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Imagining American and Japanese Religious Freedom

A response to Episode 332 Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post-War Japan by Satoko Fujiwara

I listened to Jolyon Thomas’ interview about his book Faking Liberties with Brett Eskai while COVID-19 was rapidly spreading internationally, in mid-March 2020. I was struck with how my European and American colleagues racialized and classed the disease. A Danish colleague said that people around him, that is, middle-class and upper-middle class Danes, assuming that the disease only affected the lower-class and immigrants, were enjoying their regular lives. “I think they are arrogant,” he said. Certainly. Although most of them did not go as far as calling it “Yellow Peril,” they associated the disease with race and class. As for the United States, although lower-class people are, in fact, under a larger threat due to their lack of health insurance etc., Americans have also been inclined to discuss the disease in terms of race and class. In contrast, Japanese people have mostly related the disease to age. It is, again, a fact that older people have higher risk of more serious infection, but it is also true that Japanese people do not see it as a racial and class problem (except those conspiracy-lovers who say that the disease is a bioweapon to terminate Asians). Instead, as the virus spread beyond Asia, they started associating the disease with national identity. They have been saying, some sarcastically but others proudly, “We, Japanese people, are so obedient to the government that we stay home just with an official ‘request.’ No need of order or legal enforcement.”

The above is only another example of how we unconsciously adopt a particular way of viewing things. That is why diversity matters in the academy, as Thomas argues. Diversity often lets us realize that we have limited our scope with no deliberation. Regarding the study of Japanese religions, diversity is even more necessary because scholars in the field have largely consisted of only two groups: Japanese scholars and white Westerners. Few other African Americans, multiracial, or non-white/non-Asian scholars specializing in Japanese religions have obtained faculty positions at US universities. Moreover, it is customary for minority American scholars of religion to choose a field that is closely related to their ethnic backgrounds: African Americans often specialize in the history of their own religious traditions, so do Asian Americans. It is too often as if only “white” scholars have the freedom to study anything and everything.

Therefore, the contributions Thomas has made and is going to make in the future for the study of Japanese religions are immense. Indeed, the impact of his work is not limited to Japanese studies. His sharp critique of Robert Bellah’s arguments of civil religion arose because of his unique positionality as a multiracial African American scholar of Japanese religions.

That said, it is also important to note that his critique can function differently in Japanese contexts. (I have given him similar feedback before, which is mentioned in the book). Briefly, a critique of American liberals (such as Bellah) can please Japanese conservatives. Thomas says American civil religion is no different from State Shinto, at least not as much as Bellah claimed. In contrast, Japanese scholars have a tendency to stress differences and to place American civil religion above State Shinto. They argue that Shinto is a this-worldly religion and only legitimizes the Japanese government, while American civil religion, like Christianity, has a transcendent dimension, in light of which Americans criticize the current state of their government. In other words, Shinto is always subject to nationalism, while civil religion, being based on universal values, can transcend nationalism. In so arguing, Japanese scholars attempted to maintain critical consciousness of their war past. Thomas’s argument may sound to Japanese people that they do not have to be so harsh on themselves. It may then empower Japanese conservatives who are ready to use any chance to de-demonize Shinto and Japan’s military past.

From William P. Woodard, The Allied Occupation of Japan and Japanese Religions 1945-1952, Leiden, 1972, frontiespiece, in ref. 2, p. 97

 

I am also cautious of making any academic argument that can serve Japanese reactionism (particularly against the backdrop of the present Abe administration). Yet, at the same time, I consider Japanese scholars’ comparison between State Shinto and American civil religion to be quite problematic because it heavily draws upon the essentialized dichotomy of “world religion” vs “national (or ethnic) religion.” (To note: the term “world religion,” which was coined in the late 19th century, has two major meanings. One is “religions in the world” and the other is “universal religion” as the opposite of national/ethnic religion. The former meaning has been remaining in the US, UK and some other multicultural countries, while the latter meaning, which became obsolete in those Western countries, has survived in Japan. As for why it is still popular in Japan, see Fujiwara 2016). Perhaps academic critiques are always two-sided when thrown into different contexts of the actual world. What we need to do together is to find out a way to avoid “trade-offs” and promote “synergies” between critiques.

Closely related to the comparison between State Shinto and civil religion is Thomas’s arguments on secularism in Japan. He identifies preoccupation Japan as a secularist system based on the Meiji constitution. This is also a bold statement because the established thesis has been the opposite: preoccupation Japan had neither true separation between religion and the state nor true religious freedom. The thesis is being questioned by a new generation of scholars represented by Thomas and also by Yijiang Zhong (Zhong 2014), who happens to be another promising scholar of Japanese religions who is not a white Westerner. Thomas says, “I saw a lot of works in the critical religious freedom literature tearing apart the word ‘religion’. I saw less on freedom and I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly.” If Americans have been preoccupied by the idea of religious freedom as their imagined national treasure, many, especially conservative, Japanese people love to talk about the tolerance or inclusiveness of Japanese religions, above all Shinto, as their imagined innate nature since the pre-war period. It would be intriguing to investigate how discourses on Japanese religious tolerance/inclusiveness have developed hand in hand with those on US religious freedom.


References

Fujiwara, Satoko. 2016. “Why the Concept of ‘World Religion’ Has Survived in Japan: On the Japanese Reception of Max Weber’s Comparative Religion,” in Contemporary Views on Comparative Religion, ed. by Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz and Mikael Rothstein, Sheffield: Equinox, 191-203.

Zhong, Yijiang. 2014. “Freedom, Religion and the Making of the Modern State in Japan, 1868–89.” Asian Studies Review, 38/1: 53-70.

Religious legislation as a place of religion-making

Religious legislation as a place of religion-making

A response to Episode 332 Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post-War Japan by Ernils Larsson

Jolyon Thomas’ Faking Liberties (2019) is a book rich in content and themes, and while many of his arguments deserve to be highlighted, I would like to take the opportunity to respond to what I consider a central observation made by Thomas in this podcast: “Religious freedom is a place where you see religion-making happening in real-time, because to free religion people have to designate one thing as religion and something else as not religion.” This statement echoes a point argued by Winnifred Sullivan, who posited that the central problem with legislation pertaining to religion is that it requires “essentialized religion” (Sullivan 2005). In other words, for religious freedom to make sense, we would first have to agree on a common understanding of what religion is, yet since no generally agreed upon definition of religion is ever likely to exist, treatment of religion in courts of law becomes arbitrary. Law, like academia, becomes a place where religion is made, as certain aspects of human culture are designated religion while others are not.

Visitors enter the Yasukuni Shrine. Photo by Ernils Larsson

As Thomas notes in the podcast, religion exists in the Japanese vocabulary in part as a direct result of Western demands for religious freedom. This point has been argued in several recent studies (e.g. Josephson 2012, Maxey 2014), which have shown how the Japanese term for religion – shūkyō – was created following domestic debates on how best to make sense of primarily American and Dutch demands for religious freedom made in the mid-19th century. Japanese lawmakers were not only tasked with creating a Japanese equivalent to the Western religion, but they also had to decide upon what exactly was to be included in this new generic category. By the time the principle of religious freedom was written into the Meiji Constitution of 1890, it had been generally agreed upon that there were three religions present in Japan: Christianity, Buddhism, and sectarian Shinto. Significantly, the imperial institution and all rites associated with the emperor and the state were deliberately excluded from the category of religion and were instead considered part of the secular order in Japan, in a system which Jason Josephson has referred to as the “Shinto Secular” (Josephson 2012). This system became known in the postwar period as “State Shinto,” yet as Thomas suggests in the podcast, we could just as well refer to it as prewar “Japanese secularism.”

The American occupation of Japan after World War II signalled a shift in how secularism was envisioned in the country. As Thomas argues in his book, to the American policymakers reshaping Japan into a liberal democracy, “State Shinto” represented a form of “heretical secularism” in which true religious freedom could not be found. Through the Shinto Directive of December 15, 1945, all aspects of Shinto were separated from the state, including imperial rituals and those public rites which were carried out to honour and placate the spirits of the heroic war dead. The directive also firmly established that “Shrine Shinto” belonged to the category of religion: “Shrine Shinto, having been divorced from the state and divested of its militaristic and ultra-nationalistic elements, will be recognized as a religion if its adherents so desire and will be granted the same protection as any other religion” (Shinto Directive). Under the new legal framework implemented during the occupation, including the new constitution of 1947 and the Religious Juridical Persons Law of 1951, formerly nonreligious Shinto shrines were essentially forced to reorganize as religious organizations in order to survive their separation from the state. To the American occupation, the new secular order, in which all religions were equally separated from the state, provided the foundation for a true religious freedom to be carried out in Japan. While religion was already understood in Japan as belonging to the private sphere, the occupation authorities simply ensured that the same was true for everything that they considered to be religion, including Shinto.

A central problem with the principles of religious freedom and the separation of religion and state as they were instituted in Japan under American occupation is that they assume a consensus with regards to what constitutes religion. As Japan was reshaped by the occupation authorities, an American understanding of religion forced a transformation of the public rites of the state in order for them to conform with the notion of Shrine Shinto as a private religion. For an example of this process we can look at Yasukuni Shrine, one of the most central public institutions of the prewar state. At Yasukuni Shrine, the spirits of all those who gave their lives for the nation were enshrined, regardless of the private religious faith of individual soldiers, and all loyal subjects were expected to participate in the public worship of these heroic spirits. While the American occupation authorities had initially intended to destroy Yasukuni Shrine due to its central position in Japanese militarism, the shrine priests and their allies managed to ensure the survival of the shrine in part by arguing for its religious nature (Mullins 2010). After all, as champions of religious freedom, the American occupation authorities could hardly force the closure of a religious institution. Yasukuni Shrine has been organized throughout the postwar period as a private religious institution, yet through its claims to public significance for the nation it continues to be the cause of much controversy. In the 1960s and 70s, the Yasukuni Shrine Bills sought to renationalize the shrine, yet based on the shrine’s status as a religious organization, it was concluded that this would violate the principle of secularism as established by the constitution. The tension between private and public also plays out whenever key political figures pay their respect at the shrine, as postwar legal precedence has found this to be a key factor when deciding whether visits and offerings are allowed or not (Breen 2010).

Above, about 70 Japanese lawmakers visit the Yasukuni Shrine in April 2019. The shrine pays honor to war dead as well as war criminals of World War II, a fact that creates tension with China and South Korea.

A reading of court cases on religious freedom suggests that in general the basic principles instituted under the American occupation are being upheld by Japan’s courts of law. Religious freedom grants citizens the right to freely believe and practice their faith as individuals, and the judiciary tends to support those plaintiffs who demand the right to be different (Takahata 2007). The question of how to define religion as a legal concept is rarely discussed in lawsuits on religious freedom, as these are commonly resolved by reference to the status of the organization an individual adheres to: Jehovah’s Witnesses are registered as a religious juridical person and are therefore considered a religion under Japanese law. Normative assumptions about what religion means in a Japanese context can instead be found primarily in those lawsuits which deal with the principle of secularism, i.e the separation of religion from the state. Reading such lawsuits, it becomes clear that how religion is to be understood in relation to Shinto institutions and rites remains a deeply contested issue. While current Supreme Court precedence favours the view that all religious organizations should be equally understood as religion under Japanese law, this debate is far from resolved (Larsson 2017). There are many influential actors in contemporary Japan who would favour a return to what Thomas in the podcast refers to as “Japanese secularism.”


References

Breen, John. “’Conventional Wisdom’ and the Politics of Shinto in Postwar Japan.” In Politics of Religion, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2010), pp. 68-82.

 

Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto from the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (December 15, 1945). Available in Mullins, Shimazono & Swanson 1993, pp. 97-102.

 

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

 

Larsson, Ernils. “Jinja Honchō and the Politics of Constitutional Reform in Japan.” In Japan Review, No. 30 (2017), Special Issue Formations of the Secular in Japan, pp. 227-252.

 

Maxey, Trent E.. The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Harvard University Press, 2014.

 

Mullins, Mark R. “How Yasukuni Shrine Survived the Occupation: A Critical Examination of Popular Claims.” In Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 89-136.

 

Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton University Press, 2005.

 

Eiichiro, Takahata. “Religious Accommodation in Japan.” In Brigham Young University Law Review, Vol. 2007, No. 3 (2007), pp. 729-750.

 

Thomas, Jolyon B.. Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. The University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Race, Religious Freedom & Empire in Post-War Japan

At the 2019 American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego, California, Brett Esaki sat down with Jolyon Thomas to discuss Thomas’ new book Faking Liberties and the complex intersection of religious freedom, empire, and racialization in the post-war relationship between Japan and the United States. The processes or projects of secularization, says Thomas, were instrument of American empire. By looking at the ways discourses about religious freedom regulated race, gender, and ritual practices in occupation-era Japan, we can see the double-standard of what America has advocated for abroad versus practiced at home. Thomas calls for deeper scholarly engagement with the category of “freedom” and how freedom of religious expression has been racially coded as white in the United States. It is a cautionary tale with important pedagogical and institutional lessons. If we find that discussing “diversity looks like activism,” he suggests, then “we have a huge problem” that reveals why diversity in the academy is essential for discussing secularism, religious freedom, and religion today.

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Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post- War Japan

Podcast with Jolyon Thomas (11 May 2020).

Interviewed by Brett Esaki.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-religious-freedom-and-empire-in-post-war-japan/

Brett Esaki (BE): Welcome to sunny San Diego. I’m Brett Esaki, and I’m really excited to talk about your book today. So the book, Faking Liberties, Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. It’s about a lot of things, but primarily in the area . . . about Japan before, during and after the American Occupation. But it’s also, interestingly, a reflection upon the United States and its projects abroad. So, can you briefly introduce the book’s thesis, and list a few of the items of comparison across the countries?

Jolyon Thomas (JT): Well, thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I’m Jolyon Thomas and I’m really pleased to be here. So the book’s main thesis is that there’s a story that’s been told that the United States brought religious freedom to Japan at the end of the Second World War. And, as I was looking at this history, I was really struck by the fact that it just seemed to not be true. Now it turns out that the United States did bring religious freedom to Japan, only it had brought religious freedom to Japan much earlier, in the 1850s, as part of a sort-of diplomatic package. And indeed, the concept of religion comes to Japan in that time. But the sort-of triumphalist Occupation era narrative about the United States bringing religious freedom to Japan is a really problematic story, because it sets up the Americans as being sort-of the holders of freedom and the Japanese as being these benighted people that need to be saved, or rescued, by the Americans. So I was really inspired by literature on secularism, and secularity studies, in thinking through the ways that religious freedom is a really good topic for thinking about what secularism is. But I was also trying to make an intervention in the history of Japan and the United States, thinking perhaps a little more critically about American empire. And then thinking perhaps a little bit more – what’s the way to put this? – in a sort-of radical credulity about one of these claims that Japanese people in the Pre-War and War-time period made, that Shinto was not a religion. And so one of the things I wanted to do was take that claim at face value and think, “Well, what would the history look like if that turned out to be true?”

BE: Right. And that kind-of explains one of the shifts you make from going from essentialist and functionalist definitions of freedom of religion to more of a project or claims-making. Can you walk us through that transition?

JT: Yes. So one of the things that really struck me in thinking about the Occupation era narrative about “Japanese people don’t have religious freedom”, is that it basically makes an essentialist claim, saying “Japanese people, as such, in their being, don’t get it.” And, you know, I think that many of us in the academy, in 2019, we’re well aware that we should avoid essentialising claims. But there are still a lot of them that sort-of lurk out there. They’re sort-of shambling around in our midst, right? So the first sort-of correction for that is the suspicious move to do the functionalist claim, like: “What’s really happening behind the scenes?” And I think that, for most of time that I’ve been professionally studying religions in Japan, I’ve seen more of the functionalist move where it’s like: “Well, Shinto is essentially a religion of Japanese people. And State Shinto is functionally the political co-option this benign ancient religion”, or whatever. It turns out that the scholarship has shown that both of those claims are just not accurate. And that one of things that I really push, in a more constructivist bent, is to look at who speaks about Shinto and about religious freedom, and how do they engage in projects of religion making? And so, you know, in this critical secularisms and secularities literature there’s a sort-of focus on the constructed nature of both . . . the co-constructed nature, I should say, of both religion and secularism. And so, as I was thinking through those issues, it was very obvious that religious freedom is a place where you see religion-making happening in real time. Because to free religion, people have to designate one thing as “religion” and something else as “not religion”. And so I find that to be endlessly fascinating, and fun to think through and with.

BE: So, to try and summarise that, there are these two projects of secularisation, or kind-of defining what religion and what non-religion is, both within pre-War Japan and also in the United States in its later Occupation. So it’s a nice line of comparison, having those two (5:00). So, one thing I’d like to turn to, is one of these provocative claims that you’ve made – and I think it’s actually – as the argument goes in your book – a quite tempered claim, for my view, that religious freedom and human rights have been used functionally as tools of empire – and that’s the term you use. Can you explain what you mean by that term, tool of empire? And maybe provide an example?

JT: Sure. So I think I’m not alone in making this sort of claim. And just to give a shout out to other scholars working in the field of Critical Religious Freedom Studies: Tisa Wenger‘s book Religious Freedom – I forget the subtitle . . . something about an American ideal – is . . . . She uses this idea about religious freedom. As white settlers move west then they take religious freedom with them, and it helps them occupy territory, and so forth. Writing in a more contemporary period, Elizabeth Shackman Hurd has talked about the global promotion of religious freedom, or what she calls international religious freedom. And, you know, this is something that the Trump administration takes very seriously. So did the Obama administration before it, and so forth. And the reason that this is a sort-of tool of empire is that it’s a way for Americans to do assert a certain type of moral superiority, and to . . . . Even if not dominating politically another territory and population, the language of religious freedom allows Americans to sort-of assert a certain degree of political hegemony. So in the book there are two main examples of this, I would say. Chapter Three looks at territorial Hawai’i, which is, at the time, you know, an American territory, not a state. I’m looking at Hawai’i in the 1910s and twenties, mostly. And there, under the plantation economy, religious freedom and the notion of white Christian supremacy work hand in hand. So, to make a long story very short, Japanese American Buddhists make an attempt to use the language of religious freedom, and they fail utterly. And this is partly . . . and the reason they fail is that there’s a very carefully constructed political economy of the Islands. And if Japanese people are allowed to use religious freedom, then that really calls into question the white supremacy that dominates that. And the other place is, of course, the Occupation itself. Japan is an autonomous state. It has its own sovereignty at this stage. I would say that it’s fair to describe Japan as a client state. It’s utterly dependent on the US military presence in a very conflicted way. And Japan is America’s . . . the forward base for the United States in East Asia that reflects the geopolitics of the Cold War. There’s a lot of emphasis on using Japan as a sort-of place to maintain freedom of navigation in the Pacific and so forth. All of that is to say, religious freedom was central to the Occupation project. It was one of the main rationales for why the United States needed to be in Japan in the first place. These people, we fought a war with them, they fought the war because of their religion: “Their religion was bad, we’re going to fix it. And, having fixed it, then we’re going to incorporate them under the sort-of military umbrella of the United States.” So, you know, we could parse the term empire all day. But I’m totally comfortable with thinking of America as an empire and that’s quite accurate in many respects.

BE: And we could also use the adjective empirical, like . . . things related to those goals. Can we also categorise other similar freedoms, spread abroad, with the same kind of analysis of projects?

JT: Yes, I think so. You know, other people have talked about this sort of thing. One of the things that immediately comes to mind when you ask this question is, sort-of gender and women’s rights. I think we see a lot of Americans really worked up about genital cutting and in a very complicated way. And there are a number of scholars who have worked on sort-of calling that into question. But sort-of saying like “Women need to be protected either from themselves or from the terrible men who are doing stuff”. And, of course, Saba Mahmood has talked about this sort of thing with veiling, and there are others like Rick Shweder at the University of Chicago, who have written articles on genital cutting and so forth, where there are double standards that are applied (10:00). So one of the things that I think is really interesting thinking about the US project of spreading freedoms abroad, is that we often operate under double standards, where what we do at home is a little bit different from what we project overseas. And I think that we really need to sort-of slow down, and pay attention to that dynamic. It’s insidious in its worst instantiations.

BE: From maybe my interests, and my lines of questioning, maybe you have like a presumption, maybe, of a kind-of underlying interest that I have. And that’s really your experiences of racialisation and how that informs your scholarly perspective. Now, I’m not imposing this on your book. But, in fact, it’s explicitly stated in the epilogue, you’re a multi-racial African American, if that’s the right term you’d like to use to identify yourself. And without giving away the book’s awesome finale – stated in musical form – really cool! – can you just touch upon, maybe, how your study of Asian religions, in particular, has been affected by your own experiences of racialisation.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for asking that question. So one of the things that struck me as I was getting into the archival materials for this book, was how frequently the occupiers described themselves as white. And how they also positioned themselves as . . . they thought of America as white. And the American armed forces were still segregated at this time. America’s self-understanding was figured around whiteness. And as a non-white person, that really was jarring. But it also was one of the things that I . . . . You know, it’s part of this longer autobiography, I guess, that I share in a brief form in the epilogue, which is that if you’re a non-white person in the United States then it’s very obvious – I shouldn’t speak for all of us, but I’ll just speak for myself. It was really obvious to me growing up that when American’s talk about freedom that freedom is not extended to all of us equally. And so I saw a lot of work in the critical religious freedom literature, tearing apart the word religion. And very important to do. I saw less on freedom. And I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly. And to think about how there are both emancipatory and coercive qualities to freedom. And that different people, and different groups, get freedom in different ways. One of the things that . . . . So the Epilogue, as you’ve seen, is written in a very personal tone. I had a lot of trepidations putting it out there in the world. So far, when I’ve heard from people, they’ve generally . . . the response has been positive from people who have already read the book. But one thing that I notice is that a number of people said that it was . . . that my project was an activist project. And so, in the Introduction, I say very explicitly it’s not an activist project for all of these reasons. But one of the things that people are taking away, having read the Epilogue, was that this made the book an activist project. And I’ve been thinking about that recently. And this goes to your question about racialisation. Because I think that that reading is actually a racialised reading of the book. So, in other words, if I were like a white American and I close the book by being like, “Oh I went on the JET programme and I had this lovely experience in this small town in rural Japan.” Nobody would read that as activist. They would be like “Oh, that’s just a book.” Right? But because I’m talking about my experience as a racialised minority in the United States, and because it’s built into the apparatus of the book, suddenly the book becomes activist. And I think we really have to think about, you know, what sort of burden that places on racialised scholars of religion, and what we can do about that. Because – sorry, this is turning into a long rant! But one of the things that I think is that . . . . The Epilogue was designed to show, rather than tell. But it was showing the value of diversity in the academy. And if diversity looks like activism then we have a huge problem. So I think that one of the things that I really . . . like, my hope for people reading the Epilogue is that “Oh, this represents why diverse voices are valuable in the academy; this represents why we need to foster diversity in the lower ranks of the academy”, and so forth.

BE: Right. So there’s so much in there to unpack. I would like to actually walk back to more of your archival discussion.

JT: Sure.

BE: So let’s take us back into that time (15:00). You look at his archive, and then, over and over, you’re reading, with the name America, some reference – either explicitly or implicitly – to concepts of whiteness. What goes through your mind as you’re going through this archive? And again, I’m trying to help you out here, with the . . . and I do that myself, your experiences shape your lens. They don’t make your project activism. So I trying to help you articulate that process.

JT: Yes great, OK. So let me just talk about the archive in general. It’s actually multiple archives in the United States in Japan. So I’m looking at American military government records at the National Archives and Records Administration. That’s in College Park, Maryland. And also there is this fabulous collection at the University of Maryland called the Prange Collection. During the years of the Occupation, every document that was published in Japanese was censored. So, you know, there’s this irony in the Occupation to promote freedom of expression, that the occupiers censor everything! (Laughter). To promote religious freedom, they quash some religious groups, and so forth. I talk about this in great detail in the book. So the Prange Collection has all these censored documents. And then I was looking at archives in Southern California, in Oregon, for people who had been influential in Occupation policy, or active in the Occupation, as well as archives in Japan. So Government records, a lot of magazines and so forth. One of the things that I noticed, as I was going through the American military government records, was that they told a very sort-of hasty story of the Japanese past, the recent Japanese past. And their story was designed to make Japan look like it was an inferior, sort-of uncivilised place. So with the concept . . . . I want to stress the concept of civilisation here, for a second, like really spell that out. Because civilisation was the dominant frame for understanding the world in the first half of the twentieth century and the late nineteenth century. And so civilisation was basically equated with whiteness. And so any time the Americans are talking about civilisation, they’re often – if not explicitly, at least implicitly – sort-of tying this to “these people who are insufficiently white”. And, of course, those people who know the history will know that Japan has had this ambiguous status geopolitically, because Japan was an empire in its own right. Japan staved off being colonised by colonising the other countries of Asia. And that’s a very complicated history that I won’t go into in too much detail. But where does that leave the scholar? Well I felt like I had a responsibility, then, to unpack the stories the Japanese people were telling about themselves. How did they think of themselves? How did they mobilise the language of civilisation in a different way? And so, you know, at first I thought I was just writing a book about the years of the Occupation. But it turned out that I needed to write a whole half of the book that was about whatever was happening before the Occupation, to really let Japanese people speak in their own voices. And, strikingly, one of the things that happened was that a lot of them were saying a lot of things about religious freedom. And they’re laughing at the United States through a lot of it. A lot of them were just like, “Look at those crazy Americans! They are way too lapse with their laws about religious freedom! We’re going to use religious freedom, but we’re going do it our own way.” And I think that that’s a very important kind of story. And, of course, just amplifying the Japanese voices, and all of their complicated conflicted ways, is part of the project of the book.

BE: So, one thing you’re pointing to is that quick summarisation of what Japan used to be. So what are we doing now, as an American project? What was Japan before this? And one of the interesting things you point to is how they drew upon Religious Studies scholars to make this claim about what Japan used to be like. And so this actually discusses it . . . . It’s a major discussion you have about the politics of Religious Studies scholarship. And so here we have an example where . . . I don’t know if those scholars really thought of themselves as world-influencing in terms of their work. However, they ended up being it. And so one major portion of the book is called “The Occupation of Religious Studies” And obviously you have a double entendre there with the job, as well as the American Occupation. And there are some really interesting points made through this probably secondarily archival work, right? But there’s these terms of a spiritual vacuum, and also what happens after the American Occupation, the flourishing of new religions (20:00). And so this new term, “new religions and new religious movements”, and other terms that come out of there, actually come out of this definition of what Japan was like before and then what it was like after. So reflecting on these discussions and maybe – well, you can maybe parse out some of that for the Listeners. But also, maybe, words of advice about us as scholars of religion and what our potential political impact could be, based on our ways of framing religions.

JT: Great. Thanks so much for that question. OK. So I’m going to answer it by looping back to an earlier part of our conversation with the activism stuff. So the reason I said that it was deliberately not an activist project was precisely because so much stuff that I was seeing in the archive was scholars of religion adopting a prescriptive tone, saying “This is good religion, and that’s bad religion.”

BE: Right.

JT: “This is superstition. That’s real religion.” And that sort of thing. I think the category of State Shinto, which I alluded to before, it had that whole story built into it. Two-words, whole story, right? And so I wanted to be very deliberate. Of course, there’s always going to be some sort of prescription that we’re doing. But I think in general, for me, I think the first order level of prescription is about scholarly method. And if there’s an intervention I’m making in the book, it’s: how do we periodise, how do we tell our stories? Whose voices are we paying attention to? And that sort of thing. Those are the kinds of things that I think I’m very explicit about in the book. On reflection, I think I could have been even more deliberate, or taken a little bit more time to – in this case – rather than show, actually tell people what I was doing, in terms of playing with chronological presentation. The book is organised chronologically, but it’s also not organised chronologically. And that was my way of sort-of doing the historical method, but also kind-of screwing with it at the same time! But in terms of the sort-of nitty-gritty of what was happening in the Occupation – before, during and immediately after the Occupation – we have scholars of religion who are really minor until they become major, because of a sudden policy need. So the person I have in mind is Daniel Clarence Holtom, who’s a Baptist Missionary, who’s a scholar of Shinto and nobody was reading his stuff really, right? He’s completely under-appreciated. I think a small number of people are looking at him. But after Pearl Harbour the sort-of dominant narrative at the time was that Japanese people were ultra-nationalist because of Buddhism, not Shinto. And then somebody in the state department or in the Office of Strategic Services finds Holtom’s work and they’re like: “Oh my God! This guy is this expert who’s been telling us all of this stuff about why Japanese people are the way they are!” And so, suddenly, Holtom’s work has this whole new life, where it’s explaining Japanese ultra-nationalism. So this guy comes to . . . and then he ends up having like an outsize role after being on the margins of the scholarly community. So his ideas about Shinto as the national faith of Japan, and so forth, come to inform a lot of policy. This is particularly the case in the fall of 1945, when the occupiers have a sudden policy change that’s dictated by Washington. And the people in Washington suddenly announce on American public radio that Shinto, as a state religion, is going to be abolished. For the occupiers, stationed in Japan, this was the first they were hearing of it, and then they suddenly had to come up with a policy to support this objective. They had to come up with a reason to support this objective, while also protecting and promoting religious freedom. Which is an impossible task! So the only way to make that work is to designate Japan’s – quote-unquote – “national religion” as not being religion. Or as being sort-of insufficiently distinguishing between the religious and the political. How do you do that? You go to scholarly experts. So they relied on Holtom’s work, and they also relied on local Japanese scholars of religion, particularly this guy Kishimoto Hideo, and were asking them to basically support this for ordained objective and sure enough by 15 December of that year, of 1945, you get this document called the Shinto Directive, which formally abolishes this thing that they have now come to call State Shinto. And one thing I just want to put here – a sort-of asterisk to all of this – is that the language of – quote-unquote – “State Shinto” doesn’t solidify until December 1945. It is not something that is widely used, in Japanese or in English, up until that point. And that’s really crucial (25:00).

BE: And, in the book, you do a really good job of pointing out the kind-of lineage of the debates within Japan about the relationship of religion to the state. And so, it’s very clear from that there is no solidification of the State Shinto idea. So I think what this is actually . . . it’s bringing it back to, maybe, one of the earlier points about racialisation. So instead of it being an activist work, it’s really –and you can rephrase this how you want – your experiences shape your lens. That lens would be obvious . . . that lens is obvious to anyone who’s had similar experience of racialisation. On the other hand, maybe another scholar would take some of these assumptions about State Shinto for granted. Can you maybe loop those together? Like, how your own experience of racialisation allows you to break free of that presumption that the previous Religious Studies scholarship was fully accurate.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for that question. OK, so I’m going to sort-of build on what we were just talking about with State Shinto, and tie it to this other concept that may be lurking in some Listeners’ minds, which is civil religion. OK, so Robert Bellah starts off, as I understand it, Talcott Parsons tells Robert Bellah, “You’re going do Japan” And he writes this book, Tokugawa Religion. And then he ends up shifting focus, and he ends up the being one of the major sociologists of American religion and so forth, and we’re all very indebted to him. One of the things that . . . one of his most influential essays is about Americas’ civil religion. And I think one of the things that a lot of people forget – maybe a lot of our Americanist colleagues forget – is that Bellah’s experience studying Japan directly affects his civil religion essay. And there’s even a footnote in that essay where he’s like: “I’m not talking about an American Shinto” – which I think says exactly what he’s doing. Right? There’s a sort-of proleptic quality to that that I think is really, really telling. So there are maybe one or two pages in Chapter One, where I’m talking about how Bellah, writing in his time – 1967, I think it is – he’s capable of telling a story about America’s civil religion that picks a set number of saints and heroes and monuments and so forth, and he’s talking about things like national sacrifice. But look at who he’s including and not including. There is no mention of blackness. There is no . . . like, black people are not present in this stories.

BE: Let’s repeat the date.

JT: 1967. Yes! Exactly! And so it’s just utterly striking. And so I’ve had a number of colleagues say, “Well, actually, shouldn’t civil religion be helpful in talking through your critique of State Shinto?” and I want to say, “No!” I want to flip the table over and say. “No. This is not helpful. Because Bellah was both using a racialised notion of Japan to tacitly to build his argument about American civil religion. He was rejecting what was going on in Japan to say, “Well, what we do is actually really good. And it’s the healthy stuff that bonds us all together.” That’s exactly what Japanese people were saying about . . . what they did not call State Shinto, but they called like the Imperial Way or shrine rites, or whatever. They had lots of different names for this stuff. And, you know, one of the things that Bellah’s . . . I mention this explicitly in my discussion of Bellah’s piece. But there’s no reference to Martin Luther King. There’s certainly no reference to Malcolm X, I mean can you imagine?! Right? But these are people who were speaking in prophetic voices. They were talking about the problems of the American project. There’s . . . and so, I think, to answer your question directly, I see that because of the way that I am, and because of the circumstances of my embodiment. I’m sure that . . . and I would not say that a white person would not see that. I want to be very clear here. But I think that because of growing up with this sort of ambiguous racial identity, as a multi-racial person, it’s always been sort-of in my face. I’ve never been able to not think about race. And so it took me a long time to figure out why I was so dissatisfied with the civil religion explanation. And it actually wasn’t until very late in the book that I finally came up with an answer for it. But it has to do with this issue: the circumstances of who I am, the nature of where I was born, how I grew up and all that stuff affects how I approach the archive, and so forth (30:00).

BE: Thank you so much. One more thing. And this is just like a nuts-and-bolts thing. So, we’ve discussed all the origins of the creation of the term State Shinto. Yet still . . . and I have to admit it, for myself, when I ‘m doing an Introduction to World Religions, there it is: the term State Shinto’s there. And you discuss it. Is there a nuts-and-bolts better way to describe what was happening in pre-Occupation Japan?

JT: Yes. I think we just need to talk about Japanese secularism. I describe it as a secularism. I describe what I call the Meiji constitutional regime as a secularist system. It’s premised on the distinction between “religion” and “not religion”. And I mean that in two ways. There’s like the forbidden not religion, which is things that end up being called superstitions, and so forth. And then there are the permitted or even encouraged not religion, which is the compulsory shrine rites, where you’d get a bunch of school kids to go to the shrine and pay their respects, or, like, bow to a picture of the Emperor. That’s secularism. That’s what’s happening in America too, at exactly the same time. There’s a sort-of a sense. . . . This is what Bellah would call America’s civil religion. But I think it’s actually much more complicated than that. I don’t want to reduce things to religion. I want to maintain the complexity of the language games that people play, in terms of parsing things as being religion or not religion, right? And I think that collapsing everything into the category of religion actually misses part of the point. So it is not my job to police what other people say. I know that I will be shouting into the wind, and there are going to be people who insist on using the term State Shinto. But I really think that, historically, it’s just inaccurate. And so if you’re in the classroom, you’re teaching your world religions class or whatever, what do you do? Well, use Japan as an opportunity to talk through the issues of secularism more broadly. Say, “We used to tell the story this way. Our text books or readings use this term. But you know, this is actually reflective of a different sort of politics of good and bad religion. Let’s talk about that. Let’s tie it to contemporary things. Like, when people are saying ‘Islamism’, what are they doing?” I argue in the book that Islamism is basically like the State Shinto of our day. It’s taking something and describing it as being illegitimate, just by adding that “ism” to the end. And I think there are a lot of other example that we could use. That’s the one that immediately comes to mind. So, you know, in one of your earlier questions you asked about the sort-of impact of scholars of religion. And one of the things that I do in the last chapter of the book is to show how these things – categories like State Shinto, for example – they have echoes. And they continue to influence the academy, our classrooms, policy-making and so forth. And so, if we can attend to the moments when those categories are developed historically, if we can pay attention to the politics of that moment, then we can also pay attention to how those echoes are working in our contemporary moment. It’s not to be presentist. It’s just to say that there are problems in the State Shinto concept, so let’s deal with those.

BE: Well, thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about: religious freedom, secularism, secularisation, the concepts we use, the politics that we – either implicitly or explicitly – work through as Religious Studies scholars. So, thank you so much for your time today, and your excellent work: Taking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American Occupied Japan.

JT: Thanks so much. I really enjoyed your questions and the conversation. I really appreciate it.

 

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Tim Fitzgerald is one of the foundational figures in the critical study of religion, and his seminal volume, The Ideology of Religious Studies, was published twenty years ago this year. In this interview – the first of a two-part retrospective – we discuss his career and how his studies in Hinduism and his time spent in Japan led him to question the relationship of categories like caste and ritual to the broader category ‘religion’. His realisation was that religion is such a broad category that it can include almost everything. We discuss the historical development of the category, and its roots in Protestant theological ideas, and the political movements of the eighteenth century. This leads into a critique of the essentialist assumptions hidden by the category, and the phenomenological ideas in its use in academia, and its function as a tool in power relations.

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (17 February 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-problem-with-religion-and-related-categories/

PDF of this transcription at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Fitzgerald_-_The_Problem_with_Religion_1.1.pdf

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Timothy Fitzgerald, returning to the Religious Studies Project after a few years. Tim is originally from the UK but now based in Brisbane, where he is a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Queensland in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He’s one of the most prominent figures in the critical study of religion. And this interview is taking place at the 20 years since the publication of The Ideology of Religious Studies – which was a kind-of watershed text in the emergence of the critical religion. And the approach that we, at the RSP, have been pushing since day one, I guess. So first of all, Tim – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project, and thanks for making the time.

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Thanks for inviting me. It’s good to be with you.

DR: It’s been difficult to get this interview arranged, so I’m glad that it’s finally happening! Let’s start assuming that the Listener probably hasn’t read The Ideology of Religious Studies – or may not have read The Ideology of Religious Studies. Let’s start with a little bit of your back story. How did you get there from, you know, your first degree in RS – the same way that we all sort-of start, with whichever religion we decide to specialise in – how did you get there?

TF: Yes, well there are different possible starting points, but I agree the degree in Religious Studies that I did at Kings College London is a good place to start. I did that degree in ‘75-’77, and it was a really good degree. I learnt a lot from it. I’m glad I did it. It was well-taught. It was well-organised in a lot of ways. And it was all about religion, right? So we had eight or nine courses that lasted over the period of three years: three of them were in the philosophy of religion, one was in anthropology of religion, one in sociology of religion, one in psychology of religion. And then, in addition, we had to study two world religions. The world religions model was very well established, obviously, at that time. And that was in the mid-seventies. Ninian Smart was very prominent, and the whole sort-of Religious Studies education scene was pretty much dominated by the word religions model, as you know. Now, we did all of these studies of religion and one issue which came up for me was the question of what religion actually means. . . what it referred to. Because you know in a lot of the sub-disciplines – like the anthropology of religion, or the philosophy of religion – there’s a sort of genre of writing concerned with defining what religion is. And one of the things that struck me – and I suppose anybody else who read these different approaches to the definition of religion – one of the things that struck me was that there were so much room for disagreement. That basically the meaning of religion, the referent of religion was thoroughly contested. But that didn’t lead anybody to question whether we should have departments of Religious Studies focussed on researching a term which cannot be defined, and about which there is such a degree of (laughs) conflict or contestation. So that was really what I came out of Kings College London with. That was a very valuable thing. I think, in a way, one could say that the degree was successful because it taught me how to reflect critically. And – lo and behold! – I was reflecting critically on the very category that was at the heart of all of these studies that we were reading.

DR: Well, despite the sort-of prominence of Ninian Smart’s approach, it sounds like it was actually quite a methodological, or at least theoretical, undergraduate course (5:00) – much more so than you would find in most places nowadays, I think – with this sort-of . . . an entire course on the philosophy of religion, and entire course on the psychology of religion. You know, I don’t think courses look like that anymore.

TF: Right. Well it was good, yes. I enjoyed it. And I got a huge amount . . . .We did a lot of philosophy and, for example, we did philosophy in the sense of history of ideas, but it involved looking at particular writers, particular thinkers in some depth – and this was very much the sort-of Anglo-American analytical side of philosophy. We didn’t study any of the . . . we didn’t study many of the French or German philosophers. Of course Wittgenstein was very important, and one of the ways in which philosophers of religion and many others have tried to find a solution to this definitional problem is through Wittgenstein’s language games, and the idea that the meaning of a word comes from its uses. Those are important insights, but they don’t actually for me solve the definitional problem. And in fact I’ve had quite extended arguments about this with people like Benson Saler, who’s a great defender of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance kind-of approach to defining the meaning of words. But I think it has problems. So The Ideology of Religious Studies includes a great deal of argument about the way that Wittgenstein’s arguments are used to find a solution to the definitional problem.

DR: Well, hopefully we can get to that later on. I want to kind-of walk the Listener to there. Because I think, actually, the story of how you got there is quite interesting in itself. So we talked before about when you started looking at Buddhism and Hinduism, after your PhD, that the lack of referent in the category of religion, it began to hit home. You began to get some sort-of clear historical examples of that.

TF: Yes. I got a job in a college of higher education – Hertfordshire College of Higher Education – in 1980. It was my first full-time job. And one of my responsibilities was to teach Hinduism and Buddhism. And when I joined we had two degrees. One was the Education degrees . . . one was the Education degree for teachers. So there were a lot . . . it was a teacher training college originally, I think. And then there was a new BA in Humanities, of which the Study of Religion provided some pretty substantial segments . . . courses. So I was teaching on those two. And I mean the students would ask me . . . I was teaching Hinduism and Buddhism as a world religion, but feeling very uncomfortable with it. Because I could see the problems. And they’re vast essentialisations, aren’t they, based on texts, or on edited and selected versions of texts? And the idea of Hinduism is taught very much in the sort-of history of ideas fashion – or used to be. So, there’s a whole series of dates that you need to learn. And you need to learn the basic doctrines. But one thing that this complex construct Hinduism, taught as a religion, doesn’t do is to explain the wider context in which these abstracted textual references and concepts exist. And, of course, caste is a particularly problematic term (10:00). If you read world religion text books you will get references about Hinduism, you’ll constantly get references to caste, but nobody explains it properly. What is caste? It’s presented as though it’s a kind-of religious injunction on the division of labour, or something. It’s not . . . the actual way in which caste operates is not really explained. And in order to find that out you have to go into anthropology. So I was reading a huge amount of anthropology to supplement my world religion experience. Because anthropologists . . . and sometimes anthropologists are also interested in history. But the point is that anthropologists actually go and try and come into contact with this abstraction caste. And at that time, particularly Louis Dumont – who wrote the classic book Homo Hierarchicus – he dominated the field of Indian anthropology. But there were lots of other important anthropologists – Srinivas, for example. But I read a lot of anthropology. And this was in response, after all, to my students’ demands. Because, actually, a lot of the students were thinking in very practical ways – and perfectly legitimately. They weren’t really interested in the doctrine of salvation according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. They were interested in why women wear a mark in their forehead, or how marriages happen, or what different people eat. They wanted to know about the actual practicalities of the village economy. How does caste actually operate within a village community? And these are very . . . further questions that I would be asked would be: how can caste operate in huge cities, like Bombay and Delhi, where there are so many people? Surely your caste identity simply gets lost? These kinds of practical and interesting questions. And here was I, teaching Hinduism and Buddhism – but I’d never even been to India! And that just seemed to me to be wrong. So I organised a research trip. It wasn’t brilliantly well organised. But basically, my research was going to be on caste, untouchability and the effect of colonial institutions. And whether the improvements and progress of liberal political economy had really helped to liberate people from the caste system. And one particular Indian leader was drawn to my attention, and that was Dr BR Ambedkar. And Ambedkar became a real source of great interest to me. So I managed to go to India for four months in the 1980s. I got some money together and I just spent four months in India, meeting people, and just trying to understand what India looks like, smells like, feels like.

DR: I know that you’ve got an interest in Mary Douglas’ work. And talking about caste there, I immediately start thinking of purity, and danger, and ideas of cleanliness. And I don’t know if she’s . . . I know her ideas are applicable so much wider than simply talking about religions. And certainly the way that these – kind-of well-discussed, being the obvious thing – but, “in-group” and “out-group” structures are kind-of ritualised but mystified in cultures.

TF: Yes.

DR: It immediately jumps to mind. And I know that you’re a fan of hers. So was that where you got to her work, as well?

TF: At first I was getting it more from Louis Dumont, who also really belonged to the French school of sociology: L’École Sociologique. He was a Durkheimian in many ways, as was Mary Douglas (15:00). And Durkheim had been a big influence on me when I was doing my degree at Kings College London. And for a long time I thought of myself, in a sense, as a Durkheimian. And I read Dumont through a Durkheimian perspective. But Dumont was very much putting the purity/pollution binary as the kind-of definition – almost the central characteristic – of the caste system. So you get the Brahmins as pure, and the Untouchables as impure. And a whole number of other castes in between, sort-of lining up in relative degrees of purity and pollution. And it’s a very useful way of looking at it. Of course, there was huge debate about these things in Indian anthropology and sociology. But I think nobody would doubt that Dumont’s picking on this binary is the sort-of outside limits of what could be thought in terms of social or human relations, rather. But, yes, Mary Douglas came hot on the heels, after Louis Dumont, as one of the people that I read, and one of the people that I have really enjoyed teaching. I think she’s been generally really helpful. One point that I would like to make, actually – since we’re talking about Durkheim, Dumont, Mary Douglas, I think you can see a kind of progressive move from the sort-of empirical ethnographic approach to sociology or anthropology towards the idea of . . . well, I’m calling them signalling systems. What Durkheim meant by a totemic system, or a system of collective representations. What I think you get in all of these writers is a move towards reading signs and their relationships as being the fundamental point of understanding anybody’s collective life.

DR: Would you agree that it’s maybe a progress from a structuralist into a poststructuralist view?

TF: Well, yes. I think so. But, I mean, Dumont is usually considered to be a structuralist. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people don’t read him very much now. Or they don’t seem to. But I think his work is actually very subtle in a lot of ways. And it’s very rich. He also wrote, as well as Homo Hierearchicus, he also wrote a book . . . . Well, he wrote From Mandeville to Marx. And he also wrote a collection of essays called Essays on Individualism, where he tried to show how, whereas in India the individual is always outside the world, structurally speaking and symbolically speaking, in the European Christian traditions the individual started off as outside the world but moved to become the in-wordly individual, basically as a result of modern capitalism. Or as a characteristic of modern capitalism. Whereas individuals used to sort-of go to the desert and separate themselves from the rest of the main body of humanity, in the search for salvation or some kind-of self-discovery – you know, you think of those hermits and renouncers in early Christian Europe, and they’ve existed all the way through . . . . Well in India you get a very, very ancient tradition of renunciation, where people symbolically . . . where people renounce their family (20:00), their village, their family name, their normal activities, clothes, profession, and really, in a sense, become a living non-person: they perform their own cremation, symbolically, by cremating their old clothes and various symbols of their previous life; so they become an out-worldly individual. They become an individual because they separated themselves from the collective, symbolically and physically. And they’ve now become something rather special, and sacred, and powerful by moving out of the normal collective which in India would be very much about caste, caste membership – moving out of that, and becoming a kind-of individual. Actually, most renouncers in India join ashrams. They belong to some kind of an organisation. They often have a guru. But nevertheless, Dumont was reading this at the symbolic level: that this is a move from identity defined by the collective, to a kind-of out-worldly identity. An individual identity. So his story was that, as a result of the Reformation, and then developments of various forms of Calvinism –where there was a very strong emphasis on the lonely individual working in the world – so the individual becomes, instead of being an out-worldly value, becomes the central in-worldly value of modern capitalist society. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it.

DR: Very much so. After your research on India and teaching at the higher education college, you then moved to Japan for three years. And again, there’s another kind-of shift in your work there. So tell us about that.

TF: Yes, sure. Well, just as India had really shocked me and given me a different perspective on the world and also on myself. . . . I think it’s quite important – not for egotistical reasons – but it’s quite important to realise that one has internalised a great deal of shared common symbolic life which constructs our individuality. And that, when you move out of that shared symbolic life, your consciousness is quite vulnerable and you change a lot. Some people call it culture shock. But it’s to do with a reorientation of values. Well, going to Japan was even more like that because Japan is completely different from India and is very different from Britain. And going to Japan to live, this is because I met Noriko my wife, who’s Japanese, in London. And we had our first, our son, James – he was born in London. But then we almost immediately went to Japan, because I’d been offered a job there. And you know, her father was asking me to go and live in Japan for a while. He didn’t want to lose his daughter to a foreigner, which was perfectly understandable. (Laughs). Just suddenly disappear to London and never be seen again! So I was lucky, I was invited to a university in Japan called Aichi Gakuin, which was in Nagoya. And I had to do a lot of English teaching. But I did also have a status as a research academic. Yes, working in Japan, I had to very quickly start learning Japanese, because I didn’t know a word of Japanese when I went there! And I was there for several years. And it was very . . . it was hugely valuable. I mean my children are bilingual. They still speak Japanese with their mother. My Japanese was never fully fluent, but by the time I left I could more than survive there. You know, for the last six or seven years I was living there alone because Noriko and the children had gone back to London. And that was a fantastic impetus for me. And I went there when I was over forty, I ought to add. I was forty years old when I first went to Japan.

DR: And I can vouch that, in your forties, trying to learn a new language is not easy! (25:00)

TF: No. Not at all. Especially when it’s a non-European one. But I did learn a huge amount. And I’ve never regretted that. I regret that I couldn’t enter into academic debates with Japanese. That was just too a stretch too far. You really need to be trained in Japanese language from an earlier age and do it thoroughly. But never the less, I learned so much. And I tell you one of the main things it did was to re-orientate me, as I was explaining about India. It doesn’t mean to say that I idealised Japan. I was a big critic of Japan as a foreigner, living in Japan, but at the same time there are lots of things I really admired about the way Japanese people do things, the way they organised . . . . There a lots of things that I learnt from being in Japan.

DR: One important one, though, I think is the idea of translating categories. Japan certainly in conversations I have in RS, it’s very useful as an example where the idea of religion in the way that we think of it generally just doesn’t really work. And yet they’ve been kind-of forced to take it on to some degree as a result of colonial forces in the 19th century particularly. And yet, our Western hegemonic classifications don’t really map onto Japanese society very well. Would that be fair to say?

TF: Yes I think that is fair. I think it’s true, and in fact that’s been one of the themes of quite a lot of published work on Japan, my own published work. You know, just to give you a practical example, when I was teaching English in the universities – it was really boring by the way, because most of the Japanese didn’t want to learn English, and I don’t blame them. Why should they? They’re perfectly happy speaking their own language. But also it’s the way that English is taught, or languages in general are taught in Japan. And so I found myself teaching a large class of twenty or thirty students who were sitting in absolutely straight lines, desks in straight lines. They would often self-gender. So you’d get the men sitting on one side of the room and the women on the other. Not always, but they’d quite often do that. It was a bit like an extension of the Japanese school system – very disciplined. You don’t ever question the teacher. And basically, the teacher is there to speak and the students are there to listen. It’s very difficult under those circumstances to have a conversation class, as they jokingly used to call them. But, because I was trying to develop confidence in speaking Japanese, I used to sometimes try to start a conversation in an English class in Japanese, which was a shocking experience for my students: (A) because, well, you just don’t do that kind of thing, and (B) because, well, they had to suffer the very unskilful pronunciation and grammatical forms that I was producing. But nevertheless, you know, it was something that I was determined to do. Because I wanted to show them that I was prepared to make a fool of myself in trying to speak Japanese in front of a lot of students, therefore I’m not going to laugh at them if they’re feeling embarrassed about their English. That’s not what I’m there for. I’m there to encourage and to help with communication skills. Stuff like that. So in these circumstances, one of the conversations I used to like to have is “What does religion mean to you?” And I would sometimes ask it in English and then ask it again in Japanese using the Japanese term shūkyō, which is the current dominant translation for religion. And the students, you know, quite often in these circumstances nobody will reply (30:00); there’s just a deathly silence. But quite often I found if I was a bit persistent, they’d say, “Oh, religion is Christianity. It’s nothing to do with me.” (Laughs) Some would say Christianity and Buddhism are religion. And I’d say, well what about the matsuri, the festivals? What about all your visits to the temple and the shrine? Are these . . .? What about the way that you pay respects to your ancestors in the home? Or these kinds of things? And they would just respond and say, “Oh no, no. That’s not religion. That’s our customs. That’s Japanese customs. That’s the way we live.” So you see, the distinction between religion and what foreign and Japanese scholars of religion will describe as religious practices – for most people they’re not. And I think that that was something that I needed to learn, you know.

DR: Yes, I wonder how . . . I mean there’s certainly a way of looking at everyday – what gets called “lived religion” or “vernacular” religion a lot of the time, now. Certainly, thinking about most of my kind-of relatives and friends growing up in a working class area in the highlands, that’s mostly the way that they talk about religion as well. “Religion? Oh it’s the wee frieze at the high kirk”, or whatever. But going to speak to your gran at the grave or, you know, these kind-of ritual behaviours around twenty-first birthdays, or Christmastime, or Hogmanay, or whatever – they weren’t really thought of as religion. But I can’t help but think if there was a sort-of 1930’s anthropologist in that situation he would be describing all of these as kind-of “primitive religious rituals”.

TF: Well, yes. Except that . . . basically “primitive”, I don’t think contemporaries would call them primitive.

DR: No, no.

TF: No. I know exactly what you mean. There’s a whole tradition of making other people’s practices look as though they’re somehow backward, lower on the evolutionary scale, less sophisticated. But I think also there is the complication that there is a kind-of meta level, say the constitutional level, the level of constitutional, and the level of judiciary concerning what religion means. And this is basically adopted from Europe. And it’s quite a long story but it involves talking about . . . . In the mid-nineteenth century, the Americans were becoming very powerful, they were quite imperialistic. The United States of America, which had liberated people from the tyranny of a European monarch . . . .

DR: I want to pick that up at the start of the next interview. Because I don’t think we’ve got time to do it justice now.

TF: No, I think it is a very long one that. Because I think we need to talk about the way in which religion because inscribed in the US constitution.

DR: Absolutely. So we’ll pick that one up there in the next episode. But for now, let’s just . . . . Whilst you were in Japan, you wrote The Ideology of Religious Studies. So tell us a little bit about the overall argument there. I mean, certainly reading that as . . . I was either towards the end of being an undergrad, or at the start of postgraduate studies. (35:00) It was the first sustained argument challenging religions, world religions, the phenomenological approach which had been so sort-of central to the way that they taught at Edinburgh. And so, just briefly sum up where you were when you wrote that monograph.

TF: Well, as you say, I was in Japan. And it was the culmination of . . . I mean I’d been publishing about Japan during the ‘90s. For example, I was reading books on Japanese religion in English but written by Japanese scholars who had either written their contribution in English or it had been translated. But one thing that struck me. There was one particular volume which was quite authoritative. I mean, it had been published and financed under the auspices of the ministry of culture in Japan. And there were five or six professors who contributed special chapters to it: one on Japanese Buddhism, one on Japanese Shinto, one on Japanese Confucianism, one on Japanese nature religion, one on, sorry, folk religion, and one or two others. One on Christianity in Japan, I think. There are very few Christians in Japan. But what struck me about all of these writers was that (A) they were all specialising in a particular religion, or a particular religious tradition, which they set out to describe for the reader. But, at the same time, every single one of them said that, actually, this is a very artificial distinction. Because, really, you can’t talk about Shinto without talking about Confucianism and Buddhism. And the same with the others. Because they’re all . . . they’re all part of our lives. We don’t really choose between them. It’s not as though “I’m a Shintoist, but not a Buddhist”. And the idea that “I’m not a Confucianist” is difficult to swallow. The point is that there was a contradiction inherent in what they were saying. And it was the same contradiction that I’d encountered . . . well I’d encountered it in India in a particular way, but also in the definitional problems, in the degree that I did: that there was a disparity between what people were saying in one part of the text and what they were saying in another part. So my first article about Japan was published . . . I can’t remember now . . . in the early nineties. Was it ‘93? ‘94? ‘95? And it was called Japanese Religion as Ritual Order

DR: 1993.

TF: 1993. Ok. And it was published I think, in Religion. And I was trying to point out what I’ve just told you in that article. I called it Japanese Religion as Ritual Order, because I was trying to find a term which would give me some kind-of a base. And “ritual” seemed to be a very useful one. Because ritual . . . we can use the term ritual to describe either side of the binary. You know, you can have religious rituals and secular rituals. But rituals was a term which I hoped I would be able to use in order to avoid using this binary religion/secular. Because it didn’t seem to me to work. So I looked at all the ways in which the Japanese ritualised their everyday lives, in all the institutions, in the household, in the schools, in the universities, in the corporations, in the small businesses, in the services. Every institutional practice is the ritual which constructs seniors and juniors, that’s one of the things it does. It’s imbued with respect language, and different levels of language. There is an issue about social space, so people distance themselves in a certain way. Bowing is an obvious example of the ritualization of everyday life (40:00). So I wanted to try and subvert this essentialising dichotomy – between religion on the one hand, and the rest of secular life on the other – and show that it’s much more like a ritual continuum. And that went in very much to The Ideology of Religious Studies.

DR: For me, the most kind-of impactful realisation in it was the critique of phenomenology, the phenomenological method, as kind-of essentialist and maybe even crypto-theological. Together with the sort-of largest critique of the category as essentially . . . without that kind-of essence to it. Like, the term was essentially meaningless, unless it was referring to this sui generis kind-of essence. And that, for me, was the most impactful part of that argument. I don’t know if that was central for you, but that was . . .

TF: I think of course it is central, yes. I mean, one of the points of my argument was that religion is actually used to describe and classify so much that it becomes empty of any specific content. And then, if you look at the actual range of usages of the term religion, there’s a religion of everything. And yet at the same time in this either/or essentialising binary with the non-religious secular. Now there’s something very interesting there, that on the one hand you’ve got a category which can be used so widely that you’re beginning to wonder: is anything not religion or religious? And on the other hand, it’s held together in this essentially either/or binary. It’s either religion or it’s not religion – which gives it the appearance of having a very determinate and definitive reference. Do you see what I’m saying?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TF: And it also raises the question about: if we can’t define the religion side of the binary, then we can’t find the limits of the secular side either. And my work in The Ideology of Religious Studies was very much about destabilising politics and society as the generic abstraction for sociology. And a lot of the stuff was aimed at Ninian Smart, but also much more widely. I mean, I discussed a lot of different theorists in The Ideology of Religious Studies. And I wanted to undermine these grand dichotomies. But as soon as you question the limits of the secular, then you’re also questioning politics, or the idea of society, or the idea of culture.

DR: And that’s exactly where we’re going to pick up in the next part of this interview. But, for now: thank you, Tim.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

“Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the religious voices of Japan’s political arena

Throughout Japanese history, religion has always coloured and influenced the matters of the state. Religious validation of imperialist aggression and Japan’s war efforts in the first half of the 20th century is just one example of this. Japanese religious institutions entered the post-war period with the ethically problematic baggage of war. Promulgation of Japan’s post-war constitution – which introduced a legal separation of religion and the state, demilitarisation of Japan and freedom of religion – opened a new chapter of a supposedly pacifist and secular political system. Religion was relegated to an individual citizen’s private prerogative. However, we are still talking about religion and politics in Japan today.

Many of the post-war controversies over perceived transgressions between religion, politics and the state have centred on Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines the souls of Japan’s war dead. Yasukuni Shrine has long been a symbol of Japanese nationalism, with many right-wing factions advocating for nationalising the shrine. A nationalisation movement began in the 1960s and resulted in lawsuits over the involvement of local and national level politicians and governments in rituals held there. Although debates over Yasukuni shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and fanatic nationalism fuelled by the ideology of state Shinto tend to dominate public and scholarly discourses on conflation of religion and politics, there are many other examples of the ways religion continues to influence Japan’s political life. These include acts of violence and domestic terrorism perpetrated by the new religious movement Aum Shinrikyō in 1995; anti-nuclear activism of religious studies scholars and religious practitioners in the aftermath of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011; and the formation of political representation of religious groups, such as the case of Soka Gakkai and Kōmeitō party in 1964 and their significance in the run-up to the Japanese 2017 general elections.

Why should we continue talking about religion and politics in a country that has a constitutional separation of religion and the state? What is the significance of Kōmeitō in Japanese politics today? I asked Levi McLaughlin, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University to talk religion and politics in Japan in the context of his research on Soka Gakkai, one of Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organisations. It is also referred to as one of Japan’s most influential and politically engaged (I dare say) new religions. Levi is a co-author and co-editor of “Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion inJapan” (IEAS Berkeley, 2014), and his new book “Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of Mimetic Nation” is forthcoming from the University of Hawai’i Press in late 2018.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena

Podcast with Levi McLaughlin (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by Paulina Kolata.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: McLaughlin – Soka Gakkai, Komeito and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena 1.1

Paulina Kolata (PK): Throughout Japanese history religion has always coloured and influenced matters of state. Religious validation of imperialist aggression and Japan’s war efforts in the first half of the twentieth century are just one example of this. Japanese religious institutions entered the post-war period with their ethically problematic baggage of war. But promulgation of Japan’s post-war constitution – which introduced the legal separation of religion and the state, the militarisation of Japan, and freedom of religion – opened a new chapter of a supposedly pacifist and secular political system. Religion became the private matter of an individual. And yet we are still talking about religion and politics in Japan. So we are joined today by Levi McLaughlin, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He is a co-author and co-editor of Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan, and has just completed a book entitled Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation. It only seems appropriate to invite him to talk to us about religion and politics in Japan. And his book is actually forthcoming from the University of Hawaii Press in late 2018. So, congratulations on that!

Levi McLaughlin (LM): Thank you.

PK: So, hello! And welcome to the Religious Studies Project. So we are here, at the University of Manchester, ahead of your talk later on this afternoon, where you will be talking about the Soka Gakkai, which is one of Japan’s largest organisations, and also is often referred to as one of the most politically engaged and influential, I’ll say, new religions in Japan today. So, why do you think we should continue talking about religion and politics in a country that has constitutional division of religion and state?

LM: Thank you. It’s nice to be here, Paulina. Thanks for having me. There are other questions we have to think about, as well. For example, why are we talking about religion in a country where, in surveys that are given to ask about religious commitment – the wording of the survey is usually something along the lines of: do you have religious faith? And the majority of respondents in Japan will say, “No.” Seventy percent plus will say, “I don’t have a religious faith.” And also, in the recent elections at national level, just over fifty percent of the population actually make the effort to go out and vote. Why talk about religion and politics in these conditions? Perhaps that would be another thing to add to that conundrum. The reason is that there are these organisations that are unmatched in their capacity to mobilise votes. Although they are minority players in the religion and politics fields on matters of policy, they may actually be the crucial elements in forthcoming upheavals in regards to Japan’s constitution and its place in the geopolitical order. So let me speak a little bit more specifically. I’m talking about an organisation called Soka Gakkai. It translates literally as the “Value Creation Study Association”.

PK: What a great name!

LM: Isn’t it? Does it sound like a religion?

PK: Not quite.

LM: Right. Well, that’s because it didn’t begin as a religion. It began as an educational reform organisation in the 1930s, whose founders then switched into following a specific form of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, following a reformer named Nichiren from the thirteenth century, who held that only exclusive faith in a teaching known as the Lotus Sutra, which is understood to be the Buddha’s final teaching, will allow for salvation. All other forms of teaching, including other Buddhist teaching, are to be done away with. And so the organisation they ended up creating was a staunch defender of this particular form of Buddhism, which ran afoul of wartime religious regulations. The founders, Makiguchi Tsunesaburō and his disciple Toda Jōsei, were imprisoned. Makiguchi died of malnutrition during the war – one of the very, very few people who was actually willing to confront and reject the authority of the wartime state.

PK: And opposed them.

LM: That’s right. And opposed it for religious reasons. And so at the end of the Second World War, Soka Gakkai reformulates and grows from a few thousand members to millions of members, between the beginning of the 1950s until the end of the 1960s.Today, they claim an absolutely staggering number of followers in Japan – 8.27 million households – which is hugely exaggerated. The reality, though, is something like 3% of Japan self-identifies as Soka Gakkai, and that doesn’t sound like a lot necessarily, right? But if you have 3% of the population, that’s three out of a hundred people that you know, or are related to you, they are people you work with, or maybe you are one of these three percent. So, one of the reasons that Soka Gakkai has both grown so big and so prominent – and also terribly notorious within Japanese society – is the fact that electioneering on behalf of Soka Gakkai’s affiliated political party, is a component of Soka Gakkai faith practices. So members chant the Lotus Sutra; they solicit membership; they are very well known for being proselytisers, for missionising; and every election, from the smallest town council up to Japan’s national diet – the parliament – people in Japan will know they are going to get a phone call. They’re going to get a knock on the door from their friends who are members of Soka Gakkai to ask them to vote for Kōmeitō – or to vote for Kōmeitō ‘s political ally, which is the Liberal Democratic Party, the LDP, Japan’s largest party. Japan, right now, is run by a coalition government, which is the LDP and Kōmeitō. So Kōmeitō has a seat at the table. And they may be a comparatively small organisation, but they wield a disproportionately large amount of power, both politically and religiously.

PK: So who are Kōmeitō? What are their policies?

LM: That’s a really good question, and it’s also a tough question. They are difficult to pigeon-hole politically, because they don’t fall neatly into a right or left kind of distribution. Historically, they would have to be called extremely left-wing, because they were supporters of pacifism and they have always been . . . their central platforms have always been focussed on social welfare. They appeal to their primary constituency. Their primary constituency is homemakers: women in Japan, who make up the bedrock of Soka Gakkai and are the most active in terms of electioneering. So it’s things like reducing taxation on household goods, promoting education, clean water, the environment – things of that nature – support for families with small children, low income households, you name it. But recently they’ve also been supportive of LDP moves to move toward greater freedom for Japan’s military. Japan does not actually officially have a regular armed forces. They maintain what are called Japan’s self-defence forces. They are hindered from militarising by a clause in the constitution – a notorious clause, called Article Nine, which prevents Japan from maintaining war materials or using war as a means of resolving international disputes. But in 2015 a series of new laws were passed through the diet, with Kōmeitō‘s support, that radically reinterpreted Article Nine to allow for what’s called collective self-defence. This will allow Japan to go to the aid of its military allies, say the United States, and to enter armed conflict. So we have now this strange policy kind-of platform, and this odd connection between what are considered to be fairly hawkish right-wing approaches on a defence front, and really progressive social welfare-oriented policies as well.

PK: That’s really interesting, because it would mix the Tories with the Corbynists, in the UK context!

LM: Potentially, yes. And actually, historically Kōmeitō’s greatest rivals were the Japanese Communist Party.

PK: Oh great! OK. Fantastic. So you talked about the 2015 changes in the law, but what about the most recent elections of 2017? What was the role of Kōmeitō in that?

LM: So there was a snap election called by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, in October 2017, which was treated by a lot of people as a rather cynical move on the part of the LDP and its coalition allies to secure power, and to basically ensure that Prime Minister Abe remains in power, and to take advantage of an opposition that has been pretty much in pretty big disarray, right now, at the national level in Japan. Overall the government gained seats, the LDP gained seats. The only component of that was that Kōmeitō lost seats. It went from 34 to 29 seats. Why is that? And so, some of the questions they’re difficult to say definitively. But recently, with the help of my colleague Axel Klein – who’s a Professor of Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Germany, who is an amazing scholar, who can compile all kinds of great election data – we worked together to look at Gakkai member attitudes in combination with his quantitative aspect of it. And we determined that, basically, the lesson that we have to learn here is that Soka Gakkai is not one unified block. And that is translating into an increasingly disaggregated voting situation. And so it had the lowest number of votes at the national level, for an election like this, since joining the LDP in coalition in 1999: under seven million. Seven million is treated as something of a magic number, and there’s a psychological aspect to going below that. And losing all these seats, including some veteran . . . one veteran politician, in particular, who was kind of pushed out. What is going on? Well there are several constituencies we can now identify within Soka Gakkai. These are developing as a result of Kōmeitō’s policy shifts away from decades of supporting a pacifist attitude and defending Article Nine, towards being totally on board with collective self-defence. What you’re starting to see are generational shifts, gender divisions and a kind of move toward concerns about what’s going to happen to Soka Gakkai in the light of one very important thing. Because, right now, Soka Gakkai is headed by an honorary president named Ikeda Daisaku, who is revered as an absolute authority within the organisation. He has not appeared to address a Gakkai meeting since May of 2010. He just turned 90 years old. And so, necessarily, the organisation is looking to a future after Ikeda Daisaku’s lifetime. And there are members within the group – particularly second, third, fourth generation Soka Gakkai, and others who are younger – are starting to question why their practice must include unquestioning loyalty to a political party that has absolutely reversed what they consider to be Ikeda Daisaku’s teachings on peace.

PK: So that’s becoming quite challenging, in that sense. But the usual association is, how did Kōmeitō emerge originally? And how does it now refer to what Soka Gakkai is? Does it define itself as a Buddhist party, or . . . ?

LM: Well this is one of the conundra – one of the difficult things that people who are interested in politics have to deal with. And one of the reasons I love talking about this is because Kōmeitō forces political scientists to actually take religion seriously. Kōmeitō was founded for religious reasons. It was founded very specifically for Nichiren Buddhist reasons. And this makes a lot of politics people uncomfortable. They like to think that there should be, as you mentioned earlier, a division between religion and government – especially in Japan, where the 1947 constitution guarantees that there will be a clear split between religion and government. In 1964, Kōmeitō was founded and there had been, previously . . . Soka Gakkai started running candidates for office from 1954, and then in 1955 they started being elected. From the outset Soka Gakkai entered politics in order to bring about a specific vision of constructing a temple complex that would mark the conversion of the populace of Japan to complete reverence, sole exclusive reverence for the Lotus Sutra. And what this really meant, of course, was that they would convert to Soka Gakkai. And it was . . . it comes from the Nichiren teachings. After his lifetime it comes to be known as the Three Great Secret Dharmas. They consist of the title of the Lotus, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo; the second one is the calligraphic mandala that he inscribed, in 1279, for the salvation of Japan; and the third one was supposed to be what was called an ordination platform, kaidan in Japanese, that was understood for centuries to be this kind of far-flung distant vision, only to be achieved upon this majestic goal being realised. When Soka Gakkai started to grow from a few thousand to millions of followers, that distant goal started to become something of a concrete objective. And so one of the components of realising this kaidan, this ordination platform, this temple complex, was that it had to be promulgated by the government. And so during Nichiren’s time, of course, that meant something quite different. But, by the time you reach the 20th century, that means Japan’s parliament. And so how do you do that? You have to actually have a place in Japan’s parliament. And so this, actually, was the motivation for Soka Gakkai entering politics. In 1964, Kōmeitō is the name of the party. It included a lot of different platforms, actually, mostly focussed on very utopian ideals of world peace and social welfare. And this at the time there was this concept of Buddhist democracy, as well, that was not clearly defined but it was very idealistic. But it was a religious objective. In 1969 there were a series of scandals that erupted, as a result, basically, of Kōmeitō politicians attempting to intervene to forestall the publication of one book, in particular, that was extremely negative about Soka Gakkai. And that precipitated an official division between Kōmeitō and its founding religion Soka Gakkai. And, since 1970, the two have maintained an official split. Of course, members of Soka Gakkai still campaign on behalf of Kōmeitō – and it’s a little unclear, actually, about some of the other aspects that bind the two organisations together. Nonetheless what you have seen, though, is Kōmeitō become what you have to call an “ordinary” political party. As I say, it does not focus on this eschatological religious goal any more. It focuses on really concrete political objectives. And one of the things you can prove, about it no longer actually focusing on that is: it’s been in government since 1999, and there’s been no evidence whatsoever that they are trying to get any sort of favour on religious grounds for this religion, or any religion.

PK: So they should be treated seriously.

LM: They absolutely should be treated seriously. And also treated as another political party. Which, because they are . . . Because of their specific history, and because of their connection to a religion that has gained a reputation for being an aggressive proselytiser, they are often saddled with the stigma of not being a serious political party, but instead being a sort of arm of a religious organisation. Whereas, in every analysis, they should actually be . . . they look much more just like another party.

PK: Which kind-of throws an interesting element into the mix of Japanese politics at the moment.

LM: The other aspect to think about as well – especially in light of the fact that it’s been a supporter of the LDP – it’s not just Kōmeitō politicians but Liberal Democratic Party politicians that rely upon Soka Gakkai voters to be elected.

PK: That’s wonderful! Thank you very much for that, Levi. I’m afraid that this is all we have time for, but it has been a real pleasure talking to you. And thank you for sharing all your knowledge.

LM: Thanks so much, Paulina.

Citation Info: McLaughlin, Levi and Paulina Kolata. 2018. “Soka Gakkai, Komeito and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/soka-gakkai-komeito-and-the-religious-voices-of-japans-political-arena/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

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A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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Religion and the Psy-Disciplines

Thank you Charles Schulz!

A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university counselor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy – bears thinking about.

In this podcast, Dr. Christopher Harding uses his research on psychoanalysis and Buddhism in modern Japan to tackle the two-way dialogue between religion and the psy-disciplines. How have these shaped each other, and what are tensions between them?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pickles, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Christopher Harding (27 March 2017).

Interviewed by Krittika Bhattacharjee.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Krittika Bhattacharjee (KB): A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university councillor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and where mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis – bears thinking about. Speaking to us today about the psy-disciplines we have Dr Christopher Harding, who is a lecturer in Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. Chris is a cultural historian, working primarily in Japan and India. He has most recently published a co-edited volume called Religion and Psychotherapy in Modern Japan, which was published in hardback in 2014 and comes out in paperback next month. Chris is also a journalist who has collaborated with the BBC and was one of BBC Radio 3’s “ New Generation Thinkers” . Thank you for being here with the Religious Studies Project, Chris.

Christopher Harding (CH): Thank you.

KB: Just to start us off, could you tell us a little bit about the psy-disciplines?

CH: Yes. So when we use the phrase “ the psy-disciplines”  I guess we’re normally thinking of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy. So, psychiatry is often thought about as the poor relation of medicine. It’s the discipline of medicine which most people wouldn’t think of going into. Maybe now[they would], but a few years ago – certainly prior to the 1950s – it was the discipline associated with guesswork, with asylums heaving with people that were difficult to treat – really because their object of enquiry was so difficult: the human inner life.They were trying to guess at it, finding ways of examining it from the outside, or making some use of peoples’ own testimonies. It was very, very difficult to try to work out what was going on, to form theories and to form diagnoses. Things improved  in the 1950s and 1960s with new forms of drugs. And now, with new means of scanning and new sorts of theories, things are getting a little bit better. But, for a while, it was medicine’s poor relation. Psychology, most people will know of: working with experimental data, primarily, but also doing some work in the clinical setting. And then psychotherapy, I suppose really, from Freud, Jung onwards, and Carl Rogers – now we have any number of modalities. So, those three things working together, often we would call them the psy-disciplines. And each one has had its own relationship with different religious traditions in different parts of the world.

KB: How has this relationship traditionally been conceived?

CH: I suppose, early on. . . the period that I work on most is the end of the 19th century into the 20th century . . .  Early on there was a relationship of some hostility – especially, I suppose, with Sigmund Freud and with early Freudians. We know Sigmund Freud had his particular views on what religion is really all about,  but also, some would say that his views were actually more nuanced than he was often given credit for. But some of the people early on, who were attracted to psychoanalysis, were attracted to it as a way of fulfilling the good parts of religion – distilling and fulfilling the good parts of religion and getting rid of the rest – and helping people whose lives had been damaged very early on, often by religious upbringings. Particularly if there was harshness in the family background, a heavy emphasis on certain forms of behaviour, a moralising dynamic etc., lots of people would say, in that early generation of psychoanalysis, the kind of thing that Richard Dawkins says, which is that religion is child abuse. And so, from the religious side of things, people worried that that critique could become quite influential.They also worried that the human person was being reduced to a mere organism, or a mere machine, or that your personhood was really the outcome of your upbringing. So they thought that there were all sorts of reductions going on that really threatened the underpinnings of all sorts of different religious traditions .(5:00) But, I suppose, Christian religious traditions in the West were the ones who were initially objecting to people like Freud, but also psychology in general. Because the whole premise of psychology to them seemed wrong: that you can meaningfully study the human person purely in a natural scientific way.

KB: And so this is the context from which, in some ways, your own work departs.Is that right?

CH: Yes, that’s right. I suppose it’s partly from a professional historical context, but it’s partly because I was coming across work in Christianity and Buddhism – contemporary Christianity and Buddhism in the US,  in Japan, the UK and elsewhere – where there seemed to be this mixing and mingling of what seemed to me to be psychological language to talk about the emotional life and theories of childhood on the one hand, and your kind of standard religious stories, theories, theologies, philosophies on the other. And I wasn’t really sure what people were doing when they were mixing these two languages. Often you would get a kind of an opening pitch from an apologist of a particular religious tradition where they would say, “Come on, surely your life is a mess? There must be more to this. You must be suffering stress. You’re angry hurt people!”  And then they kind of shift into the pitch – the religious pitch. You see that in plenty of Christian traditions and books ,and the Dalai Llama and Japanese organisations do the same sort of thing. And I was just wondering, what is exactly is their view of being human, that they’re mixing these two things together, these two, three or four registers of language together, in trying to make a pitch? Is the kind-of emotional-psychological [language] a facade? Is it just that initial pitch to get people interested? Or are these worlds actually doing business in a way that could be very interesting and very fruitful? And I wanted to find a way of almost taking them to task, piecing their language apart, and saying, “ Where are you getting these bits and pieces from? What do you actually mean when you talk about what the emotional life is; what the significance of the emotional life is; how we might lead it in a religious or spiritual way?” And I was really looking around for ways of doing that – digging away, really, at some of the language of contemporary religion and spirituality.

KB: While also seeing them as part of a larger. . .  “ market place”  might not be the right word, but certainly, all of them as part of this milieu together? So language is shared, but they’re also part of the same network – you used the word “business” –  doing business with each other?

CH: Yes, I think so. There was a great book, which came out about ten years or so ago,  by Richard King and Jeremy Carrette: Selling Spirituality – a wonderful book which really helped get me thinking about this. I think one of the things they were concerned about was  –  it was broader than the mental health dynamic, which interests me – but it was this critique of late capitalist culture that exploits religious traditions for techniques or ideas that kind-of keep people going as producers and consumers. So there is that element to it, I suppose, as well. And the sense of doing business again – I think we can get into the history of this a little bit later on – but my basic take on it is: there are very positive ways in which they can do business – the psy-disciplines and various religious traditions . And they have been since the 1940s and 1950s at least, once this kind of initial Freudian hump of Freudian coldness between them was overcome. But there were also ways in which they could be antagonistic, or confusing, possibly quite manipulative when they’re used together. I suppose a prime example, that some listeners may have heard of, would be the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks on Tokyo underground, in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo talks about its being the love-child of Buddhism and pop-psychology – that kind of all-encompassing embrace of the world, all-encompassing take on the human person, which really reeled in quite a few people. And you get into the territory of , some people might say, brainwashing, I suppose. But certainly, having such an all-encompassing explanation of the world that it’s hard to fight your way out of it again. That’s potentially what religion and the psy-disciplines do, when they work together, is that they give you no other interpretative options. Almost anything that you might think, or feel, or desire, or do can be quite convincingly interpreted by this uber-framework that together they seem to create. (10:00) And, for that reason, it can have negative as well as positive consequences.

KB: It’s also worth talking about the kind of tensions that you’ve brought up. But I thought, before we get to a more in-depth analysis of the tensions, I thought we could also talk about what you called the “ two-way dialogue”  that happens between the psy-disciplines and religion. What did you mean by two-way dialogue?

CH: I suppose, that they find useful things in one another. So some of the more positive bits of dialogue, in terms of a Buddhist tradition, let’s maybe talk about Japan in this regard: Buddhist traditions making use of the modern psy-discipline. You get this trend around Asia, certainly in India, certainly in Japan, in the late 19th century, where countries that have been very much affected by European colonialism – whether it’s, as it were, boots on the ground, or it’s more of a kind-of cultural imperialism – they’re looking for ways of pushing back against colonial knowledge, against the whole sort-of Western canon. And what some groups do – I’m thinking maybe Swami Vivekananda in India and Hinduism, and a guy called Inoue Enryo in Japan who’s what-you-might-call a Buddhist modernist – what they do is, they look back into their own traditions and they say, “ Well actually, in Hinduism or in Buddhism you will find insights that match and trump those of the Western world. And that one of the ways in which we can state that case clearly to people is by spring cleaning Buddhism, spring cleaning Hinduism: reviving our religious traditions, but in a viable modern format.”  And someone like Inoue Enryo finds the psy-disciplines really useful. Because what we can do is separate out “ true mystery”   – the true mysteries of life – from the false ones. Psychology will tell us what the false ones are because we can investigate people’s patterns of thought, and we can find out why they believe in silly things like ghosts or goblins, that then leaves them free to redirect human wonderment and awe and faith and trust to true mystery. So it’s good for people and it’s good for a Buddhist tradition, because a tradition that looks to be anti-modern in Japan can suddenly present itself as being definitively modern and being worthy of people’s trust and their taxes. And, at the same time, you can say that Buddhism actually, in its own right, is the world’s finest psychology and always has been. And you see, of course, lots of people now who engage with Buddhism will say first-and-foremost that it’s a very convincing picture of what it’s like to be a human being. “It’s first-and-foremost a psychology and then we’ll take it from there.” You might want to call it a religion, you might not, but it can borrow in those sorts of ways. Some examples of how the Christian tradition has borrowed from the psy-disciplines are forms of spiritual direction which are open to the influence of someone’s upbringing on the way they think about God, on the way they process guilt, on the way they worry about sin. It doesn’t mean that you’re jettisoning all the teaching of the Christian tradition, but it means you’re more aware of how human beings work and you can help people who might be stuck. So now lots of monks and nuns and priests will get a certain degree of basic counselling training, so that they can help people. Things might get to a point where they need to refer on, perhaps to a therapist or to a psychiatrist, but these basic learnings can actually be very, very useful in their work.

KB: On the Buddhism example specifically, I wanted to ask a little bit about Kosawa Heisaku, who you speak a bit about in your book, referring to him as the Father of Modern Psychoanalysis in Japan. Is that accurate?

CH: Yes, absolutely.

KB: And I was really interested to see an example in the flesh of mixing Shin Buddhism, in particular, with Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis and the way he used both of those traditions to create his own practice. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

CH: Yes, a very brief potted biography I suppose. Kosawa Heisaku was a student of psychiatry first, in Northern Japan, in the 1920s. He encountered psychoanalysis a little bit through one of his mentors who’d studied in the US. But Kosawa wasn’t really convinced with the way he was teaching it, so he actually went to Vienna, met Freud, worked with Freud and his circle in Vienna – only really for a year or so – and he had an analysis there and came back to Japan. He opened his own clinic in Tokyo and this is where he seems to have started to develop this kind of fusion of the two. It seems to have been the case with him that he saw Buddhism in Japan as being under threat. And he wanted to find a way – a little bit like Inoue Enryo I mentioned earlier –  he wanted to find a way of showing people what Buddhism really aimed at, what Buddhism was really about.(15:00) And on, an individual basis, he wanted to help his clients work towards, really, an experience that some people would say had a fair bit in common with enlightenment. His theory was basically that, if a client is in psychoanalysis for a certain period of time, they have a kind of releasing of all sorts of material from the unconscious, bit by bit, which gives them a certain amount of freedom. But what it also does is it shows them something which is absolutely key in Shin Buddhism, which is that human beings are, right down to the ground, corrupted; that we cannot really achieve anything useful, in terms of our own salvation, for ourselves and by ourselves,; that we need the help of – what Shin Buddhism talks about as “ other power” – Amida Buddha. It’s alright to discuss that in conceptual terms, in philosophical terms, but it doesn’t get you there. So Kosawa’s idea was that, actually, one of the things that does get you there, that goes beyond the philosophical conversation about things, is to be face to face with the therapist to tell them all the things you’ve done, all the things you’re thinking and all the things you secretly want. To get into all that material you suddenly see the reality of your corruptness and your helplessness. And by doing that, by seeing that, almost you can’t help yourself. By going through that process, then, you open yourself out onto realising that you need to rely completely upon other power, which is a key goal for Shin Buddhism.

KB: Almost like an involuntary confession?

CH: I think that’s absolutely right, that’s a lovely way of putting it. Because, while confession is voluntary, you’re still in control of the terms aren’t you? It’s only when you come face to face with things that you really don’t have any control over, that you finally feel helpless in the face of,  that’s the real moment of conversion for Kosawa and in Shin Buddhism. So that is how Kosawa sees the usefulness of psychoanalysis. He told one of his students,who I interviewed as part of my work, that unless psychoanalysis can bring people to that kind of an experience then it’ll never succeed in Japan, or anywhere else, actually. And now it’s a bit of a minority sport in Japan, so perhaps he was right! But I think the core of what he was getting at – this is back in the 1930 and early 1940s – is quite similar to some of the work that goes on now, trying to link up psychoanalysis with Buddhism: people like Mark Epstein, Jack Engler and others.I see quite a lot of what Kosawa was trying to get at being fulfilled and worked through in their writing.

KB: Was he seen to be religious at the time? Because of course, in Japan, religion itself would be a contested word. Was he seen to be religious, even at the time that he was practising in the 1930s and 40s?

CH: Some of his students. . . It’s often difficult to make a division – and its probably silly to try to make a division, actually – between the extent to which Kosawa was religious and the extent to which he was a man of his times. There were therapists like him and others working in Japan, in the early thirties and forties, who saw it as their role to be a kind-of kindly, but actually quite straightforwardly didactic father-figure for their clients. So, rather than being in the kind-of classic mirror as a therapist – where you simply reflect the client back to themselves and you don’t have much of your own input – Kosawa would give quite heavy advice. Some of his students described him as being quite motherly. There were other therapists around at the time: one of them I’m thinking of, another psychoanalyst, who would invite his clients – young male clients – out to his countryside home where he and his wife lived, spend the weekend with them and fulfil the father role that they’d never had. And so, after the war, lots of people would criticise Kosawa and others for having that kind-of really heavy paternalism in their work. Some of them said that was because he was a Buddhist, others said that was just because he was a man of his era. The theory behind therapy in Japan at this point – also the theory behind hypnosis, actually – was that it would only work if it was practised by a superior on an inferior. So women couldn’t be hypnotists or therapists for men, because they couldn’t give that kind of guiding element that a superior could give to an inferior. So Kosawa was a product of his time both in that kind of paternalistic sense, I think. . .  but also, his students would have recognised him, pretty straightforwardly, as a Buddhist. And they said, “ This is a disaster!”  Because psychoanalysis is supposed to be a science. You have to keep the two things separate. (20:00) Kosawa’s thing was that in the consulting room there would be no talk of Buddhism, but after your consultation you could come next door, have a cup of tea, and  he might unroll a couple of Buddhist Sutras and talk you through a bit of Buddhism if you were interested, as some of his young clients were. So, I think he would have identified as both. And his view was always that psychoanalysis was a proper science, and Buddhism – as it really should be understood – were really operating completely in tandem. And that if Freud had had a less narrow view of what religion meant – because Kosawa thought Freud was kind of shackled to a Judeo-Christian understanding of religion, and a very narrow one even at that – if Freud had had a wider understanding of what religion really was, he’d have seen that psychoanalysis and religion were really two sides of the same coin.

KB: That’s an interesting idea as well. Because, if we broaden our scope now from Japan to general understandings of the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines, the question that this particular case raises for me is: how do we  isolate religion, then? For example, in palliative care and end-of-life care it’s quite common now, I think – especially in certain countries – to incorporate mindfulness or meditations as part of palliative care. We’ve already seen, in the Kosawa example, someone who seemed to walk between religiously prescribed rules. He’s also a father figure . . . and [there are] cultural constructions of gender there as well, with his paternalism that you talked about. So, how do we isolate what is religion here? If you were to see meditation as part of palliative care practice would you see that as religious, or a cultural formation, or a product of its time? Does the question make sense?

CH: Yes it does. I suppose people are thinking through this in Japan in the context of end-of-life care, and also in the context of disaster care, say after the Earthquake Tsunami and nuclear meltdown disasters in 2011, in Japan. In the aftermath of that there was quite a lot of work done by Buddhists. And they’d been thinking through, “How do we pursue this kind of work and not upset the people that we’re dealing with?”  I think their view would be that all the care they offer is religious, but it’s how they present it. What can seem like quite simple things: what are they going to wear while they go about this care ; whether its on a vihara ward – which is a Buddhist end-of-life care ward – or working in disaster care; are you going to come in civilian clothing or are you going to dress in your Buddhist robes; are you going to use Buddhist language, prayers , rituals or are you going to use the language of psychology and psycho therapy? What they’ve found is. . .  I think their key aim is that you meet people where they are. Some people want all the trappings of Buddhism. That’s what is going to make them feel comfortable because it’s what is familiar. They absolutely don’t want to be talked to after a disaster or towards the end-of-life, about their feelings. Not a conversation that they want to have. So for those sorts of people you can move more towards these familiar signs and symbols of classical religion, as it were. But for others, still really doing religious care, you can now call it spiritual care instead – in Japan they make a distinction – where you won’t have your Buddhist uniform on, and you won’t be using that sort of language. Instead you’ll shift more towards the language of psychotherapy and counselling, if that’s what you think people want. And in order to get onto some public hospital wards in Japan you have to do that. Because there’s a clear separation, in Japan, being made of religion and the state. But this coming-together of psy-disciplines in the training – you now have clinical chaplains being trained in Japan from all sorts of religious backgrounds – that coming-together allows them to gently shift the emphasis depending on who they’re dealing with. For them it’s religiously inspired, so it’s all religious care. But what it looks like to, as it were, the consumer or the receiver of it, it’s endlessly flexible. And, I think, that’s what they see as being so useful about it. I don’t think they would make any fundamental distinction between religious and non-religious there. It’s about the nuances of presentation and perception.

KB: But how about when you take the case in Japan and try and apply it elsewhere, try and apply it in the contemporary situation in the UK for example, or in countries that do not have that very specific set of circumstances that we’re speaking about there? How would you isolate religion in those cases? Is it an East-West divide?

CH: (25:00) No, I think something very similar goes on. I recently wrote a piece for Aeon magazine on end-of-life care at two hospices in Edinburgh, and the concept of spirituality and whether that’s useful or not to people. And I was surprised to find a lot the interviewees say that spirituality is actually not a useful concept at all, because it carries so much of the baggage of religion. And for a lot of people, if you are religious then you just want to see the chaplain, or whoever the representative might be. You’re fairly clear on who you want to go to. But, for the vast majority of other people, neither religion nor spirituality is something they want to hear about. But what you do instead is, you find ways of being with people, forms of care. So: listening; closeness; sometimes even physical forms of care, like a bed bath; whatever it might be that, from a certain perspective, yes, you could talk about it as being religious.There’s a focus there on being, on attentiveness to the person you’re with, as opposed to doing – doing for them – rushing around a hospice ward. But you’re not employing any of the traditional language of religion or spirituality. A lot of the workers I talked to said that people would just be put off by that kind of thing. Because they’d say, “ Look, it’s too late for me now to go on some big search for the meaning of life and the meaning of the world. I need something that goes beyond concepts, or that goes beyond a fundamental change in who I am and how I look at the world.” [They] need something that,  some people would argue , was actually closer to the core of religion or a religious tradition like Christianity, which is love and acceptance, and showing that kind of thing. So I think in some of end-of-life care, that is more what people are doing than getting bogged down in the language of religion and spirituality. Again, one of the professors I interviewed at St Columba’s hospice said “ It’s really about training nurses in how to “ be”  with their patients, rather than just “ do”  for them. Do you know what I mean? Just running around and changing sheets and whatnot. Actually learning how to be with them is what they want. And whether the language of spirituality helps or not, that’s really a secondary consideration.

KB: And that’s interesting because that also gives us a sense of something we spoke of at the beginning: the idea of tension between different ideas of religion, spirituality and the psy-disciplines. And it’s interesting here because we see for the first time that tension between those who receive the care as opposed to seeing the tensions at an institutional level, or how they’re being interpreted by practitioner,  if that makes sense. So that’s very interesting. I think there was also a previous Religious Studies Project Podcast by Dr Harold Koenig, from Duke, and he’s spoken about how – I think the talk was about religion and spirituality and health. Speaking about, particularly, coping and how religious belief helps in coping, which seems interesting. A final point of tension, then: can you think of a specific example when the idea of healing itself is defined differently from a religious standpoint and then from the psy-discipline standpoint? Because they might be working with different ideas of what is transgressive, or what is disorderly, and so their ideas of what health is, and what healing is, might also differ.

CH: I suppose that’s true, yes. There’s an interesting parallel between working on religion and the psy-disciplines on the one hand and working on what’s called trans-cultural psychiatry and psychotherapy on the other. Because, in that latter area, what you find is that any form of psychotherapy, almost any form of psychotherapy is based on assumptions about what a human being is, what’s ideal for them what’s good for them. I suppose a psychotherapist might respond by saying that that ideal is something which gets generated over time in the relationship between the therapist and the client. The therapist isn’t there to say at the outset: “Here is the kind of person I’m trying to turn you into.”  So I accept that possible objection. But I think there’s a deeper sense in which there are certain assumptions, at least, in play. And if you transfer that back over to religion and the psy-disciplines – one of the things I try to do – I have a framework I tried to put together to work out exactly what bothers me about this relationship and how I want to investigate it. And I think one is the nature of the human person. And so, what does it mean to be healed? Does it mean to go back out and be once again a kind of coping, productive member of your society?(30:00) Or does it mean to go back out into your society and have a more prophetic role, and say, “Actually this is wrong, and that’s wrong. And the reason why I suffer from stress or anxiety or depression isn’t just that I’m wrong, or I’m failing to cope, it’s that the world around me is disordered.”  Those sorts of judgements, which border on the moral, are the sorts of things that would be comfortable to people with what we might call a religious background and less so to people who perhaps have a more secular orientation.Social justice can cross both lines, obviously. But I think in forms of psychotherapy and healing which have more of an explicit religious orientation, that element of judgement, which I suppose now is more pushed out onto the outside world – because the danger of internalising that judgement has become much more clear – that kind of judgement has become much more common, you see it more often. But one final thing on healing, which is: one of the things that I think can undermine healing is the difficulty, when religion and the psy-disciplines come together, of people making the same mistakes about the kind of language that they’re using. So there’s a writer called Jack Engler who writes about Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. So there are all these key terms in Buddhism which can be really badly misinterpreted if you’re not careful, and if Buddhism and the psy-disciplines come together in the wrong way. For example, a Buddhist concept like “ no self”  can easily be taken up and used by someone who has very low self-esteem and finds the idea of there being a fundamental unreality about themselves comforting. But they’re using it counter-phobicly, they’re using it in the wrong way. And actually they’re digging themselves a deeper hole, by using the idea of no self to justify very, very low feelings about themselves and wallow in it. He has a really nice line which, I think, cuts across  a lot of what we’ve been talking about. He says, “ You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”  So, in his scheme, there is a role for the psy-disciplines in clarifying a person’s sense of themselves, building up an ego in the sense of a healthy single subject – not being narcissistic and arrogant and self-obsessed  but being a healthy subject – who is then able to cope with what Buddhism would say is the ontological fact that there is no self. And it’s mistakes over language that can come up when religion and the psy-disciplines come together that I think can often be quite damaging, that can give people either false hope or the wrong sort of hope, or just confuse them worse than they were confused before. And, in turn, can either undermine healing in particular contexts or just undermine their growth in a bigger way. Which is why I think interrogating the use of language in this dialogue is such an important task.

KB: I’m keeping an eye on the time, this will be the last question. It strikes me that this idea of being nuanced, being careful about how language is used. . .  would you say this is one direction in which you hope to see the field grow? And that’s the last question: what direction can this field, that you’re working in, grow? Specifically of course, in Religious Studies: where can we go next?

CH: I wouldn’t presume to tell Religious Studies where to go! I’m just a plain old historian. But in response to the question, which I think is a good one,  what I would probably like to see and encourage is more of a creative and honest focus on the antagonisms that arise when religion and the psy-disciplines get together. Because I think we hear a lot, both within academia but also the wider world of publishing, YouTube, everywhere else, of the complementarities. There’s a great book by Frances Spufford: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can  Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. A beautiful, beautiful book – highly recommended . But that kind of talk about how religion and our understanding, via the psy-disciplines, about what a human person is; how these things work together so well; how one can be a great means of explanation for the other; how one can draw a person into the other . . . . I think all of that’s true, and all of it’s wonderful.But there needs to be more of a focus on where these things actually break down; where they’re offering views of the world which simply aren’t compatible and people shouldn’t be told that they are; or where mistakes and confusions can arise that actually cause people suffering. And by trying to investigate those better and clarifying them and trying to be honest about them, I think the field gets more interesting and less harm is done to people as a result. So that’s the one big area I’d like to see that happen.

KB: OK. So on that important note, thank you very much, Dr Chris Harding, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.


Citation:  Harding, Christopher. and Krittika Bhattacharjee. 2017. “ Religion and the Psy-Disciplines”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 March 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 March 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-and-the-psy-disciplines/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts  are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – March 15, 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution.

Calls for papers and applications

Workshop: Translations: indigenous, religion, tradition, culture

University of Tromsø, Norway

August 17–19, 2016

Deadline: June 1, 2016

More information

Travel grants: Religious Pluralisation – A Challenge for Modern Societies

October 4–6, 2016

Hanover, Germany

More information (travel grants, program)

Summer school: Religion and water

June 13–24, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information

Summer school: Religion, Culture and Society: Entanglement and Confrontation

August 28–September 3, 2016

Antwerpen, Belgium

Deadline: May 15, 2016

More information

Events

Conference: Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalisaton and Violent Extremism: Society, Identity and Security

July 22–23, 2016

University of Leeds, UK

April 15, 2016

More information

Conference: Reconsidering Religious Radicalism

May 21, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

More information

Symposium: Muslims in the UK and Europe

May 13–15, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

More information

Jobs

Funded postgraduate positions

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Full-time PhD studentships

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: April 4, 2016

More information

Faculty Fellow: Japanese Religions

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

More information

Professor: Alevism in Europe

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 13, 2016

More information

Professor: History of Modern/Contemporary Christianity

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 14, 2016

More information

‘Lived Religion’ in the Japanese Context: Realities of Individual Practice and Institutional Survival

In the current state of religious affairs, the concept of “lived religion” brought to us by Meredith McGuire in her latest book “Lived Religion: Faith and Practice” appears to be a highly relevant one, and most certainly, a fascinating one. It made me think about the manifestations of personal religiosity and the role of institutional engagement in shaping them in the Japanese context. It also brings to mind the notion of being “practically religious” in Japanese Buddhism and beyond. Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe, in their book Practically Religious (1998), argue that “Japanese religion is less a matter of belief than it is of activity, ritual, and custom”[1] and “the promise of this-worldly benefits is an intrinsic element within Japanese religion in general”.[2] In other words, Japanese religiosity is not necessarily based on what one believes in, but rather on what one does or should do and what one can get out of such activities, regardless of whether the fruits are of a spiritual or material nature.

Hence, it is a promise of some kind that lures people into visiting religious sites. For those who seek spiritual support, it might be a promise of deities’ protection against an illness or reassurance of peace for their ancestors’ spirits, which is bought with the offerings for prayers and fees paid for protective o-mamori (amulets). Yet, for those looking for a place to relax, escape their daily routine and experience something exciting, temples and shrines need to invent new ways to satisfy that need, especially at the time when more people claim to have little or no religious affiliation, and when visiting shrines and temples became associated with cultural and tourist activities rather than with religious activities. An increasing number of Japanese people today, especially young, visit famous religious sites for exclusively recreational reasons.

The number of Japanese people claiming lack of religious belief increased to 80% in the post-Aum era,[3] whereas the number of people admitting to have some sort of religious belief is no more than 20-30% and even lower among university students.[4] The semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students[5] revealed that all of them described their religious belief as mushūkyō (“non-religious”), only three of them identified their religious affiliation as Buddhist (mainly due to their family affiliation), and 84 confirmed that they visit temples and shrines on various occasions during the year, including hatsumōde, ō-bon celebrations and cherry blossoms viewings, and usually during their visits they purchase o-mamori (protective talismans) and o-mikuji (written oracle). My interviewees stated three main reasons for those visits, dentō (tradition), nihonjin-no koto (this is what Japanese people do), and tomodachi-to asobu toki (fun time with friends).

None of the interviewees mentioned their spiritual needs, whereas all put a stress on cultural and entertaining aspects of their visits to Buddhist temples. This may hint that young people in particular have low levels of religious affiliation; however this does not mean that they have no connection with religious places. It appears that visiting shrines and temples by young people is a widespread activity, yet the importance of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ motivations is rarely if at all highlighted. It appears that this notion of Japanese practicality in one’s personal engagement with religion may somewhat distort the concept of “lived religion” or “religion as lived” understood by McGuire as a subjective experience. Yet, perhaps this practical or action-based approach of engagement allows people to nurture their subjective experiences of faith without necessarily revealing their personal motivations behind their practices.

On the other hand McGuire discusses the malleability of religion (especially that personal one) and the “pic and mix” nature of “lived religion” with people drawing from a number of different religious traditions for practices and teachings. The very notion of malleability in this context brought my thinking to the ongoing discussion of change in religious traditions, institutions, and personal practices. This again brings me to my area of research in Japan where many institutions, including Japanese Buddhist temples, adapt to facilitate the religious engagement and its financial survival.

Along with the modernisation and commercialisation of society came the necessity to adapt to the new cultural, social and economic conditions; and this is true for all religious traditions in Japan. When Buddhism first arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it also needed to convince both the ruling class and the people that it was in tune with local spiritual traditions. The Buddhist concept of hōben (skillful means) allows us to understand the secret of religious adaptability in Japan today. Skillful means, in Buddhist terms, represents the idea of not always telling the truth, as long as it helps people in achieving enlightenment, or as it can be understood today, as long as it helps people and attracts potential visitors to temples and shrines. The concept of “untruth” understood in terms of hōben is perpetrated for the sake of others and with the use of any means available at the time which can contribute to the popularisation of a particular practice or religious site.

It can be suggested that religious organisations in Japan today are likely to resort to the use of modern hōben methods such as a wide range of advertising techniques and use of technology in the context of the economic and social changes that affected them after the promulgation of the new constitution in 1946. Through the variety of those advertising techniques and imagery of religious sites promoted with them, I would argue that the emphasis on entertainment themes and the shift from religious to tourist activities associated with visits to Buddhist temples has become especially evident in commercial advertising of the recent years. However, it is essential to understand that the idea of blending of religion and entertainment is not a product of postmodern consumption-driven society and has long-established roots in Japanese religious tradition. It is only in recent years, however, that the notion of fun managed to dominate the sphere of the religious. It may be suggested that Buddhist temples in Japan are also undergoing a process of experimentation and subjectivity of experience associated with the notion of “lived” as opposed to “preached” religion. How these changes impact on the identities of people living in local communities is something that I would like to explore in the future.

 

[1] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.7

[2] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.8

[3] Dorman, Benjamin. and Reader, Ian, (2007) “Projections and Representations of Religion in Japanese Media”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions February 2007 10/3 pp.6-13

[4] Tanatsugu, Masakazu. and Yamanaka, Hiroshi. 棚次 正和 / 山中 弘 2007 宗教学入門  (Introduction to Religious Studies) (東京:ミネルヴア書房)

[5] These are the findings of the semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students during my stay in Japan in 2009-2010. Although the sampling of my research was limited in number, it can still be argued that these numbers provide an evidence for rather secular attitudes towards religious practices permeating in postmodern Japanese society.

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cheese, office stationery and more.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Podcasts

Imagining American and Japanese Religious Freedom

A response to Episode 332 Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post-War Japan by Satoko Fujiwara

I listened to Jolyon Thomas’ interview about his book Faking Liberties with Brett Eskai while COVID-19 was rapidly spreading internationally, in mid-March 2020. I was struck with how my European and American colleagues racialized and classed the disease. A Danish colleague said that people around him, that is, middle-class and upper-middle class Danes, assuming that the disease only affected the lower-class and immigrants, were enjoying their regular lives. “I think they are arrogant,” he said. Certainly. Although most of them did not go as far as calling it “Yellow Peril,” they associated the disease with race and class. As for the United States, although lower-class people are, in fact, under a larger threat due to their lack of health insurance etc., Americans have also been inclined to discuss the disease in terms of race and class. In contrast, Japanese people have mostly related the disease to age. It is, again, a fact that older people have higher risk of more serious infection, but it is also true that Japanese people do not see it as a racial and class problem (except those conspiracy-lovers who say that the disease is a bioweapon to terminate Asians). Instead, as the virus spread beyond Asia, they started associating the disease with national identity. They have been saying, some sarcastically but others proudly, “We, Japanese people, are so obedient to the government that we stay home just with an official ‘request.’ No need of order or legal enforcement.”

The above is only another example of how we unconsciously adopt a particular way of viewing things. That is why diversity matters in the academy, as Thomas argues. Diversity often lets us realize that we have limited our scope with no deliberation. Regarding the study of Japanese religions, diversity is even more necessary because scholars in the field have largely consisted of only two groups: Japanese scholars and white Westerners. Few other African Americans, multiracial, or non-white/non-Asian scholars specializing in Japanese religions have obtained faculty positions at US universities. Moreover, it is customary for minority American scholars of religion to choose a field that is closely related to their ethnic backgrounds: African Americans often specialize in the history of their own religious traditions, so do Asian Americans. It is too often as if only “white” scholars have the freedom to study anything and everything.

Therefore, the contributions Thomas has made and is going to make in the future for the study of Japanese religions are immense. Indeed, the impact of his work is not limited to Japanese studies. His sharp critique of Robert Bellah’s arguments of civil religion arose because of his unique positionality as a multiracial African American scholar of Japanese religions.

That said, it is also important to note that his critique can function differently in Japanese contexts. (I have given him similar feedback before, which is mentioned in the book). Briefly, a critique of American liberals (such as Bellah) can please Japanese conservatives. Thomas says American civil religion is no different from State Shinto, at least not as much as Bellah claimed. In contrast, Japanese scholars have a tendency to stress differences and to place American civil religion above State Shinto. They argue that Shinto is a this-worldly religion and only legitimizes the Japanese government, while American civil religion, like Christianity, has a transcendent dimension, in light of which Americans criticize the current state of their government. In other words, Shinto is always subject to nationalism, while civil religion, being based on universal values, can transcend nationalism. In so arguing, Japanese scholars attempted to maintain critical consciousness of their war past. Thomas’s argument may sound to Japanese people that they do not have to be so harsh on themselves. It may then empower Japanese conservatives who are ready to use any chance to de-demonize Shinto and Japan’s military past.

From William P. Woodard, The Allied Occupation of Japan and Japanese Religions 1945-1952, Leiden, 1972, frontiespiece, in ref. 2, p. 97

 

I am also cautious of making any academic argument that can serve Japanese reactionism (particularly against the backdrop of the present Abe administration). Yet, at the same time, I consider Japanese scholars’ comparison between State Shinto and American civil religion to be quite problematic because it heavily draws upon the essentialized dichotomy of “world religion” vs “national (or ethnic) religion.” (To note: the term “world religion,” which was coined in the late 19th century, has two major meanings. One is “religions in the world” and the other is “universal religion” as the opposite of national/ethnic religion. The former meaning has been remaining in the US, UK and some other multicultural countries, while the latter meaning, which became obsolete in those Western countries, has survived in Japan. As for why it is still popular in Japan, see Fujiwara 2016). Perhaps academic critiques are always two-sided when thrown into different contexts of the actual world. What we need to do together is to find out a way to avoid “trade-offs” and promote “synergies” between critiques.

Closely related to the comparison between State Shinto and civil religion is Thomas’s arguments on secularism in Japan. He identifies preoccupation Japan as a secularist system based on the Meiji constitution. This is also a bold statement because the established thesis has been the opposite: preoccupation Japan had neither true separation between religion and the state nor true religious freedom. The thesis is being questioned by a new generation of scholars represented by Thomas and also by Yijiang Zhong (Zhong 2014), who happens to be another promising scholar of Japanese religions who is not a white Westerner. Thomas says, “I saw a lot of works in the critical religious freedom literature tearing apart the word ‘religion’. I saw less on freedom and I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly.” If Americans have been preoccupied by the idea of religious freedom as their imagined national treasure, many, especially conservative, Japanese people love to talk about the tolerance or inclusiveness of Japanese religions, above all Shinto, as their imagined innate nature since the pre-war period. It would be intriguing to investigate how discourses on Japanese religious tolerance/inclusiveness have developed hand in hand with those on US religious freedom.


References

Fujiwara, Satoko. 2016. “Why the Concept of ‘World Religion’ Has Survived in Japan: On the Japanese Reception of Max Weber’s Comparative Religion,” in Contemporary Views on Comparative Religion, ed. by Peter Antes, Armin W. Geertz and Mikael Rothstein, Sheffield: Equinox, 191-203.

Zhong, Yijiang. 2014. “Freedom, Religion and the Making of the Modern State in Japan, 1868–89.” Asian Studies Review, 38/1: 53-70.

Religious legislation as a place of religion-making

Religious legislation as a place of religion-making

A response to Episode 332 Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post-War Japan by Ernils Larsson

Jolyon Thomas’ Faking Liberties (2019) is a book rich in content and themes, and while many of his arguments deserve to be highlighted, I would like to take the opportunity to respond to what I consider a central observation made by Thomas in this podcast: “Religious freedom is a place where you see religion-making happening in real-time, because to free religion people have to designate one thing as religion and something else as not religion.” This statement echoes a point argued by Winnifred Sullivan, who posited that the central problem with legislation pertaining to religion is that it requires “essentialized religion” (Sullivan 2005). In other words, for religious freedom to make sense, we would first have to agree on a common understanding of what religion is, yet since no generally agreed upon definition of religion is ever likely to exist, treatment of religion in courts of law becomes arbitrary. Law, like academia, becomes a place where religion is made, as certain aspects of human culture are designated religion while others are not.

Visitors enter the Yasukuni Shrine. Photo by Ernils Larsson

As Thomas notes in the podcast, religion exists in the Japanese vocabulary in part as a direct result of Western demands for religious freedom. This point has been argued in several recent studies (e.g. Josephson 2012, Maxey 2014), which have shown how the Japanese term for religion – shūkyō – was created following domestic debates on how best to make sense of primarily American and Dutch demands for religious freedom made in the mid-19th century. Japanese lawmakers were not only tasked with creating a Japanese equivalent to the Western religion, but they also had to decide upon what exactly was to be included in this new generic category. By the time the principle of religious freedom was written into the Meiji Constitution of 1890, it had been generally agreed upon that there were three religions present in Japan: Christianity, Buddhism, and sectarian Shinto. Significantly, the imperial institution and all rites associated with the emperor and the state were deliberately excluded from the category of religion and were instead considered part of the secular order in Japan, in a system which Jason Josephson has referred to as the “Shinto Secular” (Josephson 2012). This system became known in the postwar period as “State Shinto,” yet as Thomas suggests in the podcast, we could just as well refer to it as prewar “Japanese secularism.”

The American occupation of Japan after World War II signalled a shift in how secularism was envisioned in the country. As Thomas argues in his book, to the American policymakers reshaping Japan into a liberal democracy, “State Shinto” represented a form of “heretical secularism” in which true religious freedom could not be found. Through the Shinto Directive of December 15, 1945, all aspects of Shinto were separated from the state, including imperial rituals and those public rites which were carried out to honour and placate the spirits of the heroic war dead. The directive also firmly established that “Shrine Shinto” belonged to the category of religion: “Shrine Shinto, having been divorced from the state and divested of its militaristic and ultra-nationalistic elements, will be recognized as a religion if its adherents so desire and will be granted the same protection as any other religion” (Shinto Directive). Under the new legal framework implemented during the occupation, including the new constitution of 1947 and the Religious Juridical Persons Law of 1951, formerly nonreligious Shinto shrines were essentially forced to reorganize as religious organizations in order to survive their separation from the state. To the American occupation, the new secular order, in which all religions were equally separated from the state, provided the foundation for a true religious freedom to be carried out in Japan. While religion was already understood in Japan as belonging to the private sphere, the occupation authorities simply ensured that the same was true for everything that they considered to be religion, including Shinto.

A central problem with the principles of religious freedom and the separation of religion and state as they were instituted in Japan under American occupation is that they assume a consensus with regards to what constitutes religion. As Japan was reshaped by the occupation authorities, an American understanding of religion forced a transformation of the public rites of the state in order for them to conform with the notion of Shrine Shinto as a private religion. For an example of this process we can look at Yasukuni Shrine, one of the most central public institutions of the prewar state. At Yasukuni Shrine, the spirits of all those who gave their lives for the nation were enshrined, regardless of the private religious faith of individual soldiers, and all loyal subjects were expected to participate in the public worship of these heroic spirits. While the American occupation authorities had initially intended to destroy Yasukuni Shrine due to its central position in Japanese militarism, the shrine priests and their allies managed to ensure the survival of the shrine in part by arguing for its religious nature (Mullins 2010). After all, as champions of religious freedom, the American occupation authorities could hardly force the closure of a religious institution. Yasukuni Shrine has been organized throughout the postwar period as a private religious institution, yet through its claims to public significance for the nation it continues to be the cause of much controversy. In the 1960s and 70s, the Yasukuni Shrine Bills sought to renationalize the shrine, yet based on the shrine’s status as a religious organization, it was concluded that this would violate the principle of secularism as established by the constitution. The tension between private and public also plays out whenever key political figures pay their respect at the shrine, as postwar legal precedence has found this to be a key factor when deciding whether visits and offerings are allowed or not (Breen 2010).

Above, about 70 Japanese lawmakers visit the Yasukuni Shrine in April 2019. The shrine pays honor to war dead as well as war criminals of World War II, a fact that creates tension with China and South Korea.

A reading of court cases on religious freedom suggests that in general the basic principles instituted under the American occupation are being upheld by Japan’s courts of law. Religious freedom grants citizens the right to freely believe and practice their faith as individuals, and the judiciary tends to support those plaintiffs who demand the right to be different (Takahata 2007). The question of how to define religion as a legal concept is rarely discussed in lawsuits on religious freedom, as these are commonly resolved by reference to the status of the organization an individual adheres to: Jehovah’s Witnesses are registered as a religious juridical person and are therefore considered a religion under Japanese law. Normative assumptions about what religion means in a Japanese context can instead be found primarily in those lawsuits which deal with the principle of secularism, i.e the separation of religion from the state. Reading such lawsuits, it becomes clear that how religion is to be understood in relation to Shinto institutions and rites remains a deeply contested issue. While current Supreme Court precedence favours the view that all religious organizations should be equally understood as religion under Japanese law, this debate is far from resolved (Larsson 2017). There are many influential actors in contemporary Japan who would favour a return to what Thomas in the podcast refers to as “Japanese secularism.”


References

Breen, John. “’Conventional Wisdom’ and the Politics of Shinto in Postwar Japan.” In Politics of Religion, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2010), pp. 68-82.

 

Directive for the Disestablishment of State Shinto from the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (December 15, 1945). Available in Mullins, Shimazono & Swanson 1993, pp. 97-102.

 

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

 

Larsson, Ernils. “Jinja Honchō and the Politics of Constitutional Reform in Japan.” In Japan Review, No. 30 (2017), Special Issue Formations of the Secular in Japan, pp. 227-252.

 

Maxey, Trent E.. The “Greatest Problem”: Religion and State Formation in Meiji Japan. Harvard University Press, 2014.

 

Mullins, Mark R. “How Yasukuni Shrine Survived the Occupation: A Critical Examination of Popular Claims.” In Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 89-136.

 

Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton University Press, 2005.

 

Eiichiro, Takahata. “Religious Accommodation in Japan.” In Brigham Young University Law Review, Vol. 2007, No. 3 (2007), pp. 729-750.

 

Thomas, Jolyon B.. Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. The University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Race, Religious Freedom & Empire in Post-War Japan

At the 2019 American Academy of Religion conference in San Diego, California, Brett Esaki sat down with Jolyon Thomas to discuss Thomas’ new book Faking Liberties and the complex intersection of religious freedom, empire, and racialization in the post-war relationship between Japan and the United States. The processes or projects of secularization, says Thomas, were instrument of American empire. By looking at the ways discourses about religious freedom regulated race, gender, and ritual practices in occupation-era Japan, we can see the double-standard of what America has advocated for abroad versus practiced at home. Thomas calls for deeper scholarly engagement with the category of “freedom” and how freedom of religious expression has been racially coded as white in the United States. It is a cautionary tale with important pedagogical and institutional lessons. If we find that discussing “diversity looks like activism,” he suggests, then “we have a huge problem” that reveals why diversity in the academy is essential for discussing secularism, religious freedom, and religion today.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Race, Religious Freedom and Empire in Post- War Japan

Podcast with Jolyon Thomas (11 May 2020).

Interviewed by Brett Esaki.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/race-religious-freedom-and-empire-in-post-war-japan/

Brett Esaki (BE): Welcome to sunny San Diego. I’m Brett Esaki, and I’m really excited to talk about your book today. So the book, Faking Liberties, Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan. It’s about a lot of things, but primarily in the area . . . about Japan before, during and after the American Occupation. But it’s also, interestingly, a reflection upon the United States and its projects abroad. So, can you briefly introduce the book’s thesis, and list a few of the items of comparison across the countries?

Jolyon Thomas (JT): Well, thank you for taking the time to do the interview. I’m Jolyon Thomas and I’m really pleased to be here. So the book’s main thesis is that there’s a story that’s been told that the United States brought religious freedom to Japan at the end of the Second World War. And, as I was looking at this history, I was really struck by the fact that it just seemed to not be true. Now it turns out that the United States did bring religious freedom to Japan, only it had brought religious freedom to Japan much earlier, in the 1850s, as part of a sort-of diplomatic package. And indeed, the concept of religion comes to Japan in that time. But the sort-of triumphalist Occupation era narrative about the United States bringing religious freedom to Japan is a really problematic story, because it sets up the Americans as being sort-of the holders of freedom and the Japanese as being these benighted people that need to be saved, or rescued, by the Americans. So I was really inspired by literature on secularism, and secularity studies, in thinking through the ways that religious freedom is a really good topic for thinking about what secularism is. But I was also trying to make an intervention in the history of Japan and the United States, thinking perhaps a little more critically about American empire. And then thinking perhaps a little bit more – what’s the way to put this? – in a sort-of radical credulity about one of these claims that Japanese people in the Pre-War and War-time period made, that Shinto was not a religion. And so one of the things I wanted to do was take that claim at face value and think, “Well, what would the history look like if that turned out to be true?”

BE: Right. And that kind-of explains one of the shifts you make from going from essentialist and functionalist definitions of freedom of religion to more of a project or claims-making. Can you walk us through that transition?

JT: Yes. So one of the things that really struck me in thinking about the Occupation era narrative about “Japanese people don’t have religious freedom”, is that it basically makes an essentialist claim, saying “Japanese people, as such, in their being, don’t get it.” And, you know, I think that many of us in the academy, in 2019, we’re well aware that we should avoid essentialising claims. But there are still a lot of them that sort-of lurk out there. They’re sort-of shambling around in our midst, right? So the first sort-of correction for that is the suspicious move to do the functionalist claim, like: “What’s really happening behind the scenes?” And I think that, for most of time that I’ve been professionally studying religions in Japan, I’ve seen more of the functionalist move where it’s like: “Well, Shinto is essentially a religion of Japanese people. And State Shinto is functionally the political co-option this benign ancient religion”, or whatever. It turns out that the scholarship has shown that both of those claims are just not accurate. And that one of things that I really push, in a more constructivist bent, is to look at who speaks about Shinto and about religious freedom, and how do they engage in projects of religion making? And so, you know, in this critical secularisms and secularities literature there’s a sort-of focus on the constructed nature of both . . . the co-constructed nature, I should say, of both religion and secularism. And so, as I was thinking through those issues, it was very obvious that religious freedom is a place where you see religion-making happening in real time. Because to free religion, people have to designate one thing as “religion” and something else as “not religion”. And so I find that to be endlessly fascinating, and fun to think through and with.

BE: So, to try and summarise that, there are these two projects of secularisation, or kind-of defining what religion and what non-religion is, both within pre-War Japan and also in the United States in its later Occupation. So it’s a nice line of comparison, having those two (5:00). So, one thing I’d like to turn to, is one of these provocative claims that you’ve made – and I think it’s actually – as the argument goes in your book – a quite tempered claim, for my view, that religious freedom and human rights have been used functionally as tools of empire – and that’s the term you use. Can you explain what you mean by that term, tool of empire? And maybe provide an example?

JT: Sure. So I think I’m not alone in making this sort of claim. And just to give a shout out to other scholars working in the field of Critical Religious Freedom Studies: Tisa Wenger‘s book Religious Freedom – I forget the subtitle . . . something about an American ideal – is . . . . She uses this idea about religious freedom. As white settlers move west then they take religious freedom with them, and it helps them occupy territory, and so forth. Writing in a more contemporary period, Elizabeth Shackman Hurd has talked about the global promotion of religious freedom, or what she calls international religious freedom. And, you know, this is something that the Trump administration takes very seriously. So did the Obama administration before it, and so forth. And the reason that this is a sort-of tool of empire is that it’s a way for Americans to do assert a certain type of moral superiority, and to . . . . Even if not dominating politically another territory and population, the language of religious freedom allows Americans to sort-of assert a certain degree of political hegemony. So in the book there are two main examples of this, I would say. Chapter Three looks at territorial Hawai’i, which is, at the time, you know, an American territory, not a state. I’m looking at Hawai’i in the 1910s and twenties, mostly. And there, under the plantation economy, religious freedom and the notion of white Christian supremacy work hand in hand. So, to make a long story very short, Japanese American Buddhists make an attempt to use the language of religious freedom, and they fail utterly. And this is partly . . . and the reason they fail is that there’s a very carefully constructed political economy of the Islands. And if Japanese people are allowed to use religious freedom, then that really calls into question the white supremacy that dominates that. And the other place is, of course, the Occupation itself. Japan is an autonomous state. It has its own sovereignty at this stage. I would say that it’s fair to describe Japan as a client state. It’s utterly dependent on the US military presence in a very conflicted way. And Japan is America’s . . . the forward base for the United States in East Asia that reflects the geopolitics of the Cold War. There’s a lot of emphasis on using Japan as a sort-of place to maintain freedom of navigation in the Pacific and so forth. All of that is to say, religious freedom was central to the Occupation project. It was one of the main rationales for why the United States needed to be in Japan in the first place. These people, we fought a war with them, they fought the war because of their religion: “Their religion was bad, we’re going to fix it. And, having fixed it, then we’re going to incorporate them under the sort-of military umbrella of the United States.” So, you know, we could parse the term empire all day. But I’m totally comfortable with thinking of America as an empire and that’s quite accurate in many respects.

BE: And we could also use the adjective empirical, like . . . things related to those goals. Can we also categorise other similar freedoms, spread abroad, with the same kind of analysis of projects?

JT: Yes, I think so. You know, other people have talked about this sort of thing. One of the things that immediately comes to mind when you ask this question is, sort-of gender and women’s rights. I think we see a lot of Americans really worked up about genital cutting and in a very complicated way. And there are a number of scholars who have worked on sort-of calling that into question. But sort-of saying like “Women need to be protected either from themselves or from the terrible men who are doing stuff”. And, of course, Saba Mahmood has talked about this sort of thing with veiling, and there are others like Rick Shweder at the University of Chicago, who have written articles on genital cutting and so forth, where there are double standards that are applied (10:00). So one of the things that I think is really interesting thinking about the US project of spreading freedoms abroad, is that we often operate under double standards, where what we do at home is a little bit different from what we project overseas. And I think that we really need to sort-of slow down, and pay attention to that dynamic. It’s insidious in its worst instantiations.

BE: From maybe my interests, and my lines of questioning, maybe you have like a presumption, maybe, of a kind-of underlying interest that I have. And that’s really your experiences of racialisation and how that informs your scholarly perspective. Now, I’m not imposing this on your book. But, in fact, it’s explicitly stated in the epilogue, you’re a multi-racial African American, if that’s the right term you’d like to use to identify yourself. And without giving away the book’s awesome finale – stated in musical form – really cool! – can you just touch upon, maybe, how your study of Asian religions, in particular, has been affected by your own experiences of racialisation.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for asking that question. So one of the things that struck me as I was getting into the archival materials for this book, was how frequently the occupiers described themselves as white. And how they also positioned themselves as . . . they thought of America as white. And the American armed forces were still segregated at this time. America’s self-understanding was figured around whiteness. And as a non-white person, that really was jarring. But it also was one of the things that I . . . . You know, it’s part of this longer autobiography, I guess, that I share in a brief form in the epilogue, which is that if you’re a non-white person in the United States then it’s very obvious – I shouldn’t speak for all of us, but I’ll just speak for myself. It was really obvious to me growing up that when American’s talk about freedom that freedom is not extended to all of us equally. And so I saw a lot of work in the critical religious freedom literature, tearing apart the word religion. And very important to do. I saw less on freedom. And I thought that freedom was something that really needed to be addressed more directly. And to think about how there are both emancipatory and coercive qualities to freedom. And that different people, and different groups, get freedom in different ways. One of the things that . . . . So the Epilogue, as you’ve seen, is written in a very personal tone. I had a lot of trepidations putting it out there in the world. So far, when I’ve heard from people, they’ve generally . . . the response has been positive from people who have already read the book. But one thing that I notice is that a number of people said that it was . . . that my project was an activist project. And so, in the Introduction, I say very explicitly it’s not an activist project for all of these reasons. But one of the things that people are taking away, having read the Epilogue, was that this made the book an activist project. And I’ve been thinking about that recently. And this goes to your question about racialisation. Because I think that that reading is actually a racialised reading of the book. So, in other words, if I were like a white American and I close the book by being like, “Oh I went on the JET programme and I had this lovely experience in this small town in rural Japan.” Nobody would read that as activist. They would be like “Oh, that’s just a book.” Right? But because I’m talking about my experience as a racialised minority in the United States, and because it’s built into the apparatus of the book, suddenly the book becomes activist. And I think we really have to think about, you know, what sort of burden that places on racialised scholars of religion, and what we can do about that. Because – sorry, this is turning into a long rant! But one of the things that I think is that . . . . The Epilogue was designed to show, rather than tell. But it was showing the value of diversity in the academy. And if diversity looks like activism then we have a huge problem. So I think that one of the things that I really . . . like, my hope for people reading the Epilogue is that “Oh, this represents why diverse voices are valuable in the academy; this represents why we need to foster diversity in the lower ranks of the academy”, and so forth.

BE: Right. So there’s so much in there to unpack. I would like to actually walk back to more of your archival discussion.

JT: Sure.

BE: So let’s take us back into that time (15:00). You look at his archive, and then, over and over, you’re reading, with the name America, some reference – either explicitly or implicitly – to concepts of whiteness. What goes through your mind as you’re going through this archive? And again, I’m trying to help you out here, with the . . . and I do that myself, your experiences shape your lens. They don’t make your project activism. So I trying to help you articulate that process.

JT: Yes great, OK. So let me just talk about the archive in general. It’s actually multiple archives in the United States in Japan. So I’m looking at American military government records at the National Archives and Records Administration. That’s in College Park, Maryland. And also there is this fabulous collection at the University of Maryland called the Prange Collection. During the years of the Occupation, every document that was published in Japanese was censored. So, you know, there’s this irony in the Occupation to promote freedom of expression, that the occupiers censor everything! (Laughter). To promote religious freedom, they quash some religious groups, and so forth. I talk about this in great detail in the book. So the Prange Collection has all these censored documents. And then I was looking at archives in Southern California, in Oregon, for people who had been influential in Occupation policy, or active in the Occupation, as well as archives in Japan. So Government records, a lot of magazines and so forth. One of the things that I noticed, as I was going through the American military government records, was that they told a very sort-of hasty story of the Japanese past, the recent Japanese past. And their story was designed to make Japan look like it was an inferior, sort-of uncivilised place. So with the concept . . . . I want to stress the concept of civilisation here, for a second, like really spell that out. Because civilisation was the dominant frame for understanding the world in the first half of the twentieth century and the late nineteenth century. And so civilisation was basically equated with whiteness. And so any time the Americans are talking about civilisation, they’re often – if not explicitly, at least implicitly – sort-of tying this to “these people who are insufficiently white”. And, of course, those people who know the history will know that Japan has had this ambiguous status geopolitically, because Japan was an empire in its own right. Japan staved off being colonised by colonising the other countries of Asia. And that’s a very complicated history that I won’t go into in too much detail. But where does that leave the scholar? Well I felt like I had a responsibility, then, to unpack the stories the Japanese people were telling about themselves. How did they think of themselves? How did they mobilise the language of civilisation in a different way? And so, you know, at first I thought I was just writing a book about the years of the Occupation. But it turned out that I needed to write a whole half of the book that was about whatever was happening before the Occupation, to really let Japanese people speak in their own voices. And, strikingly, one of the things that happened was that a lot of them were saying a lot of things about religious freedom. And they’re laughing at the United States through a lot of it. A lot of them were just like, “Look at those crazy Americans! They are way too lapse with their laws about religious freedom! We’re going to use religious freedom, but we’re going do it our own way.” And I think that that’s a very important kind of story. And, of course, just amplifying the Japanese voices, and all of their complicated conflicted ways, is part of the project of the book.

BE: So, one thing you’re pointing to is that quick summarisation of what Japan used to be. So what are we doing now, as an American project? What was Japan before this? And one of the interesting things you point to is how they drew upon Religious Studies scholars to make this claim about what Japan used to be like. And so this actually discusses it . . . . It’s a major discussion you have about the politics of Religious Studies scholarship. And so here we have an example where . . . I don’t know if those scholars really thought of themselves as world-influencing in terms of their work. However, they ended up being it. And so one major portion of the book is called “The Occupation of Religious Studies” And obviously you have a double entendre there with the job, as well as the American Occupation. And there are some really interesting points made through this probably secondarily archival work, right? But there’s these terms of a spiritual vacuum, and also what happens after the American Occupation, the flourishing of new religions (20:00). And so this new term, “new religions and new religious movements”, and other terms that come out of there, actually come out of this definition of what Japan was like before and then what it was like after. So reflecting on these discussions and maybe – well, you can maybe parse out some of that for the Listeners. But also, maybe, words of advice about us as scholars of religion and what our potential political impact could be, based on our ways of framing religions.

JT: Great. Thanks so much for that question. OK. So I’m going to answer it by looping back to an earlier part of our conversation with the activism stuff. So the reason I said that it was deliberately not an activist project was precisely because so much stuff that I was seeing in the archive was scholars of religion adopting a prescriptive tone, saying “This is good religion, and that’s bad religion.”

BE: Right.

JT: “This is superstition. That’s real religion.” And that sort of thing. I think the category of State Shinto, which I alluded to before, it had that whole story built into it. Two-words, whole story, right? And so I wanted to be very deliberate. Of course, there’s always going to be some sort of prescription that we’re doing. But I think in general, for me, I think the first order level of prescription is about scholarly method. And if there’s an intervention I’m making in the book, it’s: how do we periodise, how do we tell our stories? Whose voices are we paying attention to? And that sort of thing. Those are the kinds of things that I think I’m very explicit about in the book. On reflection, I think I could have been even more deliberate, or taken a little bit more time to – in this case – rather than show, actually tell people what I was doing, in terms of playing with chronological presentation. The book is organised chronologically, but it’s also not organised chronologically. And that was my way of sort-of doing the historical method, but also kind-of screwing with it at the same time! But in terms of the sort-of nitty-gritty of what was happening in the Occupation – before, during and immediately after the Occupation – we have scholars of religion who are really minor until they become major, because of a sudden policy need. So the person I have in mind is Daniel Clarence Holtom, who’s a Baptist Missionary, who’s a scholar of Shinto and nobody was reading his stuff really, right? He’s completely under-appreciated. I think a small number of people are looking at him. But after Pearl Harbour the sort-of dominant narrative at the time was that Japanese people were ultra-nationalist because of Buddhism, not Shinto. And then somebody in the state department or in the Office of Strategic Services finds Holtom’s work and they’re like: “Oh my God! This guy is this expert who’s been telling us all of this stuff about why Japanese people are the way they are!” And so, suddenly, Holtom’s work has this whole new life, where it’s explaining Japanese ultra-nationalism. So this guy comes to . . . and then he ends up having like an outsize role after being on the margins of the scholarly community. So his ideas about Shinto as the national faith of Japan, and so forth, come to inform a lot of policy. This is particularly the case in the fall of 1945, when the occupiers have a sudden policy change that’s dictated by Washington. And the people in Washington suddenly announce on American public radio that Shinto, as a state religion, is going to be abolished. For the occupiers, stationed in Japan, this was the first they were hearing of it, and then they suddenly had to come up with a policy to support this objective. They had to come up with a reason to support this objective, while also protecting and promoting religious freedom. Which is an impossible task! So the only way to make that work is to designate Japan’s – quote-unquote – “national religion” as not being religion. Or as being sort-of insufficiently distinguishing between the religious and the political. How do you do that? You go to scholarly experts. So they relied on Holtom’s work, and they also relied on local Japanese scholars of religion, particularly this guy Kishimoto Hideo, and were asking them to basically support this for ordained objective and sure enough by 15 December of that year, of 1945, you get this document called the Shinto Directive, which formally abolishes this thing that they have now come to call State Shinto. And one thing I just want to put here – a sort-of asterisk to all of this – is that the language of – quote-unquote – “State Shinto” doesn’t solidify until December 1945. It is not something that is widely used, in Japanese or in English, up until that point. And that’s really crucial (25:00).

BE: And, in the book, you do a really good job of pointing out the kind-of lineage of the debates within Japan about the relationship of religion to the state. And so, it’s very clear from that there is no solidification of the State Shinto idea. So I think what this is actually . . . it’s bringing it back to, maybe, one of the earlier points about racialisation. So instead of it being an activist work, it’s really –and you can rephrase this how you want – your experiences shape your lens. That lens would be obvious . . . that lens is obvious to anyone who’s had similar experience of racialisation. On the other hand, maybe another scholar would take some of these assumptions about State Shinto for granted. Can you maybe loop those together? Like, how your own experience of racialisation allows you to break free of that presumption that the previous Religious Studies scholarship was fully accurate.

JT: Yes. Thank you so much for that question. OK, so I’m going to sort-of build on what we were just talking about with State Shinto, and tie it to this other concept that may be lurking in some Listeners’ minds, which is civil religion. OK, so Robert Bellah starts off, as I understand it, Talcott Parsons tells Robert Bellah, “You’re going do Japan” And he writes this book, Tokugawa Religion. And then he ends up shifting focus, and he ends up the being one of the major sociologists of American religion and so forth, and we’re all very indebted to him. One of the things that . . . one of his most influential essays is about Americas’ civil religion. And I think one of the things that a lot of people forget – maybe a lot of our Americanist colleagues forget – is that Bellah’s experience studying Japan directly affects his civil religion essay. And there’s even a footnote in that essay where he’s like: “I’m not talking about an American Shinto” – which I think says exactly what he’s doing. Right? There’s a sort-of proleptic quality to that that I think is really, really telling. So there are maybe one or two pages in Chapter One, where I’m talking about how Bellah, writing in his time – 1967, I think it is – he’s capable of telling a story about America’s civil religion that picks a set number of saints and heroes and monuments and so forth, and he’s talking about things like national sacrifice. But look at who he’s including and not including. There is no mention of blackness. There is no . . . like, black people are not present in this stories.

BE: Let’s repeat the date.

JT: 1967. Yes! Exactly! And so it’s just utterly striking. And so I’ve had a number of colleagues say, “Well, actually, shouldn’t civil religion be helpful in talking through your critique of State Shinto?” and I want to say, “No!” I want to flip the table over and say. “No. This is not helpful. Because Bellah was both using a racialised notion of Japan to tacitly to build his argument about American civil religion. He was rejecting what was going on in Japan to say, “Well, what we do is actually really good. And it’s the healthy stuff that bonds us all together.” That’s exactly what Japanese people were saying about . . . what they did not call State Shinto, but they called like the Imperial Way or shrine rites, or whatever. They had lots of different names for this stuff. And, you know, one of the things that Bellah’s . . . I mention this explicitly in my discussion of Bellah’s piece. But there’s no reference to Martin Luther King. There’s certainly no reference to Malcolm X, I mean can you imagine?! Right? But these are people who were speaking in prophetic voices. They were talking about the problems of the American project. There’s . . . and so, I think, to answer your question directly, I see that because of the way that I am, and because of the circumstances of my embodiment. I’m sure that . . . and I would not say that a white person would not see that. I want to be very clear here. But I think that because of growing up with this sort of ambiguous racial identity, as a multi-racial person, it’s always been sort-of in my face. I’ve never been able to not think about race. And so it took me a long time to figure out why I was so dissatisfied with the civil religion explanation. And it actually wasn’t until very late in the book that I finally came up with an answer for it. But it has to do with this issue: the circumstances of who I am, the nature of where I was born, how I grew up and all that stuff affects how I approach the archive, and so forth (30:00).

BE: Thank you so much. One more thing. And this is just like a nuts-and-bolts thing. So, we’ve discussed all the origins of the creation of the term State Shinto. Yet still . . . and I have to admit it, for myself, when I ‘m doing an Introduction to World Religions, there it is: the term State Shinto’s there. And you discuss it. Is there a nuts-and-bolts better way to describe what was happening in pre-Occupation Japan?

JT: Yes. I think we just need to talk about Japanese secularism. I describe it as a secularism. I describe what I call the Meiji constitutional regime as a secularist system. It’s premised on the distinction between “religion” and “not religion”. And I mean that in two ways. There’s like the forbidden not religion, which is things that end up being called superstitions, and so forth. And then there are the permitted or even encouraged not religion, which is the compulsory shrine rites, where you’d get a bunch of school kids to go to the shrine and pay their respects, or, like, bow to a picture of the Emperor. That’s secularism. That’s what’s happening in America too, at exactly the same time. There’s a sort-of a sense. . . . This is what Bellah would call America’s civil religion. But I think it’s actually much more complicated than that. I don’t want to reduce things to religion. I want to maintain the complexity of the language games that people play, in terms of parsing things as being religion or not religion, right? And I think that collapsing everything into the category of religion actually misses part of the point. So it is not my job to police what other people say. I know that I will be shouting into the wind, and there are going to be people who insist on using the term State Shinto. But I really think that, historically, it’s just inaccurate. And so if you’re in the classroom, you’re teaching your world religions class or whatever, what do you do? Well, use Japan as an opportunity to talk through the issues of secularism more broadly. Say, “We used to tell the story this way. Our text books or readings use this term. But you know, this is actually reflective of a different sort of politics of good and bad religion. Let’s talk about that. Let’s tie it to contemporary things. Like, when people are saying ‘Islamism’, what are they doing?” I argue in the book that Islamism is basically like the State Shinto of our day. It’s taking something and describing it as being illegitimate, just by adding that “ism” to the end. And I think there are a lot of other example that we could use. That’s the one that immediately comes to mind. So, you know, in one of your earlier questions you asked about the sort-of impact of scholars of religion. And one of the things that I do in the last chapter of the book is to show how these things – categories like State Shinto, for example – they have echoes. And they continue to influence the academy, our classrooms, policy-making and so forth. And so, if we can attend to the moments when those categories are developed historically, if we can pay attention to the politics of that moment, then we can also pay attention to how those echoes are working in our contemporary moment. It’s not to be presentist. It’s just to say that there are problems in the State Shinto concept, so let’s deal with those.

BE: Well, thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about: religious freedom, secularism, secularisation, the concepts we use, the politics that we – either implicitly or explicitly – work through as Religious Studies scholars. So, thank you so much for your time today, and your excellent work: Taking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American Occupied Japan.

JT: Thanks so much. I really enjoyed your questions and the conversation. I really appreciate it.

 

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Tim Fitzgerald is one of the foundational figures in the critical study of religion, and his seminal volume, The Ideology of Religious Studies, was published twenty years ago this year. In this interview – the first of a two-part retrospective – we discuss his career and how his studies in Hinduism and his time spent in Japan led him to question the relationship of categories like caste and ritual to the broader category ‘religion’. His realisation was that religion is such a broad category that it can include almost everything. We discuss the historical development of the category, and its roots in Protestant theological ideas, and the political movements of the eighteenth century. This leads into a critique of the essentialist assumptions hidden by the category, and the phenomenological ideas in its use in academia, and its function as a tool in power relations.

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The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (17 February 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-problem-with-religion-and-related-categories/

PDF of this transcription at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Fitzgerald_-_The_Problem_with_Religion_1.1.pdf

David Robertson (DR): I’m joined today by Timothy Fitzgerald, returning to the Religious Studies Project after a few years. Tim is originally from the UK but now based in Brisbane, where he is a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Queensland in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities. He’s one of the most prominent figures in the critical study of religion. And this interview is taking place at the 20 years since the publication of The Ideology of Religious Studies – which was a kind-of watershed text in the emergence of the critical religion. And the approach that we, at the RSP, have been pushing since day one, I guess. So first of all, Tim – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project, and thanks for making the time.

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Thanks for inviting me. It’s good to be with you.

DR: It’s been difficult to get this interview arranged, so I’m glad that it’s finally happening! Let’s start assuming that the Listener probably hasn’t read The Ideology of Religious Studies – or may not have read The Ideology of Religious Studies. Let’s start with a little bit of your back story. How did you get there from, you know, your first degree in RS – the same way that we all sort-of start, with whichever religion we decide to specialise in – how did you get there?

TF: Yes, well there are different possible starting points, but I agree the degree in Religious Studies that I did at Kings College London is a good place to start. I did that degree in ‘75-’77, and it was a really good degree. I learnt a lot from it. I’m glad I did it. It was well-taught. It was well-organised in a lot of ways. And it was all about religion, right? So we had eight or nine courses that lasted over the period of three years: three of them were in the philosophy of religion, one was in anthropology of religion, one in sociology of religion, one in psychology of religion. And then, in addition, we had to study two world religions. The world religions model was very well established, obviously, at that time. And that was in the mid-seventies. Ninian Smart was very prominent, and the whole sort-of Religious Studies education scene was pretty much dominated by the word religions model, as you know. Now, we did all of these studies of religion and one issue which came up for me was the question of what religion actually means. . . what it referred to. Because you know in a lot of the sub-disciplines – like the anthropology of religion, or the philosophy of religion – there’s a sort of genre of writing concerned with defining what religion is. And one of the things that struck me – and I suppose anybody else who read these different approaches to the definition of religion – one of the things that struck me was that there were so much room for disagreement. That basically the meaning of religion, the referent of religion was thoroughly contested. But that didn’t lead anybody to question whether we should have departments of Religious Studies focussed on researching a term which cannot be defined, and about which there is such a degree of (laughs) conflict or contestation. So that was really what I came out of Kings College London with. That was a very valuable thing. I think, in a way, one could say that the degree was successful because it taught me how to reflect critically. And – lo and behold! – I was reflecting critically on the very category that was at the heart of all of these studies that we were reading.

DR: Well, despite the sort-of prominence of Ninian Smart’s approach, it sounds like it was actually quite a methodological, or at least theoretical, undergraduate course (5:00) – much more so than you would find in most places nowadays, I think – with this sort-of . . . an entire course on the philosophy of religion, and entire course on the psychology of religion. You know, I don’t think courses look like that anymore.

TF: Right. Well it was good, yes. I enjoyed it. And I got a huge amount . . . .We did a lot of philosophy and, for example, we did philosophy in the sense of history of ideas, but it involved looking at particular writers, particular thinkers in some depth – and this was very much the sort-of Anglo-American analytical side of philosophy. We didn’t study any of the . . . we didn’t study many of the French or German philosophers. Of course Wittgenstein was very important, and one of the ways in which philosophers of religion and many others have tried to find a solution to this definitional problem is through Wittgenstein’s language games, and the idea that the meaning of a word comes from its uses. Those are important insights, but they don’t actually for me solve the definitional problem. And in fact I’ve had quite extended arguments about this with people like Benson Saler, who’s a great defender of Wittgenstein’s family resemblance kind-of approach to defining the meaning of words. But I think it has problems. So The Ideology of Religious Studies includes a great deal of argument about the way that Wittgenstein’s arguments are used to find a solution to the definitional problem.

DR: Well, hopefully we can get to that later on. I want to kind-of walk the Listener to there. Because I think, actually, the story of how you got there is quite interesting in itself. So we talked before about when you started looking at Buddhism and Hinduism, after your PhD, that the lack of referent in the category of religion, it began to hit home. You began to get some sort-of clear historical examples of that.

TF: Yes. I got a job in a college of higher education – Hertfordshire College of Higher Education – in 1980. It was my first full-time job. And one of my responsibilities was to teach Hinduism and Buddhism. And when I joined we had two degrees. One was the Education degrees . . . one was the Education degree for teachers. So there were a lot . . . it was a teacher training college originally, I think. And then there was a new BA in Humanities, of which the Study of Religion provided some pretty substantial segments . . . courses. So I was teaching on those two. And I mean the students would ask me . . . I was teaching Hinduism and Buddhism as a world religion, but feeling very uncomfortable with it. Because I could see the problems. And they’re vast essentialisations, aren’t they, based on texts, or on edited and selected versions of texts? And the idea of Hinduism is taught very much in the sort-of history of ideas fashion – or used to be. So, there’s a whole series of dates that you need to learn. And you need to learn the basic doctrines. But one thing that this complex construct Hinduism, taught as a religion, doesn’t do is to explain the wider context in which these abstracted textual references and concepts exist. And, of course, caste is a particularly problematic term (10:00). If you read world religion text books you will get references about Hinduism, you’ll constantly get references to caste, but nobody explains it properly. What is caste? It’s presented as though it’s a kind-of religious injunction on the division of labour, or something. It’s not . . . the actual way in which caste operates is not really explained. And in order to find that out you have to go into anthropology. So I was reading a huge amount of anthropology to supplement my world religion experience. Because anthropologists . . . and sometimes anthropologists are also interested in history. But the point is that anthropologists actually go and try and come into contact with this abstraction caste. And at that time, particularly Louis Dumont – who wrote the classic book Homo Hierarchicus – he dominated the field of Indian anthropology. But there were lots of other important anthropologists – Srinivas, for example. But I read a lot of anthropology. And this was in response, after all, to my students’ demands. Because, actually, a lot of the students were thinking in very practical ways – and perfectly legitimately. They weren’t really interested in the doctrine of salvation according to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. They were interested in why women wear a mark in their forehead, or how marriages happen, or what different people eat. They wanted to know about the actual practicalities of the village economy. How does caste actually operate within a village community? And these are very . . . further questions that I would be asked would be: how can caste operate in huge cities, like Bombay and Delhi, where there are so many people? Surely your caste identity simply gets lost? These kinds of practical and interesting questions. And here was I, teaching Hinduism and Buddhism – but I’d never even been to India! And that just seemed to me to be wrong. So I organised a research trip. It wasn’t brilliantly well organised. But basically, my research was going to be on caste, untouchability and the effect of colonial institutions. And whether the improvements and progress of liberal political economy had really helped to liberate people from the caste system. And one particular Indian leader was drawn to my attention, and that was Dr BR Ambedkar. And Ambedkar became a real source of great interest to me. So I managed to go to India for four months in the 1980s. I got some money together and I just spent four months in India, meeting people, and just trying to understand what India looks like, smells like, feels like.

DR: I know that you’ve got an interest in Mary Douglas’ work. And talking about caste there, I immediately start thinking of purity, and danger, and ideas of cleanliness. And I don’t know if she’s . . . I know her ideas are applicable so much wider than simply talking about religions. And certainly the way that these – kind-of well-discussed, being the obvious thing – but, “in-group” and “out-group” structures are kind-of ritualised but mystified in cultures.

TF: Yes.

DR: It immediately jumps to mind. And I know that you’re a fan of hers. So was that where you got to her work, as well?

TF: At first I was getting it more from Louis Dumont, who also really belonged to the French school of sociology: L’École Sociologique. He was a Durkheimian in many ways, as was Mary Douglas (15:00). And Durkheim had been a big influence on me when I was doing my degree at Kings College London. And for a long time I thought of myself, in a sense, as a Durkheimian. And I read Dumont through a Durkheimian perspective. But Dumont was very much putting the purity/pollution binary as the kind-of definition – almost the central characteristic – of the caste system. So you get the Brahmins as pure, and the Untouchables as impure. And a whole number of other castes in between, sort-of lining up in relative degrees of purity and pollution. And it’s a very useful way of looking at it. Of course, there was huge debate about these things in Indian anthropology and sociology. But I think nobody would doubt that Dumont’s picking on this binary is the sort-of outside limits of what could be thought in terms of social or human relations, rather. But, yes, Mary Douglas came hot on the heels, after Louis Dumont, as one of the people that I read, and one of the people that I have really enjoyed teaching. I think she’s been generally really helpful. One point that I would like to make, actually – since we’re talking about Durkheim, Dumont, Mary Douglas, I think you can see a kind of progressive move from the sort-of empirical ethnographic approach to sociology or anthropology towards the idea of . . . well, I’m calling them signalling systems. What Durkheim meant by a totemic system, or a system of collective representations. What I think you get in all of these writers is a move towards reading signs and their relationships as being the fundamental point of understanding anybody’s collective life.

DR: Would you agree that it’s maybe a progress from a structuralist into a poststructuralist view?

TF: Well, yes. I think so. But, I mean, Dumont is usually considered to be a structuralist. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people don’t read him very much now. Or they don’t seem to. But I think his work is actually very subtle in a lot of ways. And it’s very rich. He also wrote, as well as Homo Hierearchicus, he also wrote a book . . . . Well, he wrote From Mandeville to Marx. And he also wrote a collection of essays called Essays on Individualism, where he tried to show how, whereas in India the individual is always outside the world, structurally speaking and symbolically speaking, in the European Christian traditions the individual started off as outside the world but moved to become the in-wordly individual, basically as a result of modern capitalism. Or as a characteristic of modern capitalism. Whereas individuals used to sort-of go to the desert and separate themselves from the rest of the main body of humanity, in the search for salvation or some kind-of self-discovery – you know, you think of those hermits and renouncers in early Christian Europe, and they’ve existed all the way through . . . . Well in India you get a very, very ancient tradition of renunciation, where people symbolically . . . where people renounce their family (20:00), their village, their family name, their normal activities, clothes, profession, and really, in a sense, become a living non-person: they perform their own cremation, symbolically, by cremating their old clothes and various symbols of their previous life; so they become an out-worldly individual. They become an individual because they separated themselves from the collective, symbolically and physically. And they’ve now become something rather special, and sacred, and powerful by moving out of the normal collective which in India would be very much about caste, caste membership – moving out of that, and becoming a kind-of individual. Actually, most renouncers in India join ashrams. They belong to some kind of an organisation. They often have a guru. But nevertheless, Dumont was reading this at the symbolic level: that this is a move from identity defined by the collective, to a kind-of out-worldly identity. An individual identity. So his story was that, as a result of the Reformation, and then developments of various forms of Calvinism –where there was a very strong emphasis on the lonely individual working in the world – so the individual becomes, instead of being an out-worldly value, becomes the central in-worldly value of modern capitalist society. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it.

DR: Very much so. After your research on India and teaching at the higher education college, you then moved to Japan for three years. And again, there’s another kind-of shift in your work there. So tell us about that.

TF: Yes, sure. Well, just as India had really shocked me and given me a different perspective on the world and also on myself. . . . I think it’s quite important – not for egotistical reasons – but it’s quite important to realise that one has internalised a great deal of shared common symbolic life which constructs our individuality. And that, when you move out of that shared symbolic life, your consciousness is quite vulnerable and you change a lot. Some people call it culture shock. But it’s to do with a reorientation of values. Well, going to Japan was even more like that because Japan is completely different from India and is very different from Britain. And going to Japan to live, this is because I met Noriko my wife, who’s Japanese, in London. And we had our first, our son, James – he was born in London. But then we almost immediately went to Japan, because I’d been offered a job there. And you know, her father was asking me to go and live in Japan for a while. He didn’t want to lose his daughter to a foreigner, which was perfectly understandable. (Laughs). Just suddenly disappear to London and never be seen again! So I was lucky, I was invited to a university in Japan called Aichi Gakuin, which was in Nagoya. And I had to do a lot of English teaching. But I did also have a status as a research academic. Yes, working in Japan, I had to very quickly start learning Japanese, because I didn’t know a word of Japanese when I went there! And I was there for several years. And it was very . . . it was hugely valuable. I mean my children are bilingual. They still speak Japanese with their mother. My Japanese was never fully fluent, but by the time I left I could more than survive there. You know, for the last six or seven years I was living there alone because Noriko and the children had gone back to London. And that was a fantastic impetus for me. And I went there when I was over forty, I ought to add. I was forty years old when I first went to Japan.

DR: And I can vouch that, in your forties, trying to learn a new language is not easy! (25:00)

TF: No. Not at all. Especially when it’s a non-European one. But I did learn a huge amount. And I’ve never regretted that. I regret that I couldn’t enter into academic debates with Japanese. That was just too a stretch too far. You really need to be trained in Japanese language from an earlier age and do it thoroughly. But never the less, I learned so much. And I tell you one of the main things it did was to re-orientate me, as I was explaining about India. It doesn’t mean to say that I idealised Japan. I was a big critic of Japan as a foreigner, living in Japan, but at the same time there are lots of things I really admired about the way Japanese people do things, the way they organised . . . . There a lots of things that I learnt from being in Japan.

DR: One important one, though, I think is the idea of translating categories. Japan certainly in conversations I have in RS, it’s very useful as an example where the idea of religion in the way that we think of it generally just doesn’t really work. And yet they’ve been kind-of forced to take it on to some degree as a result of colonial forces in the 19th century particularly. And yet, our Western hegemonic classifications don’t really map onto Japanese society very well. Would that be fair to say?

TF: Yes I think that is fair. I think it’s true, and in fact that’s been one of the themes of quite a lot of published work on Japan, my own published work. You know, just to give you a practical example, when I was teaching English in the universities – it was really boring by the way, because most of the Japanese didn’t want to learn English, and I don’t blame them. Why should they? They’re perfectly happy speaking their own language. But also it’s the way that English is taught, or languages in general are taught in Japan. And so I found myself teaching a large class of twenty or thirty students who were sitting in absolutely straight lines, desks in straight lines. They would often self-gender. So you’d get the men sitting on one side of the room and the women on the other. Not always, but they’d quite often do that. It was a bit like an extension of the Japanese school system – very disciplined. You don’t ever question the teacher. And basically, the teacher is there to speak and the students are there to listen. It’s very difficult under those circumstances to have a conversation class, as they jokingly used to call them. But, because I was trying to develop confidence in speaking Japanese, I used to sometimes try to start a conversation in an English class in Japanese, which was a shocking experience for my students: (A) because, well, you just don’t do that kind of thing, and (B) because, well, they had to suffer the very unskilful pronunciation and grammatical forms that I was producing. But nevertheless, you know, it was something that I was determined to do. Because I wanted to show them that I was prepared to make a fool of myself in trying to speak Japanese in front of a lot of students, therefore I’m not going to laugh at them if they’re feeling embarrassed about their English. That’s not what I’m there for. I’m there to encourage and to help with communication skills. Stuff like that. So in these circumstances, one of the conversations I used to like to have is “What does religion mean to you?” And I would sometimes ask it in English and then ask it again in Japanese using the Japanese term shūkyō, which is the current dominant translation for religion. And the students, you know, quite often in these circumstances nobody will reply (30:00); there’s just a deathly silence. But quite often I found if I was a bit persistent, they’d say, “Oh, religion is Christianity. It’s nothing to do with me.” (Laughs) Some would say Christianity and Buddhism are religion. And I’d say, well what about the matsuri, the festivals? What about all your visits to the temple and the shrine? Are these . . .? What about the way that you pay respects to your ancestors in the home? Or these kinds of things? And they would just respond and say, “Oh no, no. That’s not religion. That’s our customs. That’s Japanese customs. That’s the way we live.” So you see, the distinction between religion and what foreign and Japanese scholars of religion will describe as religious practices – for most people they’re not. And I think that that was something that I needed to learn, you know.

DR: Yes, I wonder how . . . I mean there’s certainly a way of looking at everyday – what gets called “lived religion” or “vernacular” religion a lot of the time, now. Certainly, thinking about most of my kind-of relatives and friends growing up in a working class area in the highlands, that’s mostly the way that they talk about religion as well. “Religion? Oh it’s the wee frieze at the high kirk”, or whatever. But going to speak to your gran at the grave or, you know, these kind-of ritual behaviours around twenty-first birthdays, or Christmastime, or Hogmanay, or whatever – they weren’t really thought of as religion. But I can’t help but think if there was a sort-of 1930’s anthropologist in that situation he would be describing all of these as kind-of “primitive religious rituals”.

TF: Well, yes. Except that . . . basically “primitive”, I don’t think contemporaries would call them primitive.

DR: No, no.

TF: No. I know exactly what you mean. There’s a whole tradition of making other people’s practices look as though they’re somehow backward, lower on the evolutionary scale, less sophisticated. But I think also there is the complication that there is a kind-of meta level, say the constitutional level, the level of constitutional, and the level of judiciary concerning what religion means. And this is basically adopted from Europe. And it’s quite a long story but it involves talking about . . . . In the mid-nineteenth century, the Americans were becoming very powerful, they were quite imperialistic. The United States of America, which had liberated people from the tyranny of a European monarch . . . .

DR: I want to pick that up at the start of the next interview. Because I don’t think we’ve got time to do it justice now.

TF: No, I think it is a very long one that. Because I think we need to talk about the way in which religion because inscribed in the US constitution.

DR: Absolutely. So we’ll pick that one up there in the next episode. But for now, let’s just . . . . Whilst you were in Japan, you wrote The Ideology of Religious Studies. So tell us a little bit about the overall argument there. I mean, certainly reading that as . . . I was either towards the end of being an undergrad, or at the start of postgraduate studies. (35:00) It was the first sustained argument challenging religions, world religions, the phenomenological approach which had been so sort-of central to the way that they taught at Edinburgh. And so, just briefly sum up where you were when you wrote that monograph.

TF: Well, as you say, I was in Japan. And it was the culmination of . . . I mean I’d been publishing about Japan during the ‘90s. For example, I was reading books on Japanese religion in English but written by Japanese scholars who had either written their contribution in English or it had been translated. But one thing that struck me. There was one particular volume which was quite authoritative. I mean, it had been published and financed under the auspices of the ministry of culture in Japan. And there were five or six professors who contributed special chapters to it: one on Japanese Buddhism, one on Japanese Shinto, one on Japanese Confucianism, one on Japanese nature religion, one on, sorry, folk religion, and one or two others. One on Christianity in Japan, I think. There are very few Christians in Japan. But what struck me about all of these writers was that (A) they were all specialising in a particular religion, or a particular religious tradition, which they set out to describe for the reader. But, at the same time, every single one of them said that, actually, this is a very artificial distinction. Because, really, you can’t talk about Shinto without talking about Confucianism and Buddhism. And the same with the others. Because they’re all . . . they’re all part of our lives. We don’t really choose between them. It’s not as though “I’m a Shintoist, but not a Buddhist”. And the idea that “I’m not a Confucianist” is difficult to swallow. The point is that there was a contradiction inherent in what they were saying. And it was the same contradiction that I’d encountered . . . well I’d encountered it in India in a particular way, but also in the definitional problems, in the degree that I did: that there was a disparity between what people were saying in one part of the text and what they were saying in another part. So my first article about Japan was published . . . I can’t remember now . . . in the early nineties. Was it ‘93? ‘94? ‘95? And it was called Japanese Religion as Ritual Order

DR: 1993.

TF: 1993. Ok. And it was published I think, in Religion. And I was trying to point out what I’ve just told you in that article. I called it Japanese Religion as Ritual Order, because I was trying to find a term which would give me some kind-of a base. And “ritual” seemed to be a very useful one. Because ritual . . . we can use the term ritual to describe either side of the binary. You know, you can have religious rituals and secular rituals. But rituals was a term which I hoped I would be able to use in order to avoid using this binary religion/secular. Because it didn’t seem to me to work. So I looked at all the ways in which the Japanese ritualised their everyday lives, in all the institutions, in the household, in the schools, in the universities, in the corporations, in the small businesses, in the services. Every institutional practice is the ritual which constructs seniors and juniors, that’s one of the things it does. It’s imbued with respect language, and different levels of language. There is an issue about social space, so people distance themselves in a certain way. Bowing is an obvious example of the ritualization of everyday life (40:00). So I wanted to try and subvert this essentialising dichotomy – between religion on the one hand, and the rest of secular life on the other – and show that it’s much more like a ritual continuum. And that went in very much to The Ideology of Religious Studies.

DR: For me, the most kind-of impactful realisation in it was the critique of phenomenology, the phenomenological method, as kind-of essentialist and maybe even crypto-theological. Together with the sort-of largest critique of the category as essentially . . . without that kind-of essence to it. Like, the term was essentially meaningless, unless it was referring to this sui generis kind-of essence. And that, for me, was the most impactful part of that argument. I don’t know if that was central for you, but that was . . .

TF: I think of course it is central, yes. I mean, one of the points of my argument was that religion is actually used to describe and classify so much that it becomes empty of any specific content. And then, if you look at the actual range of usages of the term religion, there’s a religion of everything. And yet at the same time in this either/or essentialising binary with the non-religious secular. Now there’s something very interesting there, that on the one hand you’ve got a category which can be used so widely that you’re beginning to wonder: is anything not religion or religious? And on the other hand, it’s held together in this essentially either/or binary. It’s either religion or it’s not religion – which gives it the appearance of having a very determinate and definitive reference. Do you see what I’m saying?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TF: And it also raises the question about: if we can’t define the religion side of the binary, then we can’t find the limits of the secular side either. And my work in The Ideology of Religious Studies was very much about destabilising politics and society as the generic abstraction for sociology. And a lot of the stuff was aimed at Ninian Smart, but also much more widely. I mean, I discussed a lot of different theorists in The Ideology of Religious Studies. And I wanted to undermine these grand dichotomies. But as soon as you question the limits of the secular, then you’re also questioning politics, or the idea of society, or the idea of culture.

DR: And that’s exactly where we’re going to pick up in the next part of this interview. But, for now: thank you, Tim.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

“Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the religious voices of Japan’s political arena

Throughout Japanese history, religion has always coloured and influenced the matters of the state. Religious validation of imperialist aggression and Japan’s war efforts in the first half of the 20th century is just one example of this. Japanese religious institutions entered the post-war period with the ethically problematic baggage of war. Promulgation of Japan’s post-war constitution – which introduced a legal separation of religion and the state, demilitarisation of Japan and freedom of religion – opened a new chapter of a supposedly pacifist and secular political system. Religion was relegated to an individual citizen’s private prerogative. However, we are still talking about religion and politics in Japan today.

Many of the post-war controversies over perceived transgressions between religion, politics and the state have centred on Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines the souls of Japan’s war dead. Yasukuni Shrine has long been a symbol of Japanese nationalism, with many right-wing factions advocating for nationalising the shrine. A nationalisation movement began in the 1960s and resulted in lawsuits over the involvement of local and national level politicians and governments in rituals held there. Although debates over Yasukuni shrine as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism and fanatic nationalism fuelled by the ideology of state Shinto tend to dominate public and scholarly discourses on conflation of religion and politics, there are many other examples of the ways religion continues to influence Japan’s political life. These include acts of violence and domestic terrorism perpetrated by the new religious movement Aum Shinrikyō in 1995; anti-nuclear activism of religious studies scholars and religious practitioners in the aftermath of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011; and the formation of political representation of religious groups, such as the case of Soka Gakkai and Kōmeitō party in 1964 and their significance in the run-up to the Japanese 2017 general elections.

Why should we continue talking about religion and politics in a country that has a constitutional separation of religion and the state? What is the significance of Kōmeitō in Japanese politics today? I asked Levi McLaughlin, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University to talk religion and politics in Japan in the context of his research on Soka Gakkai, one of Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organisations. It is also referred to as one of Japan’s most influential and politically engaged (I dare say) new religions. Levi is a co-author and co-editor of “Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion inJapan” (IEAS Berkeley, 2014), and his new book “Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of Mimetic Nation” is forthcoming from the University of Hawai’i Press in late 2018.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Soka Gakkai, Kōmeitō and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena

Podcast with Levi McLaughlin (28 May 2018).

Interviewed by Paulina Kolata.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: McLaughlin – Soka Gakkai, Komeito and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena 1.1

Paulina Kolata (PK): Throughout Japanese history religion has always coloured and influenced matters of state. Religious validation of imperialist aggression and Japan’s war efforts in the first half of the twentieth century are just one example of this. Japanese religious institutions entered the post-war period with their ethically problematic baggage of war. But promulgation of Japan’s post-war constitution – which introduced the legal separation of religion and the state, the militarisation of Japan, and freedom of religion – opened a new chapter of a supposedly pacifist and secular political system. Religion became the private matter of an individual. And yet we are still talking about religion and politics in Japan. So we are joined today by Levi McLaughlin, who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He is a co-author and co-editor of Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan, and has just completed a book entitled Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation. It only seems appropriate to invite him to talk to us about religion and politics in Japan. And his book is actually forthcoming from the University of Hawaii Press in late 2018. So, congratulations on that!

Levi McLaughlin (LM): Thank you.

PK: So, hello! And welcome to the Religious Studies Project. So we are here, at the University of Manchester, ahead of your talk later on this afternoon, where you will be talking about the Soka Gakkai, which is one of Japan’s largest organisations, and also is often referred to as one of the most politically engaged and influential, I’ll say, new religions in Japan today. So, why do you think we should continue talking about religion and politics in a country that has constitutional division of religion and state?

LM: Thank you. It’s nice to be here, Paulina. Thanks for having me. There are other questions we have to think about, as well. For example, why are we talking about religion in a country where, in surveys that are given to ask about religious commitment – the wording of the survey is usually something along the lines of: do you have religious faith? And the majority of respondents in Japan will say, “No.” Seventy percent plus will say, “I don’t have a religious faith.” And also, in the recent elections at national level, just over fifty percent of the population actually make the effort to go out and vote. Why talk about religion and politics in these conditions? Perhaps that would be another thing to add to that conundrum. The reason is that there are these organisations that are unmatched in their capacity to mobilise votes. Although they are minority players in the religion and politics fields on matters of policy, they may actually be the crucial elements in forthcoming upheavals in regards to Japan’s constitution and its place in the geopolitical order. So let me speak a little bit more specifically. I’m talking about an organisation called Soka Gakkai. It translates literally as the “Value Creation Study Association”.

PK: What a great name!

LM: Isn’t it? Does it sound like a religion?

PK: Not quite.

LM: Right. Well, that’s because it didn’t begin as a religion. It began as an educational reform organisation in the 1930s, whose founders then switched into following a specific form of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, following a reformer named Nichiren from the thirteenth century, who held that only exclusive faith in a teaching known as the Lotus Sutra, which is understood to be the Buddha’s final teaching, will allow for salvation. All other forms of teaching, including other Buddhist teaching, are to be done away with. And so the organisation they ended up creating was a staunch defender of this particular form of Buddhism, which ran afoul of wartime religious regulations. The founders, Makiguchi Tsunesaburō and his disciple Toda Jōsei, were imprisoned. Makiguchi died of malnutrition during the war – one of the very, very few people who was actually willing to confront and reject the authority of the wartime state.

PK: And opposed them.

LM: That’s right. And opposed it for religious reasons. And so at the end of the Second World War, Soka Gakkai reformulates and grows from a few thousand members to millions of members, between the beginning of the 1950s until the end of the 1960s.Today, they claim an absolutely staggering number of followers in Japan – 8.27 million households – which is hugely exaggerated. The reality, though, is something like 3% of Japan self-identifies as Soka Gakkai, and that doesn’t sound like a lot necessarily, right? But if you have 3% of the population, that’s three out of a hundred people that you know, or are related to you, they are people you work with, or maybe you are one of these three percent. So, one of the reasons that Soka Gakkai has both grown so big and so prominent – and also terribly notorious within Japanese society – is the fact that electioneering on behalf of Soka Gakkai’s affiliated political party, is a component of Soka Gakkai faith practices. So members chant the Lotus Sutra; they solicit membership; they are very well known for being proselytisers, for missionising; and every election, from the smallest town council up to Japan’s national diet – the parliament – people in Japan will know they are going to get a phone call. They’re going to get a knock on the door from their friends who are members of Soka Gakkai to ask them to vote for Kōmeitō – or to vote for Kōmeitō ‘s political ally, which is the Liberal Democratic Party, the LDP, Japan’s largest party. Japan, right now, is run by a coalition government, which is the LDP and Kōmeitō. So Kōmeitō has a seat at the table. And they may be a comparatively small organisation, but they wield a disproportionately large amount of power, both politically and religiously.

PK: So who are Kōmeitō? What are their policies?

LM: That’s a really good question, and it’s also a tough question. They are difficult to pigeon-hole politically, because they don’t fall neatly into a right or left kind of distribution. Historically, they would have to be called extremely left-wing, because they were supporters of pacifism and they have always been . . . their central platforms have always been focussed on social welfare. They appeal to their primary constituency. Their primary constituency is homemakers: women in Japan, who make up the bedrock of Soka Gakkai and are the most active in terms of electioneering. So it’s things like reducing taxation on household goods, promoting education, clean water, the environment – things of that nature – support for families with small children, low income households, you name it. But recently they’ve also been supportive of LDP moves to move toward greater freedom for Japan’s military. Japan does not actually officially have a regular armed forces. They maintain what are called Japan’s self-defence forces. They are hindered from militarising by a clause in the constitution – a notorious clause, called Article Nine, which prevents Japan from maintaining war materials or using war as a means of resolving international disputes. But in 2015 a series of new laws were passed through the diet, with Kōmeitō‘s support, that radically reinterpreted Article Nine to allow for what’s called collective self-defence. This will allow Japan to go to the aid of its military allies, say the United States, and to enter armed conflict. So we have now this strange policy kind-of platform, and this odd connection between what are considered to be fairly hawkish right-wing approaches on a defence front, and really progressive social welfare-oriented policies as well.

PK: That’s really interesting, because it would mix the Tories with the Corbynists, in the UK context!

LM: Potentially, yes. And actually, historically Kōmeitō’s greatest rivals were the Japanese Communist Party.

PK: Oh great! OK. Fantastic. So you talked about the 2015 changes in the law, but what about the most recent elections of 2017? What was the role of Kōmeitō in that?

LM: So there was a snap election called by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, in October 2017, which was treated by a lot of people as a rather cynical move on the part of the LDP and its coalition allies to secure power, and to basically ensure that Prime Minister Abe remains in power, and to take advantage of an opposition that has been pretty much in pretty big disarray, right now, at the national level in Japan. Overall the government gained seats, the LDP gained seats. The only component of that was that Kōmeitō lost seats. It went from 34 to 29 seats. Why is that? And so, some of the questions they’re difficult to say definitively. But recently, with the help of my colleague Axel Klein – who’s a Professor of Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Germany, who is an amazing scholar, who can compile all kinds of great election data – we worked together to look at Gakkai member attitudes in combination with his quantitative aspect of it. And we determined that, basically, the lesson that we have to learn here is that Soka Gakkai is not one unified block. And that is translating into an increasingly disaggregated voting situation. And so it had the lowest number of votes at the national level, for an election like this, since joining the LDP in coalition in 1999: under seven million. Seven million is treated as something of a magic number, and there’s a psychological aspect to going below that. And losing all these seats, including some veteran . . . one veteran politician, in particular, who was kind of pushed out. What is going on? Well there are several constituencies we can now identify within Soka Gakkai. These are developing as a result of Kōmeitō’s policy shifts away from decades of supporting a pacifist attitude and defending Article Nine, towards being totally on board with collective self-defence. What you’re starting to see are generational shifts, gender divisions and a kind of move toward concerns about what’s going to happen to Soka Gakkai in the light of one very important thing. Because, right now, Soka Gakkai is headed by an honorary president named Ikeda Daisaku, who is revered as an absolute authority within the organisation. He has not appeared to address a Gakkai meeting since May of 2010. He just turned 90 years old. And so, necessarily, the organisation is looking to a future after Ikeda Daisaku’s lifetime. And there are members within the group – particularly second, third, fourth generation Soka Gakkai, and others who are younger – are starting to question why their practice must include unquestioning loyalty to a political party that has absolutely reversed what they consider to be Ikeda Daisaku’s teachings on peace.

PK: So that’s becoming quite challenging, in that sense. But the usual association is, how did Kōmeitō emerge originally? And how does it now refer to what Soka Gakkai is? Does it define itself as a Buddhist party, or . . . ?

LM: Well this is one of the conundra – one of the difficult things that people who are interested in politics have to deal with. And one of the reasons I love talking about this is because Kōmeitō forces political scientists to actually take religion seriously. Kōmeitō was founded for religious reasons. It was founded very specifically for Nichiren Buddhist reasons. And this makes a lot of politics people uncomfortable. They like to think that there should be, as you mentioned earlier, a division between religion and government – especially in Japan, where the 1947 constitution guarantees that there will be a clear split between religion and government. In 1964, Kōmeitō was founded and there had been, previously . . . Soka Gakkai started running candidates for office from 1954, and then in 1955 they started being elected. From the outset Soka Gakkai entered politics in order to bring about a specific vision of constructing a temple complex that would mark the conversion of the populace of Japan to complete reverence, sole exclusive reverence for the Lotus Sutra. And what this really meant, of course, was that they would convert to Soka Gakkai. And it was . . . it comes from the Nichiren teachings. After his lifetime it comes to be known as the Three Great Secret Dharmas. They consist of the title of the Lotus, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo; the second one is the calligraphic mandala that he inscribed, in 1279, for the salvation of Japan; and the third one was supposed to be what was called an ordination platform, kaidan in Japanese, that was understood for centuries to be this kind of far-flung distant vision, only to be achieved upon this majestic goal being realised. When Soka Gakkai started to grow from a few thousand to millions of followers, that distant goal started to become something of a concrete objective. And so one of the components of realising this kaidan, this ordination platform, this temple complex, was that it had to be promulgated by the government. And so during Nichiren’s time, of course, that meant something quite different. But, by the time you reach the 20th century, that means Japan’s parliament. And so how do you do that? You have to actually have a place in Japan’s parliament. And so this, actually, was the motivation for Soka Gakkai entering politics. In 1964, Kōmeitō is the name of the party. It included a lot of different platforms, actually, mostly focussed on very utopian ideals of world peace and social welfare. And this at the time there was this concept of Buddhist democracy, as well, that was not clearly defined but it was very idealistic. But it was a religious objective. In 1969 there were a series of scandals that erupted, as a result, basically, of Kōmeitō politicians attempting to intervene to forestall the publication of one book, in particular, that was extremely negative about Soka Gakkai. And that precipitated an official division between Kōmeitō and its founding religion Soka Gakkai. And, since 1970, the two have maintained an official split. Of course, members of Soka Gakkai still campaign on behalf of Kōmeitō – and it’s a little unclear, actually, about some of the other aspects that bind the two organisations together. Nonetheless what you have seen, though, is Kōmeitō become what you have to call an “ordinary” political party. As I say, it does not focus on this eschatological religious goal any more. It focuses on really concrete political objectives. And one of the things you can prove, about it no longer actually focusing on that is: it’s been in government since 1999, and there’s been no evidence whatsoever that they are trying to get any sort of favour on religious grounds for this religion, or any religion.

PK: So they should be treated seriously.

LM: They absolutely should be treated seriously. And also treated as another political party. Which, because they are . . . Because of their specific history, and because of their connection to a religion that has gained a reputation for being an aggressive proselytiser, they are often saddled with the stigma of not being a serious political party, but instead being a sort of arm of a religious organisation. Whereas, in every analysis, they should actually be . . . they look much more just like another party.

PK: Which kind-of throws an interesting element into the mix of Japanese politics at the moment.

LM: The other aspect to think about as well – especially in light of the fact that it’s been a supporter of the LDP – it’s not just Kōmeitō politicians but Liberal Democratic Party politicians that rely upon Soka Gakkai voters to be elected.

PK: That’s wonderful! Thank you very much for that, Levi. I’m afraid that this is all we have time for, but it has been a real pleasure talking to you. And thank you for sharing all your knowledge.

LM: Thanks so much, Paulina.

Citation Info: McLaughlin, Levi and Paulina Kolata. 2018. “Soka Gakkai, Komeito and the Religious Voices of Japan’s Political Arena”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/soka-gakkai-komeito-and-the-religious-voices-of-japans-political-arena/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

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A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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Religion and the Psy-Disciplines

Thank you Charles Schulz!

A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university counselor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the ‘psy’ disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy – bears thinking about.

In this podcast, Dr. Christopher Harding uses his research on psychoanalysis and Buddhism in modern Japan to tackle the two-way dialogue between religion and the psy-disciplines. How have these shaped each other, and what are tensions between them?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pickles, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Podcast with Christopher Harding (27 March 2017).

Interviewed by Krittika Bhattacharjee.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Krittika Bhattacharjee (KB): A therapist, a chaplain, a guru, a psychoanalyst, a missionary, a university councillor: how do these figures interact? In a milieu where meditations take place as part of church services and where mental health services incorporate a spiritual dimension, the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines – psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis – bears thinking about. Speaking to us today about the psy-disciplines we have Dr Christopher Harding, who is a lecturer in Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. Chris is a cultural historian, working primarily in Japan and India. He has most recently published a co-edited volume called Religion and Psychotherapy in Modern Japan, which was published in hardback in 2014 and comes out in paperback next month. Chris is also a journalist who has collaborated with the BBC and was one of BBC Radio 3’s “ New Generation Thinkers” . Thank you for being here with the Religious Studies Project, Chris.

Christopher Harding (CH): Thank you.

KB: Just to start us off, could you tell us a little bit about the psy-disciplines?

CH: Yes. So when we use the phrase “ the psy-disciplines”  I guess we’re normally thinking of psychology, psychiatry and psychotherapy. So, psychiatry is often thought about as the poor relation of medicine. It’s the discipline of medicine which most people wouldn’t think of going into. Maybe now[they would], but a few years ago – certainly prior to the 1950s – it was the discipline associated with guesswork, with asylums heaving with people that were difficult to treat – really because their object of enquiry was so difficult: the human inner life.They were trying to guess at it, finding ways of examining it from the outside, or making some use of peoples’ own testimonies. It was very, very difficult to try to work out what was going on, to form theories and to form diagnoses. Things improved  in the 1950s and 1960s with new forms of drugs. And now, with new means of scanning and new sorts of theories, things are getting a little bit better. But, for a while, it was medicine’s poor relation. Psychology, most people will know of: working with experimental data, primarily, but also doing some work in the clinical setting. And then psychotherapy, I suppose really, from Freud, Jung onwards, and Carl Rogers – now we have any number of modalities. So, those three things working together, often we would call them the psy-disciplines. And each one has had its own relationship with different religious traditions in different parts of the world.

KB: How has this relationship traditionally been conceived?

CH: I suppose, early on. . . the period that I work on most is the end of the 19th century into the 20th century . . .  Early on there was a relationship of some hostility – especially, I suppose, with Sigmund Freud and with early Freudians. We know Sigmund Freud had his particular views on what religion is really all about,  but also, some would say that his views were actually more nuanced than he was often given credit for. But some of the people early on, who were attracted to psychoanalysis, were attracted to it as a way of fulfilling the good parts of religion – distilling and fulfilling the good parts of religion and getting rid of the rest – and helping people whose lives had been damaged very early on, often by religious upbringings. Particularly if there was harshness in the family background, a heavy emphasis on certain forms of behaviour, a moralising dynamic etc., lots of people would say, in that early generation of psychoanalysis, the kind of thing that Richard Dawkins says, which is that religion is child abuse. And so, from the religious side of things, people worried that that critique could become quite influential.They also worried that the human person was being reduced to a mere organism, or a mere machine, or that your personhood was really the outcome of your upbringing. So they thought that there were all sorts of reductions going on that really threatened the underpinnings of all sorts of different religious traditions .(5:00) But, I suppose, Christian religious traditions in the West were the ones who were initially objecting to people like Freud, but also psychology in general. Because the whole premise of psychology to them seemed wrong: that you can meaningfully study the human person purely in a natural scientific way.

KB: And so this is the context from which, in some ways, your own work departs.Is that right?

CH: Yes, that’s right. I suppose it’s partly from a professional historical context, but it’s partly because I was coming across work in Christianity and Buddhism – contemporary Christianity and Buddhism in the US,  in Japan, the UK and elsewhere – where there seemed to be this mixing and mingling of what seemed to me to be psychological language to talk about the emotional life and theories of childhood on the one hand, and your kind of standard religious stories, theories, theologies, philosophies on the other. And I wasn’t really sure what people were doing when they were mixing these two languages. Often you would get a kind of an opening pitch from an apologist of a particular religious tradition where they would say, “Come on, surely your life is a mess? There must be more to this. You must be suffering stress. You’re angry hurt people!”  And then they kind of shift into the pitch – the religious pitch. You see that in plenty of Christian traditions and books ,and the Dalai Llama and Japanese organisations do the same sort of thing. And I was just wondering, what is exactly is their view of being human, that they’re mixing these two things together, these two, three or four registers of language together, in trying to make a pitch? Is the kind-of emotional-psychological [language] a facade? Is it just that initial pitch to get people interested? Or are these worlds actually doing business in a way that could be very interesting and very fruitful? And I wanted to find a way of almost taking them to task, piecing their language apart, and saying, “ Where are you getting these bits and pieces from? What do you actually mean when you talk about what the emotional life is; what the significance of the emotional life is; how we might lead it in a religious or spiritual way?” And I was really looking around for ways of doing that – digging away, really, at some of the language of contemporary religion and spirituality.

KB: While also seeing them as part of a larger. . .  “ market place”  might not be the right word, but certainly, all of them as part of this milieu together? So language is shared, but they’re also part of the same network – you used the word “business” –  doing business with each other?

CH: Yes, I think so. There was a great book, which came out about ten years or so ago,  by Richard King and Jeremy Carrette: Selling Spirituality – a wonderful book which really helped get me thinking about this. I think one of the things they were concerned about was  –  it was broader than the mental health dynamic, which interests me – but it was this critique of late capitalist culture that exploits religious traditions for techniques or ideas that kind-of keep people going as producers and consumers. So there is that element to it, I suppose, as well. And the sense of doing business again – I think we can get into the history of this a little bit later on – but my basic take on it is: there are very positive ways in which they can do business – the psy-disciplines and various religious traditions . And they have been since the 1940s and 1950s at least, once this kind of initial Freudian hump of Freudian coldness between them was overcome. But there were also ways in which they could be antagonistic, or confusing, possibly quite manipulative when they’re used together. I suppose a prime example, that some listeners may have heard of, would be the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks on Tokyo underground, in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo talks about its being the love-child of Buddhism and pop-psychology – that kind of all-encompassing embrace of the world, all-encompassing take on the human person, which really reeled in quite a few people. And you get into the territory of , some people might say, brainwashing, I suppose. But certainly, having such an all-encompassing explanation of the world that it’s hard to fight your way out of it again. That’s potentially what religion and the psy-disciplines do, when they work together, is that they give you no other interpretative options. Almost anything that you might think, or feel, or desire, or do can be quite convincingly interpreted by this uber-framework that together they seem to create. (10:00) And, for that reason, it can have negative as well as positive consequences.

KB: It’s also worth talking about the kind of tensions that you’ve brought up. But I thought, before we get to a more in-depth analysis of the tensions, I thought we could also talk about what you called the “ two-way dialogue”  that happens between the psy-disciplines and religion. What did you mean by two-way dialogue?

CH: I suppose, that they find useful things in one another. So some of the more positive bits of dialogue, in terms of a Buddhist tradition, let’s maybe talk about Japan in this regard: Buddhist traditions making use of the modern psy-discipline. You get this trend around Asia, certainly in India, certainly in Japan, in the late 19th century, where countries that have been very much affected by European colonialism – whether it’s, as it were, boots on the ground, or it’s more of a kind-of cultural imperialism – they’re looking for ways of pushing back against colonial knowledge, against the whole sort-of Western canon. And what some groups do – I’m thinking maybe Swami Vivekananda in India and Hinduism, and a guy called Inoue Enryo in Japan who’s what-you-might-call a Buddhist modernist – what they do is, they look back into their own traditions and they say, “ Well actually, in Hinduism or in Buddhism you will find insights that match and trump those of the Western world. And that one of the ways in which we can state that case clearly to people is by spring cleaning Buddhism, spring cleaning Hinduism: reviving our religious traditions, but in a viable modern format.”  And someone like Inoue Enryo finds the psy-disciplines really useful. Because what we can do is separate out “ true mystery”   – the true mysteries of life – from the false ones. Psychology will tell us what the false ones are because we can investigate people’s patterns of thought, and we can find out why they believe in silly things like ghosts or goblins, that then leaves them free to redirect human wonderment and awe and faith and trust to true mystery. So it’s good for people and it’s good for a Buddhist tradition, because a tradition that looks to be anti-modern in Japan can suddenly present itself as being definitively modern and being worthy of people’s trust and their taxes. And, at the same time, you can say that Buddhism actually, in its own right, is the world’s finest psychology and always has been. And you see, of course, lots of people now who engage with Buddhism will say first-and-foremost that it’s a very convincing picture of what it’s like to be a human being. “It’s first-and-foremost a psychology and then we’ll take it from there.” You might want to call it a religion, you might not, but it can borrow in those sorts of ways. Some examples of how the Christian tradition has borrowed from the psy-disciplines are forms of spiritual direction which are open to the influence of someone’s upbringing on the way they think about God, on the way they process guilt, on the way they worry about sin. It doesn’t mean that you’re jettisoning all the teaching of the Christian tradition, but it means you’re more aware of how human beings work and you can help people who might be stuck. So now lots of monks and nuns and priests will get a certain degree of basic counselling training, so that they can help people. Things might get to a point where they need to refer on, perhaps to a therapist or to a psychiatrist, but these basic learnings can actually be very, very useful in their work.

KB: On the Buddhism example specifically, I wanted to ask a little bit about Kosawa Heisaku, who you speak a bit about in your book, referring to him as the Father of Modern Psychoanalysis in Japan. Is that accurate?

CH: Yes, absolutely.

KB: And I was really interested to see an example in the flesh of mixing Shin Buddhism, in particular, with Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis and the way he used both of those traditions to create his own practice. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

CH: Yes, a very brief potted biography I suppose. Kosawa Heisaku was a student of psychiatry first, in Northern Japan, in the 1920s. He encountered psychoanalysis a little bit through one of his mentors who’d studied in the US. But Kosawa wasn’t really convinced with the way he was teaching it, so he actually went to Vienna, met Freud, worked with Freud and his circle in Vienna – only really for a year or so – and he had an analysis there and came back to Japan. He opened his own clinic in Tokyo and this is where he seems to have started to develop this kind of fusion of the two. It seems to have been the case with him that he saw Buddhism in Japan as being under threat. And he wanted to find a way – a little bit like Inoue Enryo I mentioned earlier –  he wanted to find a way of showing people what Buddhism really aimed at, what Buddhism was really about.(15:00) And on, an individual basis, he wanted to help his clients work towards, really, an experience that some people would say had a fair bit in common with enlightenment. His theory was basically that, if a client is in psychoanalysis for a certain period of time, they have a kind of releasing of all sorts of material from the unconscious, bit by bit, which gives them a certain amount of freedom. But what it also does is it shows them something which is absolutely key in Shin Buddhism, which is that human beings are, right down to the ground, corrupted; that we cannot really achieve anything useful, in terms of our own salvation, for ourselves and by ourselves,; that we need the help of – what Shin Buddhism talks about as “ other power” – Amida Buddha. It’s alright to discuss that in conceptual terms, in philosophical terms, but it doesn’t get you there. So Kosawa’s idea was that, actually, one of the things that does get you there, that goes beyond the philosophical conversation about things, is to be face to face with the therapist to tell them all the things you’ve done, all the things you’re thinking and all the things you secretly want. To get into all that material you suddenly see the reality of your corruptness and your helplessness. And by doing that, by seeing that, almost you can’t help yourself. By going through that process, then, you open yourself out onto realising that you need to rely completely upon other power, which is a key goal for Shin Buddhism.

KB: Almost like an involuntary confession?

CH: I think that’s absolutely right, that’s a lovely way of putting it. Because, while confession is voluntary, you’re still in control of the terms aren’t you? It’s only when you come face to face with things that you really don’t have any control over, that you finally feel helpless in the face of,  that’s the real moment of conversion for Kosawa and in Shin Buddhism. So that is how Kosawa sees the usefulness of psychoanalysis. He told one of his students,who I interviewed as part of my work, that unless psychoanalysis can bring people to that kind of an experience then it’ll never succeed in Japan, or anywhere else, actually. And now it’s a bit of a minority sport in Japan, so perhaps he was right! But I think the core of what he was getting at – this is back in the 1930 and early 1940s – is quite similar to some of the work that goes on now, trying to link up psychoanalysis with Buddhism: people like Mark Epstein, Jack Engler and others.I see quite a lot of what Kosawa was trying to get at being fulfilled and worked through in their writing.

KB: Was he seen to be religious at the time? Because of course, in Japan, religion itself would be a contested word. Was he seen to be religious, even at the time that he was practising in the 1930s and 40s?

CH: Some of his students. . . It’s often difficult to make a division – and its probably silly to try to make a division, actually – between the extent to which Kosawa was religious and the extent to which he was a man of his times. There were therapists like him and others working in Japan, in the early thirties and forties, who saw it as their role to be a kind-of kindly, but actually quite straightforwardly didactic father-figure for their clients. So, rather than being in the kind-of classic mirror as a therapist – where you simply reflect the client back to themselves and you don’t have much of your own input – Kosawa would give quite heavy advice. Some of his students described him as being quite motherly. There were other therapists around at the time: one of them I’m thinking of, another psychoanalyst, who would invite his clients – young male clients – out to his countryside home where he and his wife lived, spend the weekend with them and fulfil the father role that they’d never had. And so, after the war, lots of people would criticise Kosawa and others for having that kind-of really heavy paternalism in their work. Some of them said that was because he was a Buddhist, others said that was just because he was a man of his era. The theory behind therapy in Japan at this point – also the theory behind hypnosis, actually – was that it would only work if it was practised by a superior on an inferior. So women couldn’t be hypnotists or therapists for men, because they couldn’t give that kind of guiding element that a superior could give to an inferior. So Kosawa was a product of his time both in that kind of paternalistic sense, I think. . .  but also, his students would have recognised him, pretty straightforwardly, as a Buddhist. And they said, “ This is a disaster!”  Because psychoanalysis is supposed to be a science. You have to keep the two things separate. (20:00) Kosawa’s thing was that in the consulting room there would be no talk of Buddhism, but after your consultation you could come next door, have a cup of tea, and  he might unroll a couple of Buddhist Sutras and talk you through a bit of Buddhism if you were interested, as some of his young clients were. So, I think he would have identified as both. And his view was always that psychoanalysis was a proper science, and Buddhism – as it really should be understood – were really operating completely in tandem. And that if Freud had had a less narrow view of what religion meant – because Kosawa thought Freud was kind of shackled to a Judeo-Christian understanding of religion, and a very narrow one even at that – if Freud had had a wider understanding of what religion really was, he’d have seen that psychoanalysis and religion were really two sides of the same coin.

KB: That’s an interesting idea as well. Because, if we broaden our scope now from Japan to general understandings of the relationship between religion and the psy-disciplines, the question that this particular case raises for me is: how do we  isolate religion, then? For example, in palliative care and end-of-life care it’s quite common now, I think – especially in certain countries – to incorporate mindfulness or meditations as part of palliative care. We’ve already seen, in the Kosawa example, someone who seemed to walk between religiously prescribed rules. He’s also a father figure . . . and [there are] cultural constructions of gender there as well, with his paternalism that you talked about. So, how do we isolate what is religion here? If you were to see meditation as part of palliative care practice would you see that as religious, or a cultural formation, or a product of its time? Does the question make sense?

CH: Yes it does. I suppose people are thinking through this in Japan in the context of end-of-life care, and also in the context of disaster care, say after the Earthquake Tsunami and nuclear meltdown disasters in 2011, in Japan. In the aftermath of that there was quite a lot of work done by Buddhists. And they’d been thinking through, “How do we pursue this kind of work and not upset the people that we’re dealing with?”  I think their view would be that all the care they offer is religious, but it’s how they present it. What can seem like quite simple things: what are they going to wear while they go about this care ; whether its on a vihara ward – which is a Buddhist end-of-life care ward – or working in disaster care; are you going to come in civilian clothing or are you going to dress in your Buddhist robes; are you going to use Buddhist language, prayers , rituals or are you going to use the language of psychology and psycho therapy? What they’ve found is. . .  I think their key aim is that you meet people where they are. Some people want all the trappings of Buddhism. That’s what is going to make them feel comfortable because it’s what is familiar. They absolutely don’t want to be talked to after a disaster or towards the end-of-life, about their feelings. Not a conversation that they want to have. So for those sorts of people you can move more towards these familiar signs and symbols of classical religion, as it were. But for others, still really doing religious care, you can now call it spiritual care instead – in Japan they make a distinction – where you won’t have your Buddhist uniform on, and you won’t be using that sort of language. Instead you’ll shift more towards the language of psychotherapy and counselling, if that’s what you think people want. And in order to get onto some public hospital wards in Japan you have to do that. Because there’s a clear separation, in Japan, being made of religion and the state. But this coming-together of psy-disciplines in the training – you now have clinical chaplains being trained in Japan from all sorts of religious backgrounds – that coming-together allows them to gently shift the emphasis depending on who they’re dealing with. For them it’s religiously inspired, so it’s all religious care. But what it looks like to, as it were, the consumer or the receiver of it, it’s endlessly flexible. And, I think, that’s what they see as being so useful about it. I don’t think they would make any fundamental distinction between religious and non-religious there. It’s about the nuances of presentation and perception.

KB: But how about when you take the case in Japan and try and apply it elsewhere, try and apply it in the contemporary situation in the UK for example, or in countries that do not have that very specific set of circumstances that we’re speaking about there? How would you isolate religion in those cases? Is it an East-West divide?

CH: (25:00) No, I think something very similar goes on. I recently wrote a piece for Aeon magazine on end-of-life care at two hospices in Edinburgh, and the concept of spirituality and whether that’s useful or not to people. And I was surprised to find a lot the interviewees say that spirituality is actually not a useful concept at all, because it carries so much of the baggage of religion. And for a lot of people, if you are religious then you just want to see the chaplain, or whoever the representative might be. You’re fairly clear on who you want to go to. But, for the vast majority of other people, neither religion nor spirituality is something they want to hear about. But what you do instead is, you find ways of being with people, forms of care. So: listening; closeness; sometimes even physical forms of care, like a bed bath; whatever it might be that, from a certain perspective, yes, you could talk about it as being religious.There’s a focus there on being, on attentiveness to the person you’re with, as opposed to doing – doing for them – rushing around a hospice ward. But you’re not employing any of the traditional language of religion or spirituality. A lot of the workers I talked to said that people would just be put off by that kind of thing. Because they’d say, “ Look, it’s too late for me now to go on some big search for the meaning of life and the meaning of the world. I need something that goes beyond concepts, or that goes beyond a fundamental change in who I am and how I look at the world.” [They] need something that,  some people would argue , was actually closer to the core of religion or a religious tradition like Christianity, which is love and acceptance, and showing that kind of thing. So I think in some of end-of-life care, that is more what people are doing than getting bogged down in the language of religion and spirituality. Again, one of the professors I interviewed at St Columba’s hospice said “ It’s really about training nurses in how to “ be”  with their patients, rather than just “ do”  for them. Do you know what I mean? Just running around and changing sheets and whatnot. Actually learning how to be with them is what they want. And whether the language of spirituality helps or not, that’s really a secondary consideration.

KB: And that’s interesting because that also gives us a sense of something we spoke of at the beginning: the idea of tension between different ideas of religion, spirituality and the psy-disciplines. And it’s interesting here because we see for the first time that tension between those who receive the care as opposed to seeing the tensions at an institutional level, or how they’re being interpreted by practitioner,  if that makes sense. So that’s very interesting. I think there was also a previous Religious Studies Project Podcast by Dr Harold Koenig, from Duke, and he’s spoken about how – I think the talk was about religion and spirituality and health. Speaking about, particularly, coping and how religious belief helps in coping, which seems interesting. A final point of tension, then: can you think of a specific example when the idea of healing itself is defined differently from a religious standpoint and then from the psy-discipline standpoint? Because they might be working with different ideas of what is transgressive, or what is disorderly, and so their ideas of what health is, and what healing is, might also differ.

CH: I suppose that’s true, yes. There’s an interesting parallel between working on religion and the psy-disciplines on the one hand and working on what’s called trans-cultural psychiatry and psychotherapy on the other. Because, in that latter area, what you find is that any form of psychotherapy, almost any form of psychotherapy is based on assumptions about what a human being is, what’s ideal for them what’s good for them. I suppose a psychotherapist might respond by saying that that ideal is something which gets generated over time in the relationship between the therapist and the client. The therapist isn’t there to say at the outset: “Here is the kind of person I’m trying to turn you into.”  So I accept that possible objection. But I think there’s a deeper sense in which there are certain assumptions, at least, in play. And if you transfer that back over to religion and the psy-disciplines – one of the things I try to do – I have a framework I tried to put together to work out exactly what bothers me about this relationship and how I want to investigate it. And I think one is the nature of the human person. And so, what does it mean to be healed? Does it mean to go back out and be once again a kind of coping, productive member of your society?(30:00) Or does it mean to go back out into your society and have a more prophetic role, and say, “Actually this is wrong, and that’s wrong. And the reason why I suffer from stress or anxiety or depression isn’t just that I’m wrong, or I’m failing to cope, it’s that the world around me is disordered.”  Those sorts of judgements, which border on the moral, are the sorts of things that would be comfortable to people with what we might call a religious background and less so to people who perhaps have a more secular orientation.Social justice can cross both lines, obviously. But I think in forms of psychotherapy and healing which have more of an explicit religious orientation, that element of judgement, which I suppose now is more pushed out onto the outside world – because the danger of internalising that judgement has become much more clear – that kind of judgement has become much more common, you see it more often. But one final thing on healing, which is: one of the things that I think can undermine healing is the difficulty, when religion and the psy-disciplines come together, of people making the same mistakes about the kind of language that they’re using. So there’s a writer called Jack Engler who writes about Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. So there are all these key terms in Buddhism which can be really badly misinterpreted if you’re not careful, and if Buddhism and the psy-disciplines come together in the wrong way. For example, a Buddhist concept like “ no self”  can easily be taken up and used by someone who has very low self-esteem and finds the idea of there being a fundamental unreality about themselves comforting. But they’re using it counter-phobicly, they’re using it in the wrong way. And actually they’re digging themselves a deeper hole, by using the idea of no self to justify very, very low feelings about themselves and wallow in it. He has a really nice line which, I think, cuts across  a lot of what we’ve been talking about. He says, “ You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”  So, in his scheme, there is a role for the psy-disciplines in clarifying a person’s sense of themselves, building up an ego in the sense of a healthy single subject – not being narcissistic and arrogant and self-obsessed  but being a healthy subject – who is then able to cope with what Buddhism would say is the ontological fact that there is no self. And it’s mistakes over language that can come up when religion and the psy-disciplines come together that I think can often be quite damaging, that can give people either false hope or the wrong sort of hope, or just confuse them worse than they were confused before. And, in turn, can either undermine healing in particular contexts or just undermine their growth in a bigger way. Which is why I think interrogating the use of language in this dialogue is such an important task.

KB: I’m keeping an eye on the time, this will be the last question. It strikes me that this idea of being nuanced, being careful about how language is used. . .  would you say this is one direction in which you hope to see the field grow? And that’s the last question: what direction can this field, that you’re working in, grow? Specifically of course, in Religious Studies: where can we go next?

CH: I wouldn’t presume to tell Religious Studies where to go! I’m just a plain old historian. But in response to the question, which I think is a good one,  what I would probably like to see and encourage is more of a creative and honest focus on the antagonisms that arise when religion and the psy-disciplines get together. Because I think we hear a lot, both within academia but also the wider world of publishing, YouTube, everywhere else, of the complementarities. There’s a great book by Frances Spufford: Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can  Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. A beautiful, beautiful book – highly recommended . But that kind of talk about how religion and our understanding, via the psy-disciplines, about what a human person is; how these things work together so well; how one can be a great means of explanation for the other; how one can draw a person into the other . . . . I think all of that’s true, and all of it’s wonderful.But there needs to be more of a focus on where these things actually break down; where they’re offering views of the world which simply aren’t compatible and people shouldn’t be told that they are; or where mistakes and confusions can arise that actually cause people suffering. And by trying to investigate those better and clarifying them and trying to be honest about them, I think the field gets more interesting and less harm is done to people as a result. So that’s the one big area I’d like to see that happen.

KB: OK. So on that important note, thank you very much, Dr Chris Harding, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.


Citation:  Harding, Christopher. and Krittika Bhattacharjee. 2017. “ Religion and the Psy-Disciplines”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 March 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 March 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/religion-and-the-psy-disciplines/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts  are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – March 15, 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

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Calls for papers and applications

Workshop: Translations: indigenous, religion, tradition, culture

University of Tromsø, Norway

August 17–19, 2016

Deadline: June 1, 2016

More information

Travel grants: Religious Pluralisation – A Challenge for Modern Societies

October 4–6, 2016

Hanover, Germany

More information (travel grants, program)

Summer school: Religion and water

June 13–24, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information

Summer school: Religion, Culture and Society: Entanglement and Confrontation

August 28–September 3, 2016

Antwerpen, Belgium

Deadline: May 15, 2016

More information

Events

Conference: Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalisaton and Violent Extremism: Society, Identity and Security

July 22–23, 2016

University of Leeds, UK

April 15, 2016

More information

Conference: Reconsidering Religious Radicalism

May 21, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

More information

Symposium: Muslims in the UK and Europe

May 13–15, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

More information

Jobs

Funded postgraduate positions

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Full-time PhD studentships

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: April 4, 2016

More information

Faculty Fellow: Japanese Religions

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

More information

Professor: Alevism in Europe

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 13, 2016

More information

Professor: History of Modern/Contemporary Christianity

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 14, 2016

More information

‘Lived Religion’ in the Japanese Context: Realities of Individual Practice and Institutional Survival

In the current state of religious affairs, the concept of “lived religion” brought to us by Meredith McGuire in her latest book “Lived Religion: Faith and Practice” appears to be a highly relevant one, and most certainly, a fascinating one. It made me think about the manifestations of personal religiosity and the role of institutional engagement in shaping them in the Japanese context. It also brings to mind the notion of being “practically religious” in Japanese Buddhism and beyond. Ian Reader and George J. Tanabe, in their book Practically Religious (1998), argue that “Japanese religion is less a matter of belief than it is of activity, ritual, and custom”[1] and “the promise of this-worldly benefits is an intrinsic element within Japanese religion in general”.[2] In other words, Japanese religiosity is not necessarily based on what one believes in, but rather on what one does or should do and what one can get out of such activities, regardless of whether the fruits are of a spiritual or material nature.

Hence, it is a promise of some kind that lures people into visiting religious sites. For those who seek spiritual support, it might be a promise of deities’ protection against an illness or reassurance of peace for their ancestors’ spirits, which is bought with the offerings for prayers and fees paid for protective o-mamori (amulets). Yet, for those looking for a place to relax, escape their daily routine and experience something exciting, temples and shrines need to invent new ways to satisfy that need, especially at the time when more people claim to have little or no religious affiliation, and when visiting shrines and temples became associated with cultural and tourist activities rather than with religious activities. An increasing number of Japanese people today, especially young, visit famous religious sites for exclusively recreational reasons.

The number of Japanese people claiming lack of religious belief increased to 80% in the post-Aum era,[3] whereas the number of people admitting to have some sort of religious belief is no more than 20-30% and even lower among university students.[4] The semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students[5] revealed that all of them described their religious belief as mushūkyō (“non-religious”), only three of them identified their religious affiliation as Buddhist (mainly due to their family affiliation), and 84 confirmed that they visit temples and shrines on various occasions during the year, including hatsumōde, ō-bon celebrations and cherry blossoms viewings, and usually during their visits they purchase o-mamori (protective talismans) and o-mikuji (written oracle). My interviewees stated three main reasons for those visits, dentō (tradition), nihonjin-no koto (this is what Japanese people do), and tomodachi-to asobu toki (fun time with friends).

None of the interviewees mentioned their spiritual needs, whereas all put a stress on cultural and entertaining aspects of their visits to Buddhist temples. This may hint that young people in particular have low levels of religious affiliation; however this does not mean that they have no connection with religious places. It appears that visiting shrines and temples by young people is a widespread activity, yet the importance of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ motivations is rarely if at all highlighted. It appears that this notion of Japanese practicality in one’s personal engagement with religion may somewhat distort the concept of “lived religion” or “religion as lived” understood by McGuire as a subjective experience. Yet, perhaps this practical or action-based approach of engagement allows people to nurture their subjective experiences of faith without necessarily revealing their personal motivations behind their practices.

On the other hand McGuire discusses the malleability of religion (especially that personal one) and the “pic and mix” nature of “lived religion” with people drawing from a number of different religious traditions for practices and teachings. The very notion of malleability in this context brought my thinking to the ongoing discussion of change in religious traditions, institutions, and personal practices. This again brings me to my area of research in Japan where many institutions, including Japanese Buddhist temples, adapt to facilitate the religious engagement and its financial survival.

Along with the modernisation and commercialisation of society came the necessity to adapt to the new cultural, social and economic conditions; and this is true for all religious traditions in Japan. When Buddhism first arrived in Japan in the 6th century, it also needed to convince both the ruling class and the people that it was in tune with local spiritual traditions. The Buddhist concept of hōben (skillful means) allows us to understand the secret of religious adaptability in Japan today. Skillful means, in Buddhist terms, represents the idea of not always telling the truth, as long as it helps people in achieving enlightenment, or as it can be understood today, as long as it helps people and attracts potential visitors to temples and shrines. The concept of “untruth” understood in terms of hōben is perpetrated for the sake of others and with the use of any means available at the time which can contribute to the popularisation of a particular practice or religious site.

It can be suggested that religious organisations in Japan today are likely to resort to the use of modern hōben methods such as a wide range of advertising techniques and use of technology in the context of the economic and social changes that affected them after the promulgation of the new constitution in 1946. Through the variety of those advertising techniques and imagery of religious sites promoted with them, I would argue that the emphasis on entertainment themes and the shift from religious to tourist activities associated with visits to Buddhist temples has become especially evident in commercial advertising of the recent years. However, it is essential to understand that the idea of blending of religion and entertainment is not a product of postmodern consumption-driven society and has long-established roots in Japanese religious tradition. It is only in recent years, however, that the notion of fun managed to dominate the sphere of the religious. It may be suggested that Buddhist temples in Japan are also undergoing a process of experimentation and subjectivity of experience associated with the notion of “lived” as opposed to “preached” religion. How these changes impact on the identities of people living in local communities is something that I would like to explore in the future.

 

[1] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.7

[2] Reader, Ian. and Tanabe Jr., George J. (1998) Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press., pp.8

[3] Dorman, Benjamin. and Reader, Ian, (2007) “Projections and Representations of Religion in Japanese Media”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions February 2007 10/3 pp.6-13

[4] Tanatsugu, Masakazu. and Yamanaka, Hiroshi. 棚次 正和 / 山中 弘 2007 宗教学入門  (Introduction to Religious Studies) (東京:ミネルヴア書房)

[5] These are the findings of the semi-structured interviews I conducted in November and December 2009 among 86 Kyoto University students during my stay in Japan in 2009-2010. Although the sampling of my research was limited in number, it can still be argued that these numbers provide an evidence for rather secular attitudes towards religious practices permeating in postmodern Japanese society.

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

The Invention of Religion in Japan

Scholars interested in Asian religions have often noted that European colonialism simultaneously disrupted native societies and to various degrees created the modern social identities commonly referred to as “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” “Taoism,” “Shinto,” etc. Inspired by Edward Said and others, these scholars recognize the change and adaptation that resulted from colonial encounters, specifically as they relate to the natives’ appropriation of the modern category of religion.

In this interview, Jason Josephson discusses these issues and more, specifically as they relate to Japan and the formation of Shinto. Josephson first describes how Shinto is typically represented in EuroAmerican religious studies courses. He then describes the various actors and processes (both European and native) that were involved in the Japanese appropriation of the modern category of religion, paying particular attention to the material and economic interests embedded in these larger processes.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cheese, office stationery and more.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.