Buddhists Join the Clergy Letter Project and Call for the Teaching of Evolution

08/29/2012 02:11 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2012

American Buddhist priests have joined their Judeo-Christian counterparts and called for the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The only surprising part of this announcement is the sad fact that due to the incessant drumbeat of religious fundamentalism there has to be an announcement at all. But across America today, and in a growing portion of the rest of the world, modern science is under attack by those who would prefer that we return to a pre-scientific society, a society in which wishes trump evidence and in which ignorance attempts to dominate knowledge.

American Buddhist religious leaders have crafted a Buddhist Clergy Letter to parallel The Clergy Letters signed by more than 12,800 American Christian clerics, more than 450 American rabbis and more than 250 Unitarian Universalist ministers throughout the United States. Like the other Letters, this newest addition to the family of Clergy Letters makes it absolutely clear that deeply held religious belief can be fully compatible with the latest advances in science.

Indeed, the preamble to The Buddhist Clergy Letter consists of a quotation from the Dalai Lama: "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 or adopt them as metaphor." From this perspective, the teachings of Buddhism, like the teachings of science, are provisional and must be considered open to change as new knowledge accumulates.

The concept of metaphor is a critical one since so many religious leaders, like so many good writers, recognize the power metaphor has to drive home complex points. To read religious texts literally, to ignore the obvious metaphors present in each and every one, is equivalent to striping the power from those texts. Why any religious person would want to do that is completely beyond my understanding.

Religious fundamentalists, with their adamancy about literalism (or at least their hypocritical and highly selective literalism), demand that their adherents choose between their narrow sectarian vision and the findings of modern science. Fundamentalist leaders require that science be rejected in favor of religious literalism. This is the crux of the culture war over the teaching of evolution. Evolution is dismissed because it conflicts with the metaphors used by pre-scientific societies -- and demands are made to redefine science to exclude evolution and include religion. The world is turned up-side down as some attempt to drive us back to the Dark Ages.

But as The Clergy Letters so dramatically demonstrate, religious individuals do not need to choose between scientific enlightenment and their religious faith. Both are possible. And for more than 13,500 religious leaders in America, the healthiest solution is to embrace both science and religion.

The full text of The Buddhist Clergy Letter makes this point exceedingly well:

The Buddhist tradition is primarily a rational religion. The earliest Buddhist teachings are intended to help all sentient beings to live a life of integrity in harmony with reality. While the specific science of evolution is not explicitly taught in our faith, it is implicit in the core teaching of interdependent origination, which demonstrates that all things are interconnected and contingent upon one another for their form and development. Likewise, a creator deity is not relied upon for a creation story. The ancient Indian fables of the Buddha's various incarnations from animal to human are readily understood not as a literal history but as metaphor describing the evolving nature of life. In fact, the concept of Buddha itself is best understood as a symbol for humanity's evolutionary potential. For all of these reasons, we admonish public school boards to affirm their commitment to teaching the science of evolution. We understand the role of public schools is to educate students in the established principles of science and in other subjects of general knowledge.

Those who deny science, from evolution to climate change, are doing so for narrow, sectarian reasons, or they are using the façade of fundamentalism as a mechanism to make a profit. The reality of the situation is that when proponents of such a view make pronouncements, attempt to control public education and manipulate public policy, they are doing so, as demonstrated by The Clergy Letters, in the face of most religious traditions.

Members of The Clergy Letter Project welcome American Buddhists to our movement and hope that their presence helps make it clear just how broad based religious support for the teaching of evolution really is.