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Today we’re going to talk about that startling moment when I realized that I applied very different standards of critical evaluation to my own religion compared to other religions–a moment that, ironically, could only happen for me when plunked down in a culture that totally didn’t care about Christianity.

John Loftus, a well-educated and experienced ex-Christian, came up with “the Outsider Test For Faith,” which is–simply put–applying the same standards to one’s own religion that one applies to other religions. In other words, why does a Christian reject Islam but embrace Christianity? Or scoff at Wicca but accept the mysticism and contradictions in Christianity? Or say with perfect confidence that Norse paganism must be false, but in the next breath that Christianity’s various truth claims are absolutely factual?

Sometimes one hears non-believers say something like, “When you understand why you reject Mithras, you’ll understand why I reject Jesus.” Christians don’t often comprehend this comparison, though. Obviously Jesus is real, and Mithras is fake, right? I used to think that obviously people only rejected Jesus because they wanted to sin, or didn’t want to submit to authority–but I rejected other religions because they were fake. I’d embraced Christianity because I’d become convinced, rationally and objectively, that it was true, while others people rejected it out of emotional, irrational, purely subjective reasons–and embraced whatever they did embrace for the same biased reasons. It never even occurred to me to judge us all by the same yardstick.

This insistence on double standards is called special pleading. It’s an actual logical fallacy. One famous example of special pleading revolves around creationism: Creationists argue that everything has a cause, including the universe–but when skeptics ask what caused their god, they all but fall over their own two feet trying to backpedal in some special pleading. Well, obviously their god didn’t have a first cause. He was eternal. So neener.

In the same way, Christians will often regard the miracles of other faiths as either false or demonic in nature. When I found out how many other cultures had flood narratives eerily similar to the one found in the Bible’s story of Noah’s Ark, my church apologists hand-waved those other stories aside as being demonically-inspired imitations of the real story–which was of course the one in my Bible. When I pointed out that some of these narratives seem to be considerably older than the Bible’s story, I was told that of course they were; Satan was invested in planting seeds of doubt, so he’d started the myths of other cultures earlier. I’m not even kidding. That is what I got told when I shared my concerns about the matter with educated elders in my church. The mind simply boggles at how someone could hear that and think it’s even halfway acceptable as an explanation! I didn’t accept it, if you’re wondering; I thought they were being complete blithering idiots, and it was a big stumbling block for me as a Christian to hear something this ludicrous offered as a way of explaining a real problem for Biblical inerrancy (and you can imagine how hard I stumbled over finding out that no, actually, there was never a Great Flood over the whole planet anyway).

Sapporo Factory
Sapporo Factory (Photo credit: Smashcut). I lived fairly close to
this building, I think; there was a car dealership in a log cabin across the street.

Ironically, before ever landing in Japan I had read my way through Larson’s Book of Cults, which was considered essential reading for people in my church (spoiler: he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about). Never once in reading this book did I wonder how the author could so easily dismiss other religions’ beliefs but promote his own–how he could say that the claims of, say, Hinduism were false, when they had exactly the same “evidence” that Christianity had. So when I got to Japan, I knew a bit about Buddhism and Shintoism, but I really had no idea what it was really about or what function it had in the lives of everyday people in Japan. I assumed that they were like Christians back home; remember, I didn’t know a lot of non-Christians and relied heavily on the privilege that Christianity had given me.

Almost immediately, I realized that Japan is largely secular. I didn’t know where any churches were at all–remember, I didn’t even make contact with fellow Pentecostals until very late in my stay there. I did see monasteries dotting the area, but nobody seemed really over-excited about them.

Then I began to notice something that I’d certainly never noticed back home: the little details of how people entwined all kinds of religions to make something that seemed to work for them–and how strangely similar those details were to my own religion.

It all began while shopping for apartment goods at a department store. This shop was located in a vast arcade downtown–though it was technically outdoors, an arching glass cover protected shoppers below from the elements, so it was a popular place to buy just about anything anybody needed. As we left one place with appliances in hand (wrapped in bright yellow paper, or if they were too big to wrap, there’d at least be a strip of wrapping-paper taped to the box as a futile attempt to at least pretend wrapping had occurred), I noticed some teenaged girls standing in front of a little waterworks feature. I’d seen this feature before now and thought it was just some decoration–a little waterfall with stone carvings of what looked like dragons, lots of green plants growing lushly all around this display, plus spindly trees with bits of white paper tied into their otherwise barren branches.

The girls initially attracted my notice because they wore stuffed animals as backpacks, which I thought (and still think) was too cute for words. But they were doing something that just about stunned me. They were taking bits of white paper out of a wooden cup set into the display, writing on the paper, and then carefully folding the paper and tying it to the trees.

Very quickly I realized that they were writing down prayers or supplications. The whole thing looked so pagan I barely knew what to think! That whole tree–covered as it was so thickly that the girls had to struggle to find a bare spot for their little papers–was nothing but prayers. And there was not a cross or Jesus picture in sight.

But they didn’t look religious at all. They giggled self-consciously at themselves the whole time. Then, their mission accomplished, they walked on into a music shop nearby. I didn’t tell Biff what I saw, but tried to figure out why it’d bothered me so much. By now, I knew that Christianity had borrowed from a number of pagan sources to create itself, so why did seeing this Shinto supplication bother me? Was this folk custom all that different from how Christians will write down prayers in “prayer books” in hospitals and in churches all over America? And the inescapable answer came ringing like a bell: No, it was not. (But a prayer tree is a lot prettier than a binder, one must admit.)

Sapporo at Night
Sapporo at Night (Photo credit: filmvanalledag)

Slowly, as I adjusted to life in this new country, I began to notice the downright syncretistic approach Japan had to religion. On the bus I took to work, I saw constant advertisements for “Western-style” weddings–in Christian-styled wedding venues, with models in white wedding dresses that looked distinctly 80s-style to me, veils, cakes, the whole nine yards. I began to pick up on the fact that these Western-style weddings took place in a largely secular context; after this ceremony, the couples would then go on to the “real” ceremony in more of a Japanese style. But America had successfully taught them to crave and yearn for the storybook church wedding. Why should this bother me? Most American wedding customs come from a variety of cultures and religious ideologies. Was this a lot different from the very pagan “unity candle” concept that so many couples were already adopting into their homebrew ceremonies back home? And again, the answer rang like a bell: No, it was not.

But really, it was the television set I got that helped me recognize how ignorant I’d been. Oh, and don’t I know that Pentecostals regard television as demonic! I wonder now if it’s the sex and violence on display, or the simple fact that most TV shows don’t idolize the things right-wing Christians idolize. The former might be tiresome to someone who doesn’t want to see such things, but the latter is downright dangerous to the insular, circled-wagons mindset I’d recently been such a fervent part of. Even so, I can tell you this: there’s something more powerful than indoctrination, and that is stultifying boredom.

I’d already gone through all the books we’d brought with us. I was down to reading my world atlas for the articles. At the Foreigners’ Center downtown there was a take-and-leave bookshelf, and I’d gone through every book on it that seemed halfway interesting (I still have one, a guide to taking long camping trips in Australia in tiny cars, and for a while it was my only real source of information about Australia besides Crocodile Dundee movies). Biff was surprisingly receptive to the idea of getting a TV. He might have still been fully-indoctrinated, but we were both a little progressive on the topic of television, and recognized that not all TV shows were demonic or evil. For some reason we both were addicted to Star Trek: The Next Generation–so much so that when our normal viewing venue, the Student Union Center at the university, had to close for renovations, we got a little television set to watch it at home–keeping it in the closet for the most part otherwise. So yes, we bought a used set from an American who was going back home (we’ll talk more about that whole episode soon) and I set about figuring out Japanese television.

I was soon awash in game shows that looked absolutely sadistic. Guys would dress up in gorilla suits and intentionally frighten shoppers in dairy aisles. You don’t want to know what they did to the hapless users of public port-a-potties, but I’ll hint you anyway; one prank involved building a long water slide and trapdoor beneath the toilet. One memorable show involved public hot springs: a young man went into an otherwise-abandoned men’s pool and got all comfortable in the warm water, and dozens of naked women of all ages came into the area with their washcloths on their heads and started bathing and socializing alongside the horrified young man as if they couldn’t even see him there. As bad as reality TV is in America, it does not hold a candle to the sheer mind-boggling atrocities I saw in Japan in the 90s. I avoided them, preferring instead samurai soap operas.

But what really got my attention was Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon had not yet reached American shores. I’d never even heard of it. It’d only been out a year or two at this point. My first brush with it was on that little television set in my freezing little apartment in snowy Sapporo.

If you’ve never heard of it, it’s about some high-school girls who discover they’re really the guardians of the world. Each heroine takes on the identity of a celestial body, so there was a Sailor Moon, a Sailor Mars, a Sailor Jupiter, and so on. Their leader was the pretty, gluttonous, ditzy blonde Sailor Moon, and she was crushing hard on another superhero who I later learned was called Tuxedo Mask. They were all still in school, so they had secret identities and fought evildoers in cute little sailor uniforms. So it was sort of like Hannah Montana except without the weird Purity Culture faux-empowerment stuff or the “moral of the story” cut-scene ending American kiddie cartoons often feature.

And one character in the cast, Sailor Mars, was unabashedly spiritual.

But not Christian.

Rei Hino Sailor Mars
Rei Hino Sailor Mars (Photo credit: My Fantasy7).

Rei (Mars’ real name) was, you see, a fervent practitioner of Shinto. Often episodes would feature her wearing Shinto garb: a wraparound white shirt and voluminous red culottes. She worked as a volunteer at a Shinto shrine, something I learned many young women did in their spare time. When in costume, she often handled or threw those little prayer-papers at people she was fighting. Though she attended a Catholic parochial school, she had successfully integrated her spirituality with her public life and didn’t seem bothered at all by other people’s opinions about religion. In civilian life, she could be argumentative, strong-willed, and anything but demure, though she had this elegant and well-mannered streak that appealed mightily to me. Bear in mind, of course, that I couldn’t speak Japanese, so these were just my impressions. To me, she was clearly striding through both worlds–that of the spirit and that of the “flesh”–and doing it with not only success but aplomb.

Though I couldn’t understand much of what the characters were saying, I could see that Rei was spiritual without being a nutbar. She cared deeply about her faith system but didn’t feel the need to push it at others. She was secure in her self-image to the point where she didn’t need validation from anybody else. She had found balance. In other words, she was, in a lot of ways, my polar opposite. Also, she had purple hair.

My reaction to realizing that I’d been hugely ignorant of other cultures was to swallow my pride and try to learn more about the culture in which I found myself. Biff’s reaction, by contrast, was to get increasingly angry with the Japanese. He couldn’t manipulate them as he’d been used to doing back home–when they could understand him at all, they never gave him a firm answer about anything. And he was increasingly frustrated with Japanese people’s indifference to his religious fervor. They all but patted him on the head when he tried to approach the topic. The few English-speaking expats he got his hands on regarded Japan as an escape from all that religious hoo-hah, and refused even to discuss the matter with him. It didn’t escape me that most of them treated Biff like an unfortunate, boorish, ill-mannered child of a sidekick when he tried to hang out with them, and I don’t think it escaped Biff either. I was finally starting to see Biff through the eyes of others, and the picture wasn’t flattering.

When I finally realized that we would not succeed in Japan–that we had gotten dangerously close to the end of our money as well as the end of our visa–I told Biff that as we had agreed, we would need to arrange to go home. After he got over (most of) his anger with me for being the bearer of such bad tidings, we decided that maybe it was time to go see some of the sights “until we returned.”

The park we went to contained the city’s zoo and various other tourist attractions . It looked like something out of a Currier & Ives print; after visiting the zoo and admiring the snowy park grounds, we got cans of warm cocoa out of a vending machine–out of a vending machine, people!–and noticed a Shinto shrine nearby.

I didn’t realize how angry Biff was about this whole adventure until we visited the shrine. He was filled with bitterness and simmering rage at his failure, which manifested as boorish behavior at every turn that day. He thought it’d be a total hoot to drink out of the water-dippers at the front of the shrine (which you’re supposed to use to rinse your hands), then insisted on taking photographs of the priests blessing the shrine’s food offerings during a solemn ritual on a stage. I kept trying to stop him  as he snapped photos one after the other, and finally the priests showed us the door. I mean that literally. As all eyes turned to us, the ritual performer on the stage just froze. A pair of priests went to the exit, a large palisade-style wooden door, opened it, and patiently waited next to it, staring at us until we got the clue and left. I slunk out like a beaten dog; Biff strutted with pride. He’d been persecuted, you see, which meant the day wasn’t a total waste.

We walked around until we ended up at a very old Buddhist monastery downtown. I don’t know its name, but it was lovely, with carved panels at its open gate doors and a bell tower. Biff immediately climbed the bell tower and wanted to ring the massive bronze bell until I said I was going home right then without him if he didn’t get down. I was uncomfortable with treating sacred objects, even objects not sacred to my faith system, in such a distinctly disrespectful way. That Biff couldn’t see why what he was doing was so bad was actually helping me escape Christianity; I didn’t see why anything true or good needed to take a shit on other people’s nice things, and suddenly remembered a great many times I’d seen Christians doing similar things back home to express dominance and disapproval (and of course I still see them doing it–vandalizing billboards and atheist monuments, threatening people with violence and rape for speaking against Christianity, and generally treating other religions’ customs and sacred objects like Biff was treating them; in a memorable episode of Bullshit! about profanity, a meddling busybody Christian says she’s perfectly fine with swearing by another religion’s divinities, and hearing her say that, I’d remember that day in Sapporo with an uncomfortable twinge).

We decided to tour the monastery while we were there. We took off our shoes at my insistence, since you don’t wear outdoor-shoes indoors in Japan, and began padding around the monastery, astonished that nobody seemed to be around, much less tending potential visitors. The dark wooden beams and floor were shiny enough to see reflections in it, contrasting with the white plaster and paint of the walls; the snow and ice visible through the low, wide windows gave everything a profoundly ethereal grace. Absolutely alone, we marveled at the golden statues in their sanctuary and gazed in wonder at the precisely-arranged rooms with their sparse furnishings and occasional silk paintings. Later, I’d learn that this place had existed for over five hundred years, which didn’t shock me at all. The air of sanctification and holiness clung to the place, and it surprised me to realize I was feeling the same awe and glory here that I felt in churches back home.

Despite the cold outside, it wasn’t too bad inside, and we spent a good long time there. Eventually, we came to the monks’ dining hall, where they all looked up at us in total astonishment as they slurped their noodles–and we realized that the reason we had been able to roam unmolested was that everybody was at lunch right then, and we’d accidentally begun our tour at the wrong end of the building, thereby missing the “please come back later” sign we now could see at what we now realized was the monastery’s foyer. Whoops. At least we didn’t get thrown out of a second place, but left quickly after making a great many apologies which the visibly-annoyed monks probably didn’t understand at all.

It took me a long time to really unpack what’d happened to me emotionally in Japan, both in good and bad ways. But here’s the thing I realized right away:

Japan was largely secular. People there might offer prayers at shrines, but they didn’t go to church every Sunday and they largely conducted themselves in the public sphere in ways that were entirely religion-free. Nobody prayed at anybody in public or tried to proselytize. No government bodies struggled with just what sort of prayers or public acknowledgment were acceptable under law. Everybody considered religion to be a very private thing, not something you talk to other people about much at all if ever. And yet spirituality was very important to a great number of Japanese people. Most of the people I met had some kind of spiritual leaning, though they might not practice anything formally. Beneath the surface of their secular society teemed a great number of folk beliefs and byways. In many ways it could not be different from how most Americans see their faith–very publicly showy and grandstanding, but in private, not terribly devoted or even knowledgeable.

That said, though, I came to see that if I applied the exact same standards I used in judging what I saw of Japan’s religions to Christianity, both religions would fail. They had claims and myths just like Christianity did, and a host of folk customs just like Christianity did. I could not scoff at Shintoism or Buddhism without seeing uncomfortable parallels with Christianity. And certainly mistreating another religion’s artifacts and buildings was just as bad as mistreating those belonging to my own religion. Christianity wasn’t actually special. I was starting to suspect that I’d only been so enthused about Christianity and only considered it superior to other religions because I hadn’t actually understood any other religions! I would never again fall victim to special pleading or consider Christianity as intrinsically superior.

The biggest advantage I gained by trying to move to Japan was that it let me deconvert more gracefully by letting me examine my beliefs and customs in a perfectly safe space. By removing me from my familiar, comfortable territory, that trip allowed me to view my culture through the lens of an outsider–something very hard to do while one is immersed in one’s home culture and knows nothing else. I was finally able to see that I’d cut Christianity a lot of slack that I simply had never cut for other religions. I don’t honestly know if I’d have seen that if I hadn’t moved to Japan.

Another thing I would learn in Japan was to look very critically at “conventional” standards of beauty–when I found myself the unexpected object of a Japanese woman’s admiration. We’ll be going to a party, so dress accordingly!


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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...