Religion, Placebo, and Japan's Alternate History

I do not belong to a religion, yet I am religious. I do not see a higher authority in any religious institution or established philosophy. I do not put any stock in any gods or any meetings with god. I do not call myself Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist or Agnostic. I call myself humanist -uncapitalized- because above all I believe in humanity, and in my self. And yet, I am religious because I have faith- unprovable, irrational faith. I do not belong to a "faith," but faith is the most important thing in my life- faith in good, faith in others, faith in me. I do not belong to a religion. I, however, support religion, and I believe I always will.

Religion is a vital way in which people can connect with themselves, and I may not read scriptures, quote prophets or attend soaring structures in order to connect with myself, but I still do connect with my self. One of religion's most vital effects is to link people to themselves. I think that even when religion claims to be linking people to something else- something distant, separate, larger than anyone- all it does is link people to themselves. That's what spirituality is.

My not belonging to a religion may provoke the thought that I see certain dogmas as being false and founded upon untruths. Although not necessarily a fair conclusion to jump to, this is admittedly true. Regardless, I applaud people accepting the majority of these dogmas, even some of the most glaringly ridiculous. Religion at its core, you see, acts as a placebo. Belief in Jesus or Shiva or the holiness of his holiness the Dalai Lama may not be right in a factual sense, but it brings morality to people who might not have it otherwise and in many ways it improves people's lives whether it's God who's doing it or not. Faith helps people, and this is undeniable. Being "saved" may in fact do nothing as far as getting into Heaven is concerned, but it certainly makes people feel better about themselves. Seeing others' religion as a placebo is one way to think about the positive effects of faith. In short, whether you believe or not, don't bash the religion of others. It does good things, even if you find their beliefs to be outright ludicrous.

Many cite examples of religion being used for ill- specifically in causing wars and in other things like the suicide bombings of this current era (which have themselves caused wars), and say that this must make religion bad. My question is, what would things be like without religion? Where would humanity's link with faith and morality be if no one believed in gods? There would be people like myself, certainly, who would find faith in other things and create their own morality based on striving for a common good, but I believe that many more would be pushed towards destructive beliefs- beliefs that in my own philosophy would be labeled "unnatural" and therefore "unhuman". Think about this- you atheists who insult all religion. Think about it, all you Christians who despise those who deny Jesus. Think about this, Muslims who target those unlike you. Think about the good in belief before you disregard the creeds of others.

I now wish to move to another interesting topic, one certainly less thought-about than that which I just addressed. This topic is that of Japan and its past- the events that led it to where it is now and actions that might have made Japan something very different. I have already talked a bit about Japan in the context of its mediocre food, but my recent delving into the history of Nihon has brought me to ideas that are of far greater interest. Japan could have been a Christian nation. It was incredibly close to becoming one, but a complex sequence of events and arguably the actions of just a single man turned it away from that path.

The story begins with a shipwreck, as many stories seem to. The Portuguese accidentally discovered Japan just as they did Brasil- with a crash. Within years, Catholic missionaries had come to the islands and found great success. Huge numbers of Japanese were converted with the Catholic strategy of top-down conversion (converting leaders so their followers would too). This strategy almost achieved its greatest possible goal -converting the shogun- with Oda Nobunaga, who unified most of central Honshu and overthrew the status quo of warring feudal states that had existed for centuries. Nobunaga strongly supported Christian efforts, and it is believed that he might have eventually converted were it not for his untimely death.

Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, however, began the persecution of Christianity that was ultimately very successful, as evidenced by the Japan of today. Hideyoshi expelled the missionaries and brought Japan into the near-complete isolation that would last until the arrival of Commodore Perry. It is probable that Nobunaga's support for Christianity was largely pragmatic and that he used the religion to combat the rebellious Buddhist groups that undermined his authority. By the time Hideyoshi succeeded his master, the Buddhists had ceased to be a problem and it was the Christians who were revealed to be the threat to the state's authority. Japanese Christians would not obey their masters when orders conflicted with their newly found beliefs, and so Hideyoshi saw fit to throw out this foreign threat as well as almost everything foreign, not least the foreigners themselves.

It is vital to keep in mind for this vital part of Japan's history that it was almost everything foreign that was thrown out. Japan still maintained very limited contact with the outside world during its isolation through a single port near Nagasaki. This contact would be essential to understanding the West once it came back in force to Japan's shores, and was probably a major part of Japan's ability to remain independent while the rest of Asia (sans Thailand and isolated areas) was subjugated to colonialism. Were it not for the untimely death of Japan's great unifier, the country may have become a Christian one. Were it not for the continued transfer of knowledge maintained by a few Dutch traders, the country may have become a conquered one. Just one shipwreck, one person, one decision, one flap of a butterfly's wing can change the entire course of history. That's history for you, and its why each person in this world is incredibly important. I hope you think so too.


  1. I agree with all of this, except for a technicality. Christians aren't taught to hate people who do not accept Jesus, we (I do it sometimes occasionally) only hate that they'd choose to not accept the path that we think is correct for everyone. Everybody does it, religion and governments, even democracy at quite a few points.


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