Stephen Asma, author, Why I Am a Buddhist
Turns out, many American biology teachers like Beau Schaefer are sneaking creationism into their classrooms. Buddhism, like every philosophy, has many problems, but thankfully it doesn’t have this one. In fact, Buddhists are all about the evolution.
Buddhism doesn’t have a creator God, like we find in the book of Genesis, nor does Buddhism have the Fundamentalist problem of a literal interpretation of scripture. As a result, it’s never had a war with science, unlike the science-religion skirmishes that plague Christianity and Islam.
According to a 2009 poll in the Christian Science Monitor, Buddhism was the religion most comfortable with evolution theory. When people were asked if evolution was the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth, 81 percent of Buddhists agreed, compared with only 51 percent of mainline Protestants and 45 percent of Muslims.
Buddhism is not hostile to biology, psychology, physics, or cosmology. And more than just tolerating each other, Buddhism and science can actually learn from each other (e.g., neuroscientists and monks are collaboratively researching ways that conscious discipline can influence subcortical brain processes).
Sadly, there’s a lot of New-Age nonsense, trying to link Buddhism with quantum-mystical healing and other embarrasing forms of supernaturalism. But the historical Buddha shunned metaphysical speculations. He refrained from spooky conjectures generally, and thought that origin-stories about how the universe started were avyakata (unanswerable), given our empirical constraints. Most Buddhists take all this as an invitation to embrace the sciences.
Buddhism and science also share some deep convictions about nature. The Buddha’s teachings of anicca (impermanence) and paticca samuppada (dependent causation), augur many of our 20th century ideas about an ever-changing, evolving, and ecologically connected nature.
Buddhism also has less anxiety about technology. Ever since Mary Shelley gave us the Frankenstein monster, we have been employing it as a cautionary metaphor for every technological advance. In 2008, for example, a survey found that religious countries were much more opposed to nanotechnology than secular countries. In the survey, published in Nature Nanotechnology, the United States was found to be the most religious country and the most hostile and wary of nanotechnology.
Western religion, with its idea of a creator God, permeates our culture and sanctifies life in such a way that any technological manipulation of life seems arrogant and offensive. Buddhism on the contrary has no belief in a creator God and therefore feels none of the anxiety about scientists using technology to “play God.” There might be very good reasons not to pursue certain technological moves, like cloning and other biotechnology, but for Buddhists those reasons will appeal to the dangerous and unforeseen consequences. Buddhists do not rule out certain kinds of technology on the grounds that God will be angered by our hubris.
In Western religions, however, there is usually a yawning chasm that separates we humans from the non-human creatures. We are made in God’s image. They are not. There is something miraculous about life, and something even more miraculous about we humans.
Buddhism does not share this species elitism, nor do they believe that life can only happen miraculously. We were not made better than everything else, by a loving God, at the beginning of creation. Rather, all living beings according to Buddhism are trying to make themselves better, by their own powers and abilities. We are all trying to work out our enlightenment and liberation.
There are gods and spirits in the cultures of Buddhism, but they are more like superheroes or super villains. They are not omnipotent, omniscient, nor omnibenevolent. And these other intelligent beings (devas, ghosts, animistic spirits, etc.) are, like us, trying to work out their own enlightenment. They might be more powerful or live longer than us, but that does not mean that they are free or awakened.
So, for Buddhism, life is defined more by function –by physiology, rather than by religious metaphysics. If, in our near future, technology produces smart robots, and clones, and nano-beings, and artificial intelligence, and even artificial life, then Buddhism will simply offer its usual advice: Let us help these new beings also, as they pursue their enlightenment with diligence.