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More on belief and religion

I posted a piece yesterday on the role of belief in religion, in which I said that the focus on right belief which is so characteristic of the history of Christianity in the West is not necessarily true of other religions. In Our Time today was on Shinto, and it was very relevant to the role, if any, of belief in religion.

Shinto, it appears, derives ultimately from shamanism and is concerned with the propitiation of other-worldly powers (kami), which may affect us adversely if they are offended. The kami do not seem to be 'gods' in the way we think of divinities. There are Shinto 'scriptures' which deal with mythological history but they are not sacred writings. There is no divine creator in Shinto; the world emerged out of mud, it was not created. The Japanese islands arose as the result of sexual intercourse between a primordial brother and sister. The sister is very important in the later history of Japan and the imperial dynasty descends from her.

There is a lot of ritual in Shintoism, which takes place at the numerous shrines, both large and small. These are served by hereditary priests, who may be of either sex. They do not preach, because Shinto is not concerned with issuing moral precepts. People who come to the shrines perform ritual purification by washing but this is not a question of freeing oneself from 'sin'.

Shinto has no doctrine of its own; it borrows from Buddhism, Taoism, and even Christianity. It was not originally concerned with an afterlife, but from the nineteenth century onwards there have developed offshoots from Shinto that offer salvation and relate to a future life.

Some outsiders have denied that Shinto is a religion (they have said the same of Buddhism). Certainly it lacks those elements, such as belief in a central God who created the world, and an elaborate ethical code, which Christians think are intrinsic to religion. As so often, it comes down to definitions. I think myself that Shinto must be classed as a religion, but it is one in which formal doctrine does not exist. What you do seems to be more important than what you believe.


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