Religion and Science: Four Perspectives

The 14th Dalai Lama is said to have said, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” I agree with the quote, but I also think it’s not that revolutionary. Buddhism has made a lot of adjustments to science in the past couple of centuries without being traumatized about it.

I very often run into news stories and articles that frame “religion” as a monolithic thing that is intractably opposed to “science,” another monolithic thing. But the truth is that most of religion is not at war with science (which is not so monolithic, but that’s another rant). Consider evolution, which “religion” is said to disbelieve. Catholicism never issued a formal opposition to evolution and declared decades ago that the faithful were free to make up their own minds. Judaism is largely supportive of evolution science. The “old line” Protestant denominations of Christianity mostly either accept evolution or leave it alone.

In America, the fight against evolution is coming mostly from the extreme religious Right. Yes, conservative evangelicals mostly oppose evolution, although there are exceptions to everything. Yes, there are a lot of them, and they make a lot of noise. But they don’t represent all of Christianity, never mind all of “religion.” And outside of Abrahamism I’m not aware that evolution is an issue at all. It certainly isn’t in Buddhism.

Most of Christianity processes science in one of two ways. One is to oppose it, for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons are unrelated to religious doctrine — think climate change denialism — but are more about loyalty to the Right as a political-religious tribe. I’ve written elsewhere that this group harbors a kind of faithless faith. This faithless faith rests on the proposition that the reality of God depends on a literal interpretation of scripture. If evolution is true, for example, then God is not real. That’s why it’s a faithless faith; it’s a faith with conditions.

The other, and more common, means for the religious to process science is through a kind of compartmentalizing. Because science simply cannot measure God, or heaven, or angels, for example,  it’s not thought to be unscientific to believe in such things. This perspective assumes it is all right to read Bible stories allegorically, which is actually how they were read for most of history. Atheist folklore to the contrary, an insistence on biblical literalism is a relatively recent development.

That works for some people, although it never seems to stop the incessant arguments about whether God exists. No matter how elegantly or logically they are argued, arguments claiming to be “proof” of God always carry a whiff  of unsupported assumption and end up chasing their own tails. They are unpersuasive to anyone not already inclined to believe them, and are therefore a waste of time. Not that anyone listens to me. But if you are a God-believer, please just accept that you believe something that can’t be proved by any known means and try to come to terms with that. Thanks much.

Among Abrahamists there is also a less common way to deal with science, which is to assume that scriptures and doctrines are all imperfect attempts to explain something ineffable, and in truth God is not only beyond the measure of science but also beyond the limited ability of humans to conceptualize and describe him/her/it. This group doesn’t believe in literal angels or unseen spirits and may deny that God is a being at all, anthropomorphic or otherwise, although God still is. This is a perspective championed by Paul Tillich (1886-1965), considered to be one of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century. It’s still a kind of compartmentalization, but a looser one that creates little or no conflict with science.  This group is arguably closer to older concepts of “faith,” in which faith was less about believing things and more about trusting a God that is beyond human understanding. This perspective also is utterly incomprehensible to most activist atheists, who simply can’t get around that word “God” and not think “sky fairy.”

I’ve been speaking about the people engaged in these three ways of understanding religion and science as if they were three distinct groups, but it’s probably more of a continuum of understanding, with the extremely and rigidly literal on one end and the extremely and loosely not-literal on the other. Most American Christians and Jews fall somewhere between those two poles, and the poles will probably continue to shift.

There’s a weird belief among many American atheists that Abrahamic religion has always been rigidly literal, and those who are not are “cherry pickers” or “hypocrites,” but again, the bulk of theological and historical scholarship says literalism crept in with modernity, not the other way around. And, anyway, religion has always been a kind of ongoing, collaborative creative effort, albeit usually a conservative one, that really does change over time. For example, God as described in the older parts of the Old Testament really is a very different guy from the one described in the newer parts. Just over the past couple of centuries there have been a number of new developments in American Christianity, from Unitarianism to fundamentalism. So, in fact, understanding of doctrine is not so rigidly fixed as in a slow state of flux.

Buddhists are in a slightly different, and slightly more interesting, place. Buddhism did go through a period of doctrinal upheaval about three centuries ago, as science made hash of a lot of old assumptions about the cosmos. But for the most part Buddhism was able to reconcile itself to a more allegorical interpretation of many scriptures and doctrines without going to war about it. This is not to say there aren’t teachers out there explaining the Six Realms, for example, as real physical places, but they are a minority.

Buddhists don’t have to spin their wheels over the existence of a creator God. For the most part we don’t need to believe in a bunch of supernatural things to be assured the Buddha’s teachings are true. The Buddha’s teachings are mostly about ourselves and our lives, and we can verify them through our own practice and experience. Believing things is not that important in Buddhism.

On the other hand, some of the metaphysical theories in support of doctrine and practice might someday be revised by science. For example, the Buddha proposed the skandhas as a way to explain the biological organism that experiences itself as “I.” I’d love to see a neuroscientist who practices Buddhism review the skandhas and propose revisions to make them more accessible to modern thinkers. Seems to me it’s not so important to memorize that recognition is samjna and biases are samskara as it is to appreciate how the body, brain and nervous system work together to create the illusory experience of a self.  Reading about neuroscience actually helped me understand Yogacara philosophy, which utterly mystified me for a long time.

This is where I suspect His Holiness the Dalai Lama was going when he said “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” He engages in dialog with scientists often, mostly in relation to “mind science” and the nature of consciousness and theoretical physics. He seems keenly interested in reconciling the “support” theories with scientific thought, and he appears to have great faith that science will support the Buddha’s teaching. As  long as science doesn’t discover a soul, it may very well do that.

Read more about religion and science in Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-affirming World

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