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Buddhism and Science

Buddhism has nothing to fear from science

Buddhism has nothing to fear from science, and can withstand critical rational analysis.

Now I know all the arguments about the poisoned arrow, and the need to avoid wasting time in  fruitless speculation, and this may well be applicable to our own personal practice of Dharma. But most of us will at some time or other have taken Bodhisattava vows and we need to remember that millions of people are sufferring from the deluded view that life has a purely physical basis with no spiritual dimension. Life is pointless and death is the end.

This bleak, deluded view of Materialism is not only a major obstacle to the spiritual progress of those who (often reluctantly ) suffer from it, but it also generates fear, aggression and denial in those who oppose it but don’t know how to argue against it.   This denial and aggression against Materialism manifests as anti-science, bigotry, Creationism, Biblical literalism and is quite possibly a contributory factor to Jihadism.

But there’s no reason for Buddhists to adopt the same head-in-the-sand and turn-the-clock back approach. Buddha didn’t tell us to criticise and examine his teachings without good reason. He knew that his Dharma rested on unassailable metaphysical foundations.

Reductionist materialism is THE greatest obstacle to spiritual progress in the modern world. Any path that can blast its way through this obstacle will provide an escape route for millions of searchers for truth.

The increasing antagonism between theistic religion and science is now becoming such a serious concern to scientists that a recent edition of the New Scientist magazine was devoted to the topic:

“As New Scientist bluntly says in "Enemy at the gates", "their aim is to destroy science" via a wedge strategy that starts with an attack on Darwinian evolution in the form of the "theory" of Intelligent Design. Every scientific theory that touches on man's place in the universe will likely be attacked: the Big Bang, the age of the Earth, etc. Anything that contradicts Holy Writ is blasphemy to fundamentalists”.

Science in conflict with religion

The conflict between science and religion is probably more acute now than at any time since the Scopes trial in the 1920’s. One of the reasons is the perception that Darwinism in some way destroys spirituality. But in fact, if you think carefully about emptiness and impermanence, Darwinism makes more sense to a Buddhist than does creationism.

And, on careful examination, it’s difficult to see how creationism makes much sense to anyone, since there are two conflicting creation myths in Genesis.

‘Intelligent Design’ is an attempt to salvage some sort of semi-Biblical creation story out of modern geology, cosmology and biochemistry. But it is doomed to failure, because even if its conclusions were true - that some systems are just too complex and interdependent to have occurred by evolution – this doesn’t prove anything about the designer. It needn’t be the God of the Bible or the Allah of the Koran, as the Pastors of Pasta have pointed out.

Buddhism doesn’t have the same degree of antipathy towards science as do the Abrahamic religions. This is probably because the Abrahamic religions are based on revealed (if inconsistent) truths, whereas Buddhism is based on experienced truths.
These revealed truths are either inspired by God or are the literal unmediated word of God whose contradiction is punishable by death.

In contrast to the 'revealed' religions, Buddhism could almost be described as a form of spiritual humanism, as its objectives are to achieve the ultimate in human potential. In Buddhism, being a God is no big deal. It doesn’t lead to enlightenment, it just gets you a better class of samsara – for a while.

In the western world religion has not only been in conflict with science (in recent centuries) but there is a far older religious conflict with philosophy, free enquiry and rationality in general. In 399 BC Socrates claimed ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, before he was executed for heresy.

'The unexamined life is not worth living'

‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ is where the Buddhism started out, a couple of hundred years before Socrates. If Prince Siddhartha Gautama had decided that his pampered life of luxury in the Palace was worth living, the world would never have heard of Buddhism. It’s because he decided to examine real life, warts and all, that we have the Four Noble Truths. In contrast to Socrates, Buddha didn’t get executed for heresy. Maybe ancient India was a more tolerant place than ancient Greece. Or maybe, being a Prince, he had friends in high places.

Of course we can argue till the cows come home whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion. But these terms may purely reflect our western historical experience of the antagonism between religion and philosophy/science (in the early days, Science was known as ‘Natural Philosophy’) If Buddhism is indeed a religion, then it’s one that has arisen out of the same quest for truth that was the basis of western philosophy.

In contrast to the increasing polarisation between science and the theistic religions, there is an increasing convergence between Buddhism and science. Both systems are empirical. They rely on repeatable, verifiable experiences rather than instructions revealed once and for all from some otherwise inaccessible source.

This convergence of Science and Buddhism presents an opportunity for skilful means to present the Buddhadharma to intelligent people in the West, who are not impressed by fundamentalist dumbing-down, yet who equally reject the idea that they are ‘nothing but biological machines’, with no spiritual aspect.


In religion,

the Sleep of Reason produces monsters.

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