Part two of the discussion between Dr. Candy Gunther Brown and Anton Drake about yoga and religion.

JUL • 16 • 2013

This is part two of a discussion between Dr. Candy Gunther Brown and Anton Drake about yoga and religion. Dr. Brown is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University and is the author of several books, most recently The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America (Oxford University, August 1, 2013). She recently played a central role in the Encinitas public-school yoga trial; brought in as an expert witness by the plaintiffs, she testified for a full day on the connection between yoga and religion.

[Anton Drake]: “By itself, the practice of yoga differs substantially from religion. One of the main reasons for this is that, unless it is taught within explicitly religious boundaries, yoga is a very introspective activity that over time tends to bring an individual’s inner character to the foreground; this can happen because yoga tends to increase self-awareness, unearthing more genuine and central aspirations and drawing together disparate or disjointed aspects of the personality into a more centralized whole. Keep in mind that yoga has continued to evolve into many different forms and systems right up to this day—this occurs, and can occur, because the art of yoga itself is mutable and practiced correctly can tap in to the creative instincts of the individual practitioner. In fact none of this requires any ritual or verbal explication whatsoever; something as simple and natural as closing one’s eyes and breathing and allowing the mind to observe itself can, over time, begin to have these effects.

“In this sense yoga is, in and of itself, a thoroughly non-religious practice, in that it is formless and unpredictable, and by its very nature stands outside of any static structures of religious teaching or dogma. Ironically, the truth of this can be seen if one observes the teaching of yoga within an explicitly religious context: when yoga is being taught within the purview of a religious ashram or group a practitioner is constantly being reminded, and is in fact taught to constantly remind his or herself, of the particular deity or guru being worshipped. This kind of ‘mindfulness’ may be reinforced by the placing of devotional pictures on every wall and by the repetitive outward chanting of devotional mantras, as well as by the constant inward or mental repetition of devotional mantras, and meditation instruction that emphasizes finding the divine object of devotion ‘within’ oneself. In such environments the practice of hatha yoga is often somewhat frowned upon as something ‘egotistic’ and conducive to mere ‘body-consciousness.’

“The obvious fact that religious groups clearly see the need to ‘brand’ yoga and meditation so thoroughly and to explicitly describe and pre-define the inner content of the self demonstrates that yoga itself is not inherently religious; without such constant nudges and reminders any ashram or spiritual group would be very likely to morph or evolve, in various unpredictable ways, or to dissipate entirely. The websites of the ‘Christian yoga’ schools demonstrate the exact same thing from a slightly different angle and in fact provide an easy blueprint for injecting any particular belief system directly into the practice of yoga.

“My question to you is, in what specifically do you think the ‘religious’ and/or spiritually dangerous aspects of yoga consist? Because you seem to imply that the language of yoga is not necessarily what is problematic, in and of itself, and from what you say about extinction and relearning, as well as the idea of religion being ‘instilled through practice and experience’ it seems to me as if you are talking about yoga being employed as a means of indoctrination and conditioning; since yogic techniques can be used for this purpose by any number of different belief systems, it appears as though yoga must be something different from religion. So I am asking you if it is simply yoga within a specific religious or ‘spiritual’ context you are referring to or, if not, what specific aspect or quality of yoga training or practice do you find to be religious or spiritual? And on this subject I would be interested to know a bit more about how you view, objectively, the ‘spiritual’ effects of yoga, whether you see these as good or bad and why and if you have any theories about them.”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “I find it significant that you start off your last answer with: ‘By itself, the practice of yoga . . . .’ and later ‘yoga, in and of itself’ because yoga is not practiced ‘by itself,’ but always in some context. I do not think that yoga can be viewed as essentially or inherently one thing or another such that we can isolate yoga’s pure essential nature. In a postmodern culture, people like to think that every individual is free to ascribe one’s own meaning to any practice. But, psychological research shows us, this isn’t how construction of meaning works in society. One cannot simply assign a meaning and have that meaning exist in a vacuum or bubble, because other people are also assigning meanings to their own and to other people’s practices. Meaning is what you assign, but it is also what other people assign. No one group can define meanings as if by fiat. We are all bound to meanings within the broader culture.

“Let me illustrate my point. Suppose that someone claims that making the sign of the cross is a physical exercise that strengthens the arm muscles and helps to limber up the hand for writing—and insists that, for me, the exercise has no religious meaning whatsoever. But other people are still going to interpret the sign of the cross as a religious gesture. And if you teach a ‘secularized’ sign-of-the-cross ‘exercise’ in public schools to prepare for writing, the exercise is still going to function as an advertisement for the religious version of the practice because so many people associate the gesture with religious meanings.

“People live in a world in which practices, such as yoga, have associations that cannot be ignored, forgotten, or simply wished away. It is not possible, as if by fiat, to make yoga non-religious merely by asserting that it is not religious when a lot of other people do ascribe religious meanings to yoga. 28% of religiously unaffiliated Americans (and 23% of the total population) ‘believe in’ yoga ‘not just as exercise, but as a spiritual practice.’ 32% of practitioners say they were motivated to start yoga by a desire for spiritual development. 51% of practitioners say that knowledge of yoga terminology is a ‘must have’ in a yoga instructor. Sociological research indicates that as people practice yoga for longer periods of time, they are increasingly likely to internalize yoga’s religious philosophy.

“It doesn’t matter whether the religious ideas associated with yoga are tied to ‘static structures of religious teaching or dogma’ or ‘taken very seriously.’ Much of religion is more diffuse, dynamic, and fluid than specific religious sects, dogmas, or belief systems. In one of your previous answers, you acknowledge that religious ideas such as chakras can have a ‘casual’ effect on people’s ‘concepts of spirituality without their being totally aware of it.’ I totally agree that such ideas are often not ‘analyzed or closely examined,’ but that doesn’t make the ideas less ‘religious’ or influential—in fact the reverse may be true. When people take for granted rather than critically examine their religious ideas, these ideas can exert a broader effect on their other beliefs or behaviors.

“Even if a particular yoga program (e.g. ‘EUSD yoga’) does not ascribe religious meanings to the practice of yoga, religious meanings are ascribed by others in society (e.g. by the Jois Foundation/Ashtanga community/Encinitas yoga community), and these associations do not become extinct simply by pretending that they do not exist (as seems to be the case with EUSD) or by arguing that they do not inherently exist or should not exist (as seems to be the case with your book). I see a connection, moreover, to your observation that yoga techniques—and I would add yoga’s religious associations—can affect the mind even without any ‘verbal explication.’

“It’s interesting also that you note that it is common for overtly religious yoga studios to post devotional pictures on walls and to chant devotional mantras (and earlier you state that, unless directly demystified, chanting mantras ‘would essentially be a form of prayer’)—given that the EUSD yoga program included coloring of mandalas, a poster of an eight-limbed Ashtanga tree and a poster and postcards from an ashram in India hung on the walls, and chanting of Om.

“The fact that overtly religious ashrams (and Christian yoga programs) are pervaded by religious symbolism/mantras does not suggest to me that the studios have to ‘work hard’ at religious branding, but, instead seems like another indication that yoga is strongly associated with religious meanings. The fact that more than one religious group uses yoga to express and instill religious beliefs does not indicate that yoga is nonreligious, but rather reveals that ‘religion’ is a broader category than a single belief system or sect.

“As I’ve tried to explain before, I am not claiming that yoga is spiritually ‘dangerous.’ I am not assuming anything about whether there is or is not a ‘spiritual’ aspect of yoga. I am instead focusing on empirical research which indicates that practicing yoga (even just doing the asanas—many of which are deeply symbolic—e.g. Sun Salutations) can change the religious beliefs of practitioners, and this process may occur so gradually and subtly that practitioners do not notice that a change is occurring.

“You want to know why this matters. There is a field of biomedical ethics concerned with ‘informed consent’ (think of the forms you have to sign when consenting to a medical procedure). People cannot intentionally consent to participate in a practice if they do not understand the potential implications—for health and also for religion. People may start off doing yoga for non-religious reasons, but as their practice deepens they may undergo a religious transformation. In some cases, this transformation happens as if by chance, and no one is responsible for trying to make it happen. In other instances, there is evidence that certain yoga instructors hope that doing yoga will transform the religious beliefs of students, and these particular instructors intentionally engage in self-censorship and camouflage; this kind of behavior involves deception or even fraud. Even without anyone trying to conceal yoga’s religious associations, practitioners may start doing yoga, just as they may try any number of other activities, without being very reflective about it. The issue here is not whether yoga is good or bad, or Hindu or Christian or Atheist, but whether or not it is consciously or unreflectively selected. When people make choices unreflectively, they may end up making choices that they would not have wanted to make had they understood what they were doing or what the effects would be. By analogy, think here of what would happen if everyone voted for political candidates (or shopped for groceries) without reflecting on the implications of their choices. I explain these ethical issues in much more detail in my book, The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America.”

[Anton Drake]: “It seems that you are at times viewing yoga, and religion in general, in terms of its sociological significance, focusing on its representational meaning and how it might be interpreted by other people and thus affect the structure of society. Ironically, interpreting something like hatha yoga in terms of how others perceive it, as a kind of sociological body language shall we say, runs counter to yoga’s core concepts, which focus on introspection and subjective experience; this yogic focus on individual  consciousness and subjectivity means that advanced levels of practice tend to become the province of those individuals who are privileged to act and think freely rather than as part of a crowd.

“This is why the ‘branding’ or fusion of yoga with religion and religious training is so interesting and significant; in my opinion this is always done either to contain the intrinsically free and open-ended nature of yoga and meditation or else to ‘spice up’ religion and bring it a bit more into the physical world, taking advantage of yoga technique to present religion in a more deeply influential and penetrating way. There is a subtle contradiction in this, however, because the inner self, soul or consciousness of an individual yoga practitioner is essentially ineffable; yoga meditation is subjective and introspective by nature precisely for this reason—its object is the direct experience of the conscious self, an experience that by definition cannot be shared or communicated. And since externally transmitted religious doctrines, no matter how sophisticated or authoritative, can never really convey the reality of ‘inner’ subjective experience or reveal the ineffable nature of the self or the mind, layering religion onto yoga or using yoga as a delivery system for religion is in a way contrary to yoga’s fundamental purpose and technique. Seeking to constrain yoga through religious dogma, for example by explicitly teaching people what the nature of enlightenment is, or what stages or phenomena they will experience in meditation, or what deity dwells at the center of their being and so forth, is always oddly contradictory to the organic flow of yoga. We might compare this to something like the scene in the movie Contact where the character Ellie realizes that all of the harsh vibration and noise within the alien space capsule is being caused by the extra safety and navigation gear placed there by the engineering team; in the same way, as one befriends one’s own mind in the practice of advanced yoga, everything that requires rationalization and self-explanation in order to be ‘believed’ begins to be experienced as an obstacle. This is because the fundamental focus and orientation of yoga is always inward, toward the mind, rather than outward toward society.

“You are right to mention that tantric ideas such as the chakras can exert a certain influence on one’s outlook or sense of oneself, and that this could be viewed as somewhat religious in nature; depending on where and how it is taught, yoga can carry with it varying degrees of what we might call Eastern spiritual concepts. These Eastern spiritual concepts, however, tend to be very generic and do not cohere into any specific religious framework; thus, it is possible to cite numerous examples of different yoga-based religion, each of which is focused on a different object of devotion or worship, and each of which thus conceives of the ‘true nature’ of the inner self quite differently. Thus it can be seen that while fundamental yoga techniques such as asanas, meditation and mental concentration are largely the same everywhere the layers of religious faith and metaphysical philosophy surrounding them can differ substantially. This demonstrates that yoga is not in and of itself representative of any particular religion; a more apt analogy than the sign of the cross example that you mentioned would be the pressing of the hands together in prayer. This gesture in and of itself says nothing about what an individual might be directing his or her mental focus or religious devotion toward; while making the sign of the cross might be interpreted as a specifically religious or even sectarian form of sign language, pressing one’s hands together is a universal and inward directed gesture of devotion and inner unity that is more or less compatible with all forms of religion. Thus, the gesture of pressing one’s hands together is not, in and of itself, religious, but must be something different; many aspects of what is being called, in aggregate, ‘yoga’ could likewise be viewed in a similar way.

“I’d be very interested to know what you think religion is, in its essence; or, since you’ve introduced the idea of postmodernism, if you even think that religion has an essence, any particular point of fixed meaning by which we could describe it. I think this is very germane, even central, to the discussion at hand, whether we are just talking about the cultural or sociological significance of yoga and religion or something else, and whether or not yoga and Christianity can be compatible. In particular I’d be interested to know what aspects of yoga you might regard as particularly objectionable, or religious, or both, and what if any is the overlap between these particular qualities.”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “You raise excellent questions, which get to the heart of the issues we are discussing, and around which the Encinitas yoga trial revolved. This was, indeed, the judge’s opening question before either attorney spoke: ‘What is religion?’ Religion has been defined in many different ways. Many scholars—and courts—find it helpful to identify religions by how they function: to set apart that which seems ‘sacred’ or special, from that which seems ‘profane’ or ordinary; explain ultimate problems of human life; connect individuals with suprahuman energies, beings, or transcendent realities; or cultivate spiritual awareness or virtues of ethical/moral character.

“The Supreme Court has recognized ‘religions’ that fit one or more of the above criteria, even though they ‘do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God,’ including ‘Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism.’

Spirituality—which may be subjective, individualistic, nonsectarian, accepting of diverse beliefs, and lack ties to a specific religious community, institution, or doctrine—is a subset of religion, since it shares metaphysical (more than physical) assumptions about the nature of reality and otherwise functions like religion.

“There are in America today two broad families of religion: those that focus on belief/Word, and those that emphasize practice/experience. Religion can be expressed and instilled not only through verbal affirmation of core beliefs, but also through bodily practices—even when no words are used. Repeated performance of symbolic actions (rituals) can establish powerful moods and motivations by supporting a worldview, or big picture of reality, and instilling an ethos, or philosophy or how one should live.

“Because Christianity has been dominant in America, many people fail to recognize as ‘religious’ those religions that are unlike Christianity. Many people associate ‘religion’ with guilt-inducing proscriptions on behavior and requirements that adherents regularly attend church, intellectually assent to doctrines or recite creeds, and follow legalistic rules—and want to distance themselves from this kind of dogmatic religion. (Indeed, many Christians want to distance themselves from this kind of religion!) Sometimes people select euphemisms to replace ‘religion’ in describing their own religious beliefs and practices: such as ‘spiritual,’ ‘sacred,’ or ‘relationship’ (e.g. with God). The key question for legal definition is not whether people use the term ‘religion,’ but whether beliefs and/or practices function in religious ways.

“The above definition of religion does not by any means discount the validity or uniqueness of individual experience. Individuals are, however, social creatures, and so religious meanings, like other meanings, are socially as well as individually constructed. Of course individuals can, and no doubt will, continue to create their own, personal definitions of religion (especially, as you imply, in a postmodern era). But we live in a society that is governed by a written Constitution that specifies that Congress (and states) ‘shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Thus, courts must determine what counts as ‘religion’ for legal purposes, and which government actions have the effect of promoting or inhibiting religion. Making these determinations requires that courts examine not only the meanings that individuals ascribe to their own actions, but also how these actions are interpreted by others in society. How many people in society need to associate a practice with religion in order for it to be legally defined as religious? For the courts, the threshold is necessarily low, in order for government to maintain a ‘strict and lofty neutrality as to religion.’

“I find your definition of ‘yoga’s core concepts’ as focusing on ‘individual consciousness,’ with the object of ‘direct experience of the conscious self’ fascinating. For many practitioners—today as well as in the past—the goal of yoga (whether asanas, meditation, mental concentration, etc.) does not stop with individual consciousness or self, but extends to yoking individual consciousness with universal consciousness, or realization of the Self, which is divine (Samadhi). This latter definition of yoga fits the criteria of ‘religion’ outlined above, rather than setting yoga apart as something essentially different from religion that is only coincidentally ‘fused’ with religion. It seems that you are inverting widely accepted ‘core concepts’ of yoga by denying the existence of a universal consciousness to which the individual consciousness may yoke, and by insisting that only self, not Self, exists.

“You even seem to confirm the pervasiveness of the core concepts you reject by identifying the ‘religious dogma’s of ‘teaching people what the nature of enlightenment is, or what stages or phenomena they will experience in meditation, or what deity dwells at the center of their being.’ You note that the ‘Eastern spiritual concepts’ (e.g. chakras) that yoga conveys ‘tend to be very generic and do not cohere into any specific religious framework.’ I agree, but, referring back to the definition of religion above, spiritual concepts do not have to be unique to any one religious framework in order to be religious. This is a very important point that often gets missed in discussions of yoga. Yoga may not be representative of any one particular religion alone (e.g. yoga may not be ‘essentially’ Hindu), yet it is closely associated with a family of practice/experience-oriented religions and metaphysical spirituality, and often functions to aspire toward religious goals (e.g. ultimately Samadhi).

“I like your analogy between yoga and ‘pressing of the hands together in prayer.’ Indeed, a number of yoga asanas incorporate a praying hands (anjalimudra) gesture. This gesture, or variants (e.g. folding the hands, with fingers interlaced), is used in a variety of religious traditions, with diverse objects of devotion. It may be unclear to observers what the particular object of devotion is, but most observers will recognize the gesture as religious. It is not a meaning-neutral gesture. I’d add the analogy of the generically Christian symbol of the cross. The cross is used, in various contexts, and with diverse meanings, by Catholics, Orthodox, and different Protestant denominations. The cross is no less religious because different sects invest it with particular meanings and use it for distinctive purposes. Back to a legal standard, courts not only guard against the promotion (or inhibition) of specific religious sects or doctrines, but more strictly avoid promoting one family of religions above others or religion above irreligion.

“I completely agree with your suggestion that efforts to fuse yoga with Christianity reflect a desire to ‘spice up’ religious traditions that even some Christians perceive as overly intellectual, otherworldly, and body denying. Indeed, you touch on an important aspect of our postmodern culture—an intensified (religious) desire to directly experience ultimate reality. This helps to explain Christian yoga, and from the way you talk about yoga and atheism, it seems that you may share the same basic impulse.

“This all leads up to several additional questions for you: How do you define religion? By what criteria do you determine what does and does not count as religion? What are examples of what is and is not religion by these criteria? How would you position your understanding of atheism relative to the definition of religion that I present? Do you think yoga has any connection with virtue, morality, or character development? If so, what is the basis of that connection?”

[Anton Drake]: “Ironically, broadening the definition(s) of religion as you seek to do might very well be lead to questions about how mainstream religions actually do differ from other types of philosophies and branches of science, and whether or not the government should simply regard religions as no different from any other branch of human knowledge asserting truth claims of one sort or another. Such a development might call into question certain aspects of mainstream religion’s somewhat privileged position in America, including the tax-exempt status currently enjoyed by many religious organizations. In other words, by broadening the definition of religion to include things like hatha yoga or secular humanism this argument seems to open itself to defining ‘religion’ out of existence. Under such a broad definition all forms of philosophy, for instance, might be regarded as having emerged from the Stoicism, Epicurianism, Platonism or Aristotelianism of the ancient Greeks and therefore as intrinsically ‘religious’—being based upon certain metaphysical assumptions or concerning themselves with human character and so forth. Subjects such as chemistry, electrical engineering and physics could conceivably be labeled as ‘religious’ because of their base adherence to the mathematical concepts of Pythagoras, or because of their underlying core suppositions regarding space, extension, existence and epistemology, which might again be seen as having a touching upon the terrain of metaphysics. Under such a wide definition, a more traditional mainstream religion might have trouble pointing out just what makes it any more ‘religious’ than anything else.

“Viewed from another angle, broadening the definition of religion to include something like hatha yoga forces people to accept a religious interpretation of it; this interpretation is thus in a sense being imposed by religious groups, who may have an interest in hardening the borders around their own belief systems, in order to keep believers ‘in’ while keeping new ideas ‘out.’ Labeling something as ‘religious’ can be in a sense an extension of the religious beliefs of whatever group is applying the label; claiming to ‘see’ an alternate or inverted form of religion or faith hidden or ‘camouflaged’ within an activity like hatha yoga could thus be likened to the Puritans labeling dancing and drunkenness as de facto forms of ‘devil worship’ and thus claiming the authority to proscribe them on purely religious grounds.  In the same way things like Japanese sushi, Zen meditation, marijuana and so forth, which some mainstream religious groups might regard as forms of paganism or heathenism because they do not stem from traditional European culture, could also be labeled as religious. The logic here is that if religion xyz is prohibited from overtly teaching its religion in the public schools, it can then draw a circle around the totality of its belief system and label everything ‘outside’ that circle as a religion of a different stripe that should in its turn also be barred from inclusion in public school curriculum. This is an ‘if you are not with us, then you are against us’ kind of reasoning that insists that everything is either in one camp or the other, us or them, in or out, black or white, and therefore imposes its own brand of broad spiritual dualism on society, a dualism which at bottom inherently presupposes its own specifically religious framework of values and metaphysics, and is heard precisely in what is prohibited from inclusion in the public school curriculum.

“It seems to me therefore that attempting to broaden the interpretation of what constitutes a religion is an attempt to invert the rulings of the Supreme Court on these matters; the overall approach seems to be that, if you are not going to allow public schools to teach prayer, then we are going to use these same laws to prevent anything from being taught that we find objectionable from our religious standpoint. Thus, a body of law that was intended to remove religion and religious influence from the public schools can be used to preclude the teaching of that which is not religious or, what is perhaps worse, that which is somehow ‘spiritual’ or blissful but not ‘religious.’ Nobody, obviously, is trying to argue that the teaching and practice of prayer (whether that prayer be Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon, Shiite, Sunni, etc) is not religious, or that it would be suitable for a public school, and as far as I know none of the proponents of prayer in school have tried to argue that prayer is not religious. So we are, presumably, all in agreement that prayer is a religious activity, and that therefore the teaching of prayer in public schools is something clearly prohibited by the rulings of the Supreme Court. In broadening the interpretation of this law, however, to encompass a wider array of multicultural activities—anything that might have the slightest patina of ‘spiritual’ significance in its origins or ancient past—we substantially change its context and significance. You even seemed to hint that atheism and secular humanism should rightly be included in this broader definition of what constitutes religion; this again brings us closer to labeling things like classical logic, science and mathematics, as well as the humanistic values of the enlightenment, as ‘religious.’

“Continuing in this vein, we could very likely find logical grounds for prohibiting the teaching of evolution in schools, using the very same laws that prohibit prayer in school; in fact I probably betray my ignorance on this matter because as I write this it occurs to me that the teaching of evolution has probably been argued against in precisely this manner. In my view such logic attempts to coyly dodge around the fact that the edifices of scientific knowledge are built upon a vastly different foundation than the one which underlies religious faith; science, philosophy and reason are continually open to new information, new ideas and new paradigms, whereas religion generally bases itself upon a fixed point of absolute ‘truth’—whether that truth is revealed from a scripture or is handed down directly from a structure of religious authority. Science is thus rightly given a higher standing than religion in the eyes of the law, especially as regards our public schools; the ruling of the Supreme Court on this matter was, in fact, urgently required because of the unfortunate fact that conflicting religions generally have no capacity for reasoning with one another or moving together toward a shared objective truth, and thus any assertion of a truth claim by one religion might very often turn out to be a direct affront to any number of other religions. Thus, religion is barred from the public schools in order to protect the religious sensibilities and sentimentalities of the population while not restricting or limiting the forward march of reason and science; seeking to broaden the definition of religion in order to encompass philosophy, secular humanism or various forms of exercise or mental concentration upsets this balance, by seeking to divide up the entire chessboard, if you will, into religious territories.

“In answer to your question as to how I would define religion, I would firstly say that there are always two subjective perspectives from which to regard a religion—from the ‘inside’ and from the ‘outside.’ Obviously, a person who believes or adheres to religion ABC will view an alternate religion XYZ quite differently than he views his own religion and thus, as others have pointed out, every religious believer also understands what it feels like to not believe (in other religions). Atheists, obviously, stand outside of all religions and thus while they do not necessarily doubt any specific religion on the basis of its own internal religious logic, they do dispense with religion in general on the basis of epistemology, logic, empiricism, probability and so forth. As an aside here, something that I realize is neither here-nor-there in the context of our discussion, I will say that as an atheist standing outside of any religious viewpoint I do see yoga as being largely compatible with Christianity and Christian values. As I’ve pointed out before, many adherents of Hinduism and Eastern spirituality keep pictures of Jesus on their altars or pujas and see no contradiction in this; they seem to embrace what I might describe as the better angels of contemporary Christianity—peace, love, harmony, charity and forgiveness—and integrate a sincere measure of Christian faith into their broader mystical outlook (including the Tantric spiritual anatomy of the chakras and so forth), seeing Jesus as a genuine manifestation of divinity. This kind of openness points to the possibility that religions in the future might find a way to follow themselves toward their points of commonality, in the Jungian sense, which might lead toward the development of universal principles of spirituality or ‘religion,’ and go a long way toward promoting peace and harmony in the world.”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “Thank you for your thoughtful response. The functional definition of ‘religion’ that I explained to you is not actually one that I have created in an attempt to ‘broaden’ a more ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ definition of religion. I’m simply explaining how both religion scholars and the courts (e.g. Meyers, 906 F.Supp. 1494, 1502;Africa, 662 F.2d at 1032) already define religion. The purpose of clear criteria, such as those I’ve explained, is to avoid defining religion out of existence by overly broad, diffuse, or subjective definitions that would blur the boundaries between religion and non-religious philosophy or science. A functional definition does not consider beliefs or practices to be ‘intrinsically’ religious merely because of cultural origins, i.e., that they emerged from ancient cultures that held metaphysical assumptions, as you imply. At issue is whether current practices still function in religious ways. Thus, ancient Greek and Roman metaphysics fit the criteria of religion (e.g. setting apart the sacred, explaining ultimate problems, connecting with suprahuman energies, or cultivating moral character), but modern chemistry, electrical engineering, physics, mathematics, etc., do not. Likewise, Buddhism is a religion. Current practice of Zen Buddhist meditation is religious; it coincidentally has cultural roots in Japan, but more to the point fits the above-listed criteria of religion—e.g. metaphysical assumption that there is no self, goals of spiritual enlightenment and/or freedom from suffering by extinguishing desires, etc. Japanese sushi is not religious; it does not matter that it has origins in a culture in which Buddhism was prevalent, nor that modern Japanese people, among others, eat it; eating sushi does not fit any of the criteria of religion. Yoga is not religious just because ancient Hindus in India practiced it; religious beliefs and practices, e.g. salvation, yoking to a Supreme Being or to a universal consciousness, Samadhi, yamas and niyamas (moral/ethical restraints and observances), chakras, chanting OM, anjalimudra, jnanamudra, etc. etc. are still pervasive in the contemporary American yoga scene.

“The courts must determine what ‘counts’ as religious in order to uphold the First Amendment—-both protecting free exercise of religion and preventing government from favoring one family of religions above another or religion above irreligion. It is not religious groups who are ‘imposing’ religious interpretations on others, but the objective (if they are doing their jobs properly) courts that seek to issue rulings in accordance with the values of religious equality and religious voluntarism. Courts do this by applying the same criteria to test whether beliefs/practices are religious, regardless of their cultural origins.”