Buddhism, Christianity, and Modern Science: A Response to Masao Abe

Article excerpt

After number of years of teaching philosophy of science, a few years ago I took up the challenge of teaching philosophy of religion. As one might imagine, it has always seemed to me to be important that our religious convictions harmonize with our best scientific knowledge of how the world works, and this became a more interesting issue when the change in my teaching assignment brought me into contact with the work of Masao Abe, the eminent Japanese Buddhist scholar. His essay "Religion and Science in the Global Age--Their Essential Character and Mutual Relationship" (Abe 1985: 241-248) challenged me to expand my thinking to consider not only how theistic religions such as Christianity relate to science, but also to consider how nontheistic religions, such as Buddhism, might fare when interacting with modern science.

In his essay on religion and science Abe expressed his agreement with the thought of Keiji Nishitani in this way:

1. It is necessary for each religion to re-examine the basis of its world view. For any religion its world view is not like clothes that one can change whenever one pleases. A world view is to religion what water is to a fish. It is the indispensable condition through which religion can actually come into existence. Water is neither the life of the fish as such, nor its body, yet it is fundamentally linked to both. For a religion to change its world view is a matter no less fatal to it than for a fish to change from salt water to fresh.

2. What is even more crucial and important is that each religion re-examine and reinterpret that tradition's understanding of God or the 'ultimate' and His or its relation to human beings and the world. With regard to this second point, Buddhism which is fundamentally non-theistic, is in a somewhat different situation from Christianity, which is basically theistic. (Abe 1985: 244-245)

Abe continues: "Theistic answers to the question 'why' in Christianity, such as the 'will of God' and the 'rule of God' are incompatible with modern scientific answers to the question 'how.' This is because the former strongly emphasize the personality of the ultimate while the latter is essentially impersonal" (Abe 1985: 245). In this discussion, I will follow Abe's lead and consider the question of whether Buddhism is more compatible with modern science than Christianity.


One set of issues causing tension between modern science and Christianity has to do with history. Briefly, ideas about the creation of the universe, about the special creation of humankind, and about miracles, as in the claims about the resurrection of Jesus, are ideas about the action of God in history. These ideas relate the stance that Abe attributed to Christianity as involving an attempt to answer "why" questions about meaning and purpose, an attempt which he feels brings Christianity into conflict with modern science. I will give a brief account of what I take to be the current state of the discussion about each of these matters, and my point is to argue that Abe's conclusion about the relative superiority of Buddhism over Christianity in relation to modern science is premature at best.

The Creation of the Universe

The rise of the Big Bang theory, which traces the origin of the universe back to a tremendously powerful event several billion years ago, at first gave comfort to traditional ideas of divine creation. However, it soon became apparent that this comfort was ambiguous at best. It was not clear, for instance, that one could really prove on the basis of observational evidence that there was an absolute starting point those many billions of years ago, or whether the totality of things could be going through a huge set of cycles. Then there is the issue that even if there is a "First Cause" responsible for the Big Bang, this does not automatically give evidence that the First Cause is a personal being who cares about us or has any immediate involvement in our lives. …