Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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I Believe; Help Thou Mine Unbelief
Many's the time that Japanese friends have told me that Japan is not a religious country. They have the stats on their side, too. According to a Gallup poll in 2009 that asked people across the world whether religion was important in their life, for example, the Japanese came in at just 24%, beaten only by the Czech republic, Estonia and a clutch of sceptical Scandinavians. For comparison the UK figure was 27%, also very much at the low end; the US 69%; South Africa mid-table at 85%; and Bangladesh breasting the tape with 99%.

This survey is perhaps more instructive. It asked both whether respondents were certain of God's existence, and whether they were atheist. Japan tops the charts for uncertainty; but it is actually the lower half of the table for atheism. What does this suggest? A bet-hedging disinclination to commit one way or the other? A reluctance to be rude even to non-existent beings? Or perhaps the monotheistic bias implicit in the question about "God" skewed things somewhat?

The strange thing is that these Japanese friends who aren't at all religious generally nevertheless go to pray at a Shinto shrine at least once a year; they have a Buddhist priest come to pray for the souls of their departed at ordained intervals; and they have a little altar to those same ancestors in their houses. This is apparently a matter of culture and custom, not religion. That's a pretty blurry line in many countries, I suppose, even without translation issues, but it does make it hard to take seriously the kind of worldwide surveys linked above, since their questions must mean such different things to different people.

This is very interesting. I think it also connects to diachronic differences between, say, Genesis and Revelation. Older OT books say nothing about an afterlife. You live and die. You may interact with God and/or worship him. But is it religion or something else when there's no human possibility of transcendence (as there is, for example, in Greek or Egyptian or Roman religion)? When God is akin to a natural force, even if an animistic and powerful one?

The word "religion" does seem like one of those irregular nouns beloved of Yes, Minister: I have a religion, you have spirituality, they have superstition. Probably shinto would fail the test you mention above, for example; but then Buddhism (in some of its forms, anyway) seems to lack anything that would be recognisable within Western traditions as a g/God), which I can imagine some people thinking even more criterial. I've often wondered at their happy coexistence through much of Japanese history, but perhaps that happened precisely because they don't tread on each other's toes.

In fact, the Japanese are very superstitious, and are more likely to admit to that than to religion, in my far-from-encyclopaedic experience. But where does a superstition shade into religion? Touching wood and throwing salt over one's left shoulder both started as religious gestures, after all. There doesn't seem a very sharp divide between that and, say, making a pilgrimage to Lourdes, at least to me.


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