Posted in Activism, Faith, Identity

Religion is Not a Dirty Word

This post is the second of a two-part response to the assertion among some yogis that yoga is not a religion. Read Honoring Yoga’s Sacred Religious Roots for part one.


The second part of my struggle with the declaration that yoga is not a religion is the underlying concession of the domain of religion to the Religious Right. I am simply not willing to concede that territory.

As a philosophy professor one of the hardest things to explain to the folks I was teaching was that for us to have an actual philosophical argument, we have to agree to the terms. We have to both agree to common definitions or at least acknowledge that we don’t have a common definition. We have to have that discussion first before we can have an argument, because if we are not using common definitions, if we don’t have an understanding that by you saying this you mean this but when I say this I don’t mean that, if we don’t have that understanding, then we can’t have an argument, or a debate, or whatever language you want to use. We can have a fight, we can have a shouting match, we can have a confrontation, but we cannot have an argument. We cannot have a debate. We certainly cannot have a reasoned debate.

And in this regard I will not concede the use of the word religion to the Religious Right. I will not allow them to have sole ownership of that word. I will not release and walk away. This is not a game of tug of war where I’m willing to let go of the rope. I’m not interested in taking the rope from them. I’m not interested in claiming sole ownership of the word religion but I’m also not willing to concede sole ownership of the word religion to the Religious Right.

I want to fight for an understanding of religion and spiritual practice as a place where Beliefs can peacefully coexist. I don’t believe that acknowledging the truth of one religion necessitates the disproving of the truth of another religion—that’s the problem. I believe that truth lies in whatever language through which we hear our own calling. Go find the language that resonates for you. Go find the religion that calls you to your higher self. Go find the theology, the spiritual practice, the community, the belief structure that calls you to your higher self. Go find the religion, the spiritual practice, the meaning—it doesn’t have to be a religion, but go find the meaning, the unifying principle, that gets you into your body, that gets you into your life, and that gets you to show up feeling centered from a place of compassion and care for yourself and for others, and that gets you to show up in your full authenticity so that you can do good in the world. That’s what I care about.

And if evangelical Christianity speaks to you, then I want you to have that. I want you to have that unabashedly. But what I also want is for you to know, and to believe and to support and to fight, for the fact that yoga and Buddhism do that for me. In a way that my religion of origin did not. My religion of origin didn’t serve me. Those charged with carrying the message of that religion told me they didn’t want me and they were incapable of meeting my actual needs. But my religion of origin serves a very good friend of mine, who does really amazing work in the world from a place of faith. And I have no interest in taking that from her.

Yet what I also want is to fight for kids who are growing up on the margins of the mainstream, who are constantly pushed outside the circle, because we have left the domain of religion to the Religious Right. Because we have left religion to the voices that say “believe what I believe or you get cast out into the darkness—or worse, you get killed.”

What I want for those kids is an open door. An open door to every church, every synagogue, every spiritual center, every Sangha that exists. Go find what calls to you. If it is ethically, consciously, compassionately grounded atheism, go find it. But I want you to find what calls to you. Not what someone else is screaming at you, not what exists in the noise. And I don’t want you to reject what calls to you, or stop listening for a call at all, because we on the Left have conceded the word religion to the Religious Right. I want to hand queer and trans kids, gender variant kids, I want to hand them the key to that open door. To religion, to theology, to spirituality, to grounded ethical Humanist practice, to a centering practice, whatever that is. I want to hand you the key to that door or doors. For these kids, I will not concede the word religion to the Religious Right.

I am a queer man of faith. My faith is a little patchwork quilt, it doesn’t always make sense to me, but I AM a queer man of faith. And I got here by the grace of a power greater than myself. And so if we are going to have a debate, we need to agree to the terms of the debate. And I don’t think that religion is a dirty word. I don’t think god is a dirty word. I don’t think that those are words that are inaccessible to me. Just because I’ve been told they are not in my grasp doesn’t mean that I can’t reach and touch them—it’s a lie. I will not concede my birthright to a lie.


For so many people, coming out as queer in a religious context is one of the hardest pieces of claiming their authenticity in the world, and yet for me, coming out as religious in a queer context was—and often still is—the place of struggle.

Like you, I’m tired of religious being a word and a term and a domain that is judged and labeled and associated by certain people and communities as somehow less evolved, as ignorant, as emotional, as inherently prejudiced. I too see the root of this in the Religious Right’s very effective organizing to claim the term religion as theirs and theirs alone, leading many people to associate religion solely with Religious Right extremists who are working to ban mention of evolution from textbooks and to regulate and control people’s bodies and sexualities.

Religion is not at odds with reason, intellect, justice, and social progress. On the contrary, religion and faith have been at the core of every major, radical struggle for social change in living memory, every movement for liberty and equality. And I firmly believe that without faith—if nothing else, faith in our human ability to transform the world—we will not, cannot, achieve liberation or transformation in the here-and-now. Intellectual, secular arguments alone do not move the heart, do not connect the soul. And an over-reliance on intellectualism, individualism, and self-righteousness shuts us off from community and connection.

So in the words of Mary Mary, “go get your blessing.” Go claim your authenticity, your spiritual practice, your belief, your faith. Discover what is true for you and know that it doesn’t negate what is true for someone else. As a people who are very good at claiming our own language, we queer folks have no excuse for ceding religious and spiritual terms to narrow interpretation and definition. We can change the world from a place that is grounded, centered, and sustainable.

We’re here, we’re queer, and we are people of faith.


Queer Blue Collar boy, Yogi, Buddhist, Black Belt who loves to teach kids & make stuff. A life guided by compassion and service is the reason I show up.

2 thoughts on “Religion is Not a Dirty Word

  1. I think your point about agreeing on terms is so important, Teo. I’ve found myself in discussions with people who identify strongly as “atheists” and only define “god” as the Right Wing Christian version of god — because what they’re railing against is being marginalized, hurt, legislated, and oppressed by people of that particular faith at some point in their lives. But in these conversations, they’ll admit to me that the believe that living things are interconnected, and that people affect each other and have a responsibility to each other. I argue that “god” is a convenient three letter word for “living things are interconnected, and that people affect each other and have a responsibility to each other.

    But then I get into these “spiritual but not religious” conversations, particular with yogi types, and I find that we are not agreeing on terms. What they really mean by that is, “I don’t want to be associated with the Religious Right, and yet I have a deep spiritual practice and beliefs — but please don’t lump me in with those people!” And so I listen to them using that vocabulary and sometimes I agree to meet them there, while at the same time in my head, spiritual and religious are allowed to mean the same thing, because I know that “religion” can mean so many different things, and that shying away from using it gives over the power to those who have tried to take sole possession of it. But sometimes I push back and try take a little piece of that word back. So thanks for pushing back, hard.

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