The Science versus Spirituality Debate
Two ways to understand our world?
What does it mean when someone says they're spiritual rather than religious, or suggests that, if we skeptics were just a little more open-minded, spirituality could assist science in understanding the world we live in, and help make it a better place? What's the connection, if any, between spirituality and religion? Could spirituality be one of those other ways of 'knowing' that people talk of, a path separate from science, but going in the same direction towards the same goal? Might a lifetime of quiet meditation even reveal more about the universe than a lifetime of scientific research? Do we in fact need spirituality to reveal answers that will be forever hidden from science?
These thoughts came about after we received the following email, which suggested that to be 'balanced and reasonable' we should perhaps consider answers from spirituality as well as science:
Hi John. Yes there are some silly claims made by people, however the relationship between science and spirituality, increasingly, appears to be an ongoing discussion. The Dalai Lama has been one of those involved in such discussions and the book 'The Universe in a Single Atom' might be of interest. I have not read this book so can't comment. It seems to me, reading the content of your website, a balanced and reasonable exploration of the 'seen and unseen' things that can be measured, things that may be in orderWell, we have actually considered 'the relationship between science and spirituality' over the years, and our 'balanced and reasonable exploration' has seen us broadly link spirituality with religion, and confidently reject both as ways of discerning the truth about reality. So in this article we'll look at what we believe spirituality is, its connection with religion, and how, unlike science, it has failed miserably at providing knowledge of our world, or advice on how to lead a good life. We'll also consider that book from the Dalai Lama and compare thoughts on his science and spirituality discussion. Spoiler alert: we agree more than we disagree.
So ... what is spirituality exactly?
To be honest I hadn't read the Dalai Lama's book, the full title being, 'The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality', however one of our team has it so I borrowed it for a quick perusal, along with two of the Dalai Lama's other books, 'Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World', and 'Ethics for the New Millennium'. I also looked at the full blurb for the book on Amazon, which is where the above intro quote apparently comes from. It began:
'Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Niels Bohr, Einstein. Their insights shook our perception of who we are and where we stand in the world, and in their wake have left an uneasy coexistence: science vs. religion, faith vs. empirical inquiry. Which is the keeper of truth? Which is the true path to understanding reality?'So it sees the book as a discussion of the 'science vs. religion, faith vs. empirical inquiry', a centuries old conflict, even though the book frames the debate as between 'Science and Spirituality', rather than science and religion. But is there really a major difference? We would argue not, that religion and spiritually are essentially one and the same. And in his book 'The Universe in a Single Atom', the Dalai Lama appears to agree, writing, 'This dialogue between science and spirituality has a long history — especially with respect to Christianity'. Clearly he views Christianity, a religion, as a form of spirituality, along with Buddhism of course, another religion, and so by extension we can logically add Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and any other religion one can think of, as other forms of spirituality. So whether we choose to say 'science vs. spirituality' or 'science vs. religion', we, and that apparently includes the Dalai Lama, are referring to the same debate. As we'll show further on, it's a debate that is well settled in the favour of science. We're guessing that some people didn't get the memo.
I've read a number of books looking at everything from spiritual healing, spiritualism and intelligent design to hyperspace, evolution and the multiverse, but one book ideally linked to this discussion is one written by Deepak Chopra, an advocate for spirituality, and Leonard Mlodinow, a prominent physicist, called, 'Is God an Illusion?: The Great Debate Between Science and Spirituality'. Here's a quote from the book's foreword, co-written by both authors, that introduces the debate:
'Science has set humanity on a path to unravel the secrets of nature, harness natural forces, and develop new technologies, using reason and observation instead of emotional bias as a tool for uncovering the truth of things. Spirituality looks toward an invisible, transcendent realm discovered within the self. Science explores the world as it is offered to the five senses and the brain, while spirituality considers the universe to be purposeful and imbued with meaning. In Deepak's view, the great challenge for spirituality is to offer something that science cannot provide ... Which worldview is right? Does science describe the universe, or do ancient teachings like meditation unravel mysteries that are beyond the worldview of science?'Each author debated the topic by writing alternate chapters. This made it a far more informative look at the science versus spirituality debate than was Dalai Lama's book, since there was the chance for each author to respond and attempt to counter the opposing arguments. It was a good example of a 'balanced and reasonable exploration'. Those that know me won't be surprised to read that I was impressed with Leonard Mlodinow's scientific worldview and his well reasoned defence of it, and equally dismayed at the arguments that Deepak Chopra offered to explain the world and our place in it. You'll note that Chopra claims that 'Spirituality looks toward an invisible, transcendent realm', and that it 'considers the universe to be purposeful and imbued with meaning'. In our view, these are also exactly the sort of phrases that mainstream religions employ. Not that Chopra would agree, he goes on to say that, 'religion isn't the same as spirituality — far from it. Even God isn't the same as spirituality. Organized religion may have discredited itself, but spirituality has suffered no such defeat'. However, even though he dismisses organised religion, he does go on to identify both Buddha and Jesus as 'inspired spiritual teachers', which is a little confusing. Jesus and Buddha are both good, but the religions they created from their inspired spiritual teaching are both bad? Apparently neither could see how things would develop, and yet if the universe is truly purposeful as Chopra believes, then surely what we see now was meant to happen? He goes on to claim that both Jesus and Buddha 'taught that a transcendent domain resides beyond the everyday world of pain and struggle. Although the eye beholds rocks, mountains, trees, and sky, this is only a veil drawn over a vast, mysterious, unseen reality. Beyond the reach of the five senses lies an invisible realm of infinite possibility'. Religion writ large.
Chopra may insist that spirituality and religion are very different beasts, and that spirituality is closer to science than religion, but when he talks of infinite possibility, an invisible, transcendent realm where suffering is unknown, and a universe imbued with purpose and meaning, then all we're visualising is religion, the supernatural, heaven, superstition, and gods with big plans for us. Apparently publishers often have more say than authors on what a book's title is, opting for one that encapsulates the theme of the book and is likely to promote sales. But whoever chose 'Is God an Illusion? as the title, clearly they thought that the debate at its core concerns whether God exists or not. Science versus religion.
But that's us, how does the general public, especially those with an interest in spooky things, use the term spirituality?
Looking at various websites promoting spirituality, many link it with meditation, most talk about things felt but unseen, and many express the nagging feeling that there is some greater meaning to the universe and our lives than we currently understand. One website explains that
'being spiritual may or may not involve belief in a particular god but does imply that the person is trying to follow a specific moral code, such as being loving and kind, and is seeking a meaning in life that's bigger than him or herself.'Note how they try to claim that if you're merely trying to lead a good life, then they want to label you as belonging to their spirituality club. They want to claim credit for your morality. Another website claims that
'Anything non-physical, non-material, affecting our emotions and intuition, triggering various energies within our body, and connected to the unconscious part of our mind is called spiritual. ... spirituality is about developing the insight, perception and openness to allow your higher self in.'Of course there is no evidence for the existence of 'Anything non-physical, non-material' affecting our mind or body. These fantasies of imaginary spirits are common to both spirituality and religion. Jesus called them demons, Muslims call them jinn. And again with this belief that there is some greater meaning to the universe and our lives than we currently understand. On one website, someone called Nick commented that,
'I think many of us know something not quite tangible is going on with us, the universe and everything. There's a ridiculous amount we don't know and most probably will never know about the universe and its workings, accepting that, opens up a shit load of possibilities...'The empty claim that, 'I think many of us know something not quite tangible is going on', is something an untold number of people throughout history have always thought, and they dreamt up thousands of religions and spiritual beliefs to explain what was going on. All of them wrong! It wasn't until spirituality was ditched in favour of science that we finally started to make some headway. Compared to what people knew one hundred years ago, let alone 2,000 years ago, we now know an astounding amount about the universe and everything. Furthermore, Nick's belief that we'll likely never learn much more about 'the universe and its workings' suggests that he finds it all too complicated, that he's given up, and recommends we all do the same. But strangely he believes that if we accept this ignorance, then it 'opens up a shit load of possibilities'. What can he mean? Since he predicts we won't gain new knowledge, this means everything people propose about 'the universe and its workings' in the future can be nothing but mistaken fantasies, or to put it another way, a shit load more superstition and more new religions. Oh yay!
Yet another website offers this all-encompassing definition:
'When it comes down to it, we're the ones who define our spirituality. The answer to the question, "What is spirituality?" depends upon our approach. If we are a Muslim, Christian, Jew or Neo-pagan, we look at spirituality in terms of our relationship with the God, Goddess or Gods. If we ignore the existence of any form of deity, spirituality may appear as the essence or feeling resulting from actions we take in our lives.'In other words, we're all spiritual! If you believe in some god, then you're spiritual. If you don't believe in any god, then you're still spiritual. If your behaviour generates feelings, then you're spiritual. Of course that definition is so vague as to be worthless. Apparently in the book 'Ancient Wisdom, Modern World', the Dalai Lama wrote that 'spirituality is concerned with those qualities of the human spirit — such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony — which brings happiness to both self and others'. That's all well and good, but we think he's being a little disingenuous to list some core human emotions, some states of mind of his choosing that he believes make everyone happy, and then feels that he has the authority to label those emotions as 'spirituality'. Furthermore, I'd question much of his statement. The qualities of compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness and a sense of responsibility are important, but they don't make me happy. For example, my feeling compassion on observing the suffering of others doesn't make me or them happy. My tolerating a neighbour's noisy party and patiently waiting for it to end doesn't make me happy, nor does my sense of responsibility that I should take an interest in politics. On the other hand, watching a good movie and eating cheesecake and ice cream does make me happy, as well as those that made the movie, cheesecake and ice cream, since I give them money. The Dalai Lama makes no mention of this avenue for happiness. He talks of 'qualities of the human spirit', and because he chooses to use the word 'spirit' to label a range of human emotions and desires, he feels he can then claim that 'spirituality' exists. But the so-called human spirit has negative emotions such as greed, hatred, jealousy, intolerance and dishonesty too. So if the human spirit prompts the label spirituality, then people exhibiting that negative side of the human spirit are also being spiritual. In 'The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life', philosopher and atheist A. C. Grayling wrote, 'I believe passionately in the value of all things spiritual — by which I mean things of the human spirit, with its capacity for love and enjoyment, creativity and kindness, hope and courage'. We too believe passionately in those human qualities, but we wouldn't call ourselves spiritual or say that we're into spirituality. Neither does Grayling of course. Just as people often talk about feelings and emotions as being matters of the heart, even though they know it's really the brain, many still keep referring to the human spirit, even though they no longer believe that an actual spirit exists. This is fine of course if we all know that we're not being literal, but when we're talking with someone who perhaps still believes in real spirits, then we shouldn't by our lazy choice of words suggest that we think likewise. Let's remember that the term 'human spirit' came from a primitive time when people believed that the divine addition of a spirit or soul was what gave us those specific human qualities and separated us from the animals. It was also this otherworldly spirit that supposedly allowed people to tap into the mysterious, purposeful, unseen reality beyond our physical senses.
Personally I think this willingness of people to arbitrarily choose some behaviour they approve of and label it spirituality is quite bogus. When I'm being loving and compassionate, then that's what I'm being, loving and compassionate, end of story. If people insist on a term that describes my overall actions, then let's call me ethical or moral. We have perfectly good, descriptive words for my behaviour, whereas telling people that I'm being spiritual tells them nothing. What's more, I'm being loving and compassionate because I choose to be, not because some immaterial spirit hiding in my brain or some unseen being or force in some invisible, transcendental realm is pulling my strings like a puppet.
Another website quote talks of the spirit and claims that spirituality 'is a realization that all humans consist of more than mind and body. It's present, whether you believe in it or not'. Linking them all is this common belief that there exists a 'connectivity between the body, the mind and the spirit'. That phrase right there might be a good gauge of whether someone sees themselves as spiritual. Science shows that the body and mind certainly exist, but that's where it ends. There is no evidence whatsoever of an unseen, immaterial spirit tagging along. Many would say that the terms spirit and soul are interchangeable, a spooky entity that they believe is really the force behind human behaviour. Again, science agues that it is the mind, generated by the brain, that runs the show, and when the brain fails, so too does the mind, followed by the body. And when this happens, not once has the spirit or soul ever stepped up and taken over the operation of the mind and body, probably because imaginary things are no help at all.
Regarding spirituality, we also have spiritualism, the belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with us, usually through psychic mediums. Then we have spiritual healing, where a typical definition would be, 'healing in which the healer is felt to be an instrument of the divine, allowing the power of the divine to heal through him or her'. Others believe they are spirituality connected with past lives, and still others believe they are in spiritual communication with aliens in other galaxies or other planes of existence. And of course, like all spirituality claims, there is no evidence to support any of it. No evidence of souls, of the talking dead, or of people being healed spiritually. No evidence that they've lived before, often as Napoleon, or that they're chatting with aliens. It would all be understandable if they were superstitious stories from our primitive, ignorant past, but they're silly beliefs still held in the 21st century, when frankly we should all know better.
Like many, I've often not known how to interpret the word spirituality when I hear it, depending on who mentions it and in what context. Most people, I believe, use it to signal a connection to some sort of supernatural realm, whatever they might imagine that to mean. When someone says they are religious then I have a clearer idea, gods are likely involved, and saying they're Catholic or Muslim gives me a clearer idea still, but simply saying they're spiritual could mean, to me, anything from a vague belief that there is some mysterious force out there messing with us, to absolute belief in a personal god that watches you in the shower. And confusingly, even some atheists hint at being spiritual.
Let's look to the dictionary. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines spirituality as, 'the quality or state of being concerned with religion or religious matters'. Mine simply defines spirituality as 'the state, quality, manner, or fact of being spiritual', and so we must move on to the definition of 'spiritual'.
According to Wikipedia,
'Spirituality refers to certain kinds of activity through which a person seeks meaning, especially a "search for the sacred". It may also refer to personal growth, blissful experience [ie religious experience] or an encounter with one's own "inner dimension."'And here's Saint Augustine, one of the early Christian leaders, talking about the Garden of Eden:
'Three general opinions prevail about paradise. Some understand a place merely corporeal; others a place entirely spiritual; while others, whose opinion, I confess, pleases me, hold that paradise was both corporeal and spiritual.'There's no doubt that he sees spiritual to mean something immaterial and supernatural, and of course, something that's connected to God. More evidence that spirituality and religion run together. Even when people talk of 'body, mind and spirit', spirit only really makes sense in a supernatural, religious sense. So typically, and not without justification, we take talk of spirituality to be at odds with naturalism, the scientific and philosophical view that the natural world is all there is, that there is no supernatural world where spirits and gods hang out, and occasionally leave their cities of gold and virgins to interact with us material beings.
We would agree that there is more talk of spirituality these days, rather than religion, mainly because of science we feel. In the past people didn't say they were spiritual, which would have been all rather vague and superfluous, they likely said without hesitation that they were Christian, or more likely Methodist, Catholic, Anglican etc. But today, thanks to science, an increasing number of people have rejected belief in the silly Bible stories and the Christian God. I mean, did Jonah really spend three days living in the belly of a fish, and did God actually create a flat Earth mounted on pillars in less than week? The evidence clearly says no! But while many people now dismiss the Bible as primitive fairy tales, many still can't bring themselves to accept that the universe and life could have come about without help. The idea of a creator god of some description is still with them, just not any of the well-know ones. They'll mention that they're not religious, meaning not Christian or Hindu etc, but they'll then add that something — meaning some unspoken god — must have created the universe and life, after all, it couldn't have just arisen by chance. Right? Of course they are just as religious as a Christian or a Hindu, in the sense that they believe in some god, it's just that unlike the Christian or Hindu, they don't know anything at all about their god, or even what the god's name is. Although to be accurate, neither do the Christians, Jews and Muslims, that's why they call their god, God. It's like calling your dog, Dog. Not much imagination involved. At least the Hindus and ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Norse, Aztec etc gave their gods cool names, such as Shiva, Osiris, Zeus, Thor, Quetzalcoatl etc.
Of course it's not an either/or choice — religious or spiritual — some religious people, perhaps most, would also describe themselves as spiritual as well. To them religion and spirituality are intimately linked. But that said, there are people that have given up on the mainstream religions, while still retaining a belief in a creator god (making them deists, rather than theists), and who believe (falsely) that they've given up on religion, whereas they haven't. But thinking they have, they now refuse to say they're religious, ie that they believe in spirits and some invisible god, so they now say that they're spiritual instead. I know people that call themselves spiritual, that make fun of gullible Christians, condemn violent Muslims, and yet still believe that psychic mediums are talking to the souls of dead people. They believe these spirits are hanging out in some sort of afterlife and are watched over by some god, just not the Christian one, and that someone is watching us all so that karma can be visited on those that deserve it. Although they often don't realise that a god is necessary for karma to work. In our view anyway, Buddhists disagree. But they insist they're not religious, they're spiritual. Others claiming spirituality believe in reincarnation and past lives, others believe that nature and animals are imbued with spirits. Many have ditched the big religions and have embraced New Age spiritual beliefs instead, swapping one form of nonsense for another. But religion goes way beyond the well-known ones like Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
So our take on spirituality is that it's just religion and belief in gods by a different name. People are leaving mainstream religions but are still unwilling to fully accept the reality of a scientific worldview, so find themselves adopting the feel-good spirituality label and hanging out in the wasteland between fact and fantasy. Of course spirituality claims are fantasy too, but since they're usually so vague, with no holy books and the like to describe them, then it's harder to explain why they're fantasy. But since they are vaguely based on the supernatural, gods, souls, spirits and invisible, transcendent realms, of which there is no evidence whatsoever, then there can be little doubt that these unseen spirits are just as imaginary as the ones Christians don't see.
Unfortunately, rather than the science and spirituality debate being as clear cut as it should be, with opposing sides pushing opposing arguments, some people muddy the waters, and as we said, even some atheistic-minded folk claim to be spiritual. Might the public not be fooled into thinking that spirituality, and even God, is compatible with science when some scientists embrace religious language to explain the world? The following is a quote by scientist Carl Sagan from his excellent book, 'The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark',
'In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. ... 'Spirit' comes from the Latin word 'to breathe'. What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word 'spiritual' that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.'Now I fully understand what he was getting at; I've looked up at the night sky in wonder, and felt feelings that are hard to explain. My only wish is that he hadn't called those emotions 'spirituality'. When you're talking about science, defending science against religion actually, you shouldn't confuse the issue by borrowing words from religion, and using them to mean something quite different to what a religious person would think they mean. English has a decent enough vocabulary to not require taking religious words and redefining them. It's like when some scientists say they have 'faith' in their scientific theories, or that they 'believe' in them, when they should say they have 'confidence' in them, or that they 'accept' them. A religious person hears the words 'faith' and 'believe' and assumes (wrongly) that the scientists mean them in the same sense that they do, ie blindly embracing something without any evidence that it's true. The problem is that far too many people casually use religious language to flesh out scientific explanations, with no intention of supporting religious belief, but religious minds will naturally misinterpret the familiar words. Albert Einstein, a scientist who did not believe in God, but unfortunately kept talking as if he did, asked questions such as the following, 'How much choice did God have in constructing the universe?', and atheist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking stated in his book, 'A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes', that if science discovers a unified theory, then 'it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God'. Both men would seem to suggest by their ill-chosen words that they believe God exists, when just the opposite is true. They surely knew what they meant to imply, but anyone reading just those quotes would be completely mislead. Another misleading statement from Einstein was this, 'Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind'. But since Einstein sought no support from religion, it's a weird thing to say, and it puzzled me for years because I took the words literally. Finally, Jerry A. Coyne explained away my confusion in his excellent book, 'Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible'. Apparently when Einstein said 'religion' he actually meant to imply something like curiosity, awe and wonder, as Carl Sagan did above. When you replace 'religion' with 'curiosity', then it suddenly makes perfect sense: 'Science without curiosity is lame, curiosity without science is blind'. Science needs curiosity to drive it, to create ideas, and in turn curiosity needs the scientific method to keep whatever ideas are generated on the right track. But instead of clearly explaining this insight, Einstein produced a quote that appeared to say something completely different, a quote that the religious embraced because they think Einstein was arguing that science needs religion.
Perhaps you're heard of the 'God Particle', maybe in connection with the Large Hadron Collider? In a book he wrote with Dick Teresi, this was the name physicist Leon Lederman gave to the Higgs boson, an important force carrying particle that particle physicists have been looking for. But the thing is that the Higgs boson has nothing whatsoever to do with God. However, even though scientists hate the label, the public sit up and listen when journalists mention the 'God Particle', but call it by its proper name and the public switch off. Mislead them by mentioning god and they're interested, tell the truth and they're disinterested.
There is an argument of course for avoiding complex scientific terms when talking to non-scientists, and metaphors can be helpful, but by falling back on simplistic talk of spirituality and God, these scientists have sent the wrong message. They could have spoken of Santa in their explanations and no one would have seriously thought they meant that Santa was real, but unfortunately we don't have the same freedom with talk of God. They're all bright enough to know that their words could be misconstrued, and likely would be misconstrued, so their choice of words was quite foolish, and clearly harmed their desire to plainly communicate how the world really works.
So through poorly chosen words the public could come to think that science might have more in common with spirituality and religion than first thought. But this is an illusion. If we were to replace the words used with the meanings that were actually intended, then connections to spirituality and religion vanish. If we replace 'a feeling of spirituality' with 'a feeling of wonder and awe', and we change, 'How much choice did God have in constructing the universe?', to, 'Did the universe have to be the way it is?', and change, 'for then we would know the mind of God', to, 'for then we would understand the physics of the universe', now these statements are seen in their true light. Science is not in a cosy relationship with spirituality or religion, nor does it want to be.
The conciliatory language of some scientists and priests aside, the reality is that most people don't see science and spirituality as being interchangeable, anymore than science and religion is. People talk about the war or conflict between science and religion for good reason. And spirituality is a term that has marched through time hand in hand with religion, so we'd argue that if you're trying to be perfectly clear and explain the difference between science and religion, then you shouldn't use a label that is confusing and ambiguous. It's a bit like me standing on a street corner with a sign claiming that I'm a true believer. Most people would assume that I was a Christian evangelist. But what if I actually meant I was a true believer in evolution? I wouldn't be lying, but I would be confusing people by using a phrase that is generally applied to believers in some god, not those who believe in evolution. My point is that even though the religious don't have a legal claim on the label 'true believer', or 'spiritual', for us all to have clear conversations it makes good sense to avoid using terms that we have excellent reasons to believe might be misunderstood.
Another example is the book, 'The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World', by Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack. Even spirituality advocate Deepak Chopra said, on reading it, 'I found my eyes opened, along with my mind'. Basically they explained our true origins from a scientific perspective and argued that everyone, atheists and believers of every stripe, needed to accept the evidence and move forward together for a better world. They noted that, 'The ancient and medieval worlds believed that the ordinary world is somehow embedded in a spiritual reality', and for many today nothing much has changed. But they suggested that if we redefined spirituality as, 'experiencing our true connection to all that exists', then we could all unite under one banner for the common good of humanity. I enjoyed their book and applaud their optimism, but defining spirituality in a special way that applies to both atheist and believer isn't, in my view, going to fool a radical Muslim or a dyed in the wool Christian. The atheist, Muslim and Christian may all now be spiritual in outlook, but we're all still looking in different directions.
So while some scientists may appear to be suggesting that science is compatible with religion and spirituality, or at least not in direct conflict, in reality this is an illusion. Once you go beyond their conciliatory sound-bites you soon realise that their worldviews are miles apart, as we'll learn in the next section.
OK, so we argue that there is a real connection between spirituality and religion, for many they are one and the same, and that science has no connection to either. We've mentioned the age old war or conflict between science and religion that's due to a clear difference in worldviews. As long as science and religion/spirituality/faith (call it what you wish) keeps producing conflicting answers to the questions of the universe, life and everything, then there can be no agreement between them, and without agreement, there will be no unification.
Of course those that strive to keep their religious/spiritual beliefs relevant in the modern world argue that, 1) there is no conflict with science, since science confirms what's in the holy books, or 2) science tackles and answers different questions to that of religion. Clearly both of those arguments are bogus.
The reality is that the 'science vs. religion' debate is one that religion lost long ago, as anyone who knows any basic science and a few religious stories quickly realises. Think of the following science vs. religion claims. Science has clear evidence that life evolved, versus the Bible claims that God made the first man from dirt and the first woman from one of the man's ribs. These carefree nudists then got scammed by a talking snake. They then had two kids, one of whom left home and — somehow — married a woman and built a city with a lot of other people, even though there were only three humans on the planet at that time; him and his parents. Strike one for religion. Science has shown that the universe is some 13.7 billion years old, and that life on Earth is nearly 4 billion years old, yet the Bible claims that God made the universe, and all life, less than 10,000 years ago, in a mere six days. Strike two for religion. Science says the Earth is a sphere, the Bible says it's flat, and rests on pillars. Strike three for religion. You're out! But let's continue. Pick any other religion you want, their specific creation myth is just as, well, mythical. The Dalai Lama writes in his book that 'Abhidharma [Buddhist] cosmology describes a flat earth, around which celestial bodies like the sun and moon revolve', and that there only four elements: air, water, fire and earth, whereas science has shown that those ideas are quite wrong. Science says that fossils, species distribution, canyons and the shape of the continents are due to geology, erosion and plate tectonics, whereas the Bible argues that they are due to the flood of Noah. Science believes hail is formed through changes in temperature and water content in the atmosphere, the Bible claims that hail is kept in God's storehouses and released on his command. Science has classified bats as mammals, for very good reasons, but the Bible thinks they are birds. Science argues that snakes and donkeys can't talk to humans, that men can't walk on water or turn water into wine, the Bible disagrees. Muslims claim that Mohammed rode his horse up to heaven, brought a stone bird to life, and had his heart removed, cleansed with snow and then popped back in. Science disagrees. Science has shown that stars are absolutely enormous in comparison to the Earth, and yet the Bible believes that thousands of stars could all fit on the Earth. Science has shown that mental illness is caused by damage to the brain, whereas the Bible believes it's best explained by supernatural demons. We could go on and on, but you get the picture. And again, while we've mostly given examples from the most popular religion, the one the majority think is correct, it doesn't matter what religion you want to put up against science, they all fail miserably. Science has made a huge number of claims about the universe and life, and importantly, backed them up with robust evidence. Religion on the other hand, all religions, have also made a huge number of claims about the universe and life, and without exception, beyond the ordinary observations that any intelligent person could make, all their claims about the origins of the universe and life and how it all works have been spectacularly wrong. Religion couldn't be more wrong if it tried. So anyone that argues that there is no conflict between science and religion (or spirituality), and that both are converging on the same answers, just expressing them in different ways with different words, clearly doesn't understand the science/religion debate at all.
As for that other ploy, that science tackles and answers different questions to that of religion, we likewise don't understand how informed people can make this argument. Unfortunately many scientists and scientific organisations do, but we believe this is largely to avoid angering a society that is largely religious, and often provides the funds and consent for their research projects. Basically the argument, made by people such as the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, is that science investigates the facts of the universe, such as atoms, gravity and earthquakes, and religion investigates the meaning of life, morals and human values. They don't come into conflict because they are working in different spheres of inquiry. Of course our having just related all those religious claims about the Earth being made in six days, man being made from dirt, bats are birds and the world is flat, then clearly it's futile for anyone to argue that religion doesn't make bold claims about the facts of the universe. The Church persecuted Galileo and burnt Giordano Bruno to death over conflict about the facts of the universe. Even today creationists and Intelligent Design proponents fight to try and get their religious versions of how the universe and life arose taught alongside evolution in school science classes. If religions were to ignore all the claims in their holy books that looked at the 'facts' of the world, and simply concentrated on morals and meaning, on how we should behave towards others, then they would have to reject much of what makes up the very core of their religion. And what would that mean? Basically, if you no longer believe your god created the universe and life, if you look to science for those answers, then why should you still believe your god exists at all? If the creation bit was all a lie, and that's the difficult bit you actually needed a god for, then the other bits really make no sense. Show us a priest of any religion that honestly rejects all the supernatural stuff from their holy book, such as their creation stories, miracles and immaterial souls, and we'll show you an atheist pretending to be a priest.
It's not going to happen, but let's imagine that in some alternative reality religious folk agreed to just concentrate on the bits in their holy books that spoke of the meaning of life, morals and human values. Would us non-believers still have a problem with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus etc? I believe we would, because the advice and commandments in these holy books are often still quite abhorrent, primitive and superstitious. For example, how does the Bible say we should behave towards homosexuals, witches and disobedient children? We should stone them to death. Is it right to make a rape victim marry her rapist? Yes, according to the morals of the Bible. What if a Muslim woman complains of rape? If she doesn't have four reputable male Muslim witnesses prepared to speak in her defence, which is near impossible since they would surely have prevented the rape, then the woman should be imprisoned for having illicit sex and the accused rapist set free. What is the purpose of life? According to Jews, Christians and Muslims, it is to obey God and set yourself up for the afterlife. Should we eat shellfish, get a tattoo, or wear clothes made of two different fabrics? Not if you believe what the Bible says. Should males, and some females, have their genitals mutilated, solely to fit in with their god's perverted desires? Jews, Muslims and many Christians say yes. Can you live your life as you wish? No, God has already determined the purpose of your existence, and it's your duty to discern that purpose and fulfil it so as to please God. How should Muslims behave towards non-believers? They should slaughter them wherever they find them. How should Hindus behave towards other Hindus? Depending on their divinely allocated caste, they should treat a few of them as equals, but mainly look down on them as inferior and dirty, or look up to them as being superior. Are Scientologists as good as Jews? No, the Bible says the Jews are God's favourite people. Do women have the same rights as men? No. Muslims insist that, 'Men are the mangers of the affairs of women ... And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their conches, and beat them.'(Koran 4:35). Should women ask questions outside the house? No, according to the Bible they should wait until they return home and then ask their husband. How should you be treated if you give up your religion, perhaps saying you're now spiritual rather than religious? Muslims claim that you should be killed. What say you have a desire to alleviate some of the suffering you see in the world, should you try? No, according to Buddhist belief, since a good Buddhist has no desire for anything, desire being a negative thing. And after thousands of years of meditation on the matter, have countries with large numbers of Buddhists solved the problem of how we should act towards each other, and now provide a shining example to the rest of the world? No. And again we could go on and on, since untold books have been written detailing the moral advice and commandments found in holy books. But therein lies the problem.
The thing is that even confining our interest to the meaning of life, morals and human values, and leaving the facts to science, most of the advice in the holy books is seriously screwed up and conflicting, along with being barbaric, inhumane and downright harmful. While there are a few snippets of advice that are indeed worth following, they are generally found in every culture throughout history. In other words, they are codes of decent conduct that men and women around the world discovered by merely living in groups and trying to ensure peace and goodwill. These ideas were then purloined, written down in holy books, and attributed to some imaginary god. Unfortunately they were also surrounded and nearly suffocated by codes of behaviour that are the very opposite of decent behaviour. And since the facts side of the universe has been handed over to science, and you no longer believe in the silly creation myths, why would you believe that your life has some grand purpose, as decreed by God, when you no longer believe he created the world at all? After all, no creation means no purpose. We're sorry, but to us God's quite unreasonable demands on how we should live our lives only make sense if he actually created the universe and it's all unfolding as he planned, and as the Bible predicts, meaning Armageddon and Hell are in our future. Take God out of the equation, or put him on the sidelines, and there's no good reason why we should follow any talk of meaning, morals and human values as found in old holy books. If the Bible was wrong when it said God created man from dirt, might it not also be wrong when it says we should persecute homosexuals?
But our dismissing religion as superstitious nonsense doesn't mean to say that talk of meaning, morals and human values isn't important. Of course it is. We're only saying that looking towards religion for answers is a really bad mistake. Religions have caused, and are still causing, untold suffering and misery worldwide. Think of the crusades, the inquisitions, the witch burnings, the Jewish pogroms, Jewish, Christian and Muslim supported slavery, the Holocaust, the untold religious wars and the Dark Ages that held back progress for a thousand years. And the horrors that Christians inflicted on the world are now being replayed by Muslims. Think of the unnecessary suffering caused by the Church denying the use of condoms in AIDS prevention, or by preventing abortions, or the suffering caused by Hindu castes, or even the utter waste of life when Buddhist monks spend 8 hours a days meditating rather than actually helping those around them in need. This is how the Dalai Lama began his religious training:
'Their primary job was to engage me in debate on issues of Buddhist thought. In addition, I would participate in long hours of prayers and meditative contemplation. I spent periods in retreat with my tutors and sat regularly for two hours at a time four times a day in a meditation session. This is a fairly typical training for a high lama in the Tibetan tradition. But I was not educated in math, geology, chemistry, biology, or physics. I did not even know they existed.'How foolish it is to look towards religion, any religion, for answers on the universe, life and everything. For answers on the universe and life, how it evolved and how it works, science is without equal. We challenge anyone to name the facts that scientific research has revealed that can be found already revealed in some ancient holy text, or name a discovery made by any priest of any religion that is supernatural in nature, rather than completely natural. Without exception in the war between science and religion, every new discovery has sided with science and against religion. Not once has religion been proved right and science wrong. And as regards ethics, on right and wrong and how we should behave towards others, every religion has been shown to be a primitive, ignorant, barbaric and downright immoral grab bag of advice and demands backed by threats of punishment. Containing the odd valuable gem, religious morality is weighted down with demands that create far, far more harm than they do good. So, just as intelligent, informed, sophisticated people turn to science for answers about how the universe works, they likewise turn to philosophy, and specifically ethics, to determine the best ways to lead a good life, to understand morality and human values, and to contemplate the meaning of life. And most importantly, to discover that it is for them to choose how they should live, not some imaginary god.
So what are my thoughts on the Dalai Lama's book, 'The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality'? Does he make a good argument that both science and spirituality should be embraced? Not in my mind. Frankly he writes like a populariser of science, not spirituality, and clearly the Dalai Lama knows a lot more about science than does your typical priest. Not normal for a religious figure is that he argues for science, and generally supports scientific theories; there is no talk of belief in gods, Adam and Eve and original sin, no railing against homosexuals and atheists, no threats of Hell. He writes:
'Buddhism and science share a fundamental reluctance to postulate a transcendent being as the origin of all things. This is hardly surprising given that both these investigative traditions are essentially nontheistic in their philosophical orientations.'Unlike the clergy in other religions, the Dalai Lama, to his credit, readily accepts that,
'understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.'And he admits that this isn't just theoretical, ancient claims are being found wanting,
'As my comprehension of science has grown, it has gradually become evident to me that, insofar as understanding the physical world is concerned, there are many areas of traditional Buddhist thought where our explanations and theories are rudimentary when compared with those of modern science.'My take on his book is that he's arguing that science can indeed explain the universe, but it can't tell us right from wrong, how to lead good lives, how to deal with our neighbours, or even how to use science to aid progress for the betterment of humanity. And I agree wholeheartedly. For that we need something else, and he says we need to look towards spirituality, specifically Buddhist spirituality. Of course when he says we need 'spirituality', I feel he really means 'philosophy and/or ethics'. For the reason why I think that, let's look at some of his comments from the book:
'I have nonetheless thought deeply about science — not just its implications for the understanding of what reality is but the still more important question of how it may influence ethics and human values.'Still not convinced that the Dalai Lama's argument is about ethics rather than spirituality, or religion? In another of his books, 'Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World' — note the title — he wrote,
'What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics'.And in yet another book, 'Ethics for the New Millennium', the Dalai Lama said,
'I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being. ... Not that I always felt like this. When I was younger and living in Tibet, I believed in my heart that Buddhism was the best way. I told myself it would be marvelous if everyone converted. Yet this was due to ignorance.'Note his talk of 'the ethical values that guide one's behavior', of 'a new secular approach to universal ethics', of wanting to 'influence ethics and human values', and that 'these ideas ... represent a philosophical ... position'. But I believe the one quote from the Dalai Lama that best expresses his argument is when he says, 'This is in essence a question of ethics'. Not spirituality, not religion, and not science, but ethics. And I'm fully behind the Dalai Lama here. It's ethics that we need to educate people in, secular ethics that pay no heed to barbaric and/or flawed morals from old holy books. Science will explain the world, but it is ethics that will allow us to enjoy our time in the world. He also states,
'This book is not an attempt to unite science and spirituality (Buddhism being the example I know best) but an effort to examine two important human disciplines for the purpose of developing a more holistic and integrated way of understanding the world around us, one that explores deeply the seen and the unseen, through the discovery of evidence bolstered by reason.'I applaud the stated objective in the first paragraph, attempting to understand the world through evidence and reason, but again I have a problem with the second. If he had said ethics or philosophy instead of spirituality, then I'd be OK. I know that we're both on the same track, but many that are aware of his book, but haven't bothered to read it, will read isolated statements like that, quoted out-of-context, and will come away believing the subtitle, that we are seeing 'The Convergence of Science and Spirituality'. We feel a more honest subtitle would have been, 'The Convergence of Science and Ethics'. I often get annoyed with people that form strong opinions based not on what some book argues, but merely on what they've heard about that book or its author. A professor in marine biology once railed against Richard Dawkins' book 'The God Delusion', and when I asked what points she was so aggrieved with, she replied, 'Oh, I haven't read it, it's just what I've heard people say about it'. Even Anne who prompted this article, going on nothing more than a book description, challenged our stance on the spirituality vs. science debate rather than read the Dalai Lama's book herself and first determine if he even presented a good case. If she had, she'd have discovered that the book's subtitle doesn't really, in my view, match its core argument.
Lacking overt gods and creationism, some people actually describe Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion, the Dalai Lama even talks above of 'a dictum in Buddhist philosophy', and I suspect that he probably sees 'Buddhist philosophy' and 'Buddhist spirituality' as being synonymous. But that said, your typical person on the street won't see philosophy and spirituality as being one and the same. I certainly don't. Most would link spirituality with religion, not philosophy. Thus when the Dalai Lama claims that 'spirituality and science are different but complementary investigative approaches with the same greater goal, of seeking the truth', most will read that as an argument for religion and science being complementary approaches for seeking the truth. And as we've already argued, nothing could be further from the truth. Science is most definitely 'expanding the horizon of human knowledge and wisdom', and philosophy is helping, but religion, every religion, is tempting us down a dark pathway where ignorance, suffering and death awaits, and leading us ever further away from the path to true enlightenment.
As priests and religions go, the Dalai Lama is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful person, and if I was forced to adopt a religion, Buddhism would be my easy choice, since it's generally more concerned with secular, rational ethics than supernatural nonsense. But that's not to say that Buddhism doesn't have its share of supernatural nonsense, which we'll look at next, and even occasional violence, such as the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka between Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus.
So let's look at some of this supernatural nonsense, which firmly places Buddhism in the religion camp with the likes of Christianity and Hinduism, and light years away from the science camp. Like most religions, Buddhism also attempts to explain the origin of the universe and life. And being even more ancient than the likes of Christianity, these were primitive times when the supernatural was the ready answer to pretty much everything mysterious. The following is from 'Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction', by Damien Keown:
'A Buddhist creation myth found in the Aggañña Sutta tells a quite different story from the Book of Genesis. The myth describes how the inhabitants of a world-system which has been destroyed are gradually reborn within a new one that is evolving. At first their bodies are translucent and there is no distinction between the sexes. As the fabric of the new world-system becomes denser, these spirit-like beings become attracted to it and begin to consume it like food. Slowly, their bodies become less ethereal until they resemble the gross physical bodies we have now. Competition for food leads to quarrels and disputes, and the people elect a king to keep the peace, an event which marks the origins of social life. ... whereas the Judaeo-Christian tradition attributes the Fall of Man to pride and disobedience, Buddhism locates the origin of human suffering in desire.'So no Adam and Eve or talking snakes, but, given modern scientific knowledge, clearly it's just as silly. You may not have been aware that Buddhism had creation myths and other supernatural elements, especially since people like the Dalai Lama and Buddhist Hollywood actors focus on Buddhist philosophy rather than ancient stories. As Damien Keown notes,
'The fact that Buddhism can be presented as in harmony with influential contemporary ideologies has undoubtedly aided its spread in the West. This reading of Buddhism, however, which has been termed 'Buddhist modernism', suppresses certain features of the religion which have been present since the earliest times which are less in harmony with contemporary Western attitudes. The belief in miracles and in the efficacy of mantras, spells, and charms is one such example. Even today, the Tibetan government in exile consults the state oracle for advice on important matters. Belief in the existence of otherworldly realms populated by gods and spirits, and in the unseen power of karma, are other tenets which have been central to Buddhist teachings from the earliest times.'Regarding religion, if we talk about God as someone who created the world and life, and is still involved with his creation, then how does Buddhism fare? Again, Damien Keown notes that,
'If belief in God in this sense is the essence of religion, then Buddhism cannot be a religion. Buddhism holds no such belief and, on the contrary, denies the existence of a creator god. In terms of the available Western categories, this would make Buddhism 'atheistic'. One problem with this designation, however, is that Buddhism recognizes the existence of supernatural beings such as gods and spirits.'So if all that's true then the Buddha is much, much older than not just the Earth, but even the Universe, so I wonder where he spent all those previous lives? And note that wherever it was, they all had the unjust and immoral caste system. Apparently the spooky tentacles working behind the scenes in Buddhism never reincarnate a 'soul' into a body or country that doesn't have the caste system. Clearly the Buddha never went to ancient Egypt or Europe. So are the Buddhist 'gods' just as xenophobic as the Jews were, afraid of contamination with vile foreigners? Clearly, like the Jews, Christians and Muslims, the ancient Buddhist holy books are the result of ignorant men making up stuff based on what they see around them. And here's Stephen J. Laumakis describing reincarnation in 'An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy',
'According to Buddhist cosmology there are six realms of rebirth: the realm of the gods or devas, the realm of the demi-gods, the human realm, the animal realm, the realm of the hungry ghosts, and the realm of hell. All six realms are thought to be real, but some forms of Mahayana Buddhism claim that they are best thought of as states of mind.'Some sources will mention many more realms, eg thirty-one planes of existence, because the basic six realms can be subdivided. For example, apparently there's not just one hell, there are eight hot hells and eight cold hells. Note too that while Buddhism has a hell (several actually), as well as gods, some Buddhists now claim that these supernatural realms are best thought of as states of mind. Just as some embarrassed Christians now claim that Hell and Purgatory aren't real any more. But once you deny the very foundations of your ancient belief, reason would suggest that anything built on belief in those imaginary foundations must also be false. It would be like claiming that Adam and Eve weren't actually real, but their son's Cain and Abel were, when obviously imaginary parents can only have imaginary children. Note also that Buddhists, like Jews, Christians and Muslims, believe humans are quite distinct from, and superior to, animals, whereas science views humans as just another animal. We're all clearly related, and while our cognitive skills may be superior, our breathing underwater and flying skills are not.
Tibetan Buddhism believes that every Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of his predecessor, as well as the incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. Incarnation means the 'bodily manifestation of a supernatural being', in the same way that Christians later believed that Jesus was the incarnation of the Jewish god. Then we have the belief in karma, also shared with Hindus, where it's believed that a person's conduct determines that person's destiny. Steal something and karma will see that you suffer, maybe in this lifetime, or maybe in some future life. Here's the Dalai Lama, from 'The Universe in a Single Atom', confirming that karma is real:
'My own view is that the entire process of the unfolding of a universe system is a matter of the natural law of causality. ... When the universe has evolved to a stage where it can support the life of sentient beings, its fate becomes entangled with the karma of the beings who will inhabit it.'He doesn't explain how natural law could give rise to karma, which as we've already noted, surely requires a god of some sort to manage it fairly, even though they insist it doesn't. We are told that the reason that God, Allah, Santa Claus etc know whether to reward or punish us for our behaviour is because they are watching us. It must be the same with Buddhist karma, some powerful, invisible intelligence must be watching our behaviour and acting accordingly. How else could karma observe some moral lapse and then save it up to apply it to you in some completely different body in 500 years time? It all just smacks of the supernatural to us, not the natural world. And typical of all religions, it's all talk, no one ever proves that their silly claims are true. Buddhists also believe in reincarnation, not just for the Dalai Lamas, but for every life form. That's continual rebirth into another body or form, forever, or until such a time as you reach Nirvana, which is 'the end of suffering', an ultimate state of 'disinterested wisdom and compassion'. Personally we can't really see how someone could be supremely compassionate if they're also highly disinterested at the same time. But religions say a lot of impossible things. Remember the claim that 'Buddhism locates the origin of human suffering in desire'? It's not what you desire that might be bad, it's desire itself. But think about that. To reach Nirvana, all desire must be eliminated, including the desire to help others. Of course to reach Nirvana, you must first desire that goal, but as long as you desire it, you will never reach it. But if you successfully eliminate any and all desire for Nirvana, then logically you're not going to behave in a manner that could ever see you deserving Nirvana, even accidentally. You're screwed no matter what you do.
Also, that reincarnation lark would also require a god to monitor your conduct, decide whether you were going up or down a level, body wise, and possess the magic powers to perform the switch when you die. As we've already mentioned, in Buddhism it's claimed that you can actually be reincarnated as a god, it's one of the levels above humans. However, many mistakenly claim that Buddhism has no god because the ultimate, top level of Nirvana has no god residing there, as the likes of Christianity and Islam do. Reach the top level and you don't become all powerful, there are no virgins waiting, nor do you get to hang with some god, you simply cease to exist and you exit the rebirth cycle. Think about that. That's the ultimate goal of Buddhists, it's what they all strive for. Essentially they're trying desperately to die, for real. Just like the Christians, they're not striving to live longer and happier lives here on Earth, they are fixated with their death at the expense of their life.
Damien Keown explains that for Buddhists,
'Morality is ... the foundation of the religious life. Moral development is a prerequisite for the cultivation of Meditation and Wisdom. To live a moral life is to live in accordance with Dharma. The term 'Dharma' has many meanings, but the underlying idea is of a universal law which governs both the physical and moral order of the universe. Dharma is neither caused by nor under the control of a supreme being, and the gods themselves are subject to its laws. Dharma may be translated as 'Natural Law', a term which captures both its main senses, namely as the principle of order and regularity seen in the behaviour of natural phenomena, and also the idea of a universal moral law whose requirements have been discovered by enlightened beings such as the Buddha. Every aspect of life is regulated by Dharma; the physical laws which regulate the rising of the sun, the succession of the seasons, the movement of the constellations. In the moral order, Dharma is manifest in the law of karma, which governs the way moral deeds affect individuals in present and future lives. Living in accordance with Dharma and implementing its requirements leads to happiness, fulfilment and salvation; neglecting or transgressing against it leads to endless suffering in the cycle of rebirth.'Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that their god, not Dharma, governs both the physical and moral order of the universe. For them to live a moral life means living in accordance with the morals their god has dictated in his holy books. Since they believe their god is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving, they have utter confidence that his moral code is perfection itself. How could it not be since such a prodigious intellect devised it? But Buddhism is different, there are no gods involved, no intellect whatsoever, so how did the natural world, some rocks and swamp gas, develop a code of morals? Even if it did, how do we know they are good morals, or the best morals possible? Actions that were accepted as good centuries ago by Christians, such as slavery and burning witches, are now seen as immoral. If no god, no intelligence, oversaw the creation of the ancient Dharma moral code, and none is considering changes as the centuries go by, then why should we trust it? Did the ancient Dharma moral code just form haphazardly like sand grains forming sedimentary rock? Without an intelligent designer, how could a random process create an ideal moral code? Some might point out that evolution produced complex life without the need for an intelligent designer, which is true, but it didn't produce a perfect form of life. Life has many flaws, human eyes are wired backwards for example, our spine struggles with our desire to walk upright, and many women are injured or die during childbirth. If we were designing the human body, there are untold changes and improvements we'd make. It's amazing as it is, but it could certainly be made much better. Evolution blindly produces things that work, like sharks and deadly viruses, it has no goal to produce a shark with morals. Yet Dharma somehow codes for 'happiness, fulfilment and salvation'. Even if the Dharma moral code evolved, and produced a workable code, there's no reason to believe that it couldn't be made better. If no intelligence is involved then it can't be perfect, so we should be encouraged to use our innate intelligence to improve on it. But Buddhism, like the immoral caste system, says we should be content with our lot, and blindly obey some ancient dogma. In this respect it is no different to Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus who resign themselves to obeying an unjust moral code that can't be changed or questioned.
The above description suggests that the morals we must obey are hard-wired into nature, the same as gravity is, although we can't imagine how inanimate matter and/or energy could decide what is right and wrong when it comes to the interactions between living beings. However, the physical laws of nature act in real time; step off a cliff and you fall immediately, whereas the moral laws can have delays of hundreds of years (or more) built into them. With the physical laws everyone can quickly learn how to behave to remain happy and safe, but since there is no obvious cause and effect with the moral laws, you can have no idea what the desirable moral acts are. You may do what you believe is a good deed and then get hit by a bus the next day. So was it, as far as Dharma goes, a good deed, or was it a bad deed? How would you know? Maybe it was a good deed, and your getting hit by the bus was actually because of something bad you did 200 years previously when you were a cockroach? You could go through your entire life doing what you thought were good deeds, and have a wonderful life. Should your kids look at that example and assume your good fortune was due to you obeying the right morals, and follow your example? Or was Dharma merely saving up all your transgressions so it could build up enough points against you to knock you back down to a cockroach again in your next life? And since no one has any memory of their previous lives, or of any moral lessons they may think they've learned, even as a cockroach you won't know if you're a cockroach because you've broken moral laws in a previous life as a human. You could just have easily led a moral life as an amoeba and have been upgraded to a cockroach. As far as the moral code goes, there is no rule book to consult, or even a god to ask, everyone is flying blind. You might as well just do whatever you think will make you happy. And when it comes to animals, most people would say that it's probably only humans that are even capable of understanding the concept of right and wrong. How can Dharma expect everything from worms to bacteria to follow a moral code, and to understand that suffering in their future lives, which is another thing they'll have no concept of, is dependant on them meditating on moral behaviour in their present life? If a cockroach or shark can't act morally, or immorally, how can it ever work its way up to Nirvana? And if a human acts immorally and is reborn as an animal, doesn't that mean they're stuck there forever?
To us, this Buddhist talk of Dharma is just another example of ancient man realising that how they behave towards others can greatly influence social living. They understood that some actions harm others, and that reducing this harm, as a group, could make for a better life for everyone. They then tried to make it clear to everyone what actions could be deemed right, good, helpful and moral, and what actions were seen as wrong, bad, unhelpful and immoral. So far so good. Study of this today is what we call ethics. But those ancient times were also superstitious times, and almost without fail, this brilliant idea of ethical thinking inevitably got subsumed into whatever religious thinking was currently popular in that particular culture. And then it was no longer man thinking about how to behave towards others, and happily altering the guidelines if need be, now it was decreed that some otherworldly force, usually a god, maybe a 'universal law', had created this code of behaviour. Worse still, this moral code couldn't be changed, it must be obeyed, and all transgressors were to be punished. It doesn't matter whether we consider Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the religion of the ancient Egyptians, or the Buddhism example above, every religion takes the good idea of asking how we should treat others and mixes it with superstitious ignorance and produces absolute nonsense. Nonsense that has a unenviable record throughout history of creating enormous suffering, just the opposite to what genuine ethical insight should achieve. The subtitle to Christopher Hitchens' book 'God Is Not Great', sums up the problem with religion perfectly: 'How Religion Poisons Everything'. We can't think of anything that religions have touched where we've consequently seen an improvement over what nonreligious individuals or groups have achieved, or could have achieved if allowed to.
All religions, from that of the ancient Maya to Buddhism, have tried to explain how the universe and life arose, and they have all, without exception, got it completely wrong. That's right, the world isn't flat, and women weren't made from a man's rib as the Bible claims. The sky is not the goddess Nut held up by the god Shu, as the ancient Egyptians thought. Nor is the land fixed to the sky with cords as the Cherokee claimed, and the Moon isn't the severed head of the goddess Coyolxhauqui, as the Aztec believed. As well as trying to explain the world, religions also tried to tell us how to behave morally, or suffer the punishment, and consequently got it wrong, again, telling us to burn witches, avoid women who are menstruating, and to slaughter nonbelievers wherever we find them. We know people say that the likes of the Bible also tells us to love others, not to steal or kill, and to treat others as we would wish to be treated — surely all good morals to follow — but every informed person knows that these morals existed long before the Bible was written, and could be found in cultures all over the world. Religions everywhere merely stole long-accepted secular values and then pretended that their god thought them up. It's called plagiarism. And what normal person needs a holy book to tell them to love someone, not to kill their neighbours, or that they won't like being tortured? The few psychopaths that don't accept these things wouldn't change even if they did read the Bible or the Koran. In fact those books would likely encourage them in their inhumanity. History is another avenue that religions have tried to educate us on, and again they've filled our heads with events that never happened. They weren't just honestly mistaken about what happened in the distant past either, they actively forged documents, including parts of the Bible, along with documents pretending to support the Bible, and deviously destroyed libraries worth of pagan documents that would have exposed their lies.
Many people offer religious art, music, literature and architecture as examples of what religion inspired people to produce, but we have two problems with that. One, if religion didn't exist, we can't believe that the talented artists, musicians etc wouldn't have found inspiration from other sources, nature perhaps, and produced equally great works. Most religions have created great works of art, and at the very most only one of them could have been guided by the true god, so mistaken fantasies and human abilities created that art, not religion. All religion did was force them to have a very narrow focus on what their work portrayed. And as modern times show, artistic creativity doesn't disappear when an artist gives up religion. The other problem we have with this 'great religious art' argument is that some people imply that paintings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary etc are more valuable than human life itself. Yes, religion may have commissioned some great art and amazing architecture, but religion also caused untold death and suffering. If I had it in my power, I would, and without hesitation, make it that religion had never existed anywhere in history, even though that would mean losing every single religious work of art, music etc. I would destroy the Sistine Chapel if it meant I could save a single life, so I'd certainly destroy it all to save millions of lives and prevent the suffering of countless more. When people hesitate to say they'd do the same, I'd ask them, So, how many innocent people are you willing to let die so that we get to keep Leonardo da Vinci's painting 'The Last Supper'? A million, one thousand, a hundred? Perhaps it's worth the deaths of two strangers? It really angers me when people effectively say, Well, yes, the actions of the Church, and all religions actually, have led to the persecution, torture and slaughter of an obscene number of innocent men, women and children throughout history, but look on the positive side, all that death and hatred has given us a few nice paintings too, so I think overall it was worth all the bloodshed and suffering to get some nice art. They speak as people that avoided the Church's wrath, and they sicken me, putting art and music ahead of human life.
Religious believers desperate to excuse the horrors of religion often highlight some minor good, such as religions helping the poor or comforting the dying, but they forget that nonbelievers do that too, and in much greater numbers. Because remember that no matter what religion you might believe in, there are always far more that don't believe as you do. Plus they fail to realise that many of the poor are only poor because their money goes to make their religion rich. Look at the obscene opulence of the Vatican, with the pope flying around the world in his private jet to kiss the feet of a handful of impoverished peasants. Atheists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are giving billions of dollars to combat disease and poverty in the likes of Africa, whereas the Catholic Church is contributing to the spread of AIDS around the world by denying the use of condoms, and taking billions of dollars from their followers and investments, on top of demanding tax exemptions, and simply hoarding it. So again, whatever good some religious person is doing or has done, we could point to an army of non-believers doing the same, and doing it out of compassion, not because they've been ordered to by their god. I respect people who honestly say, 'I want to help, what can I do?', with no strings attached. But I have no time for religious people who say the same, but really mean the following, 'My god told me to offer a hand, or else! But on the bright side, if I obey I get a big reward when I die'. And of course to focus on any good done by the religious, we have to ignore the evil done by those same religions. Muslims are known at this time in history for nothing but death and terror, Christians for raping children and persecuting homosexuals, Hindus for their unjust caste system, Jews for their attacks on Muslim farmers. And the only reason the religious have to comfort the dying is because they made them terrified of dying in the first place, with their horror stories of Hell. And no matter how many good deeds some person does in the name of their god, it can't make up for a single evil deed committed because of that same god.
As we've already mentioned, even the Dalai Lama realises that religion creates problems rather than solutions, when he acknowledges that, 'What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion'. We wonder if the Dalai Lama, knowing what he now does about science and ethics, doesn't regret his position as the leader of a major religion. He could walk away, but how would that impact on his worldly influence? He's widely respected, people listen to him, not just Buddhists, and he's the only religious leader that is making a genuine attempt to promote confidence in science and encourage us to look towards ethics rather than religious dogma. While he may at times sound a little hypocritical, a religious leader arguing for science rather religion, he probably can achieve far more while wearing the religious garb. Next we need to get an atheist elected pope.
So, in the 21st century, where does the relationship between science and spirituality stand? Is there any substance to the notion that, alongside science, spirituality is another valid way of understanding the world, and of making it a better place? Many seem convinced of the existence of some unseen realm, the discovery of which would apparently solve all our woes and answer our deepest questions. But is there any evidence that some sincere, concerted meditation will see an end to Muslim suicide bombers, or will soon reveal what dark matter is? Do we have real examples of spirituality research having assisted in the development of new antibiotics or landing a spacecraft on a comet? Did spiritual advisers help scientists at the Large Hadron Collider find the Higgs Boson? Is there any indication that spiritual folk, aided by their perceived psychic link to an unseen, transcendent realm, are about to take our understanding of the world to new unimagined heights?
Let's remind ourselves that the Dalai Lama's book was his 'effort to examine two important human disciplines', science and spirituality, and to use them to develop a way of exploring 'the seen and the unseen, through the discovery of evidence bolstered by reason'. We're guessing here that he means that science will cover what's 'seen' in the world, and spirituality will tell us about what is 'unseen'. We assume he doesn't mean that lightning, elephants and stars can be seen, while quarks, wind and emotions are unseen, since they're all supported by evidence and reason. Doing that would simply be describing science, meaning that's there's now nothing for spirituality to investigate if science can handle both the seen and unseen. Thanks for coming Mr Spirituality, but we've got this, you can go back to clearing your mind and meditating.
As we've argued, spirituality (aka religion), has not made a single discovery in thousands of years that is supported by 'evidence bolstered by reason'. Worse still, one could fill libraries detailing all the failed claims and predictions made by spirituality, and the great harm these caused, and are still causing. So why would anyone believe that spirituality and its terrible track record could have anything to offer science and it's truly impressive track record? If there's no evidence to suggest, or reason to suspect, that these 'unseen' things — beings, forces, realms or whatever — actually exist, then why should we ask spirituality to join the search? Its track record would suggest it's just going to lead us over a cliff, or down a dark forest path where we get eaten by a wolf on its way to Granny's house.
Spiritual folk annoyed with our dismissal of their silly claims often respond by saying, 'Just because you can't see it or feel it or detect it with your instruments, doesn't mean it's not real'. But as philosopher Delos McKown said, 'The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike'.
Authors: John L. Ateo, Rachel C.
Last Updated Aug 2016