Turning Japanese

An argument often made when the role of religion in society is discussed is that without religion ethics, civility and social cohesion take a dive.

Wardyblog picks up on the latest example of that way of looking at things (Mark Steyn in the Telegraph) who said ” there aren’t many examples of successful post-religious societies” and gives that confident statement a bit of a going over:

I compared the UN Human Development Index, which measures various countries’ levels of life expectancy, adult literacy, GDP per capita etc etc, with this table showing the percentage of regular churchgoers per country, to see if there was any overlap, and what do you know? There are four countries – Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Japan – who are in the top 10 developed countries, and also in the bottom 10 countries for church attendance.

My knowledge of Scandinavia is limited but I’ve studied and worked in Japan a couple of times and can confirm that it’s pretty much a post-religious society as well as being one of the most civilised places I’ve ever lived. Compared to what passes for normal behaviour in Europe people behaved well to each other in all areas of life and even more so towards guests like myself. There is a strong code of ethics which runs through the Japanese but I don’t think it owes much to religion.

Japanese attitude to the divine seem to me to be limited to cloaking their important life events in pseudo-religious rites – a ‘Christian’ marriage, a ‘Buddhist’ funeral and a quick prayer to the old Shinto spirits when exam time comes around. Outwith the Catholic and Protestant communities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese don’t however take the substance of religion very seriously at all.

It should also be remembered when measuring ‘success’ that for a series of volcanic mountainous islands off the far coast of Asia with no natural resources to speak of to rise from the ashes of a disastrous war 60 years ago to become the second most powerful economy in the world might be counted as a good example of what a people unburdened by some of the more negative inheritances of religion can achieve.