May 15, 2014

Religion's conceptual shape-shifting is maybe its survival mechanism at work

Giles Fraser
The Guardian
February 14, 2014

Is yoga a religion? Scientology? We now seem to accept it has become what Wittgenstein called a family resemblance concept

The sun is gracefully dipping below the watery horizon. Waves are lapping at the beach. But for all this opportunity for reflective wonder, things are not well in my world. My downward dog is murdering my calf muscle. Then we go into some excruciating sequence from striking cobra into grimacing bear. Actually, I made up that last asana. But that's how I feel (and, no doubt, look). It's like playing Twister with some softly spoken sadist. At this precise moment in time, it's hard to imagine that yoga was conceived of as an answer to the problem of suffering.

But is all of this any sort of religion? Millions now practise yoga worldwide. It has become a billion-dollar industry. Yet the Brooklyn and Bethnal Green trendies who wrap themselves up in somatic knots in search of sculpted bodies and mental quietness have little in common with the celibate ash-covered yogis of ancient India.

For many, yoga has become an exclusively secular activity, more about the sweatpants of Pineapple than the sutras of Patanjali. Hardcore yogis often disparage the dilettante dabbling of the keep-fit brigade, arguing that without an appreciation of the wider theological hinterland, yoga is robbed of its primary purpose. Nonetheless, I suspect most westerners who settle into their lotus positions regard the teaching bit as little more than exotic orientalist colour, with limited emotional or intellectual purchase on their wider lives.

The NHS is happy to promote yoga on their website and yet, to my knowledge, the National Secular Society has yet to complain about a Hindu bias in healthcare. Even more intriguingly, yoga is popular in places like Iran, where it is carefully labelled a sport so as not to contradict the prohibitions of sharia law. On the other hand, some vicars ban yoga from their church halls.

So what's a religion? Last December's judgment of the UK supreme court, in deciding whether the Church of Scientology could be registered as a place of religious marriage, turned on the question of whether Scientology was a religion. In 1970, Lord Denning said it was not. Last year, the courts decided it was, recalling a 1979 judgment of the US circuit court in which the practice of yogic meditation in public schools was deemed to be a religion. In that judgment, the US court expanded its legal definition of religion beyond the theistic. Following suit in the Scientology case, the UK court has also now accepted a far wider definition of what constitutes religion. Lord Toulson's conclusion was that"religion should not be confined to religions that recognise a supreme deity".

In saying this, the law is tracking wider changes in society. "When I mention religion," said Parson Thwackum in Henry Fielding's 1749 novel Tom Jones, "I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England." Since then, what constitutes religion has been rightly expanded – but perhaps to such an extent that it calls into question the very coherence of the term religion itself. For whereas Thwackum's narrow definition had the virtue of clear boundaries, we now seem to accept that religion has become what Wittgenstein called a family resemblance concept, with no one particular feature that is common to all.

Religion has become an unstable concept, with fuzzy edges. And while the law obviously requires a definition for the purposes of taxation, marriage and so on, there's something faintly ridiculous about lawyers trying to pin down so shape-shifting an idea as religion. I suspect that this conceptual shifting is the religious instinct's survival mechanism. And that is especially true of yoga. How else could something like sun worship – the surya namaskar – continue to flourish in so hostile an environment as secular Britain and fundamentalist Iran?