When the Agency for Cultural Affairs commissioned a report into religious beliefs in Japan, they were initially confused by their results. Totaling up the number of people who belonged to religious groups in Japan, they got the result that 209 million people belonged were religiously affiliated. The problem? This was almost twice the population of Japan!
This anomaly seemed to suggest that Japan was highly religious. However, further research showed that this strange result was caused by respondents happily checking the boxes for numerous religions without seeing any contradiction. After all, as the old saying goes a Japanese person is born to Shinto rites, married with Christian rites, and buried with Buddhist ones.
However when a subsequent Gallup poll asked about atheism, it discovered that 31% of Japanese people were also willing to check the ‘convinced atheist’ box. If the phrase ‘religiously unaffiliated’ was used instead of ‘atheist’, the yes-result was a jaw-dropping 57%.
How can one country be simultaneously so atheistic and so religious?
According to the ideas pioneered by such luminaries as Professor Phil Zuckerman and Dr. Nigel Barber, this result is not surprising. After all, atheism is usually influenced by a variety of factors, most of which Japan has. Check the list: capitalism (Check), economic stability (Check), political stability (Check), existential stability (Check).
“People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion,” Dr. Barber explains. Just as there are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, he believes there are fewer atheists when the world is relatively stable, “Atheism blossoms amid affluence where most people feel economically secure.”
So what is going on? If we accept that Japan is a perfect breeding ground for atheist thought, how can so many people be claiming religious affiliation as well? How can one country be simultaneously so atheistic and so religious? After all, if you fought through the crowds at 初詣 (Hatsumoude- the New Year visit to shrine), it is hard to believe that statistically a sizable percentage of those waiting to pray identified themselves as ‘convinced atheists’.
“Much of what is done at New Year and お盆 (The bon festival) does not require any prior or fixed religious commitment from the participants,” Professor of Religious Studies at Lancaster University Ian Reader explains. “The gods and Buddhas are seen as being supportive and one can pray to them without being obliged to join a religious organization. Or indeed without needing to declare belief in their existence.”
As an author of numerous books on the subject, Professor Reader believes that asking whether Japan is atheist or not is missing the point. “Surveys usually ask about religious belief (shuukyou shin 宗教心- having a religious mind), but that can be interpreted by ordinary people as asking if they have faith in a ‘specific religious organization’. Most would answer no,” He explains, “It does not mean they are ‘atheist’ in terms of denying existence of a god. These studies indicate a ‘not quite sure’ attitude as a rule.”
Certainly one of the big problems with saying that the Japanese are ‘atheist’ is that atheism requires there to be a ‘god’ to not believe in. Instead Japanese religions are somewhat unclear on the matter. After all, are the kami, spirits and ancestral entities that make up the Japanese indigenous beliefs really equivalent to the god of the Abrahamic religions?
In his book Rush Hour of the Gods, Neill McFarland found that the definition of kami was tough to categorize. Fundamental life principles, celestial bodies, natural forces, topographical features, natural objects, certain animals, the spirits of the dead and even influential people could all happily be included in a concise definition of the kami. It is a little difficult to say that you don’t believe in ‘natural forces’ and ‘fundamental life principles’!
Instead, Ian Reader believes that you have to consider Japanese culture and religion as a whole and trying to separate one from the other isn’t always possible. “Japanese society and culture are intricately interwoven with religious themes,” He writes, “(Japanese religion) is a deep and continuing stream of religious motifs interwoven with, rather than separate from, other aspects of Japanese life and society.”
In other words, religion in Japan isn’t something that you can choose whether to ‘believe’ or ‘not believe’ in. It’s so prevalent and all-encompassing that one cannot exist without the other. Perhaps the philosopher Daisetsu Suzuki got the answer right all those years ago. He argued that religion was so infused into Japanese culture that just by being born Japanese and taking part in the rituals and observances, you become part of the ‘religion’. Admittedly, he was talking about the Zen faith, but a similar thing could be said of Shintoism.
“The religion-secular dichotomy simply doesn’t work in the analysis of Japanese institutions. Ritual is pervasive at every level of society. A more convincing model is that of a family of over-lapping ritual performances that share ideas about reciprocity, self-sacrifice, and dependency.” Dr. Timothy Fitzgerald from the University of Sterling proposes, “In such a wider perspective, freed from the compulsion to stuff rituals and experiences into either the ‘religious’ bag or the ‘secular’ one, certain conceptual confusions will be reduced.”
WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century
2009 Report on International Religious Freedom – Japan
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