Friday, April 12, 2019

Not a Religious Facility?

Most Augoeides readers probably know the story of Pharaoh Akhenaten. For those who don't, he was the father of Tutankhamun, who is much more famous today even though he was a far less significant ancient Egyptian ruler. Akhenaten's most significant contribution to history is that he attempted to convert the nation of Egypt from polytheism to the monotheistic worship of Aten, the solar disk. After his death, the Egyptian religious establishment reasserted itself and took steps to erase Akhenaten from history.

In fact, Tutankhamun was born Tutankhaten in honor of the solar disk, and later changed his name to make peace with the priesthood of Amoun, the chief Egyptian deity prior to Akhenaten's reign. Where I'm going with this is that Akhenaten is not the first figure in history to propose a religious cult based on the worship of a single deity. Those were all over the place already. The difference was that Akhenaten invented the first religious system to employ a form of univalence - that is, "my religion is real and everybody else's is fake."

You might very well recognize that as a characteristic of religion in general if you have only studied Western religions. Both Christianity and Islam share that characteristic to one degree or another, and together they represent more than half of the world's believers. But to assume that all religions work the same way is fundamentally incorrect. Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, are not univalent.

For the latter, this has become a point of contention in the opening of a Buddhist center in Alabama. A judge ruled that because the Buddhist center would be open to members of all religions, it did not qualify as a religious facility.

An Alabama judge has upheld the City of Mobile’s decision not to grant a zoning application to the Thai Meditation Association of Alabama (TMAA). The application was denied on the grounds that the group’s meditation center does not qualify as a religious facility. The association is now considering appealing the decision.

The legal dispute goes back to 2015, when TMAA — currently located in a strip mall on a busy street — purchased a quiet and secluded property in a residential neighborhood to build a new center. The association planned to build a 2,400 square-foot meditation center, a 2,000 square foot cottage for visiting monks, a restroom facility, and parking. However, when TMAA applied to the city for approval to build its “religious facility,” the city denied the request on the grounds that the meditation center does not qualify.

“The city had denied planning approval for the center, when it had granted such approval for any other religious organization,” said Roman Storzer, an attorney for the organization. “There was a determination that was made that the meditation center is not really a religious facility.” According to legal documents, the city’s decision was informed by statements from TMAA representatives indicating that meditation is not tied to any particular religion and that members of all religions are welcome to come learn meditation at the center.

TMAA, which is affiliated with a prominent subschool of Thai Buddhism called Dhammakaya, argued that the center is indeed a religious facility and the decision constituted a violation of religious freedom. TMAA filed a suit against the city in the U.S. District Court. The trial came to a conclusion in March, with a judge dismissing TMAA’s complaint.

So because (A) people other than Buddhists meditate and (B) this group was willing to teach meditation to non-Buddhists, all of a sudden their facility that is associated with a major world religion is not religious. I can only surmise that the idea here is that Christianity is univalent, so if you're not univalent you aren't a religion. And that's just stupid.

They might be able to get around it on appeal by, say, opening with the Refuge Prayer (which they may already do - Dhammakaya is Theraveda if I remember right) and declaring that they consider everyone who says the prayer to be a Buddhist or something like that, but why should they have to? This is not somebody setting up a joke religion to take advantage of the law, this is an actual spiritual group that practices Buddhism. Under United States law, they should absolutely be considered a religious group.

It's true that there are arguments back and forth over whether Buddhists consider their practice a religion. As I understand it, some do and some don't and the essential core of the teachings have to do with working with your own mind whether you believe in a specific deity or not. But that just muddies the waters in a way that is not useful.

Courts have ruled over and over again that atheism needs to be considered a religion, even though atheists will point out that all they share with other atheists is non-belief in any deity. My point here is that if atheism is legally considered a religion, it clearly is less religious than Buddhism - which involves a set of specific philosophies and practices involving meditation and so forth.

Religions don't have to be just like Christianity to be religions. In fact, they probably shouldn't be. Christianity has some good teachings at its base, but univalence has probably caused more damage to the world than any other tenet. If more Christians could just accept that Christianity may be their spiritual path, but that they also should just leave others alone to worship or not worship as they see fit, we would have a far better world.

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