Monday, March 08, 2021

Buddhism's Strategy of Scientific Apologetics

Before I head to the topic at hand, this week one of the living legends in science and religion, physicist-priest John Polkinghorne died. Thank you for your work. Rest in Paradise. 

I've been reading David McHahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernismand I think I've already mentioned Evan Thompson’s Why I am Not a Buddhist, which builds on McHahan’s work and others. Together these books analyze the creation of a “Buddhist modernism,” which Thompson also describes as “minimalist Buddhism.” Ronald Purser argues that this, combined with mindfulness meditation and market capitalism becomes "McMindfulness." 

At any rate, this Buddhism is often referred to, not as a religion, but a "science of the mind."

This intrigues me because Buddhist modernism is presented as entirely compatible with science, and in the circles I'm in, the intimate compatibility of Buddhism and contemporary science is taken for granted. For a religious tradition that is approximately 2500 years old, it represents a reasonably recent apologetic strategy that was formed in part to respond to scientific rationalism and late 19th century Protestant Christian tactics, who often complained about Buddhism's superstition, nihilism, and idolatry, arguing instead that Christianity produced superior societies with robust science and technology.

Bestselling works by international Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama,The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, and Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life--books I like and freely recommend--are vulnerable to the charge of constricting the full scope of Buddhism for the sake of presenting a relatively seamless integration with modern science. And yet, I have to admit these do not exhaust all contemporary accounts on how to relate Buddhism to modern science. 


In addition to various popular approaches, there are more nuanced scholarly offerings, such as Donald Lopez, Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, Francisco Cho and Richard K. Squier, Religion and Science in the Mirror of Buddhism, and B. Alan Wallace’s edited volume, Buddhism and Science, to name just three. Put simply, these texts engage with the wide varieties of Buddhism (even "Buddhisms") throughout the globe and not solely with Buddhist modernism.


As an observer and participant in the scholarship of science and religion, I find minimalist Buddhism to be a fascinating parallel with various forms of Christian apologetics that use science. I'm not against apologetics because, if we are convinced by the true of any idea, we'll want to persuade others. To return to John Polkinghorne, he exemplified this approach at times, and when he did, it was compelling.


What does interest me is not so much that the creation of a minimalist Buddhism has occurred, but why it has and particularly whether this strategy really helps us understand the various ways that science and religions interact. In fact, minimalist Buddhism ultimately limits our understanding of its full relationship with modern science... a topic I'll have to more to say about as I continue to learn.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Thank you Greg for having the intelligent curiosity to explore science and religion. I really don’t understand the attraction of Buddhism. Where’s forgiveness? And the amazing grace of a relationship with our Creator? Looking forward to your comments on Buddhism and science.

My Reflections said...

Thanks. I can say that Buddhism, or at least how it's understood, is very popular among my students. I'm beginning to write a book on science and religions--in other words, how various religions interact with science--and so I should have more to say as I continue.