I guess I’m spiritual

Ethics for the New Millenium

I checked out Ethics for the New Millennium for my post on secular ethics, and as long as I’ve got it I figured I might as well read it. One thing that’s usually poorly defined is spirituality, as in “I’m spiritual but not religious”. I’ve never been clear exactly what that means, but I usually take it as something like “I don’t go to church, but I have some fuzzy idea that there’s something out there that cares about humans.”

In one of the few explicit definitions I’ve ever seen, the Dalai Lama makes it clear that that’s not what he means by spirituality (p. 22):

Actually, I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayer, and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of human spirit–such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony–which bring happiness to both self and others.

Well, shoot. I’m concerned with those qualities (the second bunch). I’m bad at some of them, but I do try. I never really thought of that as indicating spirituality, more like just trying to be a decent human being. Are there people running around who aren’t concerned with love and compassion?

I guess it’s fine to define spirituality this way, as long as it’s consistently applied. You can’t, for example, define spirituality this way and then treat spirituality and materialism as antonyms. It’s perfectly possible to be concerned with these “qualities of human spirit” and to believe that the material universe is all that exists.

Ethics for the New Millennium surprised me a bit, in that the vast majority of its content could have been written by a secular humanist. Much of what His Holiness does have to say about religion is to argue that it’s a bad foundation for a system of ethics (in fact that’s the central message of another of his books, Beyond Religion).

I don’t agree with everything in these books; for example, they argue that religion is a net good for humanity, which I don’t believe. But I was surprised by how much I do agree with.

For a very different view on the Dalai Lama, check out Marcus Ranum’s take.


  1. says

    I’ll give it a read. If he’s figured out that religion is a bad foundation for a system of ethics, then he’s made huge progress in this most recent of his many lives.

  2. jazzlet says

    That seems such a broad definition of spirituality that it is functionally useless. Only literal psycopaths (if I understand the defintion of that correctly!) would not fit it at some level.

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