Monday, October 15, 2012

Religion, being religious-minded, and copping out; some neither-here-nor-there thoughts

As many of you who read this blog and a few others know, a number of parents whose children are attending school in the Encinitas Union School District complained last week to the district's trustees about the yoga program initiated in the district through a grant from the Jois Foundation, calling it religious indoctrination. A few bloggers have written about this incident, including Steve, Grimmly, and yours truly

As is usual and perhaps understandable in a matter like this, emotions ran a little high, and a fair bit of name-calling ensued. The aggrieved parents alleged that the yoga program was a covert attempt at religious indoctrination; a few parents who did a bit of research on the Jois Foundation and Ashtanga yoga were especially concerned that the program was an attempt to indoctrinate the children in Hinduism.

Now, it's perhaps easy and even tempting for us yoga folks to respond to these parents by saying that they are over-reacting, intolerant people who are motivated by "the simple stupidity of being afraid of something just because it’s different" (just so I don't get accused of plagiarism, this is where this line comes from). Some may also say that these parents' responses are motivated by fear and ignorance of the unknown, that these parents do not understand that it is possible to be spiritual without being religious, that although Ashtanga yoga may have a spiritual/religious bent, practicing Ashtanga does not turn one into a Hindu or into a follower of any particular religion.

But I think this is precisely the sticking point: Is it really possible to be spiritual without being religious? Or, to try to put it more precisely, is it possible to have a spiritual orientation in our own lives without subscribing to a fixed system of established beliefs? Furthermore, does just any fixed system of established beliefs count as a religion? Suppose I am an atheist who nevertheless strongly believes in certain moral principles ("Do not kill unjustly", "Do not steal", etc.) which I have established for myself through self-reflection, and from which I never deviate for even a single moment. Am I then a religious atheist? Or is this an oxymoron?

Or maybe it is not enough simply to believe strongly in a particular set of principles and live one's life by them in order to qualify as religious. Maybe in order for a set of beliefs to count as religious beliefs, it also needs to prescribe belief in something greater than yourself, something which extends beyond physical reality (God, Krishna, the Universe, the laws of karma, what-have-you...) to which you are in some way accountable.

But if this is true, wouldn't this mean that to practice yoga is in fact to be religious? After all, we all know that "correct" yoga practice extends beyond the mat: We are supposed to also practice the yamas, niyamas, and all the other limbs in addition to just stretching our bodies and trying to perform gymnastic-looking feats on the mat. And unless you believe that you are accountable to something that is greater than yourself, why should you bother to not harm others, not steal from others, or not sleep with whomever you please? If you were to somehow find out tomorrow that God or Krishna is dead or that the laws of karma were merely something that the Buddha dreamt up while taking his daily morning poop or that the universe is in fact a cold, benignly indifferent place (as Camus would have us believe), would it still make sense to practice the yamas and niyamas? Would it still make sense to refrain from harming others, not steal from others and not sleep with whomever you please if at the end of the day, you are just going to disappear into dust, period?

But I digress. To come back to the original issue, although I have not done an official study on this, I get the sense, from talking with yogis and yoginis over the years, that most yoga practitioners actually believe that there is something out/in there that is greater than the selves of which they are aware on a physical level. Many have come to yoga precisely because of this: They are disenchanted with the traditional established religions (in most cases, Judeo-Christian religions), but refuse to believe that there is ultimately nothing out/in there. And yoga (at least the way it is practiced in the west) offers a non-threatening way of affirming that there is something out/in there without having to subscribe to a fixed belief about what it is that is actually out/in there.

So perhaps we can say that many yogis are people who are religious without subscribing to any particular established religion. Perhaps we can say that many yogis are people who have been unhinged from the religion in which they previously believed, but still retain a religious bent of mind and spirit. I suspect that there are many people out there who would say that this is trying to have one's religious cake and eat it too. In particular, in a recent article on the CNN belief blog, Alan Miller goes as far as to call people like yogis "cop-outs". Miller writes:

"Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices.

A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an, let alone The Old or New Testament."

Before I go on, I have to say that I can't help noticing that Miller's entire article smacks of a certain Judeo-Christian-centrism; notice, for example, that in the quote above, he prefaces his reference to the Old or New Testament with "let alone." But well, I don't have the time or energy to pick a fight over a small thing like this. Anyway, Miller continues:

"So what, one may ask?

Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work.

Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses - an entirely radical moment that had enormous consequences for humanity."

I take it that what Miller is saying here is that since Christianity is so interwoven into western history and culture, and has given us such good things as the visual arts, Bach, much of the existing western literature, and the printing press, etc., we should therefore embrace Christianity and what, become Christians?

Excuse my French, but this is f*%king bullshit! Okay, okay, let me take a breath and calm myself down... Okay, I'm back. First, notwithstanding the fact that Christianity has also given us some pretty bad things (the Inquisition, the Crusades, to name a couple...), even if Miller is totally correct that Christianity has given us all good and no bad, it still wouldn't follow that we ought to shed our so-called cop-out religiosity and embrace Christianity. Why? Because Philosophy 101 teaches that you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is": Even if it is true that Christianity has done so much good, it does not follow that we ought to become Christians. If you don't follow this, let me use another example. Going further back in history, we also know that ancient Greek civilization has given us wonderful things like philosophy, the first natural sciences, democracy and astronomy, to name a few. Well, does this mean that we ought to start worshiping Greek Gods? (Actually, that might not be such a bad idea. New Ashtanga opening mantra: "I prostrate myself to the almighty Zeus, whose lightning bolt ever threatens to strike at my ignorance from the heights of Olympus, shattering my illusions and freeing me from the poisons of my ever-so-conditioned existence. Omm...")       

But anyway, I think you get the picture: One cannot arrive at any conclusions about what to worship or how to live our lives from facts about the world. So where does this leave many yogis? This leaves them in a position of knowing (or at least strongly believing) that there is something out/in there, but they have not made up their minds or committed to what exactly is out/in there. And I'm not sure if this is such a bad thing. It may not be the most comfortable place to be in, existentially speaking, but it's at least honest.


Yikes! That was a major, major digression. Now I can barely remember what I set out to say at the beginning of this post. Well, yes, about those parents in Encinitas who are concerned that a bunch of copped-out-yet-religiously-minded-yogis (who nevertheless claim not to belong to any religion) are indoctrinating their children in Hinduism, thus violating the doctrine of separation of Church and School District. Are their concerns well-founded?

Let me start by pointing out the obvious. How can people who truly and honestly do not belong to any religion be capable of indoctrinating their children in Hinduism or whatever other religion? If something is to count as an attempt at indoctrination, there must be an indoctinator/s who know exactly what they believe in and who is trying to spread these beliefs to those they are trying to indoctrinate. And I just don't think this is true of most yogis in this country. Sure, some yogis do choose to become Hindus and perform daily pujas and whatnot. But this surely cannot be true of most yogis, even hardcore Ashtangis.

But it is one thing for you and I to know all this. Now try explaining all this to these parents. Where would you even start?        


  1. My understanding is that 'Spiritual' as a term came into to vogue precisely for those without a feeling of strong association to a particular organised Religion, what a hundred or so years ago. I know what Religion is, how to talk about religion but never really grasped what 'spiritual' actually stands for. Personally I don't tend to consider myself religious or spiritual and yet I probably chant the Jesus prayer a couple of thousand times a day.

    Might be useful to think back to your old heidegger days Noble and his use of worldview, the Christian world view, the Greek world view (which wasn't about worshiping gods as rather the world in which one experienced, coming into being).

    The gods of India don't really have much resonance for me but the image of Jesus does, from a lifetime of exposure and I have internalised Bach and Milton and Dante in a way in which I haven't the Ramayana or maharabhata. I can see the argument for exploring within your Religious tradition...( or even going back and forth to bring out new aspects and perspectives) it's not that it's given us good things so much as it's given us ... pretty much everything we know, the good and the bad as well as the enlightenment response, the indifferent : ). Of course you could go native, live in India for a bunch years run around with the Sadhu's read thousands of books but you'd still be on the surface of things....listening to Ramaswami teach the yoga sutras, he would constantly go off on tangents, mention this text or that, children stories or tv programs and movies he grew up with as a kid, mottos his gran would come out with....he's tell us about how as a kid his gran washed the floor with cow dung, anti bacterial supposedly. It's all woven together...may as well work with what you have's an argument, a good one, certainly not bullshit.

    And re the parents, one blog refers to them as idiots another as fruitcakes.... now where was that, but i think they have an instinct that something isn't quite right. i don't think they nailed what it is, came up with terms like Hinduism and of course we're all so smart that we can scoff at them at that and at the idea of indoctrination but re my own post, Ashtangi's take their yoga pretty seriously. No we don't tend to convert to 'Hinduism' necessarily but many of us delve ever deeper into this culture. There's an introduction to a world there. Sonya isn't just paying for happy fun yoga classes, she seems to be pushing as much Ashtanga as she thinks she can get away with and apparently conducting studies involving the kids at the same time, for her Uni research project. The parents are onto something, they're not sure what exactly but their spidey sense is pricked.
    Sorry long comment.....but it was a long post

    1. Wow, a long comment on a long post :-) I used the word "fruitcake" in response to sereneflavor's comment on my Kabbashtanga post. I wasn't referring to the parents in particular, just referring to a recent comment by a friend. But that probably wasn't nice. For all I know, there are probably tons of people out there who think of me as a fruitcake too...

      You seem to be making a distinction between "Religion" as opposed to "religion". I'm not sure I understand the distinction between the two. Care to elaborate?

      I think I can appreciate the notion of a worldview which is, as you say, more about seeing the world through a particular set of cultural lenses (Greek, Christian, Confucian, etc.) rather than worshiping particular gods or subscribing to particular views of the hereafter. I also agree that somebody who grew up in and whose life has been infused with the cultural "juices" of a particular worldview probably understands that culture on a certain visceral level that is way deeper than the sort of understanding that comes from books or even from going native.

      I think I can appreciate all this, on some level. But on another level, I am also suspicious of this notion: It seems to lend itself too easily to abuse by people who champion some notion of cultural determinism, the idea that one can never become anything other than what his or her cultural upbringing made him or her out to be. I think that individuals are too complex to be so determined. Maybe some individuals' worldviews are very much in line with what their cultural worldview prescribes, and they are happy with that. I have no quarrel with that, but I don't think that fits neatly with my own experience of what I am. I certainly don't feel very at home with the Confucian worldview, even though I can probably make myself assimilate to it as and when I need to do so.

      Another reason why I am suspicious of this notion is that it seems to slip easily into this line of thinking: If you are a member of culture x (say, the Christian worldview or culture), and do not accept the cultural heritage and worldview of said culture, then you are either deluded/confused (i.e. a "spiritual but not religious" cop-out) or are embracing some not-so-enlightened culture.

      It is this line of thinking that I call bullshit and which I think smacks of a certain Judeo-Christian-centrism. Even if cultural determinism is true (if I highly doubt), even if one can never go beyond one's own cultural upbringing, why should subscribing to one worldview be more enlightened than another?

      Come to think of it, I wonder if this is why I moved away from Heidegger back then...

    2. Oh, and re the parents... I think you're right that their spidey sense picked up on something, even if they couldn't precisely pin down what it was. Perhaps, if everything that we've been saying about cultural worldviews is right, what they really picked up on (which they mis-diagnosed as an attempt at "Hindu indoctrination") is actually Sonia's/the Jois Foundation's attempt to foist a worldview on their children through the yoga program.

      Is foisting a worldview on unsuspecting children just as wrong as indoctrinating them in a religion? Does it violate the separation of Church and School District? I don't know...

  2. Religion/religion was just clumsy/lazy typing.

    No I, don't think it necessarily implies or results in cultural determinism, nor is it about imposition. The idea is that the different Weltanschauung arise out of each other the Christian from the Greek, enlightenment, modernity, postmodernity (?). It's a problematic idea of course but I find it useful.

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