March 26, 2009

Value of religion relative to individual?

Posted in Books, Musings tagged , , at 9:51 am by myrlinn

I’m currently reading Becoming Enlightened by the Dalai Lama (translated by Jeffrey Hopkins) – an excellent primer on Buddhism, with easily digestible explanations on central Buddhist precepts and beliefs — and the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on the different religions and the need to respect them and see their value caught my eye (and mind, of course). He writes:

The value of a religion is relative to each individual. A religion’s philosophical view may be the most profound and comprehensive, but still it can be inappropriate for a particular individual. As I mentioned above, even to his followers, Buddha did not always teach the most profound perspective. Rather than trying to force the deepest view on everyone, he taught according to individual interests and dispositions.

Further on, he elaborates thus:

The question of value depends on the frame of reference, which for religious systems is primarily whether it helps or harms the practitioner… People need a sysem which fits them. This is why it is very important to value all religious sytems

Can partial truths or partially right teachings lead to good results? I think that’s debatable.

For example,

  • what if a church teaches that God wants everyone to live a life of plenty (including having lots of money)?
  • what if a church teaches that God wants everyone to be healed, and casts doubt on a person’s faith if they aren’t healed after prayer?
  • what about when a church teaches that when you contribute freely to the Church’s coffers, God will reward you with more material riches?

Do these teachings help followers to grow spiritually? You would think not. How can it when the view of religion and God, is so transactional? You give, you get something back. Self-interest and self-preservation still prevail in this kind of view.

But pondering on the issue from the perspective that the Dalai Lama takes, that people need a form of religion that fits them, that they are ready to hear, then I can see their value. Those teachings engage people who are not ready to be totally non-materialistic, who are focused on pursuing  wealth and high positions. They keep people going go to church, keeps them listening to the teachings on love, compassion, sin. Looking at it from this perspective makes it easier to genuinely accept and respect forms of religion I find “wrong”. It goes some way towards solving one of my dilemmas — the fact that I hate all the “them” and “us”, yet I find some teachings just plain unpalatable.


  1. The difficulty I find with that kind of belief is the disrespect it shows to truth.
    Now I can imagine it is disrespectful to truth on one of two basis, either it does not believe that truth exists, which is not the impression I have got of buddhism but I could be wrong, or it believes that truth does not matter.

    But it seems to me that most people have an internal sense that truth is important, and when they do not like the truth, when truth does not live up to what they would like it to be, they still instinctively see their own recoiling from the truth as a failing.

    It seems a natural and commendable aspect of human programming to seek out and if not to respect truth, at least to wish to respect truth.

    There also seems to be an elitism in this view to me. Its similar to the sort of elitism of brahminsim when it says “oh yes all religions are valid” but at the same time brahminism is the thing which tells us they are all valid, it is the superreligion which rises above all the rest and explains why they are all the same and their sameness is essentialised in brahminism. (The more mystical side of freemasonry back in the old days before it really did become just a social club was also similar).

    A while ago I read something which talked about a concept called “spiritual socialism” which it was criticising. It was saying that as material socialists try and make everyone level on a material level, spiritual socialists do the same on a spiritual level, and that whenever someone tries to “enlighten” (pardon the word pun) the masses they are being a spiritual socialist which is bad because the masses are not ready, are really not equal.
    And at the time I was in a very pro-Nietzsche kind of mood and so I thought ok, this is bad, we cannot and should not try to save the world, for the world does not want to be saved, we can only try to live the best we can.
    But I could never do it, because deep down in my heart of hearts I feel the equality, spiritual equality that is, of men. We are not materially, intellectually, etc etc but, in this one thing – we are all alike.
    Weirdly though, when I realised that I became less desperate to “save the world” because I realised *I* do not need to do it, I am not one of a few who has found the truth which if we forget it will be lost. Rather truth is independent of me, though I can never be independent of it.

  2. myrlinn said,

    That last point you made — that “truth is independent of me” — now, that’s something to think of. IS the truth independent of ME? Some may argue that it doesn’t. From what I remember of stuff I’ve read, quantum theory states somewhat the same thing — that the observed is affected by the observer.

    I’m so full of questions to which I don’t have answers… Thanks, Sophia, for coming by and joining the dialogue!

  3. You’ll have to excuse whilst I twitch at your reference to Quantum Physics. I am no physicist, I only took physics to A-Level. I take a non academic interest in science though, and I think I am right in saying a lot of people imply things from Quantum Physics which …show a lack of education on the topic.
    The observer effecting the observed, that certainly is a serious issue when observing things so tiny as electrons and the like (and a much less serious issue when observing much larger things) – that is just because the wave-particles of light are not really much bigger in scale than electrons so when a photon hits an electron its actually significant in making the electron move. It’s not saying that truth is subjective in a philosophical sense, it is saying that the mechanism used to observe necessarily involves effecting things. This is also true when people do surveys in psychology or social science, the very fact of asking people questions about aspects of their lives effects how they think and act, and its a right pain accounting for that, but its not to say that truth itself is subjective – the photon hitting the electron is as objective as the prior position of the electron before being hit.

    But when people talk about religious truth, that’s a different matter, because religious truth is not a matter of the scientific method (generally speaking).

  4. myrlinn said,

    Sophia, you get me thinking. I like that.

    Let’s say we accept what you say: why can’t we see “me” as the “mechanism” in question, in which case “truth” is dependent on (but perhaps not affected by) “me”?

    However, I’m not too sure about the use of the word “mechanism” itself applies to quantum theory. From what I remember, the theory I’m thinking of posits that all observations are dependent on the observer, or that all observations must be described in relation to the observer.

    I think the observer-observed phenomenon seen in social science studies/surveys/experiments, usually termed the Observer Paradox, is something a little different. The observer paradox says that something is changed as a result of being observed or as a result of awareness that it’s being observed. Quantum theory, from my understanding, explores the idea that something looks different depending on which location or perspective you’re looking at it from.

    Which is all quite interesting because for me, it goes right back to the book “Becoming Enlightened”. I’m still reading it, and the Dalai Lama writes a lot about Buddha’s teaching of “dependence-arising”, that everything is interdependent, interconnected. I’d never understood why Buddhism talked of “emptiness” — the book gives me a better idea of the Buddhist philosophy. “Emptiness” does not refer to non-existence or nothingness, it refers to the idea that everything is empty of inherent existence.

    And I wonder also about connections to ideas on points of view (in literature), or virtual realities (in technology). Novels, movies, scifi have all explored the idea of multiple realities, and whether there is such a thing as a “real” reality, or a reality that is more “real” than others?

  5. Well perhaps you are talking about the wave-particle duality, where something is both a wave and a particle at the same time? And even present and not present at the same time.
    It’s complex. But at the same time, it only speaks to material things, and very tiny material things at that (although all material things are made of very tiny material things).

    Recently I have been reading a philosopher by the name of Lev Shestov ( <—some of his works are online). He has a lot of interesting stuff to say (one of the major existentialist philosophers, inspired Albert Camus, Emil Cioran, himself was heavily inspired by Kierkegaard.) And he has a lot to say about …well through his criticism of reason he ultimately gives the impression of almost falling into nihilism about reality, although I don’t think its fair on him to say that is his position.

    But personally I think that God exists and that therefore there is an objective reality, we can be to lesser or greater extents in alignment with it, but it is objective.

    Which of course Buddhist’s don’t (well not a monotheistic and totalistic God anyway). But they must believe in some kind of objectivity or they would have nothing to say.

  6. I have an idea for a new sort of biblical (and other religious text) hermeneutic: namely, identifying and extracting all of the passages that could involve the tinge of the writer’s or the religion’s self-interest. What sort of text would emerge? If you are interested, pls see my post at

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