International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Religion and Nothingness

by Keiji Nishitani

Introductory Essay by Paul L. Swanson

Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990) was one of the most prominent philosophers of the so-called “Kyoto School” of philosophy, a group of Japanese thinkers in the line of thought beginning with Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945). Nishitani took a religious approach to philosophy, or rather considered the two as inseparable, deriving inspiration from philosophers such as Schelling, Plotinus, Kant, and Heidegger, while weaving in ideas from mysticism and Buddhist traditions. His main concern was the problem of nihilism (in connection with science and technology) in the modern world, and how to overcome it.

Religion and Nothingness, Nishitani’s masterpiece, is a translation of his collection of essays originally entitled “What is Religion?” in Japanese. In this work he offers the standpoint of “emptiness” (the Buddhist idea of sunyata?), or “absolute nothingness,” as a way to overcome the modern nihilistic impasse caused by the breakdown of the traditional notion of God and perceiving things in terms of “being.” The final chapters of the book use this perspective to re-examine the notions of “time” and “history.”

The theme of “science and religion” is discussed specifically in the second chapter on “The Personal and Impersonal in Religion.” Nishitani opens with, “The problem of religion and science is the most fundamental problem facing contemporary man. In former times an idea gained prevalence that religion was fated to be overrun by the advance of science and left to its eventual demise. There are those who still think this way. But it takes only a passing glance at the fabric of intellectual history over the past hundred years to realize that such a simplistic view of the problem has been left behind.” (p. 46) Though not dealing directly with the issue of “science and religion” in itself, Nishitani attempts to provide a new perspective (“absolute nothingness”) for struggling with the philosophical and religious problems that have arisen in the modern world due to the advance of science and technology. The connection between these issues is summarized as follows: “One may reply that all the efforts of man ultimately come to naught, and that things cannot be otherwise, so that everything, including science, becomes fundamentally meaningless. And yet even here, in the reply of so-called pessimistic nihilism along with its accompanying doubt, we find ourselves outside the horizon of science and in the realm of philosophy and religion, where nihilism is but one possible response. Indeed, the overcoming of this pessimistic nihilism represents the single greatest issue facing philosophy and religion in our times.” (p. 46-47)

These themes are also dealt with in an essay by Nishitani on “Science and Zen” (in The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School, New York: Crossroad, 1982; reprinted by World Wisdom, 2004), where he writes, “I am convinced that the problem of nihilism lies at the root of the mutual aversion between religion and science, and it is here that my philosophical engagement found its starting point, and from which my preoccupation with nihilism grew larger until it enveloped almost everything.”