The Dalai Lama’s op-ed piece in this morning’s New York Times, “Our Faith in Science“, was truly remarkable: honest, clear-eyed, generous, and smart. It’s generated a lot of discussion.
In his blog Stranger Fruit, John M. Lynch remarks on the following quotation: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” And he asks,
How different this view is from that of many in this country who seek to mold science to fit their religious beliefs. Can you imagine Pat Robertson, Ken Ham, Philip Johnson or Dembski, saying anything like that? Didnâ€™t think so.
A number of friends, knowing my affection for the Buddha, and for the Dalai Lama, have mentioned the piece to me through this day, and they have all, to my mind, taken a subtly mistaken message from it; all of them told me that they read the piece to mean that there need be no conflict between science and religion; several went on to give it their own spin: if science could just give a little, then it could exist quite peacefully with religion.
As I read it, however, the piece says no such thing. True, His Holiness challenges scientists to widen their vision to include more of the world than their narrow speciaties, and to give more consideration than they have to the ethical implications of the science that they practice. And he does express his hope that “people from both worlds can have an intelligent discussion, one that has the power ultimately to generate a deeper understanding of challenges we face together in our interconnected world.”
But he is clearly mindful of the fact that “certain religious concepts conflict with scientific facts and principles.” What he does not say explicitly, but what is nonetheless true, is that those particular religious concepts that conflict with science are the concepts having to do with the role of God in the history of the universe and the conduct of human affairs. And while Buddhism very sensibly recognizes such concepts as “unskillful”, i.e. not worth talking about because they are unresolvable, most theistical religions (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) hold such concepts very close to the heart, and, indeed, have been known to destroy those (scientists and others) who fail to give them proper reverence and assent. The fact is that a belief in a creator God really is in conflict with science, and there’s no getting around that.
The Dalai Lama takes the same path that the Buddha took when he was confronted with such metaphysical questions as the nature of the gods; he attempts to bring the discussion back to what he calls “secular ethics”, i.e. “the principles we share as human beings: compassion, tolerance, consideration of others, the responsible use of knowledge and power. These principles transcend the barriers between religious believers and non-believers; they belong not to one faith, but to all faiths.”
Ideally, those principles do belong to all faiths. But the current state of affairs in most corners of the world—from the boulevards of Paris to the cornfields of Kansas, from the West Bank of the Jordan River to the West Wing of the White House—provide pretty unambiguous evidence that compassion and tolerance aren’t holding their own against the temper tantrums of a jealous God.
I love the Dalai Lama; I am amazed and grateful to have been alive in a time of the world when I can hear his teaching. I am glad to see that teaching appear on the pages of the New York Times; I hope that some will be touched by this wisdom who have not hitherto even been aware of such a luminous soul in our midst. But it will not do to read this piece carelessly, or to look for easy ways out of a difficult dilemma, or to conflate the Dalai Lama, because he is presented as a “religious leader”, with others who share nothing of his humanity, his breadth of learning, or his profound humility.