06/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"God Talk" -- Enough Already?

This article has to thank for inspiration the excellent article of the same title by the New York Times' wise and savvy commentator and "Think Again" columnist, Stanley Fish.

Yet another inspiration came from one of our favorite poems in Erica Jong's recently published collection of new poems, LOVE COMES FIRST. There she quips, in true EJ style, "God is not dead/but missing in action."

How true! Nor can it be otherwise, for it is we -- you and I -- who are supposed to provide the action. As Gandhi (and a few other sages) has told us, "We must be the change we want to see in the world." So, let us not wait for "God" or anybody or anything else to act, while the ball is so obviously in our own court!

That is why we recommend, despite its misleading title, Phil Zuckerman's new book on Sweden and Denmark, Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment (New York University Press, 2008). Of course, neither Sweden nor Denmark is really a "godless" or atheistic nation. People there just don't talk about "God" all the time, as seems fashionable in other parts of the world. Instead, they just quietly do "God's" work in terms of social justice, compassion with the less fortunate members of society, and helping each other out in ever so many ways. However, they do all of this, as a society, without even thinking of it all as a religious duty or pious acts. They simply chose that way of life as something that rational and decent but non-God-talking "secularists," like them, may do.

All of this, particularly American, "God talk," these days, also reminds us, by way of contrast, of much that the Dalai said about these things, when visiting Costa Rica, a few years ago. As it happened we were there, at the time, and had the privilege of not only listening to him but also experiencing that extraordinary personality's literally radiating love and compassion, just by his physical presence -- even without having to say anything. In this instance, though, he did have plenty to say, indeed, especially on the topic at hand! Allow us, hence, to share with you some of our recollections of his remarks, since they may help to at least explain, to some extent, the phenomenon of all the present "God Talk" -- or rather chattering about "God" -- that is suddenly going on, both in the popular media, as in academia.

In his several public meetings here, the Dalai Lama was particularly outspoken on the topics of "God" and "religion," when addressing an overflow crowd of students, at the University of Costa Rica. About "God" he said, for instance, in answer to a question, that Buddhism does not use the term, since it conveys belief in a personal, Creator-God. However, he quickly added, presumably for the benefit of his mostly, at least nominally, Catholic audience, that "Buddhism, while not engaging in 'God-talk,'" does have "the greatest respect for the deistic religions." Nor was Buddhism, he added, despite its avoidance of God-talk, in any way to be taken for being "anti-God" or "atheistic."

The Dalai Lama was particularly blunt when talking about "religion," in general. He said that only a very small percentage of people, despite their membership in one kind of religion or other, are actually taking their religion very seriously. Most so-called "religious" people are only very superficially involved with the particular faith, in which they happen to have been brought up. To that he added something even more daring and maybe even shocking to many of his academic but still nominally Catholic listeners, when saying, "most people are really only money-worshippers," implying that their religious pretensions are, at rock bottom, only hypocritical.

As if anticipating such books like Professor Ronald Aronson's recent, Living Without God (Counterpoint, 2008), he addressed some of the questions raised therein and, no doubt, were also in many of his student audience's mind, such as what "living without God" would really have to be like. As Aronson's book puts it, "the most urgent need" for secularists today would have to be, in the first place, "a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one's life." Well, the Dalai Lama did, we think, present to his audience, exactly that kind of practical philosophy, though he did, of course, do so in terms of Buddhist philosophy and psychology (while Aronson's Living Without God does, of course, try doing so in more general, secular terms).

In his earlier critiques of some so-called "new-atheist" books, with their "in-your-face" atheism, like the runaway bestseller, The End of Faith, by Sam Harris, Aronson had already been calling on these authors to "affirm a secular basis for morality." Fairly enough, he demands the same of his own treatise, Living Without God, and largely succeeds in doing so. More specifically, Aronson's Living Without God also demands that such a secular philosophy provide equally coherent guidelines for a universal ethics that includes prescriptions for right action.

Well, in addressing his student audience at the University of Costa Rica, the Dalai Lama affirmed specifically that ethics and morality need not be based on religion or belief in "God." He frankly admitted that, in this respect, he did have a strong disagreement with the Pope, in their recent, private meeting. The latter insisted, of course, that morality had to be based on religious faith. In contrast, the Dalai Lama declared that ethics and morality can arise simply out of recognition of our mutual interdependency, leading in turn to such secular virtues as respect, caring, and compassion for others. Stanley Fish's article, "God Talk" reminds its readers, in that connection, of certain echoes in Christianity, when referring to Jesus, as "one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains."

In that connection, the Dalai Lama pointed out that the Buddha himself, some 2,600 years ago, laid out a very specific moral codex of conduct in his famous "Eightfold Path" -- though, again, without reference to "God" or belief in any kind of "religion." That ancient moral codex included such things as "right action," "right speech," not giving cause for suffering, refraining from indulging in intoxicants and other harmful substances, as well as from "sexual misbehavior." The authors agree wholeheartedly to every one of these strictures, with the only proviso that the concept of "sexual misbehavior" may be overdue for revision in the light of what is scientifically known today about human sexuality (for instance, with regard to homosexuality), that was not known two millennia ago. We are certain that the present, very science-oriented Dalai Lama would be open to such a revision, having repeatedly stated that if ever there was a clash between modern science and Buddhism, it was not science but Buddhism that would have to change.

The Dalai Lama, though, stressed that, in addition, to the above mentioned secular "virtues," ethical living ultimately requires yet something else, though it also does not require belief in God or any kind of religious notion: The absence (or, as we would say, at least the "relative" absence) of selfishness or self-centeredness, that is of "ego" -- to which the Dalai Lama has often referred as humanity's "chief demon"!

With that we have come full circle with regard to living without "God talk." We shall leave open, for now, only the quest for "coming to terms with death," raised in yet another recent article, "The New Atheism, and Something More," by Peter Steinfels (The New York Times, February 14, 2009). Actually, we have already addressed ourselves to this issue in the last chapter of our own book, Staying Sane in a Crazy World (BookSurge/, 2008). There, we have done so in the context of discussing the famous writer, Joan Didion s tragic and almost simultaneous loss of her husband, as well as her daughter (pp. 342-344). We have said that she unfortunately, in our opinion, did turn to the wrong sources, that is, Western psychiatry and philosophy, for the comfort she so badly needed. In that respect, we suggested that it seems only Buddhism has really "come to terms" with this so fundamental issue.

Admittedly, we may never get scientific proof of what some of the most advanced Buddhist yogis "discovered" in their deep states of meditation on this so important and yet so difficult to understand subject. Yet, their very detailed explanations of death and dying definitely have more internal logic and are surely more rational and believable than talk about "resurrection of the body" and similar such offerings from the major religions. For now, we shall leave it at that, though there will, no doubt, we ample opportunity to return to this most difficult and troublesome subject.