In the minds of many, religion and ethics are inextricably tied. The clearest connection of this sort is expressed in the divine command theory of ethics which holds that something is good or right because God has decreed that it is so. Ethics can, however, be tied to religion in a more sociological way. What is good or right is whatever is consistent with a particular religious practice or dogma. Atheists and agnostics have long objected to this way of characterizing ethics on the grounds that many who do not obey "the commands of God" or adhere to a particular religion have as robust a moral sense and can act as completely morally as any religious believer. Ethics on this view can have secular basis. In Beyond Religion the Dalai Lama argues quite persuasively for adopting a secular basis for morality, regardless of one's religious convictions. He presents a basis for morality which while not requiring religious commitment, is not inconsistent with most religious moralities.
For the Dalai Lama, ethics is grounded in human nature. He writes, "Ethics consists less of rules to be obeyed than of principles for inner self-regulation to promote those aspects of our nature which we recognize as conducive to our own well-being and that of others." He recommends that to be moral we should promote our natural dispositions toward compassion and discernment. By compassion, the Dalai Lama means "a motivation of genuine concern for others" and by discernment, he means the ability "to relate to situations in a manner that is in tune with reality." This "enables us to translate our good intentions into good outcomes."
While the first half of Beyond Religion is at pains to set aside any particular religious faith, the second half presents a specifically Buddhist approach to developing within oneself moral dispositions. This not to say that one must dogmatically accept Buddhism to agree with its prescriptions. Instead, the Dalai Lama presents his approach (Buddhist though it is) to the reader on its own terms. Accepting or rejecting the approach is to depend on how reasonable it seems to the reader.
The first step in developing these dispositions is to cultivate heedfulness, mindfulness, and awareness. This involves cautiously attending to one's patterns of thinking, speaking, and acting. The result is that we can eventually gain mastery of ourselves and limit our harmful behaviors. The Dalai Lama goes on to describe practical methods for translating heedfulness, mindfulness, and awareness into self-mastery, particularly in two chapters "Dealing With Destructive Emotions" and "Cultivating Key Inner Values." These chapters are informed not only by the author's deep understanding of Buddhist psychology, but by his interactions with Western psychologists, particularly Paul Ekman with whom he recently authored a book entitled, Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion (reviewed in the blog.)
In a time when religious believers and those committed to science are often at loggerheads, the Dalai Lama's example of recognizing the merits of both religion and science is important. He has been quoted as saying that if there is anything that is incompatible between Buddhism and modern science, then Buddhism will need to change. At the same time, he emphasizes the practicality of religion. Despite the horrors committed by misguided zealots, "faith is a force for good and can be tremendously beneficial....Religion gives hope and strength to those facing adversity..." and it offers "a vision of a good life which people can strive to emulate."
Beyond Religion is a beautifully written examination of relationships between religion, science, and ethics. It is filled with sage advice and sensitive judgements about contemporary social, political, and ethical issues. Most of all, it is an exquisitely useful handbook for developing one's capacities for compassion and discernment.