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?