‘Beyond Religion: Ethics for the Whole World’ Book Review

His Holiness has, understandably, written a number of books over the years dealing mainly with religion and spirituality. This work however is aimed at a different audience and, while it touches on religion, the book is mainly about ethics and how it can be scientifically shown to be beneficial to the individual.

(NOTE: This book should be of particular interest to the “occupy Wall Street” movement, see some pointed quotes below.)

The book jacket for Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

With the rise of secularism around the world this is becoming an ever more important question – can humans have a strong ethical system even without religion? According to many Western religions the answer has long been a resounding NO – one emphatic enough to lead to burnings and torture, but can the world continue to survive much longer with such a narrow viewpoint?

In particular this book addresses the possibility of developing a universal code of ethics which could be accepted by theistic and non-theistic religious groups as well as non-religious individuals.

I could be wrong but I would summarize the basic thesis as: “You can be human (in the higher sense) without religion but not without ethics.”

To begin, His Holiness explores the difference between the supposed anti-religious or European-style of secularism and the Indian, or religion-neutral secularism (my terminology).

This is a critical issue today, not because of a lack of ethics in European secularism but because of the objection to this philosophy among many American and other religious groups, especially most established Western churches.

His Holiness explains this as being due to the history of violent anti-scientific and anti-secular antagonism from the European churches as opposed to the development of Indian secularism which was not suppressed by government or religious groups and thus never developed any anti-religious bias.

Wall Street occupiers should find encouragement in His Holiness’s writings, especially page 34 which includes:

“From conflict over resources in the natural world to conflict within families, material values are so often a source of trouble.”

And on the same page:

“Recent social science research has shown not only that the mental benefits of wealth are temporary, but also that the general level of contentment in a society is higher when wealth is more evenly distributed among the population than when there are large disparities between rich and poor.

The majority of the book is devoted to an attempt to put ethics on a “scientific” or perhaps even verifiable basis, as opposed to simply a religious basis. That is, he contends that human beings simply have better and longer lives if they behave in a manner which most religions would consider ethical and that such an ethical basis for living need not be tied to any religion, although it certainly can be.

I believe it would be acceptable to his Holiness to summarize and paraphrase his belief (and hope for mankind) in this phrase:

“Although religious belief is an important and desirable aspect of human nature, man can behave ethically without religion.”

Unfortunately for the future of the world these ideas will be rejected out of hand by many of those who strongly profess religious beliefs while acting with a complete lack of ethics in their personal and political lives.

This book is not a deep philosophical tome impenetrable to all but the most sophisticated – rather it is what I would call an “easy read” being easy to read and expressing complex concepts in plain language. Digesting the ideas may be a bit more difficult.

“Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, His Holiness The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, ISBN 978-0-547-63635-1.

For those who are too frightened of new ideas to risk reading what a religious leader not of their church has to say, I should point out that His Holiness isn’t pushing Buddhism in this book, neither Tibetan nor any other “brand.” Instead he is “pushing” the need for people to recognize that individuals who are not sitting next to them in their church can still be highly ethical even if they are more secular in their beliefs.

This, of course isn’t a new idea, but as the world grows smaller and the ethics and actions of a billionaire in New York comes to directly alter the lives of people around the world, we may actually be approaching the time when thinking people of all religions and non-religions seriously consider accepting the good qualities and good intentions of others and that their own well being may be directly affected by the well being of others.

Given a choice would YOU prefer to live among religious or secular individuals people with a strong set of ethics who actually live by those beliefs, or with neighbors and politicians who merely pay lip service to a particular religion leaving them “morally” free to act as unethically as their baser instincts lead them to behave both in public and in private.