Is Japan a “Religious Country”?

I have written many posts discussing the limits of the word “religion”. Both religious folks and religion-free folks often buy into the illusion that “religion” is an easily recognizable thing. They forget that the word is an invented abstraction with lots of agendas packed inside.

I contend that the various activities that we variously label as “religion” differ from each other enough to blind us to what those individuals or groups are actually doing and how those practitioners may have more in common with non-religious practitioners is very important ways.

This confusion stems from a more important human cognitive defect called “reification” — where an abstract word is confused to be a word pointing at actual concrete thing. Reification fallacy also reaches into our mistaken views about politics, sex, identity and self – to mention a few.

Today I’d like to share an article that again illustrate what I am trying to say about religion:

Religion without belief by Chris Kavanagh

I lived several years in Japan and my experiences agrees the author’s experiences and the states he quotes showing that most Japanese don’t view themselves as having religious affiliations or firm sectarian beliefs, but that about 40% of Japanese hold supernatural beliefs. Yet even among those who do not hold supernatural beliefs, many still participate in ostensibly religious rituals.

Chris states: “… the United States, where 48.8 per cent reported that God is very important to their life, only 6.1 per cent chose this option in Japan. Strong beliefs, I argue, are not an essential feature of religion in Japan. “

So is Japan a religious country or not? The problem is the term “religion”. Chris’ article explores this well.

Chris then takes a stab at defining religion as “concepts and traditions that not only cluster around supernatural beliefs, but also practices, like rituals and festivals”. Like Chris, I am willing to use the term and took my stab at a possible definition here. But whatever definition we use as an expedient heuristic, we need to understand its limitations. Chris’ article points out those limitations well.


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