Japanese Atheist prays in Crashing Planes

I once had a Japanese girlfriend whose family, in her youth, went through some hard financial times.  Her parents had broken ties with their own parents by eloping in their youths and leaving the island of their birth (Shikoku) so there was no local support for them during those days.  At that time, my girlfriend’s mother found and clung onto a very evangelical Buddhism called Soka Gakkai as her anchor in reality and cure for her anxieties.  The sect she belonged to promised material wealth and happiness to believers.  To obtain these blessings, believers merely needed to chant a simple chant daily in front of a special shrine.  My girlfriend can remember her parents fighting over finances and then she’d hear her mother chanting for hours in front of their household shrine asking for divine help.  Eventually the family became more prosperous and her mother attributed to her faith.

The mother upon meeting me tried to convert me to become a Soka Gakkai member for a few years.  Many Americans actually belong to the sect here in America.  Because I was curious and to appease her I read several Soka Gakkai Buddhist books and debated with her a bit.  She soon gave up on me.  To her I was just like her husband: stubborn and close-minded.

When my girlfriend was growing up, her father hated the mother’s new found religion and it drove them further apart.  My girlfriend said she use to hide under her bed when her parents fought and she could hear dishes being thrown at times.  She’d even fall asleep under the bed to the sound of her mother’s chants after the fights.  Like her father, my girlfriend hated her mother’s hyper-emotional religion.  She felt religion (her mother’s being the only one she knew) was silly, superstitious and manipulative.  But she always understood how it offered hope and security for her anxious mother who she still loved so she would not argue with her mother.

Years later, that girlfriend and I were flying over China (returning from a vacation) when our jet had severe trouble losing altitude abruptly, shaking and diving.  People who were not belted down hitting the cabin roof, but soon they leveled out the plane though it was still shaking. My girlfriend had closed her eyes, grabbed the seat and started chanting “Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō” (Praise to the sublime Lotus Sutra) — the chant of her mother’s religion.

We flew very low for the rest of the trip but arrived safely.  My girlfriend laughed at herself for chanting and never chanted again.  As for me, after that horrible experience I had severe flight anxiety that would last for 5 years.  Interestingly it some flight simulator training I had which cured the anxiety.

Epiphenom did a fantastic article today listing the many research articles that address how religion comforts anxiety.  Here is a quote from the article that inspired me to write this post: “when you remind people about death, they tend to grab onto their traditional, cultural values.”

Questions for atheist readers:

  • Have you ever had scary experiences where you became suddenly religious?
  • How do you reduce anxiety in your life?

Questions for religious readers:

  • Do these type of comparative religious articles help you see that your religious reflexes may tell you more about your humanity and less about the divine?
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23 responses to “Japanese Atheist prays in Crashing Planes

  1. Interesting story and topic. I wrote about an atheist friend a while back, who chose to willfully refrain from praying when he was in a life-threatening situation (you actually commented there about your story with your girlfriend). He had never been a theist of any sort, and I definitely think that kind of response comes naturally to most people.

    I wonder what coping mechanisms, other than religious ones, people employ when faced with those feelings. Or maybe even the un-religious responses tend to have an element of religiosity at that point.

  2. “I wonder what coping mechanisms…” stupid of me, I just asked the same question you asked above. Sorry! :^)

  3. Ian

    I’ve never been in a life threatening situation. Not my own life. During the birth of my son it looked like he might not make it, which is the nearest. But I didn’t look to God at that point.

    I think yes to your second question, absolutely. I think there is a natural conditioning about these situations though. When something like that happens we reach out for our mums. And when we’re old enough not to find solace in our real mum we have to find something else to cling to and be reassured by.

    If we’ve been told that God, or Mother Mary, is our mum in times of trouble, then that’s where we’ll go. If it is a sutra, that’s where we’ll go. I don’t think it says anything about the actual belief in those things, just that there’s something that has associations of ‘safe’.

    Of course, its all so much hot air since I haven’t experienced it, but hey. Hot air I can do.

  4. Yes, sure, Christian beliefs do comfort you about death. You might even say it is “freeing”. Atheists, in comparison, have a depressing view of life (and death), and do so for no particularly good reason that I can see except cultural pressure. I agree that we all search for the transcendent, and that’s a natural thing for a person to do.

  5. Chucky, that’s rather dismissive and one-sided.

    I dated a girl briefly who was wracked with guilt about going to heaven or hell after she died. It consumed her. I’d hardly call that freeing.

    That’s not to say that religion can’t be a serene influence on someone’s life, but to make such a blanket statement about it is absurd.

    Also, as an atheist, I find my view of life and death to be quite positive. This is the only life I have, which makes it all the more precious. There is only so much time I have to love and be loved by the people I care about and to explore the natural world around me. Death isn’t something to be feared, but simply the end result of life. It makes life precious and worth treasuring.

    Again, this isn’t to say that all atheists share this view and I’m sure there are nihilistic atheists out there, but I’m not so bold as to make generalizations.

    To answer the original question, though, I’m generally pretty collected in rough situations. The most recent event I can think of happened about a year or so ago. I fell through a plate glass window and suffered some pretty nasty lacerations on my legs and hand. While I was still in shock, I walked to my neighbor’s and had them call 911.

    While I was waiting, I relaxed and laid out on the stairs to keep my heart rate down. When the EMT got there, I got loaded up in the back and chatted with the guy until I got to the ER. Before the doctors got to work, I asked if I could grab a camera for some “Before” shots, just to have them.

    Again, I just don’t really panic easily.

  6. I’ve never prayed in a situation like that. The closest I’ve had were a time when I was choking and a time when the car I was a passenger in swerved out of control.

    But I remember when I was a kid, I went to a sleepover and we were decorating t-shirts with fabric pens. One of the pens burst, getting all over the face of the girl who was holding it. The birthday girl’s mother grabbed the kid and called Poison Control. Most of us froze, except for one girl who came from a religious family, and she started praying. I really envied her in that moment, because I didn’t have anyone/anything to pray to and didn’t know how anyway.

    It turned out fine – the girl’s face was just stained for a couple days – but it really stuck in my mind.

  7. I was in a car accident. The only thing I was thinking was “shit, I wish the breaks worked better”. Zero thoughts of god whatsoever. In fact, I didn’t even consider that thinking of god could have been an option until just now. The irony: I rear-ended someone with Catholic pro-life bumper stickers. 🙂

  8. Laura Cooper

    I don’t really understand how religion quells a person’s fears in times of crises. A few nights ago, I was in bed thinking of ways I could procure some kind of real, true belief in this so-called God I had only read and reasoned about. Not five minutes later, I started getting heart irregularities (which, you know, happens sometimes) and I thought “Abort! Abort!”

    It was not comforting to think that there is some non-physical entity out there, who may or may not give a crap about me, giving me health problems as a means to faith/belief.

    I don’t understand how it could be preferable to throw oneself into submission under an unpredictable entity, and any inclinations I currently have towards religion have nothing to do with feeling comforted!

  9. Boz

    when I feel myself becoming anxious, I mentally focus on relaxing.

    For example, while in the dentists chair, with all those horrible sounds in my mouth, all my muscles get really tight, and my fists clench up. I concentrate on manually relaxing my muscles and it helps a bit, but does not fully solve the problem.

    for long-term problems that give me worry, I work towards the solution of those problems, and it eases my worrying. e.g. partially cleaning out the always-cluttered shed.

  10. @ ATTR:
    So what coping mechanisms do you use?

    @ Ian :
    Possibly loosing a child would be a greater threat than losing my own life. Like you, Ian, since deconverting, I have not prayed for help even though I have been in several very hairy situations. Perhaps my Buddhist practice have become my solice.

    @ Chucky :
    Welcome. Agreeing with Janus, I think very few Atheist have a “depressing view of life”. (hoping you are not just a hit and run)

    @ Janus :
    Absolutely, I too have seen people whose religion is not comfort but instead a great burden — not usually the case, but often enough.
    OUCH, on that plate of glass story! Those situations tell us alot about our coping skills — yours sound very healthy! Because we certainly never know until we are there.

    @ The Nerd :

    @ Laura Cooper :
    Wow, sounds like you should stay a mile away for imagining deities. Have you ever practice meditation and found it disturbing too?

    @ Boz :
    Good sage advice

  11. I can’t help but be reminded of the following scene from 1999’s The Mummy:


    Beni slowly backs up around Anubis, eyes wide, gun up. He turns around,


    Beni SCREAMS, backs away and OPENS FIRE. Six GUNSHOTS perforate Imhotep, but have no effect except to SPLATTER molten flesh rot onto the back wall. Beni retreats into a corner, scared shitless.

    Imhotep moves forward, his one hand trying to stop the molten mummy guts from oozing out of the large shotgun hole in his side. Beni drops his gun and grabs at the CHAINS around his neck, RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS AND ICONS dangle from each chain.

    Beni holds the first one up: A CHRISTIAN CRUCIFIX. He quickly makes the sign of-the cross and blesses himself in English:

    May the good Lord protect and watch over me as a shepherd watches over his flock. And may Satan in all his forms be vanquished forever.

    It has no effect on Imhotep, who continues forward. Beni quickly grabs at the other symbols and icons, holding them out towards Imhotep, one after the other, trying to slow his progress: an Islamic Sword and Crescent Moon necklace; a Hindu Brahma medallion; a small Buddhist Bodhisattva statue.

    All while blessing himself in Arabic, Hindi, Chinese and Latin. Nothing works. Imhotep’s skeletal hand reaches for Beni’s throat. Tears run down Beni’s cheeks he’s so freaked.

    And that’s when he holds up THE STAR OF DAVID and blesses himself in HEBREW. Imhotep stops in his tracks. His hand lowers. His grotesque new eyeballs stare at Beni.

    (subtitled) The language of the slaves.

    Looks at him quizzically. Imhotep takes a step back.

    (in Hebrew — subtitled) I may have use for you. And the rewards will be great.

    I haven’t been in a life threatening incident since de-converting, but there have been times where I thought it would be nice to have a God to fix things, but then I see that the same, if not worse, things happen to my devout Christian friends. My only prayer since de-converting has just been a general ping for God. No response so far.

  12. I believed in god once, at my son’s funeral. Lasted about 20 seconds. Then I came to my senses.

  13. Chucky

    I’ll read your blog if you read mine. In fact, that’s a deal I’d offer everyone 🙂

  14. @ Mike:
    That was fun.

    @ Chucky:
    I will stop by to see if we have “Yuan“. In the meanwhile, consider copying this table and filing it out and posting it on your site so you can share yourself. Just a thought.

  15. Laura Cooper

    I have never tried meditation, ever. All my interest in religion is purely rational—I guess that makes the whole prayer/meditation/mysticism thing less fun for me, eh?

  16. Fetch

    But I remember when I was a kid, I went to a sleepover and we were decorating t-shirts with fabric pens. One of the pens burst, getting all over the face of the girl who was holding it. The birthday girl’s mother grabbed the kid and called Poison Control. Most of us froze, except for one girl who came from a religious family, and she started praying. I really envied her in that moment, because I didn’t have anyone/anything to pray to and didn’t know how anyway.

  17. Ed

    Hi Sabio… a little note to Laura. Hi Laura… you might be misunderstanding the scope of meditation. The type I do is purely rational. No mantra, no secret words, no goal in mind, no salespersons will call. It is a voluntary, sometimes spontaneous “seeing” of “It” … all this, as it is… No judgements… no emptying the mind. Only pure comment-less observation. Sometimes the thoughts slow way down and only consciousness is. But that is not the goal or the point. Prayer is usually begging god for stuff or to vanquish the enemy and mysticism is for those folks that can’t see what is right in front of them.

  18. CRL

    I’ve never been in a life threatening situation, but I think there definitely is a part of me that would still start a round of Hail Mary’s at the first hint of danger! (That is, if I still remember any prayers by the time one should arise. I’ve already half-forgotten most of them.)

    Our reasons for praying in stressful situations may not be limited to our desire for divine assistance. I know that, when I am nervous, it is extremely helpful for me to repeat ‘chants’ (often as simple as counting to four a couple dozen times, but sometimes more complex) in my head. Perhaps these prayers subconsciously serve the same purpose?

  19. My coping mechanisms (sorry for the long delay) are for anxiety, they have not been tested in serious trials. Both of these are for the wee hours of the morning when I wake up and can’t sleep, and both are coping not dealing with things:
    – Alcohol
    – Reading

    When in trials as a Christian, I would pray, but more because I was supposed to than anything heart felt. The greater the anxiety, the less able I was to pray anything that sounded like much more than a Christian Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō. Fear would drive me to action or inward thought, not prayer.

  20. @ Uzza, Ed & Fetch
    Sorry, somehow your comments got put in Spam. I will have to check spam now and again.

    @ Ed
    Thanks for answering Laura

    @ Uzza

  21. One atheist friend of mine related recently how she was in a plane experiencing severe turbulence, and started reciting the Lord’s prayer. I looked incredulously at her and asked, “Don’t you know what that prayer means?!?”

  22. I think sometimes people grasp the only thing they know, whether it’s The Rosary prayer, Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, etc.

  23. @ Mike — absolutely
    @ Josh — that is funny! I get it.

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