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

What Counts as “Religion” and Why Does It Matter? January 23, 2013

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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