Ethics Beyond Religion

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has created something of a stir when we said recently that…

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.

To be completely honest, my understanding of this statement since it first appeared on his Facebook page on September 12th of last year. The truth is that while I initially agreed with it, I now agree with it even more because I have seen how much broader its reach is. At first, I felt he was saying that we need to ground ethics in a source more far reaching than religion because formal religion is drawing fewer and fewer people into its houses of worship, Temples, meditation centers, Mosques, and other formal settings. After all, you can hardly spread a message very effectively when only twenty percent of Americans – and even fewer Europeans – attend services on a regular basis. I still do believe that is an accurate assessment of his statement, but not a complete one. That being said, I harbor no delusions about His Holiness checking my blog to be sure he has my agreement!

I have also realized that when I first read his statement I misread it. In my mind, I flipped the word order and misread it this way, “…find a way to think about ethics beyond spirituality and religion altogether.” At that point I thought he was making an attempt to include secular people into the discussion, including those atheists who (mistakenly) believe they are not spiritual people – an acceptable but rather limited goal. Of course, he actually said we need to find a way to think about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

Some of you may be thinking that while you agree with the above statement you aren’t sure it represents much of a change, especially since only twenty percent of Americans are hearing religion’s ethical teachings. I would add that a significant number among that twenty percent misunderstand the religious teachings they do hear. The problem created by what I am going to call the ethics vacuum is that many people respond to it by not thinking about their ethical choices or by making themselves the center of the universe and doing whatever is best for them and to hell with everybody else. I believe this attitude contributes at least in part to the United States Congress being deadlocked for years! Many in Congress feel that as long as they are getting their contributions and bribes from corporate America it’s perfectly fine to let Americans suffer. If these people had any kind of ethical reflection, they couldn’t possibly allow themselves to sell their souls to the god of cash.

It isn’t just on the level of public policy that we need to allow spirituality and ethics to step into the freedom of religious persecution and misunderstanding. I noticed a conversation that a spiritual teacher on Facebook was trying to start around developing a new understanding of sexuality as necessary for human happiness. Many of us see this as a given, but much of this man’s following is from among extremely conservative, holiness code Christians. A woman responded by saying “yes, but only after marriage!” It’s a sentiment that is shared by a vocal minority of Americans, including those who have failed to practice what they preach. The underlying belief is that pre-marital sex is prohibited in the Bible, a claim that cannot be supported when one seriously examines the sexual practices of those “favored by God” in the Bible. Adultery, polygamy, concubinage, and rape are all portrayed as acceptable practices in places within the Bible. My purpose today isn’t to explore those facts beyond using them to demonstrate that to say the Bible reaches abstinence before marriage is about as accurate as saying your local Greek Diner has salad. Biblical sexual ethics evolved over time, thank goodness, but they still have room to grow.

There is a sense in people of right and wrong. Some of it appears to be learned and some of it appears to be innate. Very few people, for example, need to be taught that it’s wrong to ignore a crying baby. When we see an elderly person slip and fall, our instinct is to check on them to ensure they aren’t hurt and call for help if they are. This innate sense of ethics seems to function best in either/or, black and white situations. Unfortunately, most of life is lived in the grey areas between extremes. It is in those places that we need to do some intentional work around ethics.

The reason that we can’t rely on religious teachings to inform our ethics is that there are many religious ethical teachings that contradict our innate ethics. It is obvious that when the “ethical sense” of the people disagree with an ethical teaching from religion, they simply ignore the teaching. Consider the preponderance of sexually active Roman Catholics who ignore that Church’s teachings on birth control as just one example of an ethical sense overriding official teaching. Frankly, the absurd idea of sexual abstinence until marriage became absurd with the invention of relatively effective methods of birth control and advances in the equality of women, who were suddenly going to college and didn’t want to get married and become pregnant at eighteen. In situations like this, people begin to see that the official teachings of religion are so profoundly out of touch with their lived reality that they need to be discarded. There is, however, a spiritual component to that ethical sense. Most of us discern that promiscuity is problematic, if for no other than health reasons. The significant exceptions are sexual compulsives, a group that is largely composed of sexual abuse survivors – but with treatment for the underlying condition the compusivity fades.

In short, to allow religion to continue to control the ethical table is to abdicate our ethical responsibility. Spirituality and ethics must step out from under the increasingly irrelevant voice of religion if we are to ensure our culture has a responsible foundation from which to make decisions for the welfare of all people. When religious voices enter into the conversation and attempt to impose their views on the rest of us – and we can be certain they will – we need to thank them for their input and simply move on. If their perspective works for them, that’s fine, but it doesn’t change the truth that it doesn’t work for most of us and so our innate ethical sense demands we abandon it. Loving one another is hard enough without allowing religious voices to so limit and redefine love that is becomes almost as impotent as they are.

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