This book illustrates how Buddhism has religious elements that are IRRECONCILABLE with science. [If you have iTunes, look up "Saturday Morning Physics," and you can see a lecture on "Buddhism and Science" by Donald Lopez which is not quite a condensation, but perhaps an introduction to this book].
When I first saw this book, I just assumed that it would be about how Buddhism and science are complementary, since most similarly titled books are. If you're a practicing Buddhist, or have a beginning interest in Buddhism, I'm not sure whether to recommend this book or not, because Lopez is to Buddhism what Bart D. Ehrman is to Christianity, i.e. Lopez has a purely academic interest in Buddhism, and is the opposite of an evangelist; whether intentionally or not, he discourages belief in Buddhism. What he says is technically true, but if you're a Buddhist, this book is painful to read. On the plus side (counter-intuitively, perhaps), this book has pushed me to an openness to the more "supernatural" aspects of Buddhism.
In this book, Lopez looks at representative Buddhists from the past hundred or so years who attempted to reconcile Buddhism with science: Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933, Sri Lanka), Taixu (1890-1947, China), Shaku Soen (1859-1919, Japan), Gendun Chopel (1903-1951, Tibet), and the Dalai Lama (b. 1935, Tibet).
In the first chapter, Lopez points out that, in Buddhist cosmology, there is a mountain in the center of the world/universe, Mount Meru. Each of the aforementioned Buddhists attempt to reconcile this belief with science. Dharmapala, for instance, "refutes" the Newtonian view as being incorrect. Taixu attempts to reinterpret Mount Meru as a metaphor. Also in this chapter, the fact that the Buddha claimed the world was flat also poses problems for the aforementioned Buddhists.
In the second chapter, "Scientific Racism" enters the picture. If you're familiar with the history of science, you'll know that Darwin's idea of natural selection and competition between races, for almost a hundred years, was interpreted as justifying racism, so much so that scientists claimed that non-whites were inherently inferior. This dovetails into an idea that is prevalent in 19th and early 20th century academia that, early in India's history, it had been invaded by a race calling themselves Aryans, and since Sanskrit is part of the Indo-European language family, Europeans therefore saw the Buddha as being, in a very real sense, racially equal. So, for example, Taixu in 1937 writes a letter to Hitler that, since the Germans are Aryans, they should adopt a religion founded by an Aryan: Buddhism. Now, Lopez notes that Taixu was very likely unaware of Hitler's agenda, and I agree that Taixu innocently bought into the then current "scientific" thinking.
I won't summarize the whole book, but you get the gist of what Lopez is getting at. Science is subject to revision, and so any claims of being in sync with science are going to be provisional and shifting.
In a footnote on page 235, Lopez quotes Hermann Oldenberg: "But any one who attempts to describe Buddha's labours must, out of love for truth, resolutely combat the notion that the Buddha [was attempting the] reformation of national life." That phrase "out of love for truth" I think is applicable to Lopez, I believe that it is his impetus for writing this book. Lopez once described his anthology "Buddhism in Practice" as being "a necessary corrective," and I think that too is applicable here.
I agree and disagree with Lopez's conclusions. Lopez doesn't go back far enough in history to mention that, when Buddhism entered China, for instance, it lost elements and gained elements: Buddhist missionaries omitted offensive concepts, and aspects of Indian tradition that were congenial to Chinese tastes were emphasized; influenced by Daoism, nature became an important concept in Chinese Buddhism as it never had been in India; Chinese social values emphasized family, so the bodhisattva Vimalakirti, for example, became a model of a sage who maintained his loyalty to the family while pursuing the path of the Buddha; none of the schools that were major in China had been major in India. Is the influence of science on Buddhism less valid than the influence of Daoism and Chinese culture on Buddhism?
At the same time, I am against scientism, i.e. the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations. There are some questions that science hasn't figured out yet, and maybe those questions will eventually be answered, or maybe they never will. In conjunction with Lopez's book, I would recommend reading David Berlinski's "The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions". I think that it's interesting that we live in an age where almost every view has to be reconciled with science, that we live in an age of "scientific pretensions."
I think that Buddhism is an eminently valuable philosophy and practice. I, for one, like the current climate of Buddhism's openness to a dialogue with science, in spite of the checkered history of the dialogue that Lopez has pointed out. The best impact this book could have would be an acknowledgment of, and honesty about, that history.