The great discovery of religions: Be nice to others

In the debate that is currently being waged between accommodationists (those who believe that science and religion are compatible worldviews) and new/unapologetic atheists like me who argue that they are not, the accommodationists usually argue that each area of knowledge is separate and has revealed different truths that complement each other. But what are these great truths that religion has supposedly revealed? Here they are vague but recently the Dalai Lama wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled Many Faiths, One Truth where he takes a shot at addressing this. (Thanks to commenter Ross for bringing my attention to it.)

The results are, to say the least, underwhelming. What the Dalai Lama says he finds is that despite their superficial differences and beliefs in their own superiority that has led to hostilities at various times in history, all religions reveal a common feature: the importance of compassion.

That’s it? This is the great truth revealed by religion? Thousands of years of study by theologians all over the world and the end result is that we should be show compassion to one other? This is something that was likely known to agrarian societies about 10,000 years ago and even to the earlier hunter-gatherers, long before any of the current religions came into being, simply because of its utilitarian value. It is also something that any child now would discover for himself or herself simply by playing with others.

Compare that banal discovery with the truths that science has revealed in just the last few hundred years. Sean Carroll helpfully provides a list. (Thanks to commenter kosmofilo for the link.)

Over the last four hundred or so years, human beings have achieved something truly amazing: we understand the basic rules governing the operation of the world around us. Everything we see in our everyday lives is simply a combination of three particles — protons, neutrons, and electrons — interacting through three forces — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong nuclear force. That is it; there are no other forms of matter needed to describe what we see, and no other forces that affect how they interact in any noticeable way. And we know what those interactions are, and how they work. Of course there are plenty of things we don’t know — there are additional elementary particles, dark matter and dark energy, mysteries of quantum gravity, and so on. But none of those is relevant to our everyday lives (unless you happen to be a professional physicist). As far as our immediate world is concerned, we know what the rules are. A staggeringly impressive accomplishment, that somehow remains uncommunicated to the overwhelming majority of educated human beings.

That doesn’t mean that all the interesting questions have been answered; quite the opposite. Knowing the particles and forces that make up our world is completely useless when it comes to curing cancer, buying a new car, or writing a sonnet. (Unless your sonnet is about the laws of physics.) But there’s no question that this knowledge has crucial implications for how we think about our lives. Astrology does not work; there is no such thing as telekinesis; quantum mechanics does not tell you that you can change reality just by thinking about it. There is no life after death; there’s no spiritual essence that can preserve a human consciousness outside its physical body. Life is a chemical reaction; there is no moment at conception or otherwise when a soul is implanted in a body. We evolved as a result of natural processes over the history of the Earth; there is no supernatural intelligence that created us and maintains an interest in our behavior. There is no Natural Law that specifies how human beings should live, including who they should marry. There is no strong conception of free will, in the sense that we are laws unto ourselves over and above the laws of nature. The world follows rules, and we are part of the world.

The Dalai Lama deplores the fact that religions have long been intolerant of one another and used violence to further their aims. But these kinds of articles usually contain an obligatory swipe at atheism and in his attempt at this bogus balance, he takes a swipe at new atheists, saying “Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs.”

So while religious believers have carried out murderous rampages against people of other faiths and unbelievers many times over history, what we atheists are guilty of is making ‘blanket condemnations’ of religion. i.e., we have used words and ideas to advance our goals. Oh, the horror!

One does not like to criticize the Dalai Lama or even make fun of him. He seems like a nice guy who smiles a lot and advocates peace. But his op-ed is nothing but platitudes, designed to give ecumenical religious people something to feel good about by claiming for it some special benefit that does not really belong to it.

POST SCRIPT: Trailer for Star Wars, Episode VII?

(Thanks to Pharyngula)


  1. peggy Fitzgerald says

    Dr. Singham,

    I understand that as an unapologetic atheist you believe that science and religion pose incompatible world views. However, as a man of science, how do you account for the existence of religion among most (all?) cultures? Why does religion exist and what is its purpose in human culture?

    I’d like to hear your views.
    Thank you.

    Peggy Fitzgerald

  2. says


    The ubiquity of religion does require some explanation that has been addressed in the past. In fact, there is a whole literature on this topic. The simplest is the evolutionary one that assigning an agency to natural phenomena had a survival advantage that resulted in the idea spreading in the population.

    But there are other theories of religion’s origins. Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a good place to start.

  3. says

    I like your evolutionnary views upon religion. I too think evolution is the simplest way to explain… quite everything in our societies (by the way, I don’t think there is an “ontologic” distinction to be made between culture and nature, but as I read you I think you do as well?).

    I also love Daniel Denett -- what a great mind! -- but only read his work on consciousness. I’ll surely come back to read your blog again!

    Thanks in advance if you find the time to answer my question about the distinction between nature and culture.


    PS: Excuse my English… I’m French!

  4. says

    I have nothing against any other religion, no matter what they believe in. For me, religion is something personal and it should stay that way. Too many people try to force there believes and religion to other people and do terrible things in the name of god. There is no bad religion, just bad people exploiting religion to get what they want.

  5. says

    Love the video! Displays how religious ceremonies can seem utterly silly and without merit to those outside the religion. As well as the fact that Jedi is now considered an official religion! haha

    I hadn’t seen this video yet. Has a nice Monty Pythonesque feel to it. Thanks for posting!

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