Remarkably Modern and Profoundly Religious


In the early days of General Douglas MacArthur’s tenure as head of the occupation and reconstruction of Japan after the Pacific War, one of his first goals was to challenge the marriage of politics and emperor worship known as State Shinto. This system was blamed for everything from Japan’s imperial ambitions to the fanatical devotion of Japanese soldiers who, by the end of the war, routinely strapped themselves to what amounted to little more than gliding bombs in order to dash themselves against the hulls of American ships. American leaders felt a mixed disdain, respect, and curiosity for the religious and ideological system they believed to be behind both the incredible advancement of Japanese society and industry as well as their formidable war machine, which had made fighting in the Pacific especially bitter.

American planners saw State Shinto as a holdover from Japan’s pre-modern period or at least as an anomaly whose existence fit poorly within their understanding of political and economic development. It was, so they thought, certainly not part of any modernity that the West had bequeathed to Japan. As comments from MacArthur and from Ruth Benedict’s famous book on Japanese society, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, would show, this holdover came to be understood as a unique form of Asiatic barbarity. In some sense it had to be – no proper category existed for a separate modernity.

Benedict and MacArthur, of course, got it wrong. Faulty conceptions of race, modernity, development, and culture all fed a distorted vision of Japan and the Japanese. Barbarity and fanatical belief were by no means the stuff of the pre- or anti-modern. They were in fact the very core and marrow of many thoroughly modern movements that had been equally barbaric and destructive across the globe. They were not the purpose of modernity, but they were in no way foreign to it. Japan had studied well – perhaps too well – the values and trappings of modernity. But there was one thing which American analysts got right: This wasn’t the modernity they had taught the Japanese.

In Japan, religion significantly influenced Japanese modernity. Japanese modernity didn’t look like Western modernity (which was hardly a cohesive reality beyond its more theoretical construction) because it wasn’t Western modernity. While both shared the products of modernization – differentiation, industrialization, formation of nation-states, etc. – Western modernity emerged out of a very specific context of Christendom, religious war, and the Enlightenment that had no parallel in Japan. The context of Japanese modernity was quite different.

Understanding this process in Japan can illuminate our understandings of modernity and religion. Whether in academic discourse or in popular understanding, we typically view religion as a process funneling toward secularity. This binary conception – that religion moves between poles of either more or less secularity – pigeonholes us into a very narrow understanding of what religion is and what it can become. It also obscures an important aspect of what secularization is: the product and project of actors located in a particular context and historical time. These specific actors and specific historical contexts are the two driving forces behind how and why religious modernities (in the plural, because secularization is hardly the only possible outcome) take shape when and where they do.

The first, and more hopeful, of the two causal forces behind religious modernities are agents. There are persons and actors contributing to the emergence of these futures and they have the ability to influence what form religion takes and the role it takes in modern life. This assumption is crucially important. Because if agents – actors, institutions, organizations – can effect real and significant change, then not only does this open up the possibility of shaping future developmental paths, but it also means that instances of secular religious modernities are the result of projects and programs and are not simply natural outcomes of some macro-social process. Thought of another way, religion’s role in public life (or lack thereof) is not the result of some invisible and unstoppable force; someone helped bring it about. This finding is not new, but it is one that has been largely ignored in the sociological literature and generally has had little impact on popular conceptions of the secular forces in modern society. Over and again, it can be shown that actors contesting key discursive (and often quite literal) space can have decisive effects on the fate of religion in a “modern” society.

But clearly something else is in play. As James Davison Hunter pointed out in To Change the World, despite rather concerted and titanic efforts on the part of Christians (particularly in the US), institutional control has rather significantly slipped through our fingers and our cultural footprint has not changed in ways the church would have wanted. While American modernity is still quite religious, it certainly isn’t all that Christian. So while agents can influence the course of religious change, Marx seems to have been on to something when he noted that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

As such, the second important factor is what historical-comparativists call path-dependence. The concept is used to describe historical trends that are the product of significant moments where some path of social/political/cultural development goes decidedly in one direction and not another or when events take place that semi-permanently fix the direction of social transformation. This model helps unpack those moments and events that somehow tip the scales so that subsequent events favor certain paths of development. Important historical moments are both symptom and cause of new social structures and institutions as well as markers of cultural change. Each of these causally shapes the context in which actors operate and can tip the scales in the favor of certain groups.

Moving beyond this abstraction may help clarify how this process would work. Even where secularization has seemingly worked as intended – in Europe – the process has not been smooth. It has worked by fits and starts with periods of very little change in belief and identification interspersed with sharp, short periods of decline. One major dip on the graph came after the First World War – a period not generally known for social and institutional stability. Another came after the upheaval of the 1960s and the global reach of cultural reaction to the modern project and its structures of power. Again, while actors and agents were important during each of these periods, the context in which they worked were not value neutral.

But where does that leave us? If religious modernities are both agentic and path-dependent, then is there anything meaningful we can actually do to influence them? Yes, but only if we change our thinking about the purpose of our public involvement. The macro-level paths of development shape whose agency will be most significant on that broadest of scales. Thus we need to be willing to recognize when to change tactics. For instance, much Christian, and especially Evangelical, political maneuvering has recently and increasingly resulted in Pyrrhic victories at best and embarrassing routs at worst. Trying to directly change the tides has proven and will continue to prove frustrating. However, cultural skirmishes do matter. It is in these moments of cultural and social pushback that we are able to practice a “faithful presence” (again to borrow from Hunter) and that the ground is prepared for any eventual change in the broader path-dependent trajectories.

Accounting for actors and their contexts, while recognizing that religion’s development isn’t limited to the scrap heap of secularization, makes far more sense of the curious process of religious development in late Tokugawa and early Meiji Japan. State Shinto and the religious modernity that emerged in Japan during the Restoration had humble beginnings in what was primarily a nativist philological movement. Western modernists would have seen it as anything but, and yet it became a central component of Japanese modernity. That it led to the restoration of Imperial political power after nearly a millennium and to the movement of the Imperial Cult to the center of Shinto and Shinto to the center of Japanese religious practice borders on historical miracle. Yet, what it created was no accident of impersonal, ultimately anti-religious social forces. It was at once both remarkably modern and still profoundly religious and provides a glance at the inner workings of a process too often taken for granted.

Cole Carnesecca

Cole Carnesecca is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.