Born Idolaters *

Idol Baby

*With thanks to the illustrious Jonathan Jong for the title!

A flurry of recent research in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) has suggested that from our childhood we are “teleologically promiscuous“- detecting purpose readily behind everything from birds to rocks, “intuitive dualists“- distinguishing between physical bodies and immaterial minds, and possess a “hyperactive agency detector device” (HADD), which makes us quick to worry about what caused that twig to snap in the bush behind us. All of these factors (and more beside) are said to make us Born Believers in the words of  Justin Barrett, a psychologist specialising on religious thought (and my former supervisor). However, even if we accept such accounts, then an important question remains: what exactly are we ‘born to believe’ ?


Anatomy of a Counterintuitive Zombie

One typical ‘Person-like being violating biological intuitive expectations’ AKA a ZOMBIE

Zombies are currently enjoying a resurgence in popular culture appearing in a host of popular movies, TV shows, comics, reinterpretations of classical fiction and even computer games fighting with plants. Having just enjoyed/endured the controversial 100th issue of the Walking Dead zombies are also firmly in my mind and as such I’ve thought of another useful purpose they can serve; illustrating the features of a minimally counterintuitive concept.

The field of the Cognitive Science of Religion involves approaching religions and religious beliefs from a scientific perspective and examining whether part of the enduring popularity of religion can be explained by the cognitive features and evolutionary history shared by all humans. A central finding/theory that has emerged from this field, primarily due to the work of Pascal Boyer and Justin Barrett, is that almost all religious dieties and icons, despite their apparent diversity, can be placed into a ‘Minimally Counterintuitive’ (MCI) template. What this means is that they possess most of the expected and intuitive aspects associated with a particular category of things, for instance a zombie like a normal person moves around under its own power, seeks food, is subject to gravity, sees with its eyes and so on. However, MCI concepts also involve one or two violations of our intuitive assumptions, so in the case of zombies this means that the biological assumption of mortality/being susceptible to injury is violated. Zombies are dead and they typically don’t seem that bothered by injuries that would be of significant concern to a normal human. The MCI template then can be presented as:

Intuitive assumptions of an ontological category + 1/2 violations of those assumptions


Japan and the Christian Cafe

Nice Chandelier!

So it’s 2010. Time to put those new year resolutions into practice and get myself organised and in this futuristic decade what better place to start than my hi-tech internet blog. Granted it is now almost a week since New Years day but since I am technically still ‘on holiday’ in Japan I think getting the blog back in order at this early stage of the year can almost pass for an achievement!

Being in Japan at the moment I can’t help but feel like I am missing out on the predictable collapse of society that occurs in the UK following any unexpected weather. However, I can at least console myself by enjoying the sites of Tokyo and visiting the various bizarre cafes and bars that are littered across the city. This post is about one such venue called the ‘Christon Café’ which aside from being a nice place to eat also provides a pretty good illustration of the paradoxical attitude towards religion found throughout Japan of widespread indifference alongside a fascination with religious iconography and aesthetic.


Japan’s Pick and Mix Religions

Explained below...

Explained below...

One of the first statistics that someone who is researching religion in Japan will come across is that when statistics are collected the total membership of the main religions when added together equates to almost double the population of Japan. So for instance, in 2006 the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs reported that there were 106.8 million Shinto adherents and 91.2 million Buddhists while the total population of Japan was 127.8 million people.

The explanation for these strange statistics is very straightforward- in Japan most people do not regard religions as exclusive and this includes the various temple and shrine authorities who collect the statistics. This attitude is illustrated quite nicely by the fact that it is common in Japan for a person to have Shinto ceremonies shortly after they are born and at certain ages (3, 5 and 7) throughout their childhood, have a Christian wedding when they get married and have a Buddhist funeral after they die. It is also relatively common for individuals to be unaware of what Buddhist sect they and their family belong to until after a close relative dies and they need to contact a temple and summon the relevant priests.


Offending New Humanist

From New Humanist's God Trumps

From New Humanist's God Trumps

A few days ago I attended a talk by Caspar Melville the editor of the New Humanist magazine at a London ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event. The topic of the talk was ‘taking offence’ and in it he outlined the varied ways that ‘offence’ impacted New Humanist from what received the most complaints to his editorial policy on when offence is permitted. Caspar certainly seems to have given the topic some thought and has even produced a book discussing the topic called Taking Offence: Manifestos for the Twenty-First Century.

The talk and the discussion afterwards were very interesting and while I disagreed with Caspar on a number of points I think he did a good job overall of explaining and defending his positions in the face of some difficult questioning.

However, the topic and surrounding discussion I found most intriguing was Caspar’s editorial decision to not republish the controversial Danish cartoons of Muhammad which caused a worldwide frenzy back in 2005/2006.


Is there Religion in Japan?

Agon Shu's Hoshi Matsuri... one of many religious ceremonies in Japan

Agon Shu’s Hoshi Matsuri… one of many religious ceremonies in Japan

At first glance the question of whether or not religion exists in Japan seems like it is rather straightforward and may be even a slightly silly question to ask. I mean how could anyone doubt there is religion in Japan? Just look at all those Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples! And what about all those famous Zen monks or those new age religions? Aren’t those clearly signs of religion in Japan?

My answer would be yes… but despite this seemingly straightforward answer, the question continues to raise its ugly head in both academic papers and, more recently, in the comment section of my blog (in particular any time ‘religion’ is mentioned alongside the topic of ninjas)!

The basic arguments presented in both cases are almost indistinguishable. Which means that I can address the arguments of both the ninjutsu practitioners and the academics in one fell swoop… (or at least that’s the idea!)


Ninja Religion: A Response


Sorry... couldn't resist!

I received an interesting comment on an earlier article I wrote about Bujinkan Ninjutsu becoming a registered religious organisation and have decided that since it raised many interesting issues it deserved a proper reply. So here goes:

Firstly I would like to ask who the critics of the Bujinkan are and the sources that you have for their arguments against the Bujinkan? Not because I don’t believe you, it seems totally plausible criticism but I would like to know the source of this reference as you do not specify.

I have been involved with martial arts for about 10 years first practicing Wing Chun Kung Fu then Muay Thai and currently I’m training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Judo. I also served as the president for the Thai boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu sports societies at university so I have quite a bit of personal experience with martial arts communities and criticisms and discussions of other arts are common in such communities.

However, my main source for the arguments against the Bujinkan I presented is the large martial arts discussion forum ‘Martial Arts Planet’. I have been a member there for over 5 years and over the past year or so I have also become involved with moderating the site. At first I moderated the religion and the Thai boxing forums but for the past few months I have also took over moderating the Ninjutsu forum. As a result, I have read more discussions about Ninjutsu than probably most practitioners have and many of those discussions have revolved around criticisms. So that is the source from where I draw the criticisms from.