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The Sciences

Japan & religion

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSeptember 15, 2006 7:09 AM


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I think this comment in the message boards needs to be highlighted:

I think it's important to know that functionally, stated atheism in Japan is quite different than stated atheism in the west. In Japan, "religion" (the word itself in Japanese: "shuukyo" was a Meiji era invention), is generally seen as a family affair, namely funerals. Actual religious practice such as shrine visiting or New Year's is seen as cultural despite the fact that people are going through religious motions such as prayer and charm buying. The act of buying charms in and of itself is interesting. A professor of mine called it "just in case religion". If you ask them point blank whether they believe that the kami will stop them from getting into an auto accident by means of a charm on the bumper, the majority will say "No", but when pressed will say that they got it "just in case." Belief in and even understanding of religion is unimportant and can be dispensed with in Japan, what's important is that one goes through the motions, which is why exclusive religions that prohibit things like celebration of the New Year's tend to get looked at askance.

I do not believe cultures alien and unintelligible, so I do not want to make too much of this difference. The Japanese attidue of ritual being prioritized before belief would not be alien to ancient Romans or Greeks. On the other hand, some Pure Land forms of Japanese Buddhism resemble the sectarian devotionalism common in modern the West. Nevertheless, it puts in perspective the "atheist-theist" chasm which seems so fundamental to many in the Christian & post-Christian West.

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