Science and Religion

Monday on the Huffington Post, Philip Goldberg, a spiritual counselor and Interfaith Minister, posed the question: “Are Eastern religions more science-friendly?” Mr. Goldberg is of the opinion that they are:

Most of the Hindu gurus, Yoga masters, Buddhist monks and other Asian teachers who came to the West framed their traditions in a science-friendly way. Emphasizing the experiential dimension of spirituality, with its demonstrable influence on individual lives, they presented their teachings as a science of consciousness with a theoretical component and a set of practical applications for applying and testing those theories. Most of the teachers were educated in both their own traditions and the Western canon; they respected science, had actively studied it, and dialogued with Western scientists, many of whom were inspired to study Eastern concepts for both personal and professional reasons.

I am sympathetic to the idea that Eastern religion is scientific, but I think Goldberg is overreaching a bit here. There have been plenty of Asian teachers who did not know science well, and a few who really misused science or misrepresented it, not to mention all the others with their own brand of supernatural hocus-pocus.

Goldberg also says that “The interaction of Eastern spirituality and Western science has expanded methods of stress reduction, treatment of chronic disease, psychotherapy and other areas.” All worthwhile, but occasionally that has led to an extreme where spirituality is reduced to mere science or psychology.

When it comes to Buddhism, the notion that it can be scientific bothers some folks. However, if by scientific, one means organized knowledge obtained by a scientific method, then Buddhist is certainly scientific. Although the Buddhism way of knowledge may contain deduction, this is not the only method. In Buddhism, knowledge is also derived through analytic, descriptive and explicative methods. Buddha-dharma is based what is experienced, and not what is said to have been revealed by some supernatural being. This is obviously a more scientific approach.

Westerners who have a tough time with rebirth and karma will argue that they are purely metaphysical concepts, but the fact is that they are a result of direct observation of one of the most basic scientific principles, cause and effect. In this way, we form a scientific foundation by distinguishing, and keeping in mind, the distinctions between experienced facts and non-experienced hypothetical ideas. It seems to me that a religious philosophy based on the experienced fact of cause and effect might be more reasonable and sound than one based on the idea that a man can fly into space and arrive at a heavenly destination.

Religious philosophers seek to answer spiritual questions, but many base their answers on imaginary constructions or inferences from scanty or incomplete evidence, without any scientific foundation, and end up with merely conjectural or hypothetical conclusions.  Even if a more scientific foundation for Eastern philosophies (directly in relation to not only physical sciences, such as physics, but mental sciences, such as psychology, and the formal sciences of mathematics and logic) were not possible, the insights made explicit by analysis, the method of which is primarily meditation, are important and valuable in themselves.

I’ve run across the following several places online: The Buddha did not call his followers Buddhists and in fact in at least one instance recommended that Buddhism be called vibhajjavada, which means “doctrine of analysis.” The followers would be called vibhajjavadins, which would basically mean “analysts” or “those who analyze.”

I don’t know if this is true, but it sounds good. I do know that the body of doctrine compiled by the 3 rd council, convened under King Ashoka, was called Vibhajjavada, the “doctrine of analysis.”

In any event, because of this emphasis on analysis, reason and logic, as opposed to supernatural speculations and blind belief, Eastern religions, if not more “science-friendly” in the literal sense, are certainly more scientific.

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One thought on “Science and Religion

  1. Thanks David, this is a great follow-up to Nate’s post and your comments there. I was uncomfortable enough with the first couple paragraphs of the Huffington Post article that I didn’t read on.

    I agree that karma is purely the law of cause and effect as evidenced through direct experience. As I may not have so eloquently stated in my comments to Nate, I also believe that rebirth, in a figurative sense (or maybe absolute sense?), is also to be understood experientially – in every moment of existence. I just have a hard time positing what might happen when the physical body expires.

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