Four ways to mess up a conversation between science and religion

Jonathan Morgan

Zen stones balance conceptSometimes I feel like the religion and science police – always patrolling for people messing up.  I don’t want to do that because, frankly, I’m all for making mistakes.  Any conversation that moves between science and religion is covering treacherous terrain.  The only way to do it is to occasionally misunderstand… and then hopefully, and respectfully, keep trying to correct those misconceptions.  So I’m really not trying to call people out just for messing up, but sometimes the mistakes are too obvious and disrespectful to not say anything – like David Barash’s recent articles on Buddhism and Biology.

Barash’s articles are an exploration of why Buddhism might be more hospitable to science than other religions.  Barash is trained as a biologist, but in these essays he reflects on (and distorts) the history of religion and science, discusses similarities between Buddhist philosophy and ideas from Biology, and then suggests a new way to understand the relationship between religion and science.  It’s a bit over-ambitious.

I’m assuming these essays are an effort to promote his recent book: Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science.  They don’t make me want to buy his book (and the patronizing title doesn’t help either), but they do give us some great examples of what NOT to do if you’re going to work with religion and science.

1) Disrespect the religious leader’s title.

In an attempt at being very careful with language, Barash calls the Dalai Lama “Mr. Tenzin Gyatso.”  Barash wants us to know that he doesn’t actually believe the Dalai Lama is a reincarnation, so he’s better off using the title “Mr. Tenzin Gyatso.”  For those interested, the Dalai Lama is traditionally taken to be a reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the boddhisatva of compassion.  (If you’re going to disagree in a religion and science conversation, it’s at least worth being specific).  “Dalai Lama” means ocean of wisdom, and is the honorific title for the leader of a specific school of Tibetan Buddhism.  It’s a bit murky how much the title implies reincarnation – like any title it has different layers of meaning.  Some of these are social and others are philosophical.  But it’s not like Barash is calling the Dalai Lama “His Holiness” (a more devotional title) or Avalokiteshvara.

Being careful with language is great, but if I’m talking to a Catholic, I’m not going to call the Pope “Mr. Jorge Bergoglio.”  There’s a difference between being careful and being disrespectful, but maybe that’s just my deferential Southern upbringing showing through.

2) Call religious beliefs  “nonsensical hocus-pocus,” “abracadabra,” “ridiculous,” or “mumbo-jumbo.”

I’ve worked with 8-year-olds who know better than to insult someone and then try to be friends.  Barash is referring to daily ritual devotions, belief in religious charms, divinity, rebirth, and karma.  All he really seems to want to preserve of Buddhism is the teaching that one should test truth against experience.  While this is certainly a part of Buddhist teachings, it’s not really helpful to pick the one part of a religious philosophy that you agree with and insult the rest.  Since most people know not to be rude I think this deserves a more general subpoint:

2) a.  Pick-and-choose beliefs

Despite hang-ups with the Dalai Lama’s name, Barash seems to be pretty excited about the Dalai Lama’s acceptance of scientific investigation.  Me too!  I think the Dalai Lama has made huge strides in advancing this dialogue.  But it’s a little ironic to applaud this stance and then bash authority, because teachers play an incredibly important role in Vajrayana Buddhism – the Tibetan School of which the Dalai Lama’s a part (also- Vajrayana means “the Thunderbolt way,” which is awesome).  My point is simply that it’s deceptive to pick one idea and ignore everything else.

Instead of picking-and-choosing, it may be better to actually look at what 488 million Buddhist people believe and do and take them on their own terms.  Which leads us to number 3:

3) Reinterpret the parts you don’t like so they sound familiar

This one’s a little harder to avoid.  But think about it from the standpoint of interreligious dialogue.  If you’re describing what Christians mean by the Kingdom of God and I say “oh, you’re just talking about Nirvana,” then neither of us are actually going to learn what the other’s talking about.  The Kingdom of God and Nirvana may be similar ideas, but we only really learn about either one by exploring the places they diverge.

So when Barash says rebirth and karma should be taken to mean, respectively, the recycling of atoms and cause-and-effect, he’s missing the point.  They may sound similar, but Barash is talking about electrons, protons, and neutrons, while a Buddhist is going to talk in terms of the five Skandhas (the five basic aggregates that constitute being).  There are innumerable theories within Buddhism about the nature and interaction of these five Skandhas.  For example, the Sarvāstivādins (an early school of Buddhism) would have argued that these aggregates had essence, or a permanent quality.  But the Madhyamaka school argued specifically against any level of permanence (Nagarjuna, one of the most famous buddhist philosophers, represents this school of thought).

These debates continue today and they’re a fascinating exploration of what we take to be the basic constituents of reality.  But Barash is completely missing out on this conversation because he’s already assumed that he knows what they really mean. 

Not only does this stop conversation, but it’s also a little patronizing to tell a 2600-year-old tradition that you know what they really mean when they use words like “karma” – especially when you’ve just called their other beliefs hocus-pocus.

4) Gloss over past theories

 This time, I’m not even talking about Buddhism; I’m talking about Barash’s brief dismissal of Non-Overlapping Magisteria.  This is the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s proposal that science and religion have distinct realms of expertise (thus the “non-overlapping”): science handles the empirical parts of the universe while religion handles ethics, values, and meaning.  I realize that I just broke my own rule and am glossing this idea, but my point is that this philosophical tool was designed to handle the sort of dialogue Barash pretends to be having.  I don’t particularly agree with Gould, but I think you can’t get away without at least considering the reasons for his proposal and dealing with them.

This is especially true since Barash is trying to suggest a cheeky alternative: “POMA,” or “Productively Overlapping Magesteria.”  It’s revealing that Barash’s account of the history of religion and science is that science is steadily taking over any terrain shared with religion.  This “Productively Overlapping Magesteria” looks less like a Venn diagram and more like Pac-Man eating a pellet.  Even if Gould’s proposal isn’t quite right, it at least prevents this sort of maltreatment.


So, I give you Barash’s strategy for science and religion dialogue: first, insult who you’re talking to; second, take their ideas out of context and dismiss the rest as mumbo-jumbo; third, co-opt the ideas you like into something else; and finally, share this astounding strategy with others.

I hope I’m not being too mean to Mr. David Barash, but it gets really dull when the most vocal examples of work between religion and science are this blatantly trite.  And it’s not just dull – it’s harmful.  The domains of religion and science aren’t separate – they’re overlapping, and we’re right in the middle of that overlap.  In order for that overlap to be productive we’ve gotta be a little more sensitive, nuanced, and deep than Barash manages.

2 thoughts on “Four ways to mess up a conversation between science and religion

    1. Jonathan Morgan Post author

      Thanks Scott- I hadn’t seen this earlier article by Barash. He definitely doesn’t come across as the most sensitive guy to any worldview other than his own! Understanding the Spiritual but Not Religious movement is a pretty complex thing, but Barash just dismisses it in the same way he dismisses the parts of Buddhism he doesn’t like.


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