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Is Buddhism the Most Science-Friendly Religion?

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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.

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

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