Can science put religion on the spot? In other words, can the empirical observations of science be used to test the truth-claims of the world’s major religions? Many people think not.
The faithful, or at least some, suggest religion and science ask fundamentally different questions. Those in secular circles say religion is, by its very nature, untestable in the real world and therefore irrelevant.
While it is true that religion and science ask different questions about life and the world (science mainly focuses on the what, where, and how; religion focuses on the why), both types of questions are nevertheless linked to the critical search for truth.
So if the religions of the world make claims about the origin, nature, and structure of the time-space world, then science can serve as a powerful tool to test the veracity of those claims. In light of this, lets briefly examine what Buddhism and Christianity affirm about the cosmos.
In his insightful and provocative book, The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Lama (leader of the Tibetan Buddhists) sets forth the following
basic Buddhist cosmology:1
Buddhism’s two main mythical cosmologies (Abhidharma and Kalachakra) conflict with one another and with the modern scientific consensus concerning cosmology.
In totality, there exist “multiple world systems” (realms or universes) whose number extends toward the infinite.
The individual worlds are “in a constant state of coming and passing away,” including stages of formation, endurance, destruction, void, and re-formation.
Regarding ultimate reality, the absolute universe, so to speak, is infinite as well as beginningless and endless.
According to the Dalai Lama, Buddhism finds “the idea that there is a single definite beginning” to all things to be “highly problematic.”2 Furthermore, he states that an absolute beginning would leave only two viable options—theism (God exists and created and governs the universe) and a form of quantum naturalism (the laws of nature caused the universe to come into being)—both of which “Buddhism rejects.”3
The Dalai Lama boldly states that if scientific analysis were to conclusively falsify certain Buddhist claims, then one would be obligated to accept science and abandon Buddhist beliefs.4 However, he believes the evidence is inconclusive as to whether there is an absolute beginning to all things. Finally, the Tibetan spiritual leader maintains that Buddhism and science are “different but complementary investigative approaches” that rely heavily on empirical factors and that have the same goal of seeking truth.5
Historic Christianty’s view on cosmology, creation ex nihilo6 (Gen. 1:1; Prov. 3:19; Ps. 33:6; Rom. 4:17; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2; 11:3), is a follows:
The cosmos had an absolute origination (coming into being).
The cosmos had an absolute beginning (start in time).
God alone called all things (material and spiritual) into existence from nothing. (This nothing should not be understood as being an actual something—it is literally no thing.)
God alone is infinite, eternal, transcendent, and independent—while all of creation is finite, temporal, and contingent.
While the cosmos is an independent reality from God, it nonetheless continually depends upon God’s intervening and sustaining power for its continued existence (Acts 4:17–28; Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3).
The Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo does not assert that God created the universe out of preexisting materials (such as matter and its constituent realities), nor that he made the world out of his own being. Moreover, this doctrine does not claim that God “wound up” the cosmos so it could then run on its own power.
Critical Points of Difference
The two most important ways that the Christian position on cosmology differs from the Buddhist viewpoint are: (1) All created things had an absolute origination; and (2) that creative origination came directly from the Creator-Redeemer-Sanctifier God of the Bible who is an infinite, eternal, and tripersonal spirit (Tri-Unity: three in one).
Scientifically speaking, the fact that the big bang model of the universe’s origin and any other possible worlds in the state of expansion would require a causal explanation7 as well as extraordinary fine-tuning tends to point toward theism as the best cosmological explanation. Historic Christian theism, buttressed by rigorously tested scientific data, best accounts for our amazing universe.
- Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom (New York: Morgan Road Books, 2005), 71-93.
- Ibid, 82.
- Ibid, 2–3.
- Ibid, 4.
- See Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 156–64.
- Alex Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 176.