Donald S. Lopez, Jr.


On his book Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed

Cover Interview of March 12, 2009

In a nutshell

When we think about the relationship between Christianity and Science, iconic events like the trial of Galileo, the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, and the Scopes Trial come immediately to mind.  One might easily assume that all religions have a similarly contentious relation to Science.  But Buddhism does not. 

The first people to introduce European Science to Buddhist Asia were, ironically, Christian missionaries.  Here, modern science was not an adversary of the church; it became a weapon in the arsenal of conversion, employed in battle against idolaters and heathens to promote the true faith.  Thus, that Christians understood things that Buddhists did not was proclaimed as evidence of the superiority of the Gospel, and of the benightedness of the Buddha and his dharma.  For example, in 1552, the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier criticized the Japanese for not knowing that the sun orbits the earth.

In the nineteenth century, Buddhist leaders began to respond to the charges of superstition being leveled at them by Christian missionaries.  And they used the Christians’ own weapon—Science—against them.  They could point to any number of Buddhist doctrines (multiple universes, the subtle impermanence of matter, the absence of a creator deity) to make their case that it was Buddhism that was the modern religion; if it was a religion at all.  Christianity was a remnant of a primitive theism.  The claim that Buddhism is compatible with modern Science thus began in the arena of polemics, as Buddhists defended their religion against Christian missionaries and Asian modernizers.  Buddhism was not superstition; it was a scientific religion, the scientific religion.

Over the course of more than a century and half, the great European empires have fallen, their Asian colonies have gained their independence, Christianity no longer poses a threat to Buddhism.  Yet the claim that Buddhism is the most “scientific” of the world’s religions continues to be made.  Why?