Is there a natural affinity between mindfulness, or other secular forms of meditation, and Religious Naturalism?

by Michael Barrett

“My suggestion for religious naturalism’s ethical framework is the
cultivation of a scientifically informed mindfulness as a novel
hybrid of meditation/introspection and empirical investigation.”
Donald Braxton

The quotation from Donald Braxton, cited in context in the paper below, suggests a possible answer to some questions prompted by the wording that heads the RNA website home page – ‘encouraging awareness of the religious naturalist orientation’. A first question is about how ‘encouraging awareness’ might actually be achieved, and a second about how religious naturalists (RNs), and therefore religious naturalism (RN), are seen, or may come to be seen, by members of the wider public in terms of what RNs actually do.

Is it possible to identify some distinctive activity common to many RNs which might communicate a positive feeling about RN, and help members of the wider public to understand the RN orientation? A tentative suggestion is that perhaps a typical or representative characteristic of some, maybe many, RNs is what we might describe as an active mindful awareness of the real – of what is really the case.

If that is so it could prompt a further question of whether, as suggested by the quotation from Braxton, RN might benefit from being seen (or wish to benefit from being seen) to be associated with some form of secular meditation, or mindful awareness, alongside RNs’ more science-based perspective (and so long as this were clearly free of the trappings of any particular religious tradition or fashionable new age cultism). The current growth of  interest in ‘mindfulness’ training seems to indicate a latent hunger among some people to experience a deeper awareness of the real.

The root question addressed in this paper is whether there may be some kind of useful natural affinity between mindfulness and the RN orientation.

Thinking strategically about Religious Naturalism and the future

Making some broad assumptions about how the world may change over the next couple of generations – let’s say the next forty or fifty years – we  can foresee with a reasonable degree of assurance the continuation of some presently discernible trends:

  • the major traditional religions will decline in terms of the influence of their institutions and practices, and the number of their adherents;
  • the coming environmental crisis will result in an explosion of awareness of humankind’s critical dependence on the natural world;
  • in a world of increasing stress and conflict, the search for alternative ways toward personal wholeness and social cohesion will become more urgent and intense.

If these assumptions turn out to be anywhere near correct it is not unreasonable to suggest a scenario over the coming decades in which the RN world-view is likely to attract a growing number of enquirers, adherents and proponents, and secular forms of meditation seem likely to displace some traditional forms of religious practice.

What do Religious Naturalists do?

New movements tend to be labelled and pigeon-holed as much by impressions of what their members do as by what their members think, feel, say, or write. RN writers and thinkers have made huge and successful efforts in recent years to spell out what RN is in terms of orientation, world-view, or set of ideals and values. But who knows what RNs – as a diverse, heterogeneous collectivity – actually do?

Impressions of what RNs are and do will be among the factors that evoke interest in and enquiry about RN. This paper is intended to suggest not only that a possible distinctive characteristic of many RNs may be an attitude of mindful awareness, and in some cases a track record of informal or formal practice of meditation, but that if articulated in an appropriate way this might contribute to evoking interest and enquiry in RN.

But first we should consider whether there is a sufficiently important reason to pursue the question of what RNs do, and perhaps an analogy is useful here. We all have an idea of what theists in the Abrahamic religious traditions do:  they congregate routinely in special buildings, recite prayers to supernatural entities, read sacred texts, do good works, perform sacred music, and so on. That is what they do. Our ideas about other traditions are probably coloured by what we may know about their ritual activities including, for example, Hindu yoga and mantra-based meditation, Buddhist chanting and meditation, Taoist tai-chi and qigong. It is widely recognised that those practices are some of what people in those traditional cultures do.

The point of this analogy is that impressions formed by members of the wider public of the nature and value of particular traditions are influenced by the public’s perceptions of what the people in those traditions are seen to be doing.

When we ask the question What in particular do RNs do? answers, sometimes emphasizing the diversity of RNs’ backgrounds and interests, are often presented in negative terms: they don’t believe in supernatural entities; they don’t go regularly to pray in the church or synagogue; they don’t subscribe to doctrines of ancient cultures.

And sometimes when RNs are characterised in positive terms the explanation can seem somewhat abstract, expressed in terms of values and aspirations rather than concrete activities or practices. Explanations may include references to books, papers, conferences attended and so on, but this kind of information doesn’t go far towards explaining what people actually do as active, practising RNs.

And behind the question What do RNs do? can lie a deeper, usually unspoken question. What enquirers may be interested to know is how the activities or practices of RNs will improve lives or make the world a better place. We expect an answer that will include some concrete, practical activity – the kind of answer that starts with ‘RNs are people who… …’, and goes on to mention some generally practiced core activity without which the answer may seem somehow less than satisfying.

Could ‘mindfulness’ or secular meditation fit comfortably with Religious Naturalism?

A search on the term ‘mindfulness’ in the archive of Zygon, the Journal of Religion and Science, turns up some 50 articles over recent decades, a number of which refer to mindfulness specifically in the context of RN. This is not surprising given the increasingly widespread attention paid to the practice of mindfulness training and the vast amount of neuroscience (brain-imaging) research into meditation.

Ursula Goodenough, an author of two of these papers (1), highlights more than a dozen examples of how RNs, informed by their understanding of the findings of biological, psychological and anthropological sciences, will tend to be mindful – of the evolution of life, the fragility of life and its ecosystems, the interconnectedness of all life, the neural nature of our thoughts and feelings, and the human need for personal wholeness and social cohesion.

Being mindful does not of itself imply any formal meditative activity, but in another Zygon paper (2) Donald Braxton, in response to Loyal Rue’s 2005 book Religion Is Not About God, considers the future of Christianity and RN:

“My suggestion for religious naturalism’s ethical framework is the cultivation of a scientifically informed mindfulness as a novel hybrid of meditation/introspection and empirical investigation.” (italics added)

Braxton writes:

“We may come to think of the scientific enterprise as itself a kind of school of virtue in the sense that it incarnates the disciplined pursuit of the mindfulness of nature. Whereas monastics traditionally have turned the task of mindfulness into an introspective examination of the mechanisms of consciousness, a Future Religious Naturalism converts the universe at large into its monastery and extols mindful and reverent investigation of natural wonders, including our own emergence as linguistic and cultural beings.”  (italics added)

In the same issue of Zygon (3), Loyal Rue responds: “Braxton suggests that Christianity might inform the mindfulness of naturalists through the sacramental and sacrificial aspects of the tradition.” Rue comments: “Religious naturalists, mindful of threats to the earth’s life support systems, should be able to resonate with the Christian emphasis on sacrifice”, and reminds us that “other traditions have elements of deep wisdom as well, and exploring these parallels will be an equally important part of the groundwork for future forms of religious naturalism … in particular it would behove religious naturalists to take lessons in mindfulness from the Hebrew prophets and from Christian heretics.”

The take-home point here is the suggestion that the kind of people who self-identify as RNs may often be the kind of people who develop a capacity for mindfulness, and in some cases a propensity for secular meditation, whether formal or informal.

Mindfulness: a secular form of meditation, for general as well as therapeutic use

In the passages cited above, and in other Zygon papers, the term mindfulness is used in a variety of ways with a range of different meanings. In general usage ‘mindful’ (weak form), like ‘meditative’ (weak form), can refer simply to a focused, attentive or reflective state of mind.

In this paper the term ‘Mindfulness’ (strong form) is intended to denote:

  1. A well-documented contemporary school of thought in psychology that commends the practice of secular meditation to achieve therapeutic aims such as personal growth, wholeness and well-being;
  1. The practice of secular meditation, normally requiring deliberate conscious intention,
    a system of formalised training, and disciplined practice over time.

In these senses Mindfulness training has been developed and used effectively in clinical situations over the past 30 years, and more recently has been adapted for use by members of the general public as a secular form of meditation.

Notably the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Richard Davidson, University of Wisconsin, has provided the basis for training courses developed in the UK by Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford University and founder, together with colleagues John Teasdale of Cambridge University, and Zindel Segal, University of Toronto, of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC).

References to over 100 published papers and books on Mindfulness and related topics are listed in an OMC practical guide to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) written for the general reader (4). MBCT is recommended in the UK by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

Since 2011 the Oxford Mindfulness Centre has been offering practical mindfulness courses (in effect, training in a secular form of meditation) to members of the general public (5). As in some other forms of secular meditation training and practice, Mindfulness training can incorporate techniques influenced by, or drawing directly on, methods developed within religious traditions, particularly eastern traditions.

Some questions that RNA might be interested to consider 

If RNA would be interested in an additional topic to be included in some agenda on future development, one suggestion would be to discuss what, if anything, RNs actually do that might contribute to forming positive perceptions of RN in the mind of the wider public. Perhaps some questions for RNs might be drafted along the following lines:

Are there any activities that you participate in, or approve others participating in, that seem to be positive and valid expressions of the RN world-view?

What types of activity do you think might be good for the general public to associate with RN, to give a sense of what RN is about, and to have RN seen in positive ways?

If answers to these questions support the view that there may be some natural affinity between mindfulness and RN might it be worth considering an option in the longer term future of developing an RN-oriented – perhaps even an RNA-sponsored – mindfulness training course?

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Note

In this paper mindfulness refers to established and well-documented secular forms of meditation.
Caveat: it seems that in recent years negative media reports have associated the term ‘mindfulness’ with some dubious ‘self-help’ practices, with many articles based on serious misunderstandings of the concept.

References

  1. Ursula Goodenough, Mindful Virtue, Mindful Reverence (with Paul Woodruff), Zygon vol.36, no. 4, Dec 2001; also Religious Naturalism and Naturalizing Morality, Zygon vol. 38, no. 1, March 2003.
  2. Donald Braxton, Religious Naturalism and the Future of Christianity, Zygon vol. 42, no. 2, June 2007.
  3. Loyal Rue, Religious Naturalism – Where Does It Lead?, Zygon vol. 42, no.2, June 2007.
  4. Mark Williams and Danny Penman, Mindfulness – A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Piatkus, 2011.
  5. Oxford Mindfulness Centre website: http://oxfordmindfulness.org/

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