UPDATE 2008/1/10: Dave rightly points out in the comments that this post was VERY BAD and i apologize for that. I’ve now cut down the argument to what i had unknowingly already pointed to in my note (*), namely that tradition and a community are very good tools to effect radical moral change in a given individual. It is now patently obvious to me that the tradition and community need not be religious. Original, edited post follows.
Only religion can transform a person completely, because to do so requires both thanks to a deep tradition able to inform that transformation and also a strong community to effect and nurture it.
Religious transformation is a reshaping of someone’s moral, psychological and behavioral self that is both complete and permanent. It produces a new person, someone whose identity has been re-established and fundamentally improved.
Of course, there have been many great people who had little if anything to do with religion. But i would argue that though they were perhaps geniuses who contributed greatly to humanity, they had not been themselves transformed. To produce a Mother Theresa*, a Gandhi, or a Jesus and a Gautama Buddha requires religion and a lot of it. Furthermore, to produce those people able to help others strive towards this complete transformation also requires a strong religion tradition and community. The following text, taken from the last paragraph of Thich Nhat Hanh‘s book The Heart Of The Buddha’s Teaching, derives its power precisely because it is so thoroughly informed by a specific religious tradition and because its authors in completely immersed in a buddhist community:
The heart of the Buddha has been touched by our being wonderfully together. Please practice as an individual, a family, a city, a nation, and a worldwide community. Please take good care of the happiness of everyone around you. Enjoy your breathing, your smiling, your shining the light of mindfulness on each thing you do. Please practice transformation at the base through deep looking and deep touching. The teachings of the Buddha on transformation and healing are very deep. They are not theoretical. They can be practiced every day. Please practice them and realize them. Have courage. I am confident that you can do it.
And to successfully put such suggestions into practice also requires immersing oneself in this religious tradition and belonging to its community. Without that your good-will would quickly wane, i should think.
*I know that Mother Theresa didn’t believe in God, but my argument never refers to god, only to tradition and community.