May 26th, 2010
09:16 AM ET

The Dalai Lama is wrong

Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

I am a big fan of the Dalai Lama. I love his trademark smile and I hate the fact that I missed his talks this week in New York City. But I cannot say either "Amen" or "Om" to the shopworn clichés that he trots out in the New York Times in “Many Faiths, One Truth.”

Recalling the Apostle Paul—“When I was a child, I spoke like a child”—the Dalai Lama begins by copping to youthful naivete. “When I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best,” he writes, “and that other faiths were somehow inferior.” However, just as Paul, upon becoming a man, “put away childish things,” the Dalai Lama now sees his youthful exclusivism as both naïve and dangerous. There is “one truth” behind the “many faiths,” and that core truth, he argues, is compassion.

Like the Dalai Lama, who writes of how he was influenced by Thomas Merton, I believe we can learn greatly from other religions. I too hope for tolerance and harmony in our interreligious interactions. I am convinced, however, that true tolerance and lasting harmony must be built on reality, not fantasy. Religious exclusivism is dangerous and naïve. But so too is pretend pluralism. The cause of religious harmony is not advanced in the least by the shibboleth that all religions are different paths up the same mountain.

If you ask religious universalists what lies at the top of the mountain, the answers they will give you are not one but many. Gandhi and philosopher of religion Huston Smith say that at the top there is the same universal God. But when others describe this religious mountaintop they invariably give voice to their own particular beliefs and biases.

Followers of the Dalai Lama revere him as a reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. So it should not be surprising that he sees compassion at the heart of all religions. But this is a parochial perspective, not a universal one. And like any form of pretend pluralism it threatens to blind us both to the particular dangers of individual religious traditions and to their unique beauties.

To be sure, all religions preach compassion. But it is false to claim that compassion is the reason for being of the great religions. Jesus did not die on a cross in order to teach us to help old ladies across the street. The Jewish milieu in which he was raised already knew that. And as the Dalai Lama points out, so did the rest of the world’s religions. Jesus came, according to most Christian thinkers, to stamp out sin and pave the path to salvation. Similarly, the Buddha did not sit down under a Bo tree in India in order to teach us not to kill our brothers. The Hindu milieu in which he was raised already knew that too. He came, according to most Buddhist thinkers, to stamp out suffering and pave the path to nirvana.

As I argue in my new book, "God is Not One:  The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter," religion is an immensely powerful force both personally and politically. So if we want to understand the world we must understand the world's religions. This includes reckoning with both similarities and differences, and with the capacity of each of the great religions to do both good and evil.

I know that when it comes to the Dalai Lama we are all supposed to bow and scrape. So I am happy to applaud his project to find “common ground” across the world’s religions. But I also know that the Buddha said to worship no man. And I cannot agree with the Dalai Lama’s claim that “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.”

The Dalai Lama was doubtless naïve when, as a boy, and before learning about other religions, he arrived at the conclusion that only his religion was true. But it is no advance out of innocence to make the equally fantastic claim that all the religions are at heart vehicles for compassion. If we are to build a world of interreligious harmony, or even a world of interreligious détente, it will have to be constructed on a foundation of adult experience rather than youthful naivete.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Buddhism • Christianity • Faith • Leaders • Opinion

soundoff (633 Responses)
  1. fat tony

    as christian you sure are not helping people come to the church and you wonder why we have the lowest numbers of church folks showing up gesh get a life dude ITs not such a evil idea !!!

    May 27, 2010 at 6:25 am |
  2. anup

    seriously this writer does not know what he is talking about......adult experience does not come with the age ...neither by writing a book......he talks so superficially....it totally reflects the american mentality...they would like to solve everything with logic and their point of view (we know it all coz we americans dude) cherry toped with huge marketing campange......... Im sorry Mr. Prothero you are so naive....please stop bothering teaching others about religion....first of all figure out yourself who you are and where you belong!!!!

    Om nama Shivayee!!!!!

    May 27, 2010 at 6:24 am |
  3. Nostromo

    All very interesting reading – ¿but so what?
    The catholic pope also gets everything wrong – and wronger than most... ¿but so what?
    There will only ever be mutual understanding – or even peace – among mankind when all religions have disappeared and all the baloney about there being a deity out there above the clouds has been silenced.
    Baba Nam Kevalam

    May 27, 2010 at 6:23 am |
  4. Jim

    I genuinely feel sorry for anyone who believes the crap you have allowed idiots to fill your head with.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:21 am |
  5. Spencer Storer

    to this day it still makes me laugh when grown men argue and debate about a made up man in the sky who controls everything in the universe. Grow up. There maybe "souls" , there maybe an after life of some sort, who knows. But there is no God that controls everything. And to sit here and even argue or debate about it is totally silly. Because no one has ever seen or encountered him.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:19 am |
  6. I~AM~NOT~YHVH~I~AM~butacreatureofHis

    {... "silence" ... Exodus 14:14}

    May 27, 2010 at 6:19 am |
  7. CPV

    The author doe not understand the use of the English word "compassion" in the Dali Lama's context.
    But then how many of us really do?
    No blame.
    Even the grass sings the praises of the Dharma.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:18 am |
  8. Philip, BS, MA. PhD, PhD MR

    Stephen Prothero 50 years form now, no one will remember your book, because you are an idiot and if you had submitted it to me as a Thisis you would fail.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:17 am |
  9. Trianon

    "Muslims are stumbling, Christians all astray
    Jews wildered, Magians far on error's way.
    We mortals are composed of two great schools:
    Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.
    O fools awake! The rites ye sacred hold
    Are but a cheat contrived by men of old
    Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust
    And died in baseness – and their law is dust."
    - Abu Al Ala'a Al Maari (973-1057)

    May 27, 2010 at 6:16 am |
    • Nancy

      This is actually a really interesting quote! What is the history behind it?

      May 27, 2010 at 8:30 am |
  10. jesus

    i agree...cnn should kick this guy to the street!!!! it only shows how stupid cnn can be by posting such things as this

    May 27, 2010 at 6:14 am |
  11. Joseph Mutezo

    This is utter rubbish.Fortunately i am in Zimbabwe and the chances of the prof's book coming this side are next to zero!

    May 27, 2010 at 6:11 am |
  12. Rohit Gupta

    "I cannot agree with the Dalai Lama’s claim that “the essential message of all religions is very much the same.”"

    Is this man an Idiot?

    May 27, 2010 at 6:10 am |
    • Sevres Blue

      No. Are you?

      May 27, 2010 at 7:45 am |
  13. Jason B.

    Actually, the essential message of all religions IS the same: "Do good".

    May 27, 2010 at 6:08 am |
  14. Gail

    The reason that religions appear different is due to 1) Geography/demographics and 2) The capacity and needs of the people who received that particular religion at that particular time. Founders of religion spoke to people in terms they understood. For example, hell will be a hot place. People living in a desert could understand this concept relating to suffering in the afterlife after having lived a bad life on earth. Even though now, we know that this is just a symbolic statement.

    Religious Founders are like divine Physicians who diagnose the illnesses of the age and the people and prescribe a specific remedy for the unique situation. For Buddhists, the need was the lesson of compassion. For Christians, the message of love. For Muslims, submission to the will of God. For Baha'is, unity in diversity. God is one, and all the major religions are one. They just differ according to intensity of the teachings needed for that time and place. These thoughts are my interpretation of Baha'i teachings: http://www.bahai.org.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:07 am |
  15. drexxell

    As to this quote "To be sure, all religions preach compassion" you're wrong. Read The Satanic Bible and you'll realize that there is at least one religion that does not rely on compassion as its core value.

    But in general, this article is flawed in a much more fundamental way. The author says "I am convinced, however, that true tolerance and lasting harmony must be built on reality, not fantasy". But then the author goes on to give pseudo-credence to religion, which in and of itself is FANTASY.

    The only TRUE tolerance and peace in this world will be found when the blind and stupid masses end their perpetual worship of invisible beings and agree to live on this world together ruled by FACTS not childish religious fantasies.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:06 am |
  16. mr hippo

    The argument of the religion will go on.

    I will try to treat everyone equally and naively as if they were my mother.

    The God relm will be quite happy with this article and continue to argue whose religion is best

    May 27, 2010 at 6:04 am |
  17. AaronS

    Every religion is vehicle for what I call "The Rules of Civilization." These are the teachings/commandments that help define the essential behavior that is necessary for civilization to continue. Things like "don't kill," "don't lie," "don't steal," "be fair," etc. Imagine what would happen if we were not all convinced that arbitrary killing was wrong!

    As a Christian, I believe that God "sowed" these truths into the heart of mankind. In Romans 2, the Apostle Paul speaks of those who, even without the Mosaic Law, still obey the Law. It's in our hearts. Again, I believe God placed it there to better ensure the survival of mankind/civilization.

    But after that, it gets interesting. Indeed, we all have some common ground. We can call it compassion or decency, etc. Even our Muslim brethren who receive such bad press have long been noted for their hospitality and protection of those who enter their homes.

    The way to harmony, I believe, is to recognize that ALL religions are reaching out for the same God. You may see God as a trinity, as One, as Many, but though our perceptions and understandings vary, we are all reaching out for this God, however He may actually be.

    Each religion obviously believes their perception is the right one. But if we can but understand that even those that see things differently are reaching for–and are children of–the same God, and simply are at a different stage in their progress (i.e., we can believe that one day they will come to believe like us–since we are clearly right), we can give breathing room to one another.

    Let the Christian say of the Muslim, "He is my brother, since God is the Father of All, and I will respect him because even though he does not understand the true nature of God, it is because he is at a different place in his journey to the truth." Then let the Muslim return the favor by saying of the Christian, "He is my brother, since Allah is the Father of All, and though He does not yet understand the true nature of God, yet he is reaching and searching for the truth." Then let all religions say these things of one another.

    If we can but understand that the Muslim is seeking to please the same God that we seek to please (even if we think the Muslim to have an unclear perception of the nature of God), that goes far in letting us take the next step in civilizational harmony.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:02 am |
    • Jason B.

      I feel like you're close, but *just* missing the mark. No religion can (or should) claim to know the true nature of God. Who's to say that one religion is closer to understanding God than another?

      I do understand your overall point though, and agree with it very much. I believe we're all praying to the same guy, we just view Him differently and call Him different names.

      May 27, 2010 at 6:15 am |
  18. Lane

    All belief systems have the identical flaw: exclusion of other belief systems. Even my belief system is flawed in this way. Even those belief systems that claim tolerance are by their proclaimation citing an exclusion exists, because tolerance is necessary.. Compassion and love need not be stated when they are lived. The more you talk about your spirituality, the less you have.

    May 27, 2010 at 6:02 am |
  19. Cynical Randy

    This is just a guy pluggin' his book by standing on the shoulders of a big 'name, the Dali Lama.

    Religion is a crowd control device and for centuries was widely used with fear as it's true weapon. If you can get the masses to believe they're always being watched, that they'll go to hell if they don't follow scriptures...well, there ya have it!! Religion's only true purpose.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:59 am |
  20. Aesthetic

    As you have stated, religion and belief have opinions-to call an article on a national website "The Dahlia Lama is wrong" seems wrong-what gives you the right to call something "wrong" or "right"? Doesn't that make your wrong too? Opinions and news should not mix-what a deadly combination. Can't you find someone else to pick on in your article? It's not like there isn't fodder out there-at least the man tries to make the world a better place-can't say the same for you.

    May 27, 2010 at 5:58 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.