Sunday, November 13, 2005

Ethics without God

I was brought up in a very religious Christian family. Since religion was the focal point of family life, from a very young age I had a very solid grounding in ethical behavior. It was the usual "Christian values" (the ten commandments, "be ye kind one to another", turn the other cheek, etc.), but rather than just giving lip-service to the ideas every Sunday, it was an actual daily way of life for my family. However, ever since I was a teenager, I was bothered by the apparent reward-based ethics of established religion. It wasn't enough to do good for the sake of doing good - instead, there was always a subtext of "do good and you'll find salvation". It just seemed so selfish to me. I always wondered, why can't people have ethics without the fear of a God meting out rewards and punishments based on behavior?

So, to the great disappointment of my parents (sorry Mom & Dad), I abandoned my family's religion when I turned 18. My goal was to continue to try to be what I thought was a good person, but without any religious basis for such behavior. I felt it should be possible to have a system of ethics based on compassion for others, not based on a future reward from God. That was twenty years ago. Since then, I haven't really given religion much thought. Or, it might be more accurate to say I haven't given any God-based religion much thought. According to Webster's Dictionary, any belief system built around a code of ethics is a religion. So, in effect, I have been following my own personal religion.

However, as I've started to learn more about Buddhism recently, I am finding it is very interesting. I had always seen pictures of the Buddha statues, and the monks in saffron robes, and mistakening thought that Buddhism was all about the worship of some guy named Buddha. But it's not - at least not what I've learned about it so far. As with any ancient religion, there are many different interpretations and off-shoots all bearing the same name. But from what I've encountered so far, the main precept of Buddhism is to provide an ethical way to live one's life. Period. No God dangling some future reward or punishment. Just ethical behavior because it is the right thing to do. In fact, you could follow the behavior outlined in the Eightfold Path of Buddhism and be a practicing Christian. There's no conflict of interest from the Buddhist side of things - it's just an outline for how live an ethical life.

Which brings me to what got me started writing this snippet about ethics in the first place. There is an article in today's Washington Post about how the Dalai Lama was giving a speech in Washington to the world's top neuroscientists. Because the Dalai Lama is a religious leader, some scientists felt having him as a speaker to a science group was inappropriate. And to that I say these scientists are missing the point. Ethics are important regardless of religion. As the Dalia Lama himself said, "By invoking fundamental ethical principles, I am not advocating a fusion of religious ethics and scientific inquiry. Rather, I am speaking of what I call 'secular ethics' that embrace the key ethical principles, such as compassion, tolerance, a sense of caring, consideration of others, and the responsible use of knowledge and power -- principles that transcend the barriers between religious believers and nonbelievers, and followers of this religion or that religion."

And if the scientists couldn't appreciate what the Dalai Lama said, maybe they might listen to Albert Einstein, who said, "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism."