Is Buddhism the religion most favorable to science?

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

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

As an evolutionary biologist, I have personally encountered this scientific illiteracy, especially at conferences in the Bible Belt. At the same time, I was struck by the scientific knowledge of the public when I give lectures in Asian countries, especially those strongly influenced by Buddhism. Moreover, I am increasingly convinced that this correlation is not fortuitous. My decades as a biologist, as well as comparable decades as a Buddhist sympathizer, have convinced me that of all the world‘s religions – and in particular unlike the Abrahamic Big Three (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Buddhism is exceptionally favorable to science.

To some extent that may be because so much of Buddhism – and certainly the part that appeals to me – is not a “religion” at all, but rather a way of seeing the world. Indeed, the Buddha himself is described as having emphasized that he is not a god and should not be treated as such. And, in fact, there are no creator deities in Buddhism, nor sacred writings, and so on.

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

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

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

“Do not rely on what has been acquired by repeated auditions; nor on tradition; nor on rumor; nor on what is in a scripture; nor by supposition; nor on an axiom; nor on specious reasoning; nor on a penchant for a notion that has been pondered; nor on the apparent capacity of another; nor on the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ On the contrary, when you yourselves know that these things are good; these things are not blameworthy; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness, then and only then enter and abide in them.

This teaching is widely (and rightly) seen as supporting free inquiry and the absence of rigid dogma, an attitude entirely open to empirical verification and therefore 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 first and for a long time the world’s first scientific society, has as its credo, Nullius in verba: “On the words of no one.”

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

On the whole, it seems reasonable and appropriate that Buddhism should be viewed in the West as relatively free from irrationality, superstitious belief and mind-numbing tradition – but this generalization should nevertheless be taken with a grain of salt, noting that in a large part of the world, Buddhism involves daily ritual devotions, the 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 maintaining an array of nonsensical sleight of hand and abracadabra, totally at odds with any scientific tradition worth its salt. Of these, the notion of “rebirth” is particularly ridiculous, insofar as it implies that after death people will eventually reappear in another form, with their personalities or at least some “karmic attributes” intact.

I have no difficulty, however, in describing Mr. Tenzin Gyatso (born Lhamo Dondrub), as the fourteenth Dalai Lama, as long as it means he is the fourteenth person to hold this office, along the same lines as Barack Obama is the forty-fourth President of the United States, without implying 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 by the biogeochemical cycle, and if karma is interpreted (as I believe justified) to reflect the reality of cause and the effect, and not like to mention that other fundamental reality, natural selection, by which the “actions” of our ancestors actually give birth to us and our “actions” influence our descendants – then Buddhism and biology are indeed close relatives allies. Moreover, the fundamental Buddhist teaching of interdependence could just 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 invigorating perspective of POMA (“Productively Overlapping Magesteria”) – although after suppressing Buddhism. religious gibberish…that is when do not treat it like a religion. But even then, I won’t hold my breath until Bible Belt America agrees with me.