The Dalai Lama has gotten a bit of press in the skeptical/atheist community lately, mostly because he recently came out saying that ethics transcend religion, and that religious ethics are no longer adequate. This was enough for the American Humanist Association to make him our new poster boy.
First of all, I think his statement is pretty good. It’s not exactly the kind of strong, clear statement that precisely details what humanism is all about (especially with that dubious idea of “inner values”) , but I’m letting it pass. It has a slight anti-religious sentiment, which I like.
Secondly, relative to other top religious leaders of major religions, he’s far above average. His commitment and openness to science has earned the adoration of many in the r/atheism crowd. And he isn’t the typical kind of leader who issues death threats or blames the Holocaust on atheists. Instead, he actively works for democracy, peace, and religious harmony. So is there a huge intersection between his values (as spoken) and the values of humanism? Yes.
Should that automatically make him an icon of humanism? Read this and decide.
Very few people understand why the 14th Dalai Lama is who he is. He wasn’t chosen for his merits or accomplishments. Rather, he was chosen when he was at the age of two to be the rebirth of his predecessors and the manifestation of Avalokiteśvara. In other words, he received his status and power from winning the lottery of a privileged birth, based on some questionable notion of reincarnation and holiness.
Furthermore, there are impassable gates that separate his values from humanist ones. One of the elephants in the room is his record on homosexuality. It isn’t very good. He has condemned homosexual acts as contrary to Buddhist values, prescribed weird prohibitions on foreplay, and promoted chastity–all while claiming to support the dignity and rights of all gay people. In other words, he has advocated a sex-negativity that isn’t that different from western versions.
And, probably more relevant to the theme of this blog, he often seems to take advantage of stereotypes of Asian wise-types. The story goes like this: Westerners don’t know what they are talking about, so they must be enlightened by wise, oriental, mystical people from the East who can’t possibly be wrong.
Deepak Chopra is a shining example of this phenomemon. His entire personality cult runs on gooey, mystical nonsense that is based on a vast exaggeration of the probably incorrect Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. All of this plays on the theme that western science is arrogantly oppressing poor all-wise Asian philosophies. It ignores the strong tradition of science, reason, and humanism in the East.
It’s no accident that both Deepak Chopra and the Dalai Lama get a massive following in the western world. Nineteen of Chopra’s books have been New York Times best-sellers. Deepak has claimed many celebrities as his devotees (also known as customers). Likewise, the Dalai Lama gets lots of support and admiration. He gets attention not just from Hollywood stars but also from heads of states around the world (probably for his political activities more than his moral values). He also received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.
So make up your mind.
The bottom line is this. For all of his popularity and accomplishments, the Dalai Lama’s failings and inadequacies are often overlooked by a public that refuses to be skeptical enough. If the choice of a humanistic role model was like a test, and you chose the Dalai Lama, I’ll only be happy because you’re not failing my class, not because you are sitting on your ass happy with that B- you just received. A lot of people can sound like a humanist from time to time, but the truly iconic ones are few and far between.