Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Beyond Religion

At a Buddhist Monastery in Seoul

Yesterday the New York Times published an article about the startling decline of religion in Western Europe (in particular the decline of Christianity).  A recent survey showed that less than 50% of the population in Europe say they believe in God. In fact, more people believe in the existence of extraterrestrials than they believe in God.

I think it is only a matter of time before this wave of anti-relgious sentiment hits the United States. 

I find all this rather troubling because I think it has some serious cultural implications. 

In the past, religious belief has provided the foundation for a basic societal ethic in Western cultures. In general, the culture has been governed by an ethic of "concern for others." The Judaeo-Christian worldview (as well as that of other major religions) is based on a belief that selfishness is destructive-  human beings need to take good care of one another.  This worldview has served as the basis for our common understanding of how we should live together in a civilized society.

So what happens to a society when religion is abandoned by more and more people?

A few years ago the Dalai Lama wrote a fascinating book:  "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World." In the book, he suggests that our culture is at a critical stage because the ethic of "concern for others" is being replaced by a rugged "me-first" individualism. This is a sure path to destruction.

He suggests that, instead of bemoaning the decline of religion, and instead of believers and non-believers battling one another about who is right and who is wrong, we must move "beyond religion," and find some other common ground for establishing an ethic of how to treat one another in society.

In the book, the Dalai Lama (who is himself a respected scientist) says:

There is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence in evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and other fields suggesting that, even from the most rigorous scientific perspective, unselfishness and concern for others are not only in our interests, but also, in a sense, innate to our biological nature.

Human beings thrive only in an environment of concern, affection, and warmheartedness - or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the sufferings of others and to promote their well-being.

What the Dalai Lama says makes great sense to me. I think religion has the potential to foster an ethic of compassion but that hasn't always been the case. Furthermore, since religion is being taken much less seriously today in our culture, we need to find some other common ground for establishing an ethic of compassion. 

We may indeed need to move beyond religion for us to figure out how we should treat one another. 

Maybe science can be that new common ground. 

A culture without compassion is a culture in decline. 

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