Editorials by Sangharakshita

 
 

Religion Vs. God

This editorial first appeared in The Maha Bodhi, June 1960

A few years ago a courageous English woman psychologist, Magaret Knight, delivered over the B.B.C. two talks on 'Morality Without Religion'. Her main point was that it was possible to lead a moral life without believing in dogmas such as those of a personal Creator-God and an incarnate Divine Saviour with which religion has been identified for centuries in Western countries. Despite their quiet, courteous, moderate tone, or perhaps because of it, the effect of the talks was devastating. Thousands of ordinary, decent English men and women suddenly realised, for the first time in their lives, that they did not really believe in Christianity. The orthodox reaction was one of extreme violence and ferocity. No epithet was too bad for Mrs. Knight. When the clamour had died down, however, even churchmen were compelled to admit that she had focussed attention on an important question.

Is it possible to be moral without believing in God? For centuries, in fact since its inception, the Christian Church ( or rather churches, for there are now about 700 of them, nearly all claiming to be the one true Church) has taught that morality requires a supernatural sanction, that unless one believes that certain 'commandments' have been imposed upon humanity through the medium of revelation by an omniscient and omnipotent Deity who will inflict punishment after death for any infringement one is likely to go around cutting people's throats and stealing their purses. These beliefs, together with others no less crude, Christianity of course shares with Judaism, Islam and other theistic systems.

But is this assumption, basic to all these religions, really justified? If we look at the millions of people who have for centuries followed Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism and Confucianism, all of which are unambiguously non-theistic, we shall find that they exhibited in their lives no less goodness than their counterparts in other faiths who trembled before the wrath of an angry God. How, then, is it possible for any unprejudiced student of comparative religion to avoid the conclusion that religion, in the sense of belief in such a God, is not necessary to the leading of a moral life?

 

We may go even further. If we examine the bloodstained history of Christianity, so full of persecutions, religious wars, burnings at the stake, whippings, torture and every kind of intolerance, all for the glory of God, and contrast it with the peaceful record of Buddhism, which in the course of twenty-five centuries has shed hardly a drop of blood in the name of its Founder, we cannot help thinking that religion in the Christian sense is not only unnecessary to morality but positively detrimental to it, so that it is not only possible to have morality without religion, as Mrs. Knight so clearly saw, but even desirable to do so.

Of course it is largely a question of the proper definition of terms. In the West religion traditionally means belief in God and his son Jesus Christ, who is conceived as the Saviour of the human race, and for the purpose of her talks Mrs. Knight not unnaturally took this definition for granted. But why should religion be defined so narrowly? Surely the time has come to recognise that fact that religion does not necessarily imply belief in God. So much should be conceded even from the standpoint of comparative religion. The Buddhist point of view is even more radical. Buddhism has affirmed from the beginning of its history that belief in God has nothing to do with religion; it is a survival from pre-scientific times which degrades rather than elevates man. As an early attempt to explain the origin of the universe the belief has a certain historic interest; but far from being any longer relevant to religious life God, from the standpoint of advanced thought, is no more than an exploded scientific hypothesis.

Buddhists should not feel afraid of emphasising the non-theistic nature of Buddhism. If in the supposed interests of inter-religious harmony they attempt to gloss over this important fact they will be doing a disservice to the larger interests of humanity, to say nothing of betraying the truth. They should also beware of expositions of Buddhism which attempt to smuggle the word 'God'in through the back door as it were by giving it some fanciful interpretation of their own. As Buddhists we are definitely committed to the propagation of a non-theistic outlook. Morality stands, we aver, not on the shaky foundation of arbitrary and unverifiable dogmas, but on the sound and solid basis of psychological and spiritual laws. In the elucidation of these laws, and the inculcation of a way of life based thereon, consist the raison d'etre of Buddhism.