You know what I find fascinating about religion this week? It’s not so much that there’s a skillion different ones, it’s that new ones are constantly being created. Take Japan, for instance: Ok, so Shinto and Buddhism ain’t cutting it for your modern life. Fine. You’ve got any number of other religions at arm’s length to choose from: Confucianism, Taoism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, etc, and that’s all without leaving Asia for more western religions like Christianity, Baha’I, Judaism, or what have you. If you can’t find what you’re looking for in your own religion, it should be fairly easy to find what you’re looking for in some competing religion that already exists. But nooooo, something like 22% of Japan – about 27 or 28 million people – have sought solace in new religions. Some of these date back as far as 1840, but the vast majority have arisen since 1945 for obvious reasons. There are hundreds of these, some with millions of followers, some with only a few score members. Some are benevolent, some are evil, some conservative, some liberal, some political, some apolitical, as usual; all according to the standard breaks for these kinds of things.
I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, nor am I saying Japan is alone in this trend. In fact, I find it rather charming. A similar trend began in the US in the 1820s/30s, just about the time the world began to change rapidly, and right when traditional religions may not have been able to keep up or cope: the rise of the Longhouse Religion and Mormonism, and the trend has picked up speed ever since: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and the various Identity Movements all stem from the 19th century. And of course the 20th century picked up scads more: Scientology, Science of Mind, Eckankar, Hare Krishna, The Unification Church, Ragneeshism, Wicca, an amazing plethora of UFO and Atlantis cults, you name it. Similar trends exist in England, Germany, Africa, you name it. But Japan is clearly in the forefront of this, at least numerically. I ascribe this to the fact that the last 160 years have been much more traumatic for Japan than for the US. We’ve led the blind charge into the future for about that much time, whereas Japan was sort of dragged kicking and screaming into the larger world, dangling from our tail hitch as it were: Commodore Perry forced open relations with Japan under the threat of violence in the 1840s, we subjected the Japanese to a humiliating defeat in 1945, followed by a decade-long occupation, and, of course, we destroyed the Imperial Cult itself, reducing Hirohito from a god on earth to merely another token monarch. So taking that into account, the numbers makes sense.
My point, though, is not that the trend itself doesn’t make sense – it’s not at all uncommon to feel let down by the blithe and pat answers of the clergy which all too often just don’t make sense – but rather I think it’s fascinating that there’s a trend buried within the larger trend: If people feel disenfranchised by their own traditional religion, they’re more likely to join a new, or recent one, than they are to join some major, pre-existing faith! Thus Zoroastrianism and Jainism continue their long, slow, retreat into extinction, while Baha’I and Christian Science continue to grow.
I don’t pretend to know what to make of all this, but I find it interesting: what is it about humanity that makes us look for answers in new places? The Japanese have shown themselves as the kind of people who, when faced with a sinking ship, are more likely to build new ships, rather than simply clamber onto someone else’s’ boat, even if it’s easier or more convenient to do so. Americans have shown a similar propensity, albeit in much smaller numbers, as have other groups throughout the world.
Why? The logical answer would be to comparison shop and find one that suits you – there’s a LOT to choose from – or to simply ignore the problem and go atheist. So what is it in about humanity that causes us to crave a nonrational answer? I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I don’t think it is a bad thing, I think it’s one of those neat, completely unpredictable aspects of humanity that makes humanity human, but now that I’ve noticed it, I’m open for any theories any of you may have as to why this should be.
And of course we find this in SF, too: Religion is often a soapbox for the beliefs of the author, such as the Minbari religion in B5, created by athiest Joe Straczynski, or "Foundationism," also created by Straczynski for that show. The religious intrigue of the militant unificationist "Orange Catholic" movement in Dune provides much of the fun in that series, and, come on, admit it, who here *hasn't* tried to figure out how the Orange Catholic Bible would have been organized? The UFO cults are nonsense, of course, but at their very root they're science fictional, as was Emmanuel Sweedenborg's oddly culty version of Christianity in the 19th century.
It may be a logical falacy to claim that a question implies an answer must actually exist, but clearly there is *something* in us that causes us to continue to look for higher beings than ourselves, higher meanings than just the material sense of stuff. Call it a "God Sense," for lack of a better word. We seem neurologically driven towards it. As Straczynski - who's quite insightful for an athiest - said, "Faith and Reason are the shoes on your feet, and you'll go much further with both of them together than you ever would with only one alone."
This "God Sense" doesn't actually *prove* that there's a God (Thoguh I believe there is), but it is obviously rooted in the very nature of our intelligence itself. Which is why it always strikes me as so odd when people go off their nut and start screaming about how Religion and Theism are bad, and should be irradicated without tolerance. We tend to find this in SF quite a lot, too. But I think to do so is to ignore the fact that we need it, and we like it. You can't get rid of religion or theism any more than you can get rid of a love of music, or love itself: they're a part of who we are, always have been, and always will be, and to fight against it, to decry it and try to shut it down is basically to fight against evolution itself.
It's doomed to failure.