Wellesley Middle School Students Act Like Middle Schoolers

I was surprised to see my town in the national news today. Even though I’m in Japan and don’t read the Globe, while I was looking through my Twitter updates I learned that Wellesley Middle School students participated in a visit to a mosque as part of a social studies program, and some of them engaged in “prayer” during the visit. This sparked tired, fake outrage from an anti-Muslim rightist group absurdly named “Americans for Peace and Tolerance”, which claimed that their “Inside Video Captures Kids Bowing to Allah“. Of course, there was no cover-up performed, and the video of five unnamed children was released without permission from any of the families involved, solely to stir up controversy. The insinuation the group was making was that naive liberal Wellesleyites allowed their children to be converted to a pagan cult of genocide during a 30 minute visit to a mosque, which makes sense only in the alternate universe that the right wing lives in.

No, I’m not interested in the fear-mongering, nor do I think anyone is at fault for allowing kids to imitate a religious service during a field trip. What interests me is why these students decided to “pray” and what background they might be coming from. See, reading this report takes me back to my days at Wellesley Middle School. I was pretty much an outcast then, but I loved learning about other cultures, and a trip to a mosque would have been the ultimate cool thing. If I had gone, would I have imitated the prayer?

Consider the mental life of an average American middle schooler. Middle school is social hell in every country on Earth– I’m typing this from a Japanese middle school and you can feel the social pressure in the classrooms. Kids are much more likely to make decisions based on their status as an insider or outsider than what their parents or teachers are telling them. Furthermore, if there is such a thing as an ideal Democrat or Republican, middle school is where you will find such a person. Just think back to how you thought about politics in middle school– America is all about civil rights and liberal ideals! No liberal project could go wrong! Actually, I’m finding it hard to distinguish between middle school and what passes for political commentary in America. Anyway, this could be a dangerous naivete outside of Wellesley, but in that town it’s just kind of cute, and in this case inspiring.

There were five boys praying in the anti-Muslim group’s video; all of them had voluntarily left the rows of students and joined the rows of the congregation. To cover all the possible bases, let’s say that one of the kids was Muslim, two of them were his friends, and two more simply joined in because they wanted to. (I’m not claiming this is actually the case.) It is bizarre to claim that a devout Muslim cannot pray at noon, as he would probably do anyway every day at school, just because he is on a field trip; I will ignore that altogether. If that Muslim had two close friends, under the power laws of middle school they would be strongly compelled to join in just so that he wouldn’t be alone in his choice to pray. This choice would have nothing to do with their understanding of Islam.  Can you really claim that supporting a friend by imitating religious ritual violates the separation of church and state? What if the imitation was meant to mock a religion– does that violate that separation? Really, this would be a strange area for the face of secularism to intervene.

The final case, and most likely, is that the kids were imitating without much of a thought whatsoever. This reminds me of a story told by a professor named Tomoko Masuzawa about her study abroad program in America. Her host family was Catholic, and took her to Mass, the meaning of which she did not understand; comparing it to activities in Japan, she might have thought it was a festival or something like that. At Mass she received the Eucharist. She barely gave it a second thought. But later, she went on to study religion, and only then learned that receiving the Eucharist is not something that everyone in America does, but rather signifies that one is a member of the Catholic Church in good standing, and opposes Protestants and so forth. Isn’t what she did an honest mistake, not knowing symbolism? Regardless of whether she accidentally engaged in something “religious”, did she actually become a Catholic by following the patterns of her host family? I don’t think so.

I think it’s just as likely that, having just heard a lecture about Islam, the boys understood that their actions were part of a larger fabric called Islam, but simply didn’t care. They’re only kids, and if there’s any time to blamelessly try out the activities of foreign cultures it would be on a middle school field trip (which makes the covert recording of the video just that more cruel). It could have all sorts of unrelated, secular meanings for them: maybe it made them feel sort of rebellious, or separated them from their hated peers, or made them feel in touch with this cool thing called “Islam” that all the evil Republicans hate. If four people around me had been doing that on my field trip, I wouldn’t have felt any qualms with joining in. After all, it’s not something you get to do every day.

All I’m trying to say is the least likely thing for a middle schooler to do is to spontaneously convert to a new religion on a field trip; I have not read any reports of such a thing happening in Wellesley. It is, however, incredibly likely that kids were imitating prayer for the same damn reasons that kids do anything in middle school, and that their action sparked a rabid right-wing video and an apology from the principal is a clear symptom of a poisonous political climate.

(P.S. In the antiquated cosmology of Christianism, of course, a whole different thing is going on: Christian children are being tempted to worship at idols, which, regardless of their own understanding of their actions, will deliver them to Hell. Let us hope that nobody outside the walls of “Americans for Peace and Tolerance” actually propagates such a medieval belief. Here in real life, participating in a culture without knowing what it means does not change your attitude whatsoever; being told that you are a bad person for doing so just might.)

Posted: September 24th, 2010 | Secular-Religious 3 Comments »

Religion, Big Statues, and Humanist Values

I am tired of hearing about religion and evolution. I have read about the subject since I was 13. So, let’s look at a much more fascinating subject: religion and archaeology. Actually, this subject is written about far too little. Anyone can give you a long list of reasons why students must learn evolutionary biology properly and not buy into old myths instead. But who has discussed why archaeologists are so interested in old artifacts?

In 2001, the Taliban destroyed some gorgeous Buddha statues in Bamyan, Afghanistan. This evoked outrage all over the Western world; through our international media, soon the whole world had heard the story. What provoked such universal condemnation? Obviously there wasn’t some secret Buddhist lobby behind the scenes. Their purely scientific value was minimal, as they had already been examined. Was it because they were such beautiful statues, or so big? I’m sure there was someone who would try to argue this, but it is easy to disprove. Later the same year, the French government destroyed an enormous statue of a cult leader in Castellane, France. This elicited precisely no outrage from anyone, even though a cult spokeswoman made an explicit comparison between her group’s statue and the Bamyan Buddhas.

The Islamic ideal that provoked the destruction of the Buddhas is easy to identify. In Islam, as in humanism, the story of humanity is a path from darkness to light. But the Islamic message, especially in its modern and unstudied forms (c.f. the Kitab al-Asnam for a medieval counterexample), is much simpler than the humanist. In the past Age of Darkness, the story goes, people worshiped idols and killed each other for stupid and barbaric reasons. In the current age, people move away from profane habits and towards purer and more divine activities, and treat each other with dignity and justice. There is no need for doubt about social aims or cross-cultural dialogue, because the only message that is needed is all contained in the Qu’ran.

The Western ideal that led people to condemn the destruction of the Buddhas while ignoring the cult statue is somewhat harder to define. Looking at both these cases betrays the actual interest we have in these Buddhas, which none of us had ever seen before. They were important because they were relics of an ancient culture, and were a significant marker of human achievement from that age. We can’t name one specific faith that leads us to treasure these relics, because secularism specifically denies assigning names to its ideals. But in the legally encoded humanist language of the United Nations, it is easy to identify the parallel term: “World Heritage”. We believe that everyone should have knowledge of and access to the historical artifacts which tell us about our shared humanity.

Looking from the outside in at these two cases, I do feel a little conflicted. Personally, although I am Buddhist, I think the cult statue was much more interesting, a veritable monument to the unstoppable creative force in humanity. Given the resources of the modern age, a small cult was able to build a ridiculous tribute to an individual nobody else cared about. The Bamyan statues, on the other hand, were just a few Buddhas among many, and we all know what Buddha looks like. I can understand why the Taliban decided to blow them up; they must have represented to those clerics a history of outside domination, and were physically two big idols towering above them in a position of authority. Sure, it was an arrogant show of personal insecurity, but haven’t we all felt insecure at one point or another?

I think the proper response to events like this is not to unilaterally condemn one group and praise the other, but to understand where humanist beliefs like “World Heritage” come from, and why they are necessary for the future of humanity. Too often, shared sentiments like these go unanalyzed in the West, or even ignored entirely; even recognizing the simplest things, like “nobody wants war”, can stir something in people’s hearts, as it did in the case of Samantha Smith. By explaining where we come from, we can invite other people to understand us.

Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Secular-Religious 2 Comments »

The British Discovery of Buddhism

The British Discovery of Buddhism by Philip C. Almond
Cambridge University Press, 1988. BQ162.G7

This book could better be titled “The British Invention of Buddhism”, since Almond demonstrates how the British were tying together a multitude of traditions dispersed throughout Asia. As he writes: “The religion having been ‘created’, there came the ensuing realization that its adherents outnumbered those of Christianity.” (12) Rather than putting scare quotes around the world “created”, I think they would be better placed around the words “religion” and “adherents”, since the Chinese being labeled by the British did not think of themselves as “adherents” of anything endorsed in Thailand, and vice versa.

In terms of religious-secular discussions, it is also extremely interesting to see the British nation as a religious icon in this period, pitted against the falsehoods of the pagans. One jeremiad bewails that as the British flag “is displayed over the mountain capital of Ceylon, it tells us of principle sacrificed, of religion dishonoured, of atheism perpetuated, of idolatry countenanced, and of a false and wide-spread superstition protected and maintained.” (134) Parallels might be drawn with the modern British anxiety about protecting the Muslims in their midst, or the use of “secular” American symbols in the evangelical community–do we not hear similar complaints emanating from that group, even today?

There are all sorts of treats to be found in this text, such as Francis Wilford’s quest to identify Mount Caucasus with Britain, the theory that Buddha was really African or Mongolian, the identification of Buddha with Odin (!), or the fact that these inquiries proliferated for decades before a single examination was done of any Buddhist teaching, probably out of disinterest–Christianity, after all, had superior knowledge!

When the dhamma begins to leak into the narrative, I feel an intense annoyance with how the conservative Christians responded to this new and unusual culture. Although they were a minority, they approached the topic with an insistence on superiority and domination, an demeaning attitude towards those interested in foreign things, constant comparison of “Orientals” to children, and so forth. Consider how John F. Davis described Buddhist monks: “They have, nearly all of them, an expression approaching to idiotcy [sic], which is probably acquired by that dreamy state in which one of their most famous professors is said to have passed nine years with his eyes fixed upon a wall!” Almond simply says that these writers were overwhelmed by a monastic simplicity that “contrasted so much with their more active, ‘muscular’ vision of the Christian life.” (122)

We can be indebted to Almond for his cool, neutral exposition of these poor excuses for debate; today’s evangelical movement can only hope for such an undeservedly fair treatment a century from now. But at the same time, even the positive Victorian image of the Buddha, exemplified by The Light of Asia, is clouded in Oriental fantasy and British inventions. This is where Edward Said comes into play, as the creation of the Orient, even in a positive light, constructs a West that is necessarily in opposition to “Oriental” ideals. I am very glad that I was not alive at that time!

Posted: March 17th, 2010 | Book Reviews, Secular-Religious

“Religious Studies”: The Future of an Illusion

On a shrine's wish board: "Chihiro and Tomoko, together forever!" Is this religion? Does it even matter? (Peter Held)

A century ago Sigmund Freud proclaimed the end of religion as an influence on humanity. He defined an illusion as something which people want to believe but can be neither proved nor disproved, and combined it with the concept of religion, which he either perceived or defined as a collection of childish ideas people used to hold about the world. The real illusion, invisible to Freud’s eyes, was his imposition of that idea onto the entire world. He claimed without proof to perceive a single concept which has existed in all times and places, but religion is a Western word, developed in a Christian society. As religious scholars, we hasten to equate it to concepts in other language: dharma, tao, bhakti, or even islam. We draw our anthropology from The Golden Bough, assuming in some way or another that the coincidental practices of strange or incompletely developed peoples echo pan-human themes. Although we in fact find that the language worlds of other cultures have created quite different societies, we insist that they are expressing a form of our permanent entity, “religion”. This is unacceptable.

The field of religious studies has spent over a century building up scholarship based on this falsely presumed universality. What is the benefit of a comparison between medieval Japanese and Arab mystics, when you don’t understand either language? Such pursuits do not lead us closer to an understanding of either Japan or the Islamic caliphate, but are in fact an exercise in finding new meanings for tired English words such as “insight”, “ecstasy”, or “ineffable”. This is not a work of cultural exchange, but of ecumenical theology. Historical examples from faraway places are transformed through our work into precedents for our more complete understanding, mere ingredients to enrich these Western categories. One would think, after decades of this work, that we would have developed sufficiently rich language to enlighten the entire world.

Instead, by attributing a wealth of practices to the Western construct which was already enraging intellectuals like Freud a century ago, we have succeeded in alienating ourselves from our human siblings in the global south, and undoing the careful work of anthropologists and sociologists. Today, “religion” is a bogeyman: popular speakers or bloggers will frighten audiences with the specter of Islamic extremism, or “religious delusion” in general, as a worldwide phenomenon responsible for keeping faraway cultures in the Dark Ages or threatening the very basis of civilization. We must ask ourselves: what has the importance given to the Western religious category added to our discourse on Middle Eastern politics, if not to mystify discussions of the subcontinent with claims of widespread brainwashing by some vaguely imagined, church-like institution, the pan-regional “Religion”? If we dropped our pretenses of “sacredness” and the “transcendent” and moved to interpret lowercase-I islam as just one pattern of life among many in the diverse cultures of the Middle East, wouldn’t Western readers be less guarded and more open to understanding these different but altogether human conceptions?

Meanwhile, those communities whose cultural property we have appropriated and transformed for our own theological quests are not always happy with their exploitation, as we have seen from the backlash by Indians against the Wendy Doniger school of “Hindu studies”. When these groups deny the validity of Western analysis, the academic response has been to fall back on mean-spirited Orientalist rhetoric, and what seemed like a friendly, inclusive ecumenicism quickly becomes a harsh verbal battle. Consider the response of Morris J. Augustine to Timothy Fitzgerald’s point that most Japanese people do not self-identify as religious:

It is not surprising to me that Japanese students and/or professors never really think about what they are doing [during family ceremonies] … this is a typical example of the “nihonjinron” or conscious or unconscious feeling that their own race and culture is in a class by itself and cannot simply be compared to others.

We see here the dark side of religious studies: if the subject people does not want to be included in our peculiar Weltgeist, they’re either too ignorant to understand their own culture, or they think they’re better than us! Both these claims are clearly based directly on a belief in “religion” as an immutable, universal, and sacred category. Augustine is not the first religious scholar to make condescending generalizations about Japanese self-identity; D.C. Holtom shrugged off Japanese complaints in a similar way in the 1930s, leading to the invention of the term “State Shinto” to describe Japanese fascism religiously and the pronouncement of a “Shinto Directive” during the Allied Occupation which imposed Western secularism by force.

One could argue that interfaith dialogue, drawing distinctions between religions and explaining them, has deepened understanding between Christians and Jews as well as other “faith communities”, but has “religion” really done any work here that “culture” could not? In fact, is it even proper to describe Judaism as “religion” when it is practiced culturally by a large number of atheists? Meanwhile, the sanctity of the religious category has served to create a perception in India of an irreconcilable divide between Hindus and Muslims. To claim despite all this that religious studies is a net benefactor on our perception of current events, you must first confess your faith in its theological tenets—for example, Augustine’s belief “that the mysterious Source-Ground from which all religions have emerged has fired the inspiration of very different charismatic leaders in hundreds of different societies in every age”. (No wonder he so vehemently denies Japanese non-religiosity.)

For the rest of us, it is well past time to open up the discourse. Not only questions of “religious” and “secular”, but also constantly changing categories like “state”, “politics”, “civility”, “barbarity”, and so forth, must be examined in a way that does not hold any of these words to be endowed with any permanent and unchanging meaning throughout the centuries. If this approach is bad-mouthed as postmodernism, I deny the accusation: this is Buddhism, and the philosophy I here employ is emptiness. If critics insist on relying on some particular definition for any of these words, that will allow them to examine Japanese society from the perspective of the Religion and the Church, then they are relying on a different perspective in which some concepts are written in the sky, unchanging now and forever. To those people, I leave the job of repairing religious studies. They can write whatever they like—just don’t assume that anyone will automatically consider it relevant.

There is much work to be done, to present the worlds of non-Western societies in a comprehensible way that does not diminish the value they give to insiders. To the prospective scholar, I ask: are you willing to take on the challenge?

Posted: March 11th, 2010 | Japan, Postcolonialism, Secular-Religious