Dalai Lama Wrong on Religious Tolerance

06/01/2010 02:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Dalai Lama's recent editorial in The New York Times rebukes "radical atheists" and others for being intolerant of many religions. As disproof of these hateful attitudes, the Dalai Lama offers a personal story of finding common ground with a Trappist monk in 1968.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus' acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

I'm a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I've long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

The Dalai Lama is correct to look for points of commonality and engagement, but he fails to realize that religion nearly always interferes with this endeavor. If compassion is valued by all peoples, it is more correct to call it a human value rather than a religious value. What the Dalai Lama is really praising is not religious unity, but secular humanism.

The major world faiths may be largely in accord with our moral intuitions (indeed, if they were not, they would be unlikely to be popular enough to be termed 'major faiths' at all). We judge them, not only by how well they match universal codes of morality, but by the extra strictures they place on their followers.

Even faiths that value compassion may disagree about who is worthy enough to be a beneficiary of that compassion (i.e. Mormons' exclusion of blacks for most of their history) or may practice a compassion that, to the rest of the world, looks like cruelty (African witch doctors torturing child witches for the purpose of exorcism). If the Dalai Lama ran across a representative of one of these faiths, he might learn something about Buddhism from the contrast, but it would be wrong to praise the offending faith for its declared devotion to compassion.

Tolerance and respect are not owed to the objectionable and the abusive. When atheists are "intolerant" of organized religion, we are not unaware of the tolerable principles that we share with some religious groups. We are reacting to the objectionable practices of many faiths, which their leaders insist are necessary components of their creed. To praise individual parts of their morality in isolation, as the Dalai Lama wishes to do, is to do their beliefs a disservice.

Religions are characterized by the truth claims they make about the world and by the logical consequences of those truth claims. Apocalyptic movements that miss their scheduled date of catastrophe are false faiths, no matter how moral their codes of ethics. If their ethics cannot be disentangled from their false metaphysical beliefs, they are promoting falsehood and undermining reason. If the false religion and the true ethics can be dichotomized, the ethics are secular and should be taught as such.

Just as we cannot celebrate the ethics religions teach while ignoring the material falsehoods they preach, we cannot separate out the religious ethics we like from those we abhor. Religions are presented as coherent and consistent moral systems. If we claim that we can praise some of a religion's tenets and decry others, we deny its claim to be a coherent and correct moral system. If we acknowledge the basic definition of a religion, we cannot both recognize it as such and selectively praise its values.

What the Dalai Lama is doing, and what most of us choose to do, is to judge these values piecemeal. We praise ethics that jibe with our experience and the way we feel we ought to treat other people. Although we try to harmonize conflicting values, our first goal is not perfect consistency but the closest approximation to moral behavior we can manage, given the data available.

If this system of ethical consideration is what the Dalai Lama was praising, the title of his NYT op-ed "Many Faiths, One Truth" was apt. It appears the truth he was referencing was secularism.