Are Eastern Religions More Science-Friendly?

By Phillip Goldberg

Religion comes into conflict with science when it is defined by unprovable claims that can be dismissed as superstitions, and when it treats as historical facts stories that read like legends and myths to non-believers. Other aspects of religion — what I would consider the deeper and more significant elements — are not only compatible with science but enrich its findings. The best evidence of this is science’s response to the religions of the East over the course of the last 200 years. As the French Nobel laureate Romain Rolland said early in the 20th century, “Religious faith in the case of the Hindus has never been allowed to run counter to scientific laws.” The same can be said for Buddhism, which derives from the same Vedic roots.

Most of the Hindu gurus, Yoga masters, Buddhist monks and other Asian teachers who came to the West framed their traditions in a science-friendly way. Emphasizing the experiential dimension of spirituality, with its demonstrable influence on individual lives, they presented their teachings as a science of consciousness with a theoretical component and a set of practical applications for applying and testing those theories. Most of the teachers were educated in both their own traditions and the Western canon; they respected science, had actively studied it, and dialogued with Western scientists, many of whom were inspired to study Eastern concepts for both personal and professional reasons.

As early as the 1890s, Swami Vivekananda spent time with scientific luminaries such as Lord Kelvin, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Nikola Tesla. “Mr. Tesla thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy,” the swami wrote in a letter to a friend. “I am working a good deal now upon the cosmology and eschatology of Vedanta. I clearly see their perfect unison with modern science.” Had Vivekananda lived three years longer, he would have rejoiced in Einstein’s discovery of E = mc2, which united matter and energy forever.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the great sage and Indian independence leader Sri Aurobindo, who had studied in England, blended East and West by extending Darwinian concepts to the evolution of consciousness and the cosmos. In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda set a precedent by calling his first lecture in the West “The Science of Religion.” He befriended a number of scientists, growing so close to the great botanist Luther Burbank that he dedicated his Autobiography of a Yogi to him. Later, Swami Satchidananda, whose own teacher, Swami Sivananda, had been a successful physician before becoming a monk, encouraged the scientific study of Yoga; one of his early students was Dr. Dean Ornish, whose groundbreaking research sprang directly from Satchidananda’s teachings. And Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, even before he became famous as the Beatles’ guru, prodded scientists into studying the physiology of meditation, setting in motion an enterprise that has now produced over a thousand studies.

The interaction of Eastern spirituality and Western science has expanded methods of stress reduction, treatment of chronic disease, psychotherapy and other areas. But that is only part of the story. Hindu and Buddhist descriptions of higher stages of consciousness have expanded psychology’s understanding of human development and inspired the formation of provocative new theories of consciousness itself. Their ancient philosophies have also influenced physicists, among them Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who read from the Bhagavad Gita at a memorial service for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his landmark TV series Cosmos, Carl Sagan called Hinduism the only religion whose time-scale for the universe matches the billions of years documented by modern science. Sagan filmed that segment in a Hindu temple featuring a statue of the god Shiva as the cosmic dancer, an image that now stands in the plaza of the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva.

The relationship between science and Eastern spiritual traditions — which many prefer to think of as psychologies — is still in its infancy. In recent years, the Dalai Lama has carried the ball forward, hosting conferences and encouraging research. Western religions would do well to emulate this history. Their historical and faith-based claims conflict with empirical science and probably always will; but to the extent that their practices directly impact human life, they can be treated as testable hypotheses.

This article originally appeared on huffingtonpost.com


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2 Responses to Are Eastern Religions More Science-Friendly?

  1. Should Buddhism even be classified as a religion? How can a cult that acknowledges no God, respects no God and serves no God be considered a religion? Buddhism is a philosophy of living,an abstract reality but not a religion. Religion means to worship God. Buddhism does not seek “higher consciousness” rather the extinction of consciousness.
    In fact, some of the Indian gurus like Swami Prabhupada have classified Buddhism as atheism. So, the notion of Buddhism being a religion is quite the stretch since Buddha himself denied the existence of God and the eternal soul.
    Buddhism is a philosophy not a religion. You can’t have religion without the idea of worshiping God or linking with God.
    Buddhism doesn’t promote experiential reality, it promotes the cessation of individual existence.
    So, if Buddhism is claimed to be more science friendly than Abrahamic religions that is not a valid comparison since Buddhism is atheism and not religion.
    When the Buddhists began manufacturing Buddha statues and revering them they took an atheistic philosophy of life and turned it into a religion, even though such idol worship has nothing to do with the teachings of Buddha or Buddhism. Buddha worship is a concocted idea that allows Buddhists to claim that their atheistic philosophy should be a world religion. It really is not.
    Otherwise, I don’t see any evidence in modern history that “eastern religions” are more science friendly than middle-eastern religions.
    In fact it was the Judea/Christian world which brought many modern scientific discoveries to the modern world.
    So, my answer to the question is no, not in my view.
    Buddhism was meant to be an affront to religion, not a religion, but our modern civilization has taken this atheistic philosophy and lumped it in with the great religions of the world and now people are comparing it up against the actual religions of God worship.

    First, Buddhism overtook real religion of Lao-Tse and Confucius. Now, Buddhism wants to be a religion, even though it is atheism and rejects the idea of a person God or Savior.

    People looking for religious wisdom from the Far East should study Lao-Tse and Confucius, not the mind-butchering Buddhist philosophy.

  2. I would concentrate on the positive:

    “Their ancient philosophies have also influenced physicists, among them Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who read from the Bhagavad Gita at a memorial service for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his landmark TV series Cosmos, Carl Sagan called Hinduism the only religion whose time-scale for the universe matches the billions of years documented by modern science. Sagan filmed that segment in a Hindu temple featuring a statue of the god Shiva as the cosmic dancer, an image that now stands in the plaza of the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva.”

    There is potential in Eastern religions to look at spirituality without the anti-science bias that used to plague the Abrahamic religions (it is still a problem in some circles). But in reality I find KC as presented by Srila Prabhupada to be rather decidedly unfriendly to science.

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