Reza Aslan and the Impossibilty of an Expert in Religion in America

I think there has been one thing missing from all the blogging and twittering and Facebook posting over the Reza Aslan interview with Fox News:

For many Americans, the idea of an expert in religion is impossible. Sure, you may have a Ph.D., you may know texts in their original languages, you may even have written some books about the history of religions. But you aren’t an expert, in their eyes. Because you don’t REALLY KNOW. You haven’t FELT IT. DEEP DOWN. For most of America, to be an expert in religion one must be a TRUE BELIEVER.

For these Americans, to be an expert in religion makes as much a sense as being an expert in someone else’s mother’s lasagna recipe.

So, when the host, Lauren Green, asks Aslan why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus she is channeling a popular understanding of religion in America. She is denying that Aslan could be an expert in anything other than his own Islam. Thus, Aslan’s response that he has a Ph.D. and that this is his job and that he has lots of footnotes will never satiate Green and her audience because they all fall short of expertise. Unless he is a true believer in Jesus, these folks believe, it is impossible for Aslan to be an expert.

It’s like being a true vegan.

What does a real commitment to a certain way of thinking, speaking and behaving look like? Internally it means the idea gets such a hold on your brain that it would be impossible to abandon it without tearing apart the fabric of your being. You must tie yourself to the mast and make it neurologically impossible to change your mind on this one issue. You must be equivalent to your veganism such that to end your veganism would be to end yourself.

So how does one externally manifest this and, short of dying, authenticate a lifelong commitment to veganism? Some suggestions:

  • Refer to meat eaters as “carnists” and “corpse munchers.”
  • Address nonhuman animals in an inclusive manner that doesn’t obscure our own animality. Nonhuman animals are “other animals” or “animal others,” not “beasts” or “it.”
  • Get a visible and potentially career-undermining vegan tattoo.
  • Include a reference to anti-speciesism or sentience in your email address.
  • Bring most IRL conversations back around to the oppression of nonhuman animals.
  • Get a vasectomy, if a man, and an IUD if a woman.
  • Write a living will in which you ask to be euthanized if your memory degrades to the point that you don’t remember what veganism is.
  • Denounce so-called former vegans and call ex-veganism impossible.
  • And most important: Don’t stop believing.

Don’t stop believing, indeed.

Yoga is either religious instruction or the “wussification of America.”

At least that’s what two stories I ran into this week are saying.

First, there’s a Fox News story that I came across via Media Matters in which the fine folks at Fox & Friends discuss the new “trend” of children practicing yoga with guest and parenting guru (no pun intended) Larry Winget. The whole segment is based around a frame of “yoga vs. sports.” While he initially praises the benefits of yoga (in order to satiate the “yoga nazis”-now there’s an image), the segment devolves into Winget lecturing the audience on why yoga isn’t a sport-it doesn’t have a ball, you can’t win or lose, you don’t keep score.  The lowest part comes when Winget tries to link children doing the downward dog with the “wussification” of America.

Sports, according to Winget, has a character building value because it teaches winning and losing and is interactive and social. Yoga, on the other hand, does not teach a child how to compete or socialize with others, but instead, is an individual and isolating practice. This distinction is not new. Americans have long imagined yoga as an isolated practice. Some saw this positively, such as Thoreau. Meanwhile, 18th and 19th century European accounts of the “Hindoo fakir” that circulated in America imagined yoga as the individual practice of heathen holy men. For more on this see Kirin Narayan’s excellent article “Refractions from the Field at Home: American Representations of Hindu Holy Men in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Cultural Anthropology 8 (1993): 476–509.

Now neither Thoreau’s yoga at Walden Pond nor evangelical missionary reports looked anything like preschoolers striking warrior pose, but the discourse of Western social activity, capitalist competition, and work ethic contrasted with Eastern isolation, asceticism, and navel gazing is embedded in our thinking about yoga today. Yoga is “wussification” insofar as it replaces the aggressive, communal, and competitive sports with its individual navel gazing and austere, individualized, and quietest practice.  I also thought there were hints of an almost Robert Bellah-like argument against “sports Sheilaism,” for lack of a better term. If this yoga trend (is it really a trend?) keeps up we may see the downfall of our treasured social-sport institutions. We might all become “exercisers but not athletes.” The rise of the athletic “nones.” Little Leagues and Pop Warners will crumble. I’m being tongue-in-cheek, but I think this story does get to the role of sports in American culture and the major apologetic for child sports, that they build character and teach life lessons.

But what if yoga taught character and life lessons? Over at NPR a story from Encinitas, California does just that. The K. P. Jois Foundation, an Ashtanga yoga group, supports wellness program in the school district there that gets elementary students to hit the yoga mats. But at least one parent objects to the yoga classes, claiming that they are an establishment of religion.

“They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises,” she says.

Those looked like religious teachings to her, so she opted to keep her son out of the classes. The more Eady reads about the Jois Foundation and its founders’ beliefs in the spiritual benefits of Ashtanga yoga, the more she’s convinced that the poses and meditation can’t be separated from their Hindu roots.

“It’s stated in the curriculum that it’s meant to shape the way that they view the world, it’s meant to shape the way that they make life decisions,” Eady says. “It’s meant to shape the way that they regulate their emotions and the way that they view themselves.”

For their part, the Jois Foundation maintains that the program teaches character, not religion.

Jois Foundation Director Eugene Ruffin, however, maintains that the yoga program is typical of athletics programs for kids.

“They provide you with the exercise and the motivation for children,” Ruffin says. “And then they give you character exercises — ‘Thou shalt not steal, thou shall be honest, thou shall be respectful to adults.’ “

Ruffin says those ideals aren’t specific to Hinduism and don’t conflict with his own Catholic upbringing.

Apparently those character exercises are in King James English. Here yoga is lauded for teaching life lessons on the one hand, and derided for doing so too well, on the other. Note the divergent definitions of religion between Ruffin, the yoga apologist and Eady, the parent. For Eady yoga is religious because it teaches them how to make life decisions and how to make meaning in the world. Ruffin counters both Eady and even Winget by claiming that yoga is like sports. It builds character. It teaches life lessons.

And so now we are back where we started: life lessons. Both of these stories highlight the question of how best to instill “character” in our children. This is a long standing question that goes back to nineteenth century school reformers like Noah Webster and Horace Mann. These Protestant educators sought to instill virtue, what we might now call “life lessons,” into children and thought this could only be done with a non-sectarian Protestant education. Now, in the plural 21st century, educators are still wrestling with the question of how to instill character and virtue in young hearts and minds, but instead of the King James Bible and the Lord’s Prayer they are turning to yoga mats.

What are the kids getting out of all of this yoga? A deeper knowledge of Hinduism?

“Absolutely not — no. What my daughter tells me is she did the pancake today and she lays down and then she cracks up because it’s so funny,” Cocco says.

Ah yes, Patanjali’s infamous pancake asana.


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