Is Mindfulness a Religion for Unbelievers?

In this blog, Sara Rahmani shares some qualitative findings from a longitudinal mixed-methods study exploring the diversity of unbelief in the mindfulness subcultures of the UK and the US.

Mindfulness meditation has entered the mainstream Western culture as a secular and scientific technique that supports physical and mental health. Given this representation, mindfulness meditation is particularly appealing to unbelievers (e.g., atheists, agnostics, and nones) who desire self-transformation yet wish to keep traditional religions at arm’s length.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I started a longitudinal, mixed-method project funded by the Understanding Unbelief program to explore the diversity of unbelief in the mindfulness subcultures of the UK and the US and answer a question unsettling to most practitioners and advocates of this practice: “is mindfulness a secular religion for unbelievers?” In this piece, I summarise the qualitative findings of this two-year study and argue that mindfulness meditation commonly functions as a gateway to secular Buddhism and that mindfulness is best seen as a “scientific spirituality.”

First, I should note that despite what is often claimed, even “secularised” forms of mindfulness are loaded with Buddhist metaphysical assumptions and aim to cultivate, within the practitioner, a particular view of reality [Brown 2016; 2017].  Indeed, most institutionalised mindfulness-based programs gesture towards a comprehensive worldview that have the Buddha’s Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path as their conceptual foundation [Husgafvel 2018], although they are often not explicitly addressed as such. Instead, Buddhist concepts are translated into a scientific language and a range of discursive strategies are used to support the claim that mindfulness is inherently secular. For instance, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, argues that mindfulness is not “Buddhist” but the “essence” of the Buddha’s teachings, which are “universal” and “compatible with science”; that instead of soteriological concerns, the practice is focused on eradicating “suffering” in the “here and now”; and that mindfulness is distinct from religion because it is an “evidence-based” “tool” that supports “mental health.”

These discourses were also found in the language of our study’s committed mindfulness meditators—most of whom were attracted to mindfulness precisely for its secular framing and validated health benefits. Take, for example, the following passage from my conversation with Juno, who despite identifying with Buddhist teachings, used science as a discursive strategy to argue why mindfulness is distinct from religious categories:

“I’m more keen on science. And with mindfulness the science is evolving. It may be that Jesus and the Buddha had insights into their beings and what made them happy and fulfilled and compassionate to others. And didn’t necessarily have the scientific underpinning of that” (Rahmani, forthcoming).

Besides adopting the same discursive strategies, the analysis of the language of thirty-two unbelievers revealed three common patterns of change, or movement away from a strictly atheist position: (1) atheist Buddhism, (2) agnostic Buddhism, and (3) spirituality. Indeed, there were a few exceptions to these trends. For instance, the case study of an individual who despite increased engagement with mindfulness, remained firmly grounded in her materialistic worldview.

Atheist Buddhism describes the position of those participants who adopted a naturalistic and pragmatic approach to the teachings of the Buddha (dharma). Specifically, they advocated a this-worldly interpretation of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path and rejected supernatural entities, transcendental realms, and the notion of karma linked to literal rebirth. They rendered any Buddhist concept that violates this secular vision as cultural baggage of ancient India. Beyond the view that Buddhism offers them a rational scheme for addressing human predicament, the atheist Buddhists stressed that their approach to Buddhist ethics are purely intellectual, empirically grounded, and autonomous. In fact, they were most likely to emphasise the individualistic benefits they gained from mindfulness: self-acceptance, self-knowledge, and self-development.

Agnostic Buddhism describes the position of those who also saw the world through the prism of dharma. However, they held an ambivalent position towards metaphysical concepts and transcendental realms or emphasised that it is impossible to assess the validity of these truth claims. These individuals commonly saw mindfulness as a useful tool for dealing with, and confronting, death.  Further, they were most likely to emphasise benefits of mindfulness such as compassion, acceptance, and the ability to regulate one’s emotions. Their narrative displayed a strong sense of ambivalence which sometimes manifested as nostalgia for transcendental experiences (“moments of enlightenment”). Linguistically, the agnostic Buddhists seemed determined to present a coherent worldview and used scientific discourses to resolve any perceived dissonance.  

A linguistic examination of their narrative showed that the atheist and agnostic Buddhists were somewhat self-conscious about their close engagement with Buddhism and this affected their discourse on religion, religious identity, and their attitudes towards religious people. For instance, by associating “atheism” with negative words such as “divisive” and “cynicism,” they implicitly distanced themselves from the label. In addition, unlike other participants, they were eager to demonstrate an understanding of the role religion plays in the lives of believers; they emphasised how their engagement with mindfulness has enabled them to “[stop] seeing religion quite as much as a threat and more as a place you can go to for resources.” In fact, most atheist and agnostic Buddhists were happy to frame their private practice of mindfulness as a “spiritual” exercise, inasmuch as the term spirituality was associated with self-development and not with some higher power.

Those who took a spiritual turn, in contrast, commonly conceptualised “religion” in a negative light and reported damaging childhood experiences with religious institutions and people. A central facet of their narratives involved a “spiritual experience,” which often occurred in the context of a meditation retreat. According to their stories, these experiences marked a significant transformation in their views: a conversion from unbelief to belief in a higher realm. I would loosely describe the language of these participants as a peculiar amalgamation of spirituality and Buddhist modernist discourse. They had a selective approach to Buddha’s teachings and believed in the existence of an impersonal higher power, life after death, and the human soul. Yet their negative perception of religion, coupled with a commitment to present the practice in secular light, enticed them to conceal from others (their peers, students, and sometimes their spouses) the fact that their personal mindfulness practice had changed gears towards a spiritual end (e.g., “connecting with the source”). 

Regardless of whether these participants developed an affinity towards Buddhism or whether mindfulness fulfilled a spiritual role in their personal lives, the vast majority of the participants were happy to compartmentalise their personal beliefs from their professional approach to teaching mindfulness. Moreover, most did not consider the strategic rebranding of the practice as ethically problematic. As one participant argued, “you say potato, I say potāto. You say dukkha and I say discrepancy-based processing.”

In sum, the longitudinal data demonstrated that for many practitioners, mindfulness functioned as a gateway to secular Buddhism. For other (also former) unbelievers, it changed their relationship to the transcendence on both “vertical and horizontal” axes (Streib and Klein 2013)—vertical refers to the world beyond, whereas horizontal transcendence captures this-worldly experiences that go beyond the mundane. These apparent shifts in the participants’ worldviews, coupled with the fact that scientific representations of mindfulness were an integral pull factor for unbelievers in the first place, warrants the label “scientific spirituality” for mindfulness meditation.

Sources Cited

Brown, Candy Gunther, 2016. “Can ‘Secular’ Mindfulness Be Separated from Religion?” In Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement, edited by Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, and Adam Burke, 75–94. Mindfulness in Behavioral Health. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

———. 2017. “Ethics, Transparency, and Diversity in Mindfulness Programs.” In Practitioner’s Guide to Ethics and Mindfulness-Based Interventions, edited by Lynette M. Monteiro, Jane F. Compson, and Frank Musten, 45–85. Mindfulness in Behavioral Health. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Husgafvel, V., 2018. “The ‘Universal Dharma Foundation’ of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: Non-Duality and Mahayana Buddhist Influences in the Work of on Kabat-Zinn.” Contemporary Buddhism 19(2): 275-326.

Rahmani, M. (forthcoming) “Secular Rhetoric as a Legitimating Strategy for Mindfulness Meditation.” In Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies, edited by  Newcombe, S., and O’Brien-Kop, K.. Routledge.

Streib, H., and Klein, C., 2013. “Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates.” In APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, Volume 1, edited by K.I. Pargament, J. Exline, and J.W. Jones, 713–728. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Dr Masoumeh Sara Rahmani is a researcher and lecturer in Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She has held a Research Associate position in the Brain, Belief, and Behaviour Lab at Coventry University. She received her PhD in this field from University of Otago in 2017. Her research interests include Meditation movements, New Religious Movements, Religious discourse, and Asian religions in non-Asian contexts.  


One thought on “Is Mindfulness a Religion for Unbelievers?

  1. Exemplary piece of research, but I personally would shy away from terms such as “secular religion: or :”secular Buddhism”:. As Dr. Rahmani shows, the boundaries are observed in individual behavior. There are those who speak of souls and spirit powers, while others don”t.

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