Is the Dalai Lama Calling for the End of Religion?

Is the Dalai Lama Calling for the End of Religion? September 12, 2012

My friend, Doug, is not what I’d call a religious person. He grew up in church but has since taken to a combination of practicing martial arts, yoga and independent study, primarily of Buddhist philosophy. In a lot of ways, his journey is a familiar one for younger adults today (he and I are both 40 so we don’t really qualify as “young” adults any more).

Doug is, like I am, an intellectually curious guy. He follows my work pretty closely and he is certainly open to other points of view, even if they’re not ones he embraces for his own life. Sometime we share ideas back and forth, but this quote from the Dalai Lama that he sent me recently really got my attention:

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.

Pretty strong words from a leader of one of the world’s major religions. Granted, some might argue that Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion, but given the rituals, practices and other vestments that accompany Buddhism, it’s reasonable to consider it a religion. And with 300 million practicing Buddhists in the world, the use of the word “major” in describing it is safe as well.

It’s one thing when philosophers, atheists or even religious folks on the fringes of a system call for serious reevaluation, but when the Dalai Lama says it, that’s enough to give me pause and wonder if this post-Christendom direction we’ve been headed toward in the west isn’t a greater trend that’s seeping into the global zeitgeist.

Granted, he’s not exactly calling for the end of religion per se, but rather he’s beginning to imagine what spirituality and ethics might look like “beyond religion.” This, in itself, seems to hold plenty of promise, freeing one’s relationship to God (or whatever you identify as Divine) from being mitigated by an intermediate body of any kind, and removing the yoke of religious doctrine from the human pursit of moral and ethical standards.

I think we can all agree, after all that although such doctrine may originally have been established to provide moral guidance, it’s not necessarily imperative to have a moral compass. What’s more, there are plenty of cases in which rigid adherence to religious doctrine actually has led to what many might call immoral ends. So In that sense, the Dalai Lama and I seem to be on the same page in this postmodern thought process.

But is this really the only purpose religion serves – to lay out a moral path for followers to look to? Certainly we’re fairly capable of understanding the basics of right and wrong without religion to tell us. However, being a good person is certainly about much mroe than getting all the rules right.

Jesus himself was the one who, in the Bible, challenged the Pharisees’ strict observation of Jewish law, to the point of arrogance, lording their purity over others. He noted that the law of right and wrong was forever within us, and not captured within the pages of any text. But to do that takes practice. It is certainly a counter-cultural mindset to practice things like selflessness, mindfulness, and the virtues of humility in today’s world. A belief system that tells you to release all you own and follow is not particularly one that aligns well with the tenets of capitalism. Yes, the laws of our culture can help mitigate obvious acts of violence, but there’s more to good living than that.

So where do we gain such a skill set? Ideally, from the collective wisdom of fellow practitioners, and in some cases, guided by those who may have dedicated their lives to honing their practice of such a way of living. After all, most of us would not simply decide to call ourselves black belts in karate; we’d find a dojo with a proper sensei. We’d learn the moves, condition our bodies and minds, work over and over again at emulating those whose example we admire or respect.

Why would our faith practice be any different?

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have such a community outside of institutional religion. In fact, some of the greatest movements of faith have come from beyond the scope or reach of present-day religion. But the wholesale abandonment of such a history and such a wealth of wisdom and connection to something greater than ourselves would lead to a kind of cultural poverty we can ill afford.


"goodness, some pple shld just learn not to speak at all"

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  • what is the “working definition” of ::religion:: in this context? for the Dalai Lama, for Doug and for you?

    • a good question. I wrestled with continuing down that path but this post was already going long. I’m thinking in general terms of the traditional institutional major religions of history. Of course there are more “organic” offshoots of these, and I’m not sure at what point an independent movement or reformation movement itself becomes a religion. I guess for me, the definition is some collective body that shares common ritual, story and history. That’s what I’m advocating to preserve, anyway.

      • SamHamilton

        If “religion” is some collective body that “shares common ritual, story and history” and that is what your advocating to preserve, why do you also seem to be saying the end of religion would be a good thing? I’m confused…

        • eltopiafrank

          Sami, I think one can look beyond religion but still feel a need for the security of that subculture. For example, there are cultural Baptists, cultural Pentecostals etc. Churches can also share a common story even as their understanding of the significance that story changes and develops. But in a sense I do agree, that many progressive Christians seem to be attempting to making a religion-less religion.

          I think that many of the leaders are so steeped in their traditions that even when they try to go beyond them, they build something that, to them at least, “looks like church,” even if it is diametrically opposed to their past understandings.

          To build a community that is truly beyond religion, now that is a undertaking. Some would define it as the task of an anti-Christ. Would they be correct in that assessment? That’s a question that has ever been on my mind.

  • Michele Nikolai

    This is a perfect example of why there should remain a separation of church and state!!!

  • Humanism is more than able to provide the collective wisdom you seek. You can keep any and all of valuable lessons, you would lose belief in the supernatural.

    • SamHamilton

      Interesting point Polly… I’d be interested in hearing how Christian’s preferred future is different than what you advocate.

  • Very few people would suggest that ethics is exclusively grounded in religion. Our motivations and thoughts are always a blend of economic, cultural, personal, etc. factors. I would expect that taking religious traditions and thought out of the equation wouldn’t necessarily be enlightening. It would leave more room for other factors to insert their constructive/destructive potential. I don’t think the solution lies in better thought (crucial as that is and wil remain), but in better encounters (the courage to meet the other).

    • SamHamilton

      I think you make a good point Thomas. People act as if it’s the religious institutions that cause the problems when if fact it’s often the other things. I think the loss of religious institutions, if it is to come, would be a net negative for the followers of Jesus.

  • Anthony

    Ending religion does not necessitate the ending of faith and spirituality. As such being a post religious society is good in my mind. It means the end of “church” authority over people. Which would help curb the influence of radicals over people (everyone from warren jeffs to radical ayutolas).

    Just because religion as grandma and grandpa knows it ends doesn’t mean it is wholey gone. The purpose of religion to man was to understand and orient his view of his place within creation. Earliest religious beliefs delt far less with moral direction than with why things are the way they are.

    Religious institution today owes its death to being led by morally bankrupt leaders obsessed with money and power. How many ministers and priests would stick with their vocation if they had to maintain a day job like everyone else and where regarded as more of guides and less as authoritative messangers spewing “gods will”?

    So the real question from the Christian perspective is what is the real church? An ecclesiastical power structuree or the body of believers? Pagans of old never needed a institution as religion was simply the body of knowledge where things come from and understanding their place in it. Morals were left up to the consensus of the whole tribe and not some schmuck claiming authority from god and his holy book.

    • SamHamilton

      I agree with you that the real church is the body of believers. But what is religion? Religion is what the body of believers believe. It’s not an institution. It’s not a hierarchy. It’s not what some “schmuck” says. Christians don’t get our morals from preachers, we get them from the Bible, Jesus and the conclusions drawn by other believers through contemplation, prayer and discernment.

      If it’s dogma you’re looking to avoid, the consensus of the whole tribe can be just as dogmatic as any religious institution. So watch out.

  • I love this comment by the Dalai Lama, as it brings to mind Dietrich Bonehoeffer’s famous call for a “religionless Christianity.” The problem with religion is not its institutionalism or its connections to greater cultural realities and values…is that, at least in Christianity’s case, ethics was never the point. For example, Jesus didn’t tell a parable like the Good Samaritan just to remind us to be kind to strangers we meet on the road. Rather, the point seems to point to something deeper, something more messy, confusing, ambiguous, wonderful and strange: God’s love. When religion no longer focuses on who, what, why, how, when, and where of God’s love, a call forth to go beyond religion is necessary…apparently also for Buddhists. Thank you for the good post, and the wonderful chance to reflect.