religion.”

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • 3lemenope


     “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil, that takes religion.”

    I’ve always really loathed this saying, not least because even a cursory survey of human history, never mind contemporary human experience, provides so many counterexamples that it is hard to imagine how a person could ever believe it. As a piece of rhetoric it is effective at first glance at turning scorn upon the ethical pretensions of religion, but that function is massively undercut by its own obvious inaccuracy.

    • Coyotenose

       If we allow that ideologies can be and often are religious in nature (for example, Marxism as practiced and its descendants show every trait of a religion, just with “The State” substituting for a deity), then I can’t think of examples that disprove the saying offhand. Can you provide any?

      At first I thought that ancient kingdoms may have justified invasion, genocide, etc. without religion, but every one I can think of used religion to bait and seduce the populace, just like modern totalitarian governments have.

      • 3lemenope

        I’ve never been crazy about any formal equivalency between religions as a class of phenomena and other types of human beliefs, but I think that equivalency between religion and non-religious ideologies is particularly ill-fitting given that the claim in the quote is specifically about religion. So, sure, if you widen the playing field to include many, many things that the quote does not, then it becomes more difficult to come up with an easily identifiable historical counter-example. 

        But in general day-to-day experience, the quote still doesn’t hold up. For the purposes of what the quote is claiming, we need to have some thumbnail definition of what being a good person or a bad person is, and what doing good and doing evil is, and those things have to be separable so as not to lead to absurdity or circularity. It needs to be possible for a “good person to do evil” for the quote to make any sense. So I assume the quote is talking in terms of tendencies; a “good person” is a person who, by-and-large, behaves in a way that is helpful when possible but at the least not intentionally harmful, whenever they are psychologically capable of doing so.

        The problem is, any definition of a “good person” that isn’t circular and renders the quote comprehensible leads to anyone immediately seeing the problem. Lots of people who are “good” by any non-empty definition of the term will occasionally indulge in bad acts, acts harmful to others, acts calculated to be so. Religion is not a causative factor in these “good people doing bad things” the vast majority of the time; it’s usually something simple like annoyance, or greed, or jealousy, or rage, prejudice, impatience, ignorance, or any of the other human instincts or common states of being that we all have or occasionally occupy that occasionally lead us ethically astray. People justify their own acts to themselves such that they can psychologically square their bad act with their good general behavior, and that doesn’t require religion either. 

        The story of criminal law as it plays out in a lot of people’s lives is exactly this: a person who by-and-large is a good person, but let one of these more problematic human instincts or conditions to get the better of them, which they then justify to themselves post hoc as being not really that bad (even, or especially, if it is).  Most criminals are not monsters, just people who screwed up their moral calculations on one or the other matter of public import; people who thought they could get away with it, people who thought it wasn’t serious, or that it wasn’t hurting anyone. None of this requires religion.

    • ToHellYouRide

      Can you give one of those counterexamples?

      • 3lemenope

        See my response above.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      I think part of the problem is “good people” and “bad people”.  Every person, even Hitler has traits we would consider ‘good’  or ‘bad’.  So if someone does evil, is that because they’re a good person driven by religion, or they’re a bad person with some good traits driven by religion to do bad?  It’s all too murky.

      As for specific examples, what about crimes of passion?  Or people who are mentally ill?  Or say, “greater good”?

      Personally I much prefer Hitchens’s challenge:

      Name me an ethical statement made, –or a moral action taken– by a ‘religious’ person in the name of faith-in-God; that could NOT have been made –or taken– by a non-religious person without involving faith or God.

      And of course the counter- an evil action taken in the name of non-faith…

      • 3lemenope

        Yes, I like Hitch’s formulation much better, in part because it is making the exact opposite point as the Weinberg formulation: religion is not morally special. Nothing about it intrinsically makes people better or worse, there is nothing you can do while “on religion” that you can’t also do while being bereft of religious beliefs.

  • Bob Daniel

    As Pat Condell recently talked about (
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IC-9uJrotC4 ) if you are a Christian who has decided that the harsher proscriptions of the bible, of Leviticus, say, are not what a modern person should base their morality on, then you have made a moral decision that did not use the Bible as your moral guide.  So clearly we are capable of finding morality within ourselves. Time to ditch the holy books.

  • http://twitter.com/ubernerd83 Chris Schonegg

    One could pretty convincingly argue that Buddhism is a pretty humanist religion to begin with.

    • Pseudonym

      It would be hard to argue that of the old Tibetan state religion. To his credit, the Dalai Lama has owned up to that.

      One could, however, make an even more convincing argument that Humanism started life as an offshoot of liberal religion. A glance at the first two Humanist Manifestos and who signed it is all you need.

  • casian

    some people don’t even consider Buddhism a religion so I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise

  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

    Sure, why not. Most Buddhists are just humanists with some largely harmless woo tacked on.

    • cipher

      It isn’t so harmless. There are hells in Buddhism, but they aren’t emphasized in the other two forms widely available to Westerners – Vipassana (which is barely Buddhism) and Zen. The Tibetans, however, have always emphasized the concept, and a number of the lamas are positively obsessed with it.

      There’s a lot of fundamentalism in Tibetan Buddhism, particularly among the Westerners. It tends to attract a lot of fringe personalities.

      • Octoberfurst

         As I understand it Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. But they do believe in other dimensions where people can go when they die. They have Heavens and Hells and weird places in between. The ultimate goal is Nirvana which is sort of a blissful nothingness.
          I studied Zen for awhile and it all had to do with the mind. Freeing yourself from your attachments and such. I also studied Tibetan Buddhism and found it to be very bizarre and loaded with “woo”. Of all the religions in the world I think Buddhism is the least harmful.  

        • cipher

          Well, one could make a case for Taoism and Confucianism (but then one gets into a discussion about whether or not they’re actually religions), as well as a number of indigenous religions. It’s up for grabs.

          Bear in mind that the Buddhism we encounter here in the West is very different from Buddhism as it’s taught on the ground in Asia.  It’s been packaged for export. Actually, Tibetan Buddhism has remained truer to its roots, although even that has been diluted somewhat.

          • nakedanthropologist

            Plus, Buddhism (pretty much like every other religion) is hard to separate from its cultural context.  For example, Protestantism in the United States is different than Protestantism practiced in South America or Africa – different things are considered normal and okay.  I was raised Catholic in the US, and we were supposed to fast on Holy Days of Obligation and Lent.  However, my friends from Venezuela and Peru (also Catholic) never even heard of fasting for these times – and they went to church more than I did.  Buddhism pracitced in America becomes American Buddhism (I think).

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    As I’ve pointed out everywhere else I’ve seen this, I’d be more impressed if he’d said “religion is no longer necessary”

  • cipher

    I said this here the other day. He’s been saying for years that he thinks it’s possible to develop a system of ethics or morality not based upon religion. What I find interesting in this recent quote is the inclusion of the term “spirituality”. I wouldn’t presume to speak for him, but I wonder if he’s losing patience with organized religion. His own tradition is very patriarchal and hierarchical.

    Interestingly, I know a youngish (in his thirties) Buddhist monk from India who is a close student of his, who disagrees with him about this (at least he did the last time we talked about it, which was several years ago). He’s of the opinion that it could possibly work for individuals or small groups, but that for large populations, religion is needed as a foundation for ethics/morality. Actually, given what we hear from fundies – “If I didn’t believe in God and fear hell, I’d be out there rapin’, pillagin’ and plunderin’ ” – he may be right.

  • Michael

    Meanwhile the Pope is telling people that fundamentalism is bad. It’s a start.

    • cipher

      Really? This from a man who, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (aka the Inquisition), used to ruin people’s lives over points of doctrinal disagreement.

      • Michael

        Yes it is. I do look forward to the day it gets quoted back at him.

  • GabyYYZ

    I always thought (and still do) that should I ever decide to follow a more formal philosophy of life/religion, it would be Buddhism, but without the spiritual overlay as in Tibetan Buddhism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=700480741 Joel Sassone

    He lost me on the first sentence. Get back to me when he comes out and admit he’s not a reincarnated holy man.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Ever notice how they always come back as men?

      • HughInAz

        Going off on a tangent, I find it amusing that when people undergo “past lives” hypnosis, they always talk about being Napoleon or Cleopatra or what not, ever an ordinary peasant – even though the vast majority of people up to relatively recently were peasants.

        • cipher

          Actually, people often report ordinary lives. It’s only the sensational accounts that get written up in the media.

          (Not that I’m trying to vouch for their purported accuracy!)

      • cipher

        It’s very patriarchal, although there are a few female tulkus (incarnate lamas): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Buddhism#Female_Tulku_Lineages

        But, yeah – in general, female monastics in Tibetan Buddhism have been treated like second-class citizens (and that’s being charitable).

        The DL has suggested he may come back as a woman. Of course, I can’t imagine the hierarchy would recognize a woman as DL, and would “discover” his incarnation in a young boy.

    • Dyse

      yeah you’re right, the problems i have with reincarnation completely discredit everything he says, the dalai lama is such a misguided fool.

      come on man.

  • HughInAz

    It’s only a historical accident that ethics and religion have come to be associated – they really have nothing to do with each other. Religion occasionally and accidentally aligns with ethics, at least when it’s a no-brainer like not killing, stealing etc, but the reality is that religion is all about tribalism.

  • Tom_Nightingale

    Huh.  Since when has io9 been covering religious/humanism stories?

  • http://twitter.com/davehodg Dave Hodgkinson

    A few of the people commenting here could do well to have a quick read up on Buddhism.

    As pointed out, it’s not really a religion, it’s a philosophy and in the basics, there is no “woo”. The Buddha also made the smart move of getting a whole bunch of people to write his thoughts down so there’s no possibility of error, as there is with the Abrahamic “faiths”. As for things like reincarnation, they’re best treated as concepts: how would you act *if* you had to come back and do it all again?

    And the Dalai Lama is a top, top man. Great thinker and a supremely compassionate man. Also, can they get Tibet back from China please?

  • http://twitter.com/UChicagoSecular UC Secular Alliance

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