Beyond Religion?

Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th and current Dalai Lama.  He was activiely exercizing the office of the head of state of Tibet when the  Chinese armed forces assumed control of the country in 1959. He was 24 at the time.  Since then, he has lived in India and maintained a govern­ment in exile known officially as the “Central Tibetan Administration.”  He retired in March of 2011 at 76.

Since the 1600’s the Dalai Lama has been the traditional civil authority of Tibet.  But he is also the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.  Perhaps it is because of his double role that the present Dalai Lama was keen to write a book called Beyond Religion.  (Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 188 pages).  For the book suggests that natio­nal governments should consider establishing programs that pro­mote “spiritual” values and practices as part of public policy.  This may seem to contradict the separation of church and state.  But he is quick to point out that the values he speaks about — compassion, universal respect, altruism, fairness, justice — are human social values.  They are not “supernatural” or necessarily religious.  They belong to humanity; and since they en­hance our lives, they are in everyone’s self interest.  Nothing could be more “secular,” he says, and therefore they are beyond religion.  They can be embraced by people of all religions … as well as those with none.

Despite the possible confusion created by the book’s title, there is no effort on his part to put down religion or eliminate its role.  The title is meant only as a reaffirmation of the universal values em­bedded in the Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948.    They are truly secular values, he insists, and beyond any religionSince these same values have traditionally been fostered by the world’s religions, they have unfor­tu­nately been consi­dered “off limits” to secular govern­ments.  Yes, of course they are espoused by religion, he says, because they are good; but religion does not own them.  They belong to humanity.   They are something the modern secular state has every right to embrace and encourage.  They are universal human values and practices. 

And there is another paradox:  he identifies “altruism” with “self-interest.”  This seems counter-intuitive.   We have be­come accustomed to thinking of them as contradictories, or at least contraries.  But if we allow ourselves to assume the perspective he suggests, we realize that we have been opera­ting on an unnecessarily limited definition of “self-interest.”  We have ac­cep­ted a point of view prejudiced by a flawed view of organic human nature.   “Self-interest” does not necessarily mean selfish — taking for oneself and disregarding the needs of others.  A “self-interest” that leaves out compassion and service of others is not self-interest at all; it is self-defeating.   Being secular means to make our own decisions without having to obey the commands of religious autho­rity or sacred writings, but it does not mean losing our humanity or the importance of community.   Encouraging compas­sion and altruism as a matter of public policy, and training the youth in their practice, is the legitimate task of secular society. 


The Dalai Lama is making suggestions for secular ethics apart from religion.  But what about religion?  What I have been talking about in my blogs is religion … and in particular the reform of the Christian religion.  There are similarities to the Dalai Lama’s program, I admit:  like him I also eschew the super­natural; I focus on ethical behavior whose value is determined solely by what is good for people in this one world and not by “commands” from a humanoid “God” who lives in another; I believe human beings are capable of living a good life without the interven­tion of forces from another world like “grace” or the sacraments; I agree with him that the “spiritual” is a dimen­sion of material reality, not something separate from or opposed to it.

He brackets religion, including his own.  He says nothing of his own private beliefs, except to say that he is “non-theist.”  The term as he uses it is designed to contrast with “theist” which by his descriptions evoke the personal anthropomorphic deity of the religions of the “Book.”  Many people might find the concept “non-theism” a contradiction of the very meaning of religion.  I do not.  For me “non-theism” is the most important characteristic that I share with the Dalai Lama.  And like him, “non-theism” is meant to describe religion, not secular society. 

For non-theism is not just another term for atheism.  It rather stands for the complete rejection of a “God” who could interact with humans in ways that characterize relationship between human beings.  Non-theism means that “God” is not a “person” it doesn’t matter how “big” you think he is.  “God” is not an agent in any sense.  “God” does not act in human history.  “God” does not have a “will” or issue commands, or reward or punish any­­one.  “God” neither creates nor permits (nor prevents) natural or human-made disas­ters — earthquakes, plagues, tsunamis, wars, ecological destruc­tion, genocide — you may have noticed.  “God” is simply not a “person” in any way that would allow us the use of the term.

But I go even further.  Not only does non-theism mean that “God” is not a person, it also means that “God” is not an entity.  “God” is neither a he nor a she nor an it.  “God” is not identifiable as a separate, stand-alone item, or unit, or organism, or substance, or object of any kind resi­ding in this world or in some other imaginary world of “spirit.”  “God” is simply not a “thing” of any kind.   And yet “God” exists and is fully part of this material universe.  In fact “God” is its very dynamism.  How can we conceive this?

“God” is energy — the energy to exist, to survive.  It is the energy that sustains every particle and every collection of particles of whatever shape or kind in the entire universe.  It is that “in which all things live and move and have their being.”  This energy is neither created nor destroyed, and its thirst for endless existence is responsible for every form and feature and substance and entity and organ­ism in the universe.  It has, in this non-directive sense, “created” all things while itself remaining uncreated by anything other than itself.  It is self-sustaining and self-explanatory.  It is self-elaborating and capable of evolving into virtually anything, even things that appar­ently transcend its most primitive forms, their own component elements.  These highly elaborated composite organisms, like human beings, were once thought to belong to a differ­ent sphere of existence altogether, called “spirit.”   But we now know they are not.  They are matter, like every­thing else that exists.  They are simply the most amazing examples to date of what matter’s energy does to exist and of the unimaginable range of its possible combina­tions.


Q.:  So how is this different from “atheism”?  If this “God” is not a person, and not even a separate entity, how can you call these proposals “religion”?  These are common, ordinary facts, known and shared by all people acquainted with science.  Aren’t these also, like the Dalai Lama’s suggestions, beyond religion? 

A.:  No.  To the contrary, I am saying that this “God” forms the basis of a religion that goes beyond secular society and mere ethical behavior because it is focused on an intimate relationship.  This exis­tential dynamism is not just a blind impersonal force because this dynamism is my very self and I cannot possibly relate to myself on anything but intimate loving terms.  I love myself and I love my life.   We hu­mans relate with recognition, grati­tude and love to ourselves and religion is an intimate intersub­jective connection to material energy which is, after all, ourselves.   We are nothing but matter’s energy.  Does that come as a surprise?  Just what did we think we were?  Aren’t we happy to be-here and to be what we are?  How could we not be passionately in love with our existence? 

Q.: So, then, is religion really only self-love … self-worship? 

A.: No.  Because everything else is also made of the same material energy.  What I love in myself I have to recognize and love in the plants, the animals, the insects, the stars and galaxies because it is also what they are as well.  Just like me, they are nothing but material energy.  My love for what I am cannot be limited to me.  There is no basis for an individualism here, a selfishness directed at myself alone.  This “God” of which I speak energizes us all, and makes us all a community sharing matter’s drive to exist.  I am what everything is.  The Dalai Lama would agree when I say with the Upanishads: I am THAT.  I have an intimate and intense relationship to THAT.   This is what I mean by religion.

Q.: Why, then, do you keep using the word “God”?  When you say “God” it makes me think of the “God” of the “book,” the “God” who was believed to perform miracles, punish enemies, give commandments, save us from Satan and evil.  This “God” you speak of does none of these things.   Why call it “God”?   

A.: Yes, you are right.  The word “God” is not a good word, but I am stuck.  What word can I use to make it clear that I am not talking about a mere ethical program, even one about compas­sion and altruism like the Dalai Lama’s.  I need to make it clear that I am talking about  a mysti­cal relationship of profound intimacy to the souce of myself and all things … in which I am immer­sed like a sponge in the sea … evoking the most passionate feelings I can imagine because it IS everything I am, everythintg I have, everrything I love and everything I could possibly hope for.  It IS my very self.   I need to find a word that says without confusion that I am talking about nothing less than an intimate love-relationship … a relationship  of worship … adoration … gratitude … that calls forth my service … a relationship that is not just an enlightened self-interest but passionate union grounded in my very being-here.

Help me out here, someone.  How do I say what I mean without sliding back into an ancient imagery built on illusion and ignorance.   We once believed “God” was a humanoid puppeteer in the sky, who inexplicably refused to use his almighty power to prevent the torments that nature heaps upon us and who stood idly by while men claiming to act in his his name turned people into groveling self-loathing slaves, stole their dignity and freedom and destroyed their culture and their lives.  There is no such “God.”  How do you say that … and love the one that is.


15 comments on “BEYOND RELIGION

  1. theotheri says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post, Tony.

    As someone who has spent many hours wrestling with some of what I experienced as your denser explorations, I have sometimes wished someone would write a companion “Equale for Dummies.” I’ve even fantasized doing it myself if only to clarify for myself what you were saying.

    But this post is limpid. At least it is for me. Perhaps in part because I have wrestled with your earlier work, but perhaps more because you have wrestled for many long hours for many more years than I. From my point of view, you need no help from anyone to communicate what you are trying to say about “God.”

    Again, a great thank you.

    “Non-theist” is a much more accurate term than “aetheist,” isn’t it? Now if we could just find a parallel term for “god”…


    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks. Reading the simple words of the Dalai Lama has inspired me. I realize that deep and difficult ideas can be communicated in simple terms. He speaks with an air of quiet confidence. His manner of speech itself is persuasive. It is something to aim for.


  2. says:

    Thanks. This essay is a neat Christmas gift. I completely agree with Terry that this is a new sort of dialogue for you. Your previous writing was a necessary prologue. You have previously supplied the elements of a journey that many of us have in common.
    We went from a simple world view, passively accepted, to a more nuanced, complex, intellectually sophisticated grasp of that world view. There are obviously many who feel that this second step in the belief process is not helpful. Some of this group go on to delve into the basic belief system as a process of developing a “spirituality”, personal, intuitive rather than logical, very metaphorical, very “other worldly”. I think here of Brian Karvelis, heroic in altruistic service. I stand back in awe and deep respect.
    I think that others, myself included, take a third step that is very different but which does not necessarily arrive at a different end point. We perhaps are the Briggs types who are chiefly analytical risk takers. We see a disconnect between the world as unvarnished materiality which does not conform to the basic belief system of childhood. This view renders the religious constructs, no matter how intellectualized, inadequate models for understanding empirical reality.
    A very personal turning point for me: called out one night to minister to a person who had fallen or jumped to the tracks of a nearby elevated branch of the BMT, I was led by the police to something in the street that was the major remains of the victim. I could see nothing specifically human before me but I was expected to apply blessed oil and pray a ritualized few sentences in order to “save this soul”. The absurdity of what I was doing suddenly overwhelmed me. Devoting a lifetime to such a belief system struck me as wasteful. It took on a new light: superstition or magical delusion. Moments like this can provoke a radical rethinking of an entire belief system.
    This kind of rethinking can be a slow process, at least it was for me. Subsequent years of study and involvement in science made this rethinking process somewhat convoluted. I feel very lucky to have found a kindred searcher who was further along in the rethinking than I. So here we are.
    In trying to understand my own journey I have come up with a 17 page precis into which “Beyond Religion” fits beautifully. Thanks Tony!
    Frank Lawlor

    • tonyequale says:


      If you want to send me your excellent precis in electronic form … either MSWord or PDF would work … I could add it as a “page” to this blog if you like. It would be called “Frank Lawlor’s Page” and it will be listed along with other “pages” along the top, right under the title, and in the side bar to the right under the pictures of the books, as you can see here. People will only have to click on the title and wordpress will open to it.

      “Pages” are almost like separate blogs, self-enclosed with comments and replies of their own. You can access it without a password and see what comments people are making and you can reply to them or comment as you like. I will have exclusive password control for editing, however, so if you want to change the text or add more material, you will have to send it to me first and I will post it.

      Just a suggestion …


  3. Leon Krier says:


    The point you (and many of us) have reached seems to resonate with those who embraced the “via negativa” of previous centuries. This modus operandi has deeply touched artists seeking to engage and express the “essence of our existence.” Many of the prominent artists of the 20th century abandoned representational art in favor of abstract art because of the inadequacies they felt representational art held for their vision. Piet Mondrian and Clyfford Still are just 2 such examples. Mondrian was seeking a “spiritual expression” in as pure and simple a manner as possible. Denver just opened the new Clyfford Still museum. Words ultimately can go only so far even as elegant as your comments are. Ultimately, philosophy (theology) must dance with the artist.

    • theotheri says:

      Leon – I am sure that Tony will have his own response to your comment which I do not want to pre-empt. But I would like to point out that as you yourself note, art, like words and in particular like science, was and often still is used to represent the objective reality we experience through our senses. But words are just as capable of poetic, metaphoric and artistic expression as any other form of art.

      But I would like to go further. I am a scientist and if I have any inkling at all of the unfathomable mystery at the core of the universe and at the center of being. it is through science and through music. Given the kind of mind I have, for me they are the two royal roads. Other people have other paths. I know several people for whom numbers are that road. We can’t assume that because they are not our path, others cannot get there by a route different from our own.

      Shall we dance?


    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for your comment. I think you are definitely in the ballpark with the “via negativa.” But there are some anomalies. Thomas was dealing with “concepts” derived from the “concept pf being,” that continued to be applied analogously. “Analogy” was a quasi techical notion that fell midway between univocal and equivocal attribution. Metaphor was considered equivocal. “Analogy” turned out to be a kind of “catch 22” that always led him back into the approval of anthropomorphism, despite his attempts to eschew it.

      So for example with the question of “God” being a “person,” under the rule of the via negationis in positing “personhood” of “God,” you were to “negate” all those features of “personality” that were finite and retain all those features that were infinite.

      After you sloughed off everything “human” you were supposedly still left with “intellect and will.” The anomaly here is that in classic terms there can be no distinction between intellect and will in “God” and anyway he couldn’t use them sequentially or episodically, therefore the statement was meaningless … but it was consistently put in those terms to allow the Church’s “God” to think, know, choose, give commands and illuminate the mystic with a special interactive relationship. Thus in Thomas’ hands the via negationis still allowed for divine agency imagined in the same anthropomorphic terms as always. He did a similar thing with “providence.”

      Working with matter’s energy, on the other hand, there is none of that conceptual convolution and humanoid fantasy. What you see is what is there … and just as you see it. The point of “contact” can still be said to occur “in the depth of the soul” as Eckhart would put it, but we know there is no interaction because the only thing that is there is me. There is no temptation to think “God” is speaking to me or consoling me or punishing me with “dryness” just as there is no temptation to ever think that “God” consciously and willingly permitted the plague or the earthquake or the holocaust. There is no intellect and will. This marks a major change It really undermines the the mystifications of pastoral practice built on the literalisms that scholasticism allowed itself to justify as “analogy.” It also calls for a much more austere “mysticism” than the theologians contemplated. The real mystics, however, knew it all along, and it is clearly laid out in their writings.

      Where it dovetails with the work of the artist is, again, what could be called the “depths of the soul,” i.e., the point of contact where I exist. What the artist touches deep within herself is not at first a thought or a conscious desire but the wordless energy of life. And the artist can validly claim that she “hears” it and “sees” it as if it were not herself. She is merely a vehicle for its expression.

      This can all be quite painful. Art is not necessarily “fun.”


      • theotheri says:

        Ach! I can see from your reply, Tony, that I completely missed Leon’s point. I best stick to what I know something about in the future. Analogy and anomaly and via negativa as theological concepts are way beyond my ken. Terry

      • Leon Krier says:



        Your reply regarding “via negativa” a la Aquinas is most enlightening; it is also quite helpful in addressing those who still embrace the “First Cause” line of argumentation.

        Whether it was the influence of Freud or not, artists like Egon Schiele were intent upon accessing the unconscious or subconscious. This is approach is pervasive in the 20th century. This was particularly true regarding death (and sex).

        I have a favor and I don’t know how much it interests others, but I would appreciate if you would develop your ideas more fully vis-a-vis death. For example, if we are the expressions of the ongoing and apparently endless conatus, why are we not more imbued with that “endless conatus” within ourselves… why do we die? There still is (at least for me) the perplexing and awesome difference between living one moment and being dead the next… what happened at that moment? What is missing for the dead? Woody Allen said “The thing to remember is that each time of life has its appropriate rewards, whereas, when you’re dead, it’s hard to find the light-switch.”

        I am currently working on a project for the Ethics Committee at the hospital where I work. The project is primarily but not exclusively built upon two books “Medical Ethics in the Ancient World” by Paul Carrick … and “Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry” by Emily Vermeule. An essential feature of this project is how physicians, philosophers and the general public dealt with illness, dying, death and being dead and the emergence of the Hippocratic Oath. The goal is discover how this historical perspective may be able to assist us today as we deal with these same issues. Be assured that your comments would be most helpful to me as I attempt to bridge the past with the present especially in light of matter’s energy worldview.

        Wishing you and all who blog here a creative 2012.


  4. Bill Wilson says:

    Maybe Leon Krier has highlighted the way in which we can come to embrace this non-theistic “god” (?): Art, music and poetry can forge an intuitve link with this ultimate energy force field in which we live and move and have our being. Hasn’t silent union always been regarded as the ultimate goal of mysticism? “Be still and know that I am…” This energy field is not a passive now, but a verb: I am-you are-he she it is.

    • tonyequale says:


      I agree. Art allows the contact point in the CONATUS to speak, or express itelf any way it can. Art does not depend on holiness for its valid expression, rather holiness, like art, is also its expression. The mystic is different again from each, though there is nothing to prevent them from all being the same person. But the mystic, as you say, seems to be still, perhaps like a surfer, but she is riding the power of the wave that bears her along …

      I love the “verb” image. We are not “things.” We are moving energy. Thanks!


  5. Sal Umana says:

    I just want to thank you all for what you have shared. It is truly beautiful. I follow most of what you have said, and agree wth most of what I can follow. It is too late for me to reply, and I have been Christmas Partying, and I need much more time to ponder. We are all on the right track, and have a great contribution to make to a further understanding of man, God, matter, spirit, person, time, eternity, meaning of life, love, “in him we live and have our being, and so on, ad infinitum…..
    Sal Umana

  6. Tony Equale says:


    Leon asked me some questions about death. I answered him privately with some long reflections …. more like musings … that would not have been appropriate in a blog comment. But I am willing to share them with whoever wants them. Write to me or tell me here on the blog … give me your e-mail address and I’ll send them.


  7. rjjwillis says:

    Tony, Valentine’s Day has passed on but the love lingers.

    I just visited your blog for the first time; I have read with thought and interest your relections about “Beyond Religion” and your readers’ comments. You strike many chords in my own experience. May I share one, one which confirms for me how “self-centered” differs from “selfish,” as you rightly observe.

    On occasion, I find the moment to go quietly inside. I seem to travel down, down into myself toward some core place. If and when I arrive, I find myself taken up into a contriety of experience: I am immersed in a quietness that pulses with energy. I think of T.S. Eliot’s “The still point of the turning world where the dance is.” In it I seem to expand, to fill, to be taken up into a Greater that lives me in, for me, an unusual fullness. I swell to the point that I seem hurled outward into creation with an all-surpassing love. I do not know what to name that Greater, but I could call it Love, or Life, or Energy, or Spirit, or “We-is-becoming.” What I do know, with all of me, is that “I” am fully me only as “We.”

    We send our best regards and wishes, Bob Willis

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