Mindfulness meditation, the central practice of the contemplative sciences, is everywhere now: from corporate boardrooms to suburban bedrooms, from coloring books to the military. At the University of Virginia, where I teach, my colleagues in Religious Studies and elsewhere across the university have been working on the very ambitious and well-funded Contemplative Sciences Center, which is meant to integrate student affairs and academic life, and which draws directly on Buddhist-derived practices such as mindfulness.

The existence and popularity of such centers on campuses across the country rely on a certain narrative about Buddhism that has become an almost unquestioned part of the modern zeitgeist: that Buddhism is wholly compatible with modern science. This kind of Buddhism—represented by what the scholar Donald S. Lopez Jr. dubbed the Scientific Buddha—is a reenvisioned Buddhism that was brought to life in the late 19th century, a philosophical or psychological Buddhism stripped of the rituals and beliefs that for centuries have characterized the religion in Asia. The Scientific Buddha’s most lasting and most easily recognizable contribution so far has been the psychologized mindfulness practices that are so in vogue today.

The creation story of the Scientific Buddha is complicated. But it’s not new. In fact, the Scientific Buddha is quite clearly a reincarnation of the Scientific Christ—the earlier liberal religious effort to renovate Christianity in the light of psychology with the aim of making the religion more relevant to modern life. This torch, which was carried and then dropped by the early Christian reformers, has now been picked up by modern scientific Buddhists.

Courses in moral philosophy became a regular feature of American colleges early in the 19th century, as historian George Marsden has written in his very useful study The Soul of the American University. These courses aimed to bolster traditional Christianity rather than replace it; by providing a firm basis in reason for Christian morals and character, they sought to serve not only their students but also the needs of the new nation, to bridge sectarianism and inculcate virtue—a key, it was thought, to proper republican citizenship. As Marsden has written, “By the end of the 18th century American colleges were instituting courses in moral philosophy, taught by the clergyman-president, as the capstone and integrating feature of their curricula. Rigorous theology might still be preached in required Sunday services . . . but moral philosophy provided a common ground for building a republic of virtue.”

By the middle of the 19th century these courses were firmly established as standard fare in American colleges. Such courses in many ways were in the vanguard of liberal Protestant theology. Since their ambition was to be nonsectarian, public-minded, and up-to-date, they continuously adapted to emerging disciplines, including, and most especially, to historical critical study and advancing scientific knowledge. This was the whole point: to show that Christian morals were universal morals, were reasonable morals and American morals, and to reapply them to the needs of students, the society, and the nation with each new generation.

It was in the context of these collegiate moral philosophy courses that psychology first emerged as a distinct intellectual endeavor in the United States. It eventually moved from a philosophical enterprise to a laboratory science, beginning its forward sweep into the wide range of disciplines that it permeates today.

The first book in the United States with psychology in its title was Psychology: A View of the Human Soul, published in 1840 by the Reverend Frederick A. Rauch. Rauch, the founding president of Marshall College in Pennsylvania and a German-born Protestant Reformed theologian, argued for the common purpose of psychology and theology in crafting a rational basis for religion. Theology, he contended, is the science of religion, by which he meant the exploration of religion through applied reason. Though psychology was not yet an experimental science, Rauch nevertheless grouped it alongside medicine and anthropology in what we might call a human science, an instrument designed to illuminate human nature. In this way, Rauch understood psychology and theology to be twinned enterprises.

Rev. Oliver S. Munsell, like Rauch, was a clergyman and a college president, leading Illinois Wesleyan College at the time he wrote Psychology; Or, The Science of Mind (1871). This work, written 30 years after Rauch’s, reveals a greater self-consciousness about psychology as a science, especially as a science rooted in structures of mind and body. Munsell’s book, like Rauch’s before it, served as a standard college textbook in psychology for decades, and likewise aimed to harmonize natural philosophy (what we now call science) and moral philosophy. But while Rauch had seen his work on psychology as a prologue to moral philosophy, Munsell’s text served as a standard text in moral philosophy. Just as moral philosophy had displaced theology earlier in the century, now the science of psychology was storming the castle.

The influence of psychology on the moral philosophy courses of the late 19th century was such that by the 1880s and 1890s many colleges had ceased to call these courses moral philosophy at all, and began instead to use the label “Logic, Ethics, and Psychology.” The new LEP title matched the moment, as it reflected quite clearly the belief that reason applied to human nature (logic and psychology) would result in a workable and universal moral framework (ethics). This change in the teaching of moral philosophy occurred in conjunction with the single greatest transformation in the history of psychology: the establishment, in the 1880s, of the first psychology departments in research universities in Europe and the United States. Here, for the first time, psychology seemed to have made a decisive break with moral philosophy. The first laboratories in experimental psychology were founded in Germany, by Wilhelm Wundt at Leipzig in 1879, and soon thereafter in the United States by William James at Harvard, and by James’s and Wundt’s student G. Stanley Hall at Johns Hopkins. Hall had earned the first American doctorate in psychology at Harvard in 1878, soon after James began teaching the nation’s first courses in the field. 

Hall is a critical figure in this story, as one of the founders of laboratory psychology in the United States but also as a teacher early in his career of the capstone Logic, Ethics, and Psychology course at Hopkins. Throughout his career—he eventually became president of Clark University—he never lost the sense that psychology as a field should remain a vital bridge between science and religion. “The new psychology, which brings simply a new method and a new standpoint to philosophy, is I believe Christian to its root and center,” he had proclaimed in his inaugural lecture in psychology at Hopkins in 1884. William James in fact criticized Hall for the “religious cant” in his approach to the field, but it is true broadly that the new psychology of the 1880s and 1890s, while now a laboratory science, nevertheless continued to engage religious concerns. This is not surprising. Many of the discipline’s American founders—men such as Hall, but also George Coe, James Leuba, Edwin Starbuck, and James Mark Baldwin—had evangelical childhoods yet were unable, as adults, to experience conversion or sustain conventional religious faith.

Out of this background—his own evangelical youth, his experience teaching the LEP course at Hopkins, and his foundational work in laboratory psychology at Hopkins and then Clark—Hall produced his profoundly important though little-studied magnum opus, the massive two-volume Jesus, the Christ, in the Light of Psychology, published in 1917. This work best captures the liberal religious effort to renovate Christianity in the light of psychology, and it thereby serves as the best point of reference for thinking about the similar cultural, intellectual, and religious work performed by mindfulness advocates on college campuses and elsewhere today.

In this work Hall told a distinctively progressive story, arguing that religion had moved from its earliest stages, characterized, as he put it, by “faith and mystic intuition,” into the pivotal historical-critical phase of the 19th century, which did the great and noble work of pruning away the dead wood of superstition, myth, magic, and lore, thereby allowing the great energy, the life force of religion, to be channeled into new growth. This, for Hall, meant a newly scientific Christianity, a psychologically reimagined Christianity. “The psychological Christ,” he wrote, “is the true and living Christ of the present and the future.”  “I believe in the historical Jesus,” he continued, “but I have tried to show how even the Church can get on, if it should ever have to do so, without him, and that this might possibly ultimately make for greater spirituality.”

Hall was keenly aware that he was writing in 1917 amid the great conflagration in Europe, a war that for many revealed in stark relief the empty promises of liberalism, especially of liberal optimism about human nature. Yet he was not to be dissuaded.  “Two millennia under the Prince of Peace,” he wrote, “have not prevented this colossal and atrocious war, and the Church of Christ cannot now fail to suffer a great increase of neglect and reproach unless it can have a radical reincarnation. Would that psychology, by re-revealing Jesus in a new light, and re-laying the very foundations of belief in him, might contribute to bring in a real third dispensation, so long predicted yet so long delayed.” Psychological science, in other words, especially a psychological reinterpretation of religion, would be the agent of this new millennium.

Hall’s Jesus, the Christ, in the Light of Psychology is a fascinating book in its own right, but for our purposes we must consider it in the light of the history of the use of psychology as a tool of religious revitalization through liberalization, and the implications this has had for American religion and spirituality ever since. Perhaps most representative of the evangelistic embrace of psychology at a more popular level was psychologist Henry C. Link’s bestselling work The Return to Religion (1936), in which he declared “the findings of psychology in respect to personality and happiness” to be “largely a rediscovery of traditional religious truths.” He concluded: “The greatest and most authentic textbook on personality is still the Bible.” A more scientific Christianity, proponents argued, would unite religious factions rent by schism and make religious teaching relevant again to modern life.

Of course, many religious critics, from evangelical and Roman Catholic circles especially, but also from within liberal Protestantism, decried the incorporation of psychology into religion. It is a “sterile union,” wrote the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr in a 1927 essay in The Christian Century, the leading journal of liberal Protestantism. The Presbyterian fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen was more blunt, decrying “the dangerous pseudo-scientific fads of experimental psychology” in Christianity and Liberalism (1923), his celebrated assault on Protestant modernism. Later in the century, secular critics feared that the psychologization of religion was making Americans more consumerist, more narcissistic, and less able to view critically the liberal, capitalist political order—a reaction that may sound quite familiar to those following the mainstream mindfulness movement and the backlash that has followed. Liberal Protestants, nevertheless, kept producing scholarly works that updated or reaffirmed Christianity in the light of psychology, such as The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, a book by the famed theologian, physician, and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer. First published in German in 1913, it appeared in multiple American editions in the 1940s and 1950s.

Those identifying as “spiritual but not religious” have picked up on traditionally Buddhist practices that have been recast as psychological exercises.

Other Americans embraced the union of religion and psychology, not because it affirmed Christianity, but because it provided space and legitimacy for religious minorities, dissenters, and heterodox believers. The historian Andrew Heinze, for example, has written about the significant role played by American and European Jews in both academic and popular psychology in the 20th century, noting that psychology offered a vocabulary and, often, an institutional location (whether university or hospital) that allowed non-Christians to authoritatively address moral, spiritual, and mental life. We find a comparable circumstance today in the ease with which those identifying as “spiritual but not religious”—those hesitant to ascribe to any one religion—have nevertheless picked up on traditionally Buddhist practices that have been recast as psychological exercises. 

Moral philosophy courses began, we recall, in an effort to cast a wider net, to craft a capacious, integrative intellectual space that would bridge sectarian divides and even help unite the nation into a republic of virtue. Psychology was drafted as a critical ally in this enterprise, and yet by the early 20th century it had become a tool that undermined Protestant hegemony, both in the hands of post-Protestants like Hall, and in the hands of religious minorities, dissenters, and skeptics. Over the course of the 20th century academic disciplines sought to satisfy the old role of moral philosophy, to integrate learning with life. Psychology, sociology, history, and literature curricula all served in various capacities, although literature and psychology, especially mid-century humanistic psychology, were probably the most successful.

These days, the contemplative sciences, especially mindfulness, have begun to serve this function on many campuses and for many young adults, who often fit the SBNR designation. It would be fairly easy, for example, to take a work like Hall’s Jesus, the Christ, in the Light of Psychology and match it up with seminal works by figures like Paul Carus, D. T. Suzuki, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Jon Kabat-Zinn, principal architects of Donald Lopez’s Scientific Buddha.

Lopez’s book charts the birth of the Scientific Buddha in the 19th century, in the same milieu and for the same reasons that liberal Protestants were crafting their scientific, psychologized Christianity. Paul Carus, in an essay on “Buddhism and the Religion of Science,” in 1896 wrote of the Buddha as “the first positivist, the first humanitarian, the first radical freethinker, the first iconoclast, and the first prophet of the religion of science.” Buddhists, Lopez argues, “wrested the weapon of science from the hands of the Christians and turned it against them”—by affirming the liberal Protestant ambition to craft a modernized, rationalized, psychologized faith. They merely argued that Buddhism provided better materials to work with. My students, I should add, and my university largely agree.

That Buddhism is understood to offer greater promise as a religion of science than Christianity would have mystified earlier generations of American educators. How did Buddhism come to be the basis of the religion of science, a role that Christianity seemed so destined to fill a century ago? Donald Lopez writes that “Buddhism has often served as a kind of safe surrogate for Christianity, avoiding all the problems of religion and science by being a religion that is also a science,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. After all, it’s only after a century and a half, at least, of often fierce cultural contestation about religion and science that we now look back and see “all the problems of science and religion” that Christianity poses. Frederick Rauch and Oliver Munsell and Stanley Hall saw no such problems; they saw a story of seamless unity of science as a tool of religious renewal and revitalization, just as so many Americans now see with Buddhism. But fellow Americans, fellow Christians like H. Richard Niebuhr or J. Gresham Machen, did see a problem, and they had the cultural and political capacity to resist the reformulation of their religion into mere science.

In our times, certainly, both Buddhists and non-Buddhists have sharply criticized the psychological reformulation of Buddhism as mere mindfulness, as a therapeutic tool for moderns who are distracted and stressed. Such reformulations, these critics contend, wrest Buddhism out of its traditional contexts—something akin to 19th-century archaeologists plundering the treasures of Asia for Western museums—and thereby transform it utterly. Even more worryingly, however, these transformations defang Buddhism, making it familiar rather than other, safe rather than challenging, easy rather than hard, comfortable for consumerist Westerners rather than a prophetic alternative or even rival. Buddhism has been too small a presence in the West to marshal the political and cultural resources of resistance that earlier Christians deployed, and so has provided relatively easy pickings for neoliberalizers and neocolonialists, who mindfully march forward with the lamp of psychology lighting their way. 

SBNR by the Numbers

Percentage of U.S. adults who describe themselves as religious: 65%

As spiritual but not religious (SBNR): 18%

As neither spiritual nor religious: 15%

Portion of those who identify as SBNR who are affiliated with a religious tradition: 2/3

Who say they pray daily: 44%

Who are conservative: 26%

Moderate: 35%

Liberal: 36%

Percentage of those who  identify as religious who are married: 54%

Of those who identify as SBNR who are: 44%

Percentage of Americans who say religion is very important in their lives: 58%

In Britain: 17%

France: 13%

Germany: 21%

Portion of Americans who think religion as a whole is losing its influence on American life: 2/3

Where did we get our numbers? Pew Research Center’s 2012 study “Nones on the Rise.” 

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