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Is Buddhism the Most Science-Friendly Religion?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Here is some sad news, courtesy of the Pew Research Center’s “Religion & Public Life Project.” Not only is there a growing gap between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to acceptance of evolution, with Democrats at a mere 67 percent and Republicans a paltry and horrifyingly low 43 percent. Even more appalling is the finding that only 27 percent of white evangelical Protestants understand that “humans and other living things have evolved over time.”

What in Darwin’s name is going on? The regrettable reality is that the U.S., being among the world’s most religious countries, is also among the most scientifically ignorant, especially when it comes to the most important, unifying and indubitably “true” finding in biology: evolution by natural selection.

Portrait of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron via Wikimedia Commons

As an evolutionary biologist, I have personally encountered this scientific illiteracy, notably when lecturing in the Bible Belt. At the same time, I’ve been struck by how scientifically knowledgeable the audiences are when I lecture in Asian countries, particularly those strongly influenced by Buddhism. Moreover, I’ve become increasingly convinced that this correlation isn’t coincidental. My decades as a biologist, along with comparable decades as a Buddhist sympathizer, have convinced me that of all the world’s religions – and especially by contrast to the Abrahamic Big Three (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Buddhism is unusually science-friendly.

To some extent, this might be because much of Buddhism – and certainly, the part that attracts me – isn’t a “religion” at all, but rather a way of looking at the world. Indeed, the Buddha himself is described as having emphasized that he isn’t a god and shouldn’t be treated as such. And, in fact, there are no creator deities in Buddhism, nor holy writ, and so forth.

According to Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the fourteenth Dalai Lama, “Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation, that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation. And suppose, furthermore, that that fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research.”

More than other religions – indeed, I would say, more than any other religion – Buddhism lends itself to a dialogue with science. Why? Because among the key aspects of Buddhism, we find insistence that knowledge must be gained through personal experience rather than reliance on the authority of sacred texts or the teachings of avowed masters; because its orientation is empirical rather then theoretical; and because it rejects any conception of absolutes.

The comfortable fit between Buddhism and empirical science has been facilitated by several canonical teachings, of which one of the most important is the “Kalama Sutra.” In it, the Buddha advises his audience on how to deal with the bewildering diversity of conflicting claims on the part of various Brahmins and itinerant monks:

“Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Rather, when you yourselves know that these things are good; these things are not blamable; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, then and only then enter into and abide in them.”

This teaching is widely (and appropriately) seen as supporting free inquiry and an absence of rigid dogma, an attitude entirely open to empirical verification and thus, consistent with science. Moreover, the Kalama Sutra fits quite comfortably into the Western scientific tradition: The Royal Society of London, whose full name was the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, and which was the world’s first and for a long time the foremost scientific society, has as its credo, Nullius in verba: “On the words of no one.”

Gandhara Buddha / Credit: World Imaging via Wikimedia Commons

Returning once again to Buddhism’s emphasis on validation-by-experience rather than via hierarchical or scriptural authority, consider this statement from the Pali Canon, which could as well have been uttered by a senior Nobel-winning scientist, advising junior researchers in his laboratory: “Just as one would examine gold through burning, cutting, and rubbing so should monks and scholars examine my words. Only thus should they be accepted, but not merely out of respect for me.”

On balance, it seems reasonable and appropriate that Buddhism be viewed in the West as comparatively free of irrationality, superstitious belief, and stultifying tradition – but this generalization must nonetheless be taken with a grain of salt, noting that in much of the world, Buddhism involves daily ritual devotions, belief in amulets and other special charms, and even the presupposition that the man, Siddhartha Gautama, was a divine being. There are, I regret to note, Buddhist traditions that insist on retaining an array of nonsensical hocus-pocus and abracadabra altogether at odds with any scientific tradition worthy of the name. Among these, the notion of “rebirth” is especially ridiculous, insofar as it implies that after their death, people will eventually reappear in some other form, with their personalities or at least certain “karmic attributes” intact.

I have no difficulty, however, describing Mr. Tenzin Gyatso (born Lhamo Dondrub), as the fourteenth Dalai Lama, so long as this means that he is the fourteenth person to hold that position, in the same sense that Barack Obama is the forty-fourth president of the United States, with no implication that he is in any way the reincarnation of George Washington!

On the other hand, if rebirth is taken to mean the literal recycling of atoms and molecules, as revealed in biogeochemical cycling, and if karma is interpreted (as I believe it warrants) as reflecting the reality of cause-and-effect, not to mention that other fundamental reality, natural selection, whereby the “actions” of our ancestors indeed give rise to ourselves and our “actions” influence our descendants – then Buddhism and biology are close allies indeed. Moreover, the fundamental Buddhist teaching of interconnectedness could as well have come from a “master” of physiological ecology.

In short, rather than NOMA (“Non-Overlapping Magesteria”), as the late Stephen Gould proposed for religion and science, I am impressed that Buddhism offers the bracing prospect of POMA (“Productively Overlapping Magesteria”) – albeit only after removing Buddhism’s religious mumbo-jumbo … that is, when not treating it as a religion. But even then, I won’t hold my breath until Bible Belt America agrees with me.

David Barash About the Author: David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time aspiring Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science, just published by Oxford University Press.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 13 Comments

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  1. 1. RobLL 2:31 pm 02/11/2014

    I enjoyed your article, and likely will read the book. There is a bifurcation in Christianity which is similar to what you described in Buddhism. I read Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh – “Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical” After reading the book it confirmed and solidified my feelings that a dogmatic Christianity was untenable. The best single class I ever had was an intellectual/religious history of China, Japan, and India.

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  2. 2. tuned 4:46 pm 02/11/2014

    True, if only discussing “major” religions.
    I lose interest when it strays to the mystical “dharma” and mystical leaders.
    Sikhs are very cool, but I can’t be a Vegan due to clinical level allergies.
    I finally realized I needed to just take the good from religions and philosophies and toss the voodoo stuff.
    I call it Utopian.
    Not to be confused with political “utopian socialism”. It does embrace a more social capitalism though.
    Belief in God is not required, but I do. I just do not think God is as “moral” as religions ascribe to him, or else God is not nearly so omniscient and omnipotent as said to be.
    In terms of evolution, I think he set it up and set it spinning. Then just watches it evolve.
    The managers arte demon-angels which are around in most religions. No wings, just better DNA. They were here 1st and always have the advanced tech. They dumbed down their DNA to make human servants. That ended up in war amongst them just like the U.S. Civil War. Most religions have similar descriptions of the past, trying to describe advanced technology without a vocabulary for it.
    Anyway, Utopians mainly believe in doing the least harm possible to people while not allowing themselves to be harmed.
    Science is a given. It’s reality. Except for the part called theories.
    Isn’t it fun the word theory has “Theo” in it (“god”).

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  3. 3. GreenMind 5:10 pm 02/11/2014

    There is another Abrahamic religion that holds that science and religion are compatible, and that in the event of conflict between the two, you should go with the science. That is the Baha’i Faith.

    I agree firmly with the quote from the article: “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Rather, when you yourselves know that these things are good; these things are not blamable; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, then and only then enter into and abide in them.”

    And therefore I cannot trust David Barash’s view of reincarnation. His opinion is based on an axiom, surmise, specious reasoning, and “a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over.” He accepts the “rigid dogmas” of strict materialism without reservation, without critical thinking, without examination of the evidence. His opinion, though quite widespread, is not based on any actual experimentation, observation, or experience. On the opposing side there are many observations, news accounts, and well-documented events that would have to be explained (not “explained away”) before a reasonable person could confidently claim that rebirth is “ridiculous”.

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  4. 4. MarcusMarcus 10:15 pm 02/11/2014

    The Kalama Sutta is often cited as a source of reconciling the Buddhist tradition with science and the modern way of thought. The translation used in this article may be a little biased to the modern, and I recommend the interested reader to look at the commentary by the translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

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  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:51 am 02/12/2014

    Christianity as a whole is not opposed to science or evolution, it is an interpretation of faith common in USA which is. Science popularizers who wish to educate on evolution-religion relationships should learn that.

    In fact, the best way to teach evolution to American hard-core religious believers may be showing that Pope called it “more than a theory” and most of Christians in Europe see no problem of being religious and embracing science. So beleiving in evolution needs not to overturn person’s whole belief system or denounce religion.

    Charles Darwin himself is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. So much of the supposed clash of evolution and Christianity.

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  6. 6. BillSkaggs 12:14 pm 02/12/2014

    The paradox is that at a practical level, the most science-friendly religion is Protestant Christianity, even though most of its adherents are personally quite hostile to science. (Judaism may be a contender, but it’s hard to judge based on an N of 1.) I believe this happens because Protestantism has a tradition of independent thought, based on encouraging people to read the Bible themselves. Dogma imposed from on high is always a negative for science, regardless of how reasonable it is.

    Best regards, Bill

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  7. 7. baber 2:49 pm 02/12/2014

    So, how come the Enlightenment, the rise of the empirical sciences and the Industrial Revolution happened in Christendom–while Buddhistdom didn’t get on board until the 19th century, pressured by western colonialism? I’m not suggesting that Christianity is more science-friendly than Buddhism but that it just doesn’t matter: all religions can be massaged into compatibility with modernity, and with science.

    Of course because Christianity is close by we see it with all its warts–including the Evangelicalism of the superstitious peasantry, whereas we see Buddhism in its ideal form and dismiss the folk religion of rituals and fetishes as peripheral, even though this is likely the practice of the overwhelming majority of Buddhists.

    Personally I have no interest whatsoever in ‘wisdom’–it’s easy. I like the fetishes, rituals and religious fun. And Christianity is our culture religion, so it provides the myths and equipment for our pleasure. RELIGION IS FUN! Let us entertain ourselves. (and, of course, if I were living in the Buddisphere I’d entertain myself with Buddhism).

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  8. 8. Percival 7:08 pm 02/12/2014

    I consider Buddhism to *be* a science.

    Reincarnation, Veganism, prayers, rituals, icons and all that were added on after Gautama (he was a man, with a name- “Buddha” is a job description) convinced enough people that suffering has actual, avoidable *causes* rather than being the fiat of capricious deities. Those people couldn’t help using their cultural backdrop of bells and whistles to decorate what he taught any more than proto-Christians could help dressing up what Yeshua taught in their cultural backdrop. I’ll mention the Nicean Councils removing reincarnation from “Officially Approved Christianity”.

    Basically Gautama ‘preached’ the scientific method by example- “Here’s my hypothesis, and here’s how I tested it. If you do the same you should get the same result I did, freedom from misery.” It’s not about guilt, redemption, or conformity. It’s about not suffering.

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  9. 9. Hughaedh 11:01 pm 02/12/2014

    Too bad that the author uses terms such as hocus-pocus and “superstitios belief”. That supercilious tone mars a good article. Without a sense of the “continuity of consciousness” (which term the Dalai Lama prefers over “reincarnation”)key terms in Buddhism could not be understood. Anitta & Anatta (impermanence & no-self) cannot be separated out of the sense of “continuity of consciousness”. They are intertwined concepts that express an underlying reality. Picking and choosing that which one likes, which the author seems to want to do, is unfair to Buddhism and becomes merely a projection of one’s own conceptual framework into a religion that has had many far wiser practitioners than Mr Barash over the past 2500 years. Science has serious limitations when it comes to philosophy, spirituality and ethics.

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  10. 10. DrKrishnaKumariChalla 11:51 pm 02/12/2014

    I can tell one thing with certainty. Somehow the ‘religions’ or the ‘ways of living’ like people here would like to call them, originated in the Indian subcontinent are more science-friendly than the ones originated in other regions. We don’t see people following them attack science and refusing it. But at the same time they interpret everything they believe in in ‘scientific ways’ so much that a parallel ‘pseudo-science’ is evolving here! :)

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  11. 11. ClockPendulum 9:47 pm 03/1/2014

    Dear David Barash,
    If you think that Rebirth is ridiculous, i recommend you to read the book-Wisdom Wide and Deep by Shaila Catherine.
    Best Regards

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  12. 12. KapilGuptaMD 9:19 am 11/3/2014

    What Do You Think Of The Buddha?

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  13. 13. evelyn haskins 6:42 pm 02/16/2015

    Odd thought, when you consider that most of the major advances in Science have come from Christian and Muslim societies!
    The real problem that David Barash talks about, is considering United States Conservatism as normal Christian.

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