What Counts as “Religion” and Why Does It Matter?

What Counts as “Religion” and Why Does It Matter?

We all think we know what “religion” is, but every now and then a situation occurs that demonstrates the concept is not as clear and distinct as we think and that attempting to make it more clear and distinct is important. Let me share the most recent example.

According to Associated Press reports, the U.S. Marine Corps is now experimenting with something called “Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training” to help fighting men and women handle the stress of doing their jobs—especially battle. According to AP reporter Julie Watson, “Mindfulness is a Buddhist-inspired concept that emphasizes active attention on the moment to keep the mind in the present.” The Marine Corps, using tax money (your money and mind), is experimenting with Mindfulness training with the intention of using it more broadly “where Marines train Marines in these techniques.”

According to one Marine leader involved in the experiments, “This is not tied to any religious practice. This is about mental preparation to better handle stress.”

But wait. Just a few paragraphs earlier (in the AP article) it said that this technique is “Buddhist-inspired.”

So what’s going on here? Should tax dollars be spent on a Buddhist-inspired meditative technique in the U.S. where we claim to believe in separation of church and state?

Several U.S. court cases have tackled similar questions. The 1961 U.S. Supreme Court case Torcaso vs. Watkins included some footnotes discussing whether organizations without belief in a god or gods can be considered “religious.” The finding in the case itself did not hinge on that. However, the footnote opened a Pandora’s Box of debate about, for example, “secular humanism” and whether it is inherently religious.

The 1979 United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, case “Malnak vs. Maharishi” (sometimes called “Malnak vs. Yogi”) decided that “Transcendental Meditation” is (or can be) a religious practice even though it does not explicitly include or require belief in a transcendent deity. The effect of the decision was that “TM” cannot be taught using federal funds. By extension, most conclude, it cannot be funded by any tax dollars. Like Mindfulness Training, TM was being used for claimed beneficial psychological purposes in public settings by people using public funds.

I hold two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in religious studies. One master’s degree and the Ph.D. are from a major national, secular, research university (Rice). One of the first things learned in the discipline of religious studies is that belief in a god or gods is not essential for “religion.” However, there is no absolute consensus on what is necessary for something to be considered a religion.

Buddhism, in all its forms, is usually, if not universally, considered a religion (or group of religions) by religious scholars even though some forms of Buddhism display no belief in a god or gods.

One well-known approach to defining religion is, of course, Paul Tillich’s. (It’s even mentioned in the footnote to Torcaso vs. Watkins mentioned above.) According to Tillich (and many secular scholars agree) religion is “ultimate concern.” Whoever has an ultimate concern is religious. Does that mean, then, that any teaching or practice that relies on an ultimate concern is religious in nature? And what exactly is “ultimate concern?”

Should a Buddhist-inspired spiritual technique, however, re-packaged in secular form, be taught using tax dollars—even if those being taught it are not in any way required to become Buddhists? There’s no simple answer to that.

But let’s aim toward deciding it by using a hypothetical situation. Suppose the AP article substituted, say, speaking in tongues, packaged as “glossolalia” (a secular term for speaking in tongues), for “Mindfulness training” and reported on a real situation in which U.S. Marines were being taught to use glossolalia to handle stress. And suppose the article reported that this technique is “Christian-inspired” but “not tied to any religious practice.” We look into the matter further and find that there are scientific reasons to believe glossolalia may have the hoped for beneficial effects for whoever practices it. And the people teaching it to the Marines do not mention God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Nobody involved in the experiment is required to believe in the Christian God.

Does anyone imagine that several watchdog organizations dedicated to separation of church and state would not become involved to stop the Marine Corps from teaching glossolalia? Without knowing for sure, I predict that the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State would jump to challenge the experiment. I certainly hope so.

My point is, of course, that we often observe double standards in American society in which Christianity, especially, is given special negative attention and treatment in public situations, as unacceptable, where other religions or religious practices are accepted if not supported. One of my daughters attended a public high school where a teacher felt perfectly free to promote, not just discuss, reincarnation. My point is not that Christianity is singled out consciously and willfully for exclusion while other religious beliefs and practices are consciously and willfully invited and included. My point is that people tend to be more vigilant about excluding Christian influence in public spaces than other religious influences.

I think this goes beyond public spaces into the media as well. For example, just this past week I watched two very good documentaries on television—one about the plot to assassinate Hitler that evolved within the German Military Intelligence Service (the “Abwehr”) and the other about Martin Luther King, Jr. The first one focused mainly on Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr. It mentioned many other people involved in the conspiracy including, briefly, Hans von Dohnanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, who was a lawyer working in the Abwehr. But the documentary, though a very detailed examination of the plot, never mentioned Bonhoeffer. At the very end it showed the courtyard at Flossenburg Concentration Camp where Canaris and other conspirators were hanged just days before the Allies liberated the camp. The camera dwells for a few moments on a large metal plaque commemorating the events there on April 9, 1945. The first name on the plaque is “Pfarrar Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (“Pfarrar” meaning “pastor”). And yet, the narrator (I should say the writer) never mentions him. Today he is by far the most famous conspirator. Why did the documentary completely ignore him while mentioning and showing pictures of most, if not all, of the other famous conspirators?

At risk of being accused of being paranoid, I suggest the neglect of Bonhoeffer in that secular documentary may be due to a bias against Christianity among those who write and produce such documentaries.

The second documentary focused on Martin Luther King, Jr. I was not able to view all of it, but the approximately half I did watch was excellent and informative about King’s early life through his first pastorate and first book. The narrator was a very well known television news personality who, in my opinion, anyway, has frequently been openly critical of Christianity. The documentary mentioned that after graduating from college, King went north to “do seminary.” It didn’t mention what seminary. It was, of course, Rochester Baptist Theological Seminary, the oldest Baptist seminary in America and possibly the world. The narrator (or writer) mentions only Gandhi as a person King learned about in seminary and who influenced him. There is no mention of Walter Rauschenbusch or Reinhold Niebuhr, two Christian theologians who deeply influenced King.

I remember when my daughter was in junior high school she brought home a social studies book that included a chapter on King. I perused it and noted that it made no mention of his Christianity. It did mention Gandhi and his influence on King. There has been a conspiracy of silence among secular scholars about King’s Christianity. Of course, they can’t ignore the fact that he was a Baptist minister, but they tend to play up Gandhi’s influence on him while neglecting to explore or explain Jesus’ influence on him or the influence of Christian theologians.

I am opposed to all double standards and blatant biases in scholarship. Of course, it’s impossible to escape all biases. But some are, I believe, willful and distorting of history.

To return to the case study of the U.S. Marines teaching “Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training”—I think the ACLU and Citizens United for Separation of Church and State need to at least look into it. They would if it were a Christian-inspired technique, however secularized.

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  • Bob

    Roger, I too was surprised that Bonheoffer wasn’t mentioned in the show about Hitler. Paradoxically the more Christianity is marginalized the more the more “real” it becomes

    • rogereolson

      Perhaps, but I find it annoying when secular scholars claim to be objective and then willfully ignore Christians’ contributions in history while “puffing” non-Christians’.

  • shieldsheafson

    For myself, religion is the primary response to an encounter with God. Of course, one may erect a primarily intellectual framework of description and reflection around religion, as Aquinas did, but one does not start with this intellectualisation but with the encounter.

    I wonder if there is an indestructible portion of religious faith within so-called false religions that has yet to be fulfilled in the True faith? Is there a false god? Or even a false religion? Is a child a false man? Perhaps all religions have the same purpose: All are links in a chain which connects heaven and earth, and which is held, and always was held, by one and the same hand.

    Why does it matter? Well, the three (once-universal) forms of learning that gave us perspective: Classical Education – to remind us that in reason and logic there is a difference between true and false; Scientific Education – to show us which is which; Religious Education – to teach us why the distinction matters.

  • agreed!

  • jacob

    Meditate for a few minutes and see if a religion comes up! LOL.

  • JenG

    There is some serious irony in the using of Buddhism for war training. I’m sure genuine Buddhists are no more thrilled about this than you…

  • Roger, I’ve mentioned this on your blog before, and I’m not sure if you had a chance to read the article, but based on the kinds of definitions that you have provided in the past, MLK was not a Christian:

    Also, mindfulness is “Buddhist-inspired” but it is practiced by a lot more people that have nothing to do with Buddhism. For example, Congressman Tim Ryan (a Catholic) recently wrote a book trying to get more people to do it:

    And, we teach the practice to kids and adults at the “secular” social work office that I work for (taxpayer-funded). Why? Because it works. So, yes, if there is good evidence that something works, then I don’t have a problem using taxpayer money for it.

  • Jason Joyner

    My initial thought is that it matters how much of the source of it’s inspiration remains in the practice at hand. I think it would be hard to articulate a bright line threshold (although that’s part of what the practice of law is for, in my opinion). But we can certainly think about it in levels or grades of “religious residue” (for lack of a better term) that remain in the practice. If we take your definition above of what makes something religious as having to do with the ultimate concern, then I think we can test how much of that concern remains in a practice. Practically speaking, I doubt there is very little of it in mindfulness, as it is more like cognitive behavioral therapy than anything else.

    But I think your argument is, in part, that the residue doesn’t really matter as it is simply the perception that something might be Christian-inspired that get’s it singled out for harsher treatment or scrutiny. I think there is some truth to that. However, I also think we’ve brought it on ourselves. We’ve become accustomed to being culturally dominant in most of the Western world, have used that dominance poorly, abusively at times, and are witnessing the decline of that cultural privilege. Europe is now only marginally christian, and while the US is still predominantly Christian, the backlash against the Christian Right’s politics are eroding that position somewhat. We’re becoming more pluralistic, and the religious groups that feel they’ve been slighted, neglected, or punished by our cultural dominance are becoming more adept at using whatever legal mechanisms exist to fence in what they see as our undue influence.

    I think we’re going to have to get used to being one of many religious traditions rather than the dominant religion, and the downgrade may be painful for us. It’s hard to give up that sense of privilege once you’ve had it, and we’ve had it a long time. So long, in fact, that we don’t realize we’ve had it and it’s loss feels like an undeserved attack or punishment. Privilege is like the fish in water…the fish doesn’t notice the presence of the water until he’s not in it anymore.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, I’m not asking for privilege, just fairness. My daughter and Christian students like her are not responsible for the sins of Christians past. She/they should get the best education possible and that means the whole story when textbooks and teachers are dealing with religions in history and society and should not be subjected to indoctrination in non-Christian religious beliefs and practices.

  • Andrew Werling

    Mindfulness does not conflict with Christianity in any way. It’s just about focusing on the now. That’s it. You are seriously uninformed and/or have an unfortunate agenda.

    • rogereolson

      I didn’t say it conflicted with Christianity. But what if it is, as the article says, “Buddhist-inspired” and a Marine who happens to be a Christian doesn’t want anything to do with it for that reason? Will he be subjected to it anyway? And you didn’t answer my hypothetical question. What if glossolalia could be separated from its Christian context, even though everyone would know it is “Christian-inspired,” and taught for purely secular purposes with tax money in a public (government-related) setting. Would you be okay with that?

      • Andrew Werling

        There is much that is “Christian-inspired” that all of are exposed to everyday. Do you support removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance? Personally, no I don’t object to something for being “Christian-inspired.” We can learn from each other. I think you’re taking this too far. Jesus obviously doesn’t advocate warfare in the first place, so being in the military is not exactly a Christian activity to begin with. Everything about religion + military is convoluted, and messy, and yet we have chaplains of every denomination, the expectations of unquestioningly taking orders, and a huge dose of moral dilemma. If a practice, stripped of its religious trappings, helps a person in the military cope with all of this, I see absolutely nothing wrong with it. Mindfulness is not in and of itself a religious thing. It is a way to get through life with more peace of mind. The minute you add “inspired” to the mix of what is allowable or not, we might as well admit we treat our soldiers like robots.

      • Andrew Werling

        Can glossolalia be separated from its Christian context? Hard to imagine, but if it could, and be proven to benefit in a very stressful environment such as that the soldiers experience, I would have no problem with it being used to help the soldiers. Of course, that would mean stripping it of a LOT of Christian context.

      • Andrew Werling

        Ultimately, to close oneself off to something just because another religious tradition discovered it is quite foolish.

  • Kelly

    False equivalency. Meditation techniques have been demonstrated to help reduce stress and anxiety by a consensus of psychological and medical research–speaking in tongues has not. Whether or not mediation techniques were religiously inspired, they now exist in a secular form and are effectively used to manage and treat anxiety, stress, and a plethora of other psychological conditions. Objecting to a credit to an origin of a treatment concept does not negate its effectiveness, and it’s petty and disingenuous to focus on that single attribution to the history of mediation and likening its application to a treatment based on speaking in tonged (something that has never been scientifically proven to exist, let alone be an effective treatment for anything), rather than examining the body of research that has demonstrated it effective. Your claims that Christianity is given negative treatment fall flat given the continued onslaught of their adherents attempts to impose public policy based on them, references to the religion on our money, in our courts, and pretty much everywhere else you turn.

    • rogereolson

      You adroitly avoided answering my question. What if….?

  • Jon Altman

    Just wondering it there is an authentically Christian practice that will help Marines be better killers.

    • rogereolson

      Ha! good question. I can’t think of one right off the top of my head.

  • James Petticrew

    There was a documentary here about the Reformation in Scotland, spoke about the historical context, political and economic situation, international relations between Scotland and England / France, not once did it mention justification by faith, indulgences, sinecures etc ie the theological and ecclessiological dimensions of the Reformation were ignored! Work that one out!

    • rogereolson

      So typical.

  • Ben

    Perhaps more would be incensed by the idea of buddhism being taught to Marines if it weren’t already true that they already have a non-Christian religion known as Americanism.
    My taxes go for many things I disagree with but I disagree with the assumption of culpability based on taxation. Jesus paid the temple tax for Peter and was clearly against how the Temple was being used, i.e., paying the tax didn’t indict the payee. If my taxes go to TM or anything like it, it doesn’t make me a promoter. As a Hauerwasian, I disagree with the entire military system much less if they’re learning TM or Zen or tennis. I disagree with the whole killing thing which is far worse than hare Krishna chanting to aim one’s rifle better.

  • If we throw out “mindfulness” because it is Buddhist inspired we would have to throw out “honesty” and “diligence” also, along with a whole list of other Christian inspired qualities taught using tax money. Maybe we should just be thankful core Christian qualities bleed through.

  • Brent R.

    The Marines have chaplains. The chaplains are religious. The religious chaplains are paid by tax dollars.

    • rogereolson

      But nobody is required to participate in any chaplain-led activity. Just as an aside, I do not believe in paying chaplain. Denominations (or other religious organizations) should pay them–just as the pay their own missionaries.

  • Steve

    I wonder what would happen if they were taught to use the Jesus prayer or short phrases of Scripture to ease and deal with stress

    • rogereolson

      My point exactly. Some scientific studies have shown a likely link between well-being and prayer. Why not use tax money to teach Marines to pray? Oh, yes, we do. We pay chaplains who will teach them to pray if they come asking for that. But this is different, as I understand it. Everyone knows prayer is religious and any Marine who wants to can avoid participating in it. This program seems to be aimed at compelling Marines to learn Mindfulness. The article did not state that, but it is fair, I think, to assume that’s the goal.

  • K Gray

    I agree that Christian influences are increasingly edited out or severely minimized in media productions and education. This results in an uneducated people. What puzzles me most, however, is encountering the Baptist advocates of “minority over majority” who eagerly join in minimizing Christian influences in the broader culture. These Baptists seem exquisitely sensitive to any whiff of anything that might overlap with, originate from, or have been popularized by Christians. Taken to logical extremes, this would eventually mean eliminating most laws and things of public good in our country – unless they could be independently proven good by science or maybe linked to something more “diverse” than Christianity.

    Now we are at the point where the California Supreme Court has ruled that there is no rational basis on which that state can support man-woman marriage laws, and that the ONLY support for it comes from religious bigotry (which is not rational). So get ready. Every part of law and culture which has emanated from Judeo-Christian heritage is subject to that same charge – religious bigotry, or discrimination – if it limits anyone in any way.

    • rogereolson

      I think you are engaging in caricature here. I know no Baptist (or other Christian) who wants to minimize Christian influences in the broader culture. What Baptist and other advocates of separation of church and state want is to remove religion from legal compulsion. It’s perfectly consistent for someone (like I) to argue against, say, plaques of the Ten Commandments in public spaces while arguing for acknowledgement of the influence of the Bible and Christianity in the civil rights movement in books that claim to be objective treatments of history. I hope you can see the different.

      • K Gray

        I know some, personally. But I did exaggerate, and I do see the difference. Nevertheless, the Baptists to whom I refer join in supporting removal of historic (not new) Christian elements; that is, the kind of historic editing to which you referred in your post. And the second example – the modern judiciary – does have an open split on whether morality (which usually refers to Judeo-Christian morality) may be a rational basis (one rational basis, not a sole rational basis) for a law.

        • rogereolson

          Of course. But I would prefer to find and express a secular reason as well as a reason unique to Judeo-Christian morality for any law that criminalizes someone. Otherwise, it’s difficult to fend off arguments from non-Christians that their unique morality should be the basis for laws that criminalize people.

  • Rob

    I think this issue should be viewed in the same way we view yoga in universities. At my university, students can take yoga classes and obviously yoga is religiously inspired. I don’t think anyone thinks that is crossing the line and to my knowledge no student has achieved moksha during one of these classes. Of course there is a movement by Indian-Americans to take back yoga for Hinduism sort of like “put the Christ back in Christmas” stuff we see a lot these days.

    • rogereolson

      I once took a class (at my previous college now a university) to a large “Meditation Center.” It was a huge mansion near a state university campus. The Center advertised yoga classes. I asked the director if it was any part of the Center’s mission to draw students who take basic yoga classes into Hinduism. He affirmed it.