Dealing with the Modern Crisis of Religiosity: Reflections from the Aum Case

Charles Muller, Toyo Gakuen University

In the aftermath of the Aum case, various suggestions as to the causes of dangerous cult mentality, and possible measures for its prevention have been offered in the Japanese media, but it seems that a much more penetrating diagnosis is necessary than that thus far proffered. To merely lay blame to the person of Shoko Asahara, or the phenomenon of mind control, or an insensitivity, ineptitude, or lack of resources on the part of the Japanese police, is to grossly oversimplify and objectify a problem which has complex roots within the structure of the very institutions and values which Japanese society regards as its greatest assets.

The origins of the Aum problem cannot be totally separated from the causes of other social ills which plague all modern societies, such as politically based terrorism, random violence, bullying, drug abuse and organized crime. Nonetheless, since this problem has occurred within what is ostensibly classified as a religious entity, its causes necessarily have distinctive philosophical/religious characteristics. I submit that among the multiplicity of factors which might lead an individual to be ensnared by a harmful cult, two of the most prominent, and which I will address in this paper, are 1) a strong personal need within the individual for spiritual/religious experience, and 2) a significant level of naivete on the part of the person regarding the domain of the spiritual/religious. In view of this, I further suggest that a significant part of the solution must be sought for within the sphere of education, especially the education that is concerned with philosophy and religion.

The role of education concerning the causes and the solutions to this problem has recently been under discussion in the Japanese media, but these discussions thus far have lacked the candor, urgency and insight appropriate to the matter. For example, Prof. Akita Arima, a nuclear physicist and former president of Tokyo university has stated "that the desire that Aum followers have for acquiring supernatural powers can be blamed on the lack of proper science education." (Japan Times, 5/17/95) This seems to be a rather odd assessment, when one considers the fact that Aum's key attack team was led by highly trained scientists from some of the best schools in the country. On the other hand, Prof. Junichi Nishizawa, president of Tohoku University, lays the blame for the susceptibility to cult mind control on Japan's oppressive examination system, which, he says, teaches only rote memorization of facts, and not how to think. (Japan Times 5/23/95) I believe that Prof. Nishizawa's analysis comes much closer to identifying the problem, but like others who lay blame to the exam system, he hesitates to offer concrete alternatives, and in the final analysis really doubts the possibility of making significant changes in the system.

As a long-time student of religion, I am of the opinion that properly taught, and properly practiced religion is one of the most important components to the building of a stable human being and a healthy society. I do not wish to imply that it is necessary for each person to formally be a member of a specific religious system, or that a specific religion should be promulgated by the state. But every individual does need a moral basis, together with the conceptual framework with which to analyze and contemplate the deeper questions of life in an unbiased and thoroughgoing manner. In traditional cultures, the responsibility of providing people with a moral basis, and with the conceptual tools to contemplate on the deeper dimensions of human existence, fell in the hands of the overlapping disciplines of philosophy and religion, and to a lesser degree within the study of literature and the fine arts. In recent times, however, the influence of these disciplines in society has dramatically diminished.

During the past couple of centuries, some of the world's leading religious thinkers, men such as Friedrich Nietzche (Germany), Keiji Nishitani (Japan) and Thomas Altizer (U.S.) have foretold the disappearance of religion/spirituality from society and warned us of the ominous dangers inherent in that disappearance. One of the most lucid accounts of how this disappearance came about is that provided in Nishitani's famous work Religion and Nothingness (Japanese title: Shky to wa nani ka) where he traces the disappearance of religion from the modern world and its replacement by a profound and pervasive nihilism. Since this nihilism has crept into modern society gradually and surreptitiously, most people are aware of it in only an unconscious way.

We can summarize the historical development of the condition of religious nihilism in this way: In pre-modern, traditional societies (both East and West), instruction on morality, philosophy and religion formed the basis of the educational system, and concomitantly helped to form the core of the fabric of society. But with the advent of science and materialism, there arose a serious conflict. In the West, scientific inquiries and discoveries seriously undermined literal interpretations of the bible (theretofore considered an historically definitive document) about the origin and age of the universe. Narrow-minded religious leaders, fearful not only of refutation of religious doctrines, but also the loss of their position as the high priests of society, initially held the upper hand, and were able to suppress early scientists and their new discoveries. But over a period of a few centuries, science, which could not progress without freedom from the shackles of religious restrictions of thought, gradually succeeded in total elimination of religion from its position as the determinant of social principles. This was accomplished primarily through the ousting of religion from its deeply entrenched position in the classroom. The climax of the scientific revolution of education in the U.S. came in 1962, when prayer was officially banned from public schools. It was soon after this that Altizer shocked the American religious consciousness by declaring with force that "God is dead."

In East Asia, education had long been centered around instruction in Confucian and Buddhist morality and philosophy. But this classical system met insuperable criticism during the nineteenth century, as it was identified as the culprit for the East's falling so far behind the West in the development of science and technology. Later on, in Japan, a quasi-religious form of education--the combination of selected Confucian moralisms and emperor worship, became the brainwashing medium which supported Japan's disastrous entry into armed conflict with its Asian neighbors and the United States. As a reaction to this, after the war, the basic curriculum of the new educational system which was instituted was based to a great degree on Western scientific models, marginalizing moral and philosophical training. Although the original minimization of philosophical education may have been the direct result of an ideological backlash, the absence of philosophical curriculum also allowed the Japanese Ministry of Education further latitude in implementing the national objectives of the development of scientific/technological prowess and the attainment of international economic predominance.

In the United States, the removal of the humanities from the center of education by science was a gradual, but inexorable process. As Gerald Graff has elucidated in his excellent book on the history of the development of the American university (Professing Literature), it was not just religion which suffered at from the scientization of education (especially higher education), but the broad area of the humanities in general: literature, philosophy and the fine arts. Advocates of science disparaged the classical humanities disciplines for being inexact and incapable of defining their value to society in concrete material terms. At the same time, the government, which had a vested interest in the development of science and technology, tended more and more to place its funding in the natural sciences, engineering and other disciplines which were capable of demonstrating concrete material benefits for the nation. This situation has been exacerbated during the economic slumps of the 80's and 90's, as continuous academic budget cutting has become a way of life. Science and technology programs, which consistently draw both private and public monetary support, are preserved to the greatest extent possible, while humanities programs tend to suffer the greatest cutbacks. And among these, programs in philosophy and religion, perhaps least capable of demonstrating tangible profitability or applicability, have usually suffered the most. The long term effect of this kind of education is manifested in the creation of a society which is fully materialistic and super-secularized. An ever-increasing percentage of students graduate from high school and college utterly incapable of analyzing an abstract conceptual problem, and are even less capable putting their conclusions in writing.

Allowing proper credit to the natural science disciplines, it should be acknowledged that it was the development of scientific methods of analysis which lifted humanity out of its ignorance concerning the material world. The scientific revolution was of vital necessity, even if many myths had to be destroyed in the process. And it was found that scientific attitudes of critical analysis also could be beneficial when properly used in humanistic studies. The problem, as Graff outlines for us, came when scientific methodology was raised to the position of being the only truth. Science, with the support of the government, did not stop at the point of obtaining an equal, balanced, position with humanistic studies--it demanded its subjugation.

It must also be acknowledged that in both East and West, humanities fields, and especially philosophy and religion, have, not infrequently, been poorly and/or wrongly used. They have often either ended up as meaningless exercises in the rote memorization of incomprehensible classics, or have been used in partial, arbitrary and dogmatic fashion for the purpose of ideological control. Confucianism, Christianity and Islam all have lengthy dogmatic and repressive episodes in their history. But on the other hand, philosophy and religion, have, when properly taught, been known to greatly enhance the critical/analytical powers of the human mind, cultivating the individual's ability make well-founded value judgements. In fact, one of the major reasons that literary/philosophical training has suffered from repression in various cultures throughout history, is because it has the capacity to open people's minds, such that they are able to see things in a totally different light than that which society has conditioned. When too many people learn how to think critically, there is a distinct possibility that they will begin to question certain social norms, or become able to see through the designs of deceptive government policies. In other words, the same abilities that can enable people to see though cult-based mind control might also allow them to see through other kinds of more generally accepted mind control.

In this modern, profoundly nihilistic age, religion and philosophy are rarely taught, and thus, rarely studied, except by those who are willing to sacrifice themselves to specialize. In the few places where religion is taught in an official or traditional way, it is quite often in a boring, dead, or inapplicable manner. This is the main reason why modern Buddhism and Christianity find so much difficulty in attracting a significant number of energetic and intelligent followers. Modern society, which, when dealing with its most critical problems, only accords recognition to the material world as defined by modern science, has declared religion and philosophy a farce, the domain of disconnected super-intellectuals and bogus mystics. Modern society has for the most part forgotten, or denied the human need for religious/spiritual nourishment. Thus we live in a world where a large number of people either couldn't care less about spiritual matters, or, at the other extreme are thoroughly starved in spirit and blinded by naiveté. Young people, especially those around college age, who are not quite yet ready to make their leap into working society, are often quite curious about such topics as the existence of a soul, afterlife, and various other philosophical questions, which for most their lives have gone wholly unaddressed. There are also large numbers of people of various ages, from all walks of life, who are suffering alone from personal tragedy, or who have been bullied or rejected in some other way by their society. All you need at this point is for someone like Shoko Asahara, David Koresh or any other deluded proponent of a self-devised "religion" to come along and, whammo--they attract these spiritually-starved, vulnerable people like bees to honey, while the rest of society looks on in utter dismay, wondering what has gone wrong.

The strong desire of today's young people to know about religion has been poignantly impressed on me in the course of my experience of teaching East Asian philosophy and religion at the university level for several years in the U.S. During the past decade, an increasing number of colleges and universities in the U.S. have begun to offer courses in East Asian thought, mostly, no doubt, as a grudging concession to "political correctness." At SUNY Stony Brook, where I taught, our religious studies department routinely had three to four times the allowable number of students trying to sign up for courses in philosophy and religion, and especially those in East Asian philosophy and religion. No matter how many sections of Buddhism or Confucianism and Taoism we opened, we completely filled every one of them. Many of my colleagues teaching in the same field in the U.S. have reported similar experiences. What was even more surprising to me, beyond the unexpected high number of enrollment, was the incredible degree of interest demonstrated by these students once they got into the class, especially in view of the fact that very few of them were religion, or even humanities majors. I have also noticed a similar interest on the part of university students that I have taught in Japan. Although I am presently only teaching courses in English conversation, I find that when I occasionally diverge into the discussion of an "exotic" topic such as Buddhism, Taoism, or Western philosophy, the students, whose attention is otherwise almost impossible to hold, immediately become quiet and riveted on what I am saying. Having discovered this, I have even occasionally used this as a device to quiet down the class and focus their attention.

At this juncture, I must pause to make a point to my Japanese audience regarding my understanding of the concept "study of religion": In the United States, an increasingly greater portion of religious studies at the university level is being carried out by major public and private "secular" universities. Religious studies in this framework refers to the impartial study of all major religious traditions through modern non-sectarian modes of critical analysis. This is as distinguished from the past, when college and graduate school "religious studies" referred almost exclusively to Christian seminary-style education. In the U.S., it is usually assumed that the scholar who is studying a particular religious sect is not a member of the sect being studied, but a critical observer, analyst and reporter. Even in the case that he is sympathetic to, or a practitioner of the religious belief, by the time he gains a Ph.D. he is almost by necessity, by the nature of the highly critical and analytic style of graduate school training, quite well distanced from emotional and devotional attitudes toward the sect. In Japan, on the other hand, it is often assumed that the shkygakusha (scholar of religion) is either an actual member of, or quite sympathetic to the religious sect under examination. The role of critic of religion lies mainly in the hands of journalists. Therefore, when I talk about the study of philosophy and religion at the secondary level, I am not talking about making students into adherents of any particular religious denomination, but rather about teaching students the basic components of the world's major religious traditions, and how to analyze these thought systems in a critical manner. If students can learn how to think critically, they can apply these skills to any new paradigm that is presented to them.

The extreme extent of the development of Aum's antisocial behavior is unusual for a religious cult. But even without going to the extremes that Aum did, the number of new religious cults who practice some form of mind-control, and whose teachings and practices are seriously damaging to individual members as well as society in general is quite considerable. Yet on the other hand, there are also religious groups which are based on correct principles, who are led by people with wisdom, compassion and integrity. Indeed, some of the most important religious traditions in the world, such as Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, started out as cults surrounding one charismatic individual. And much of what the neophyte hears when he enters any religious group, whether good or bad, is bound to sound similar. So how is one who is interested in "living religion" to discern between the real and the fake?

Two assets are necessary. The first is a basic background in what the doctrines of the major world religions really are. The doctrinal systems of bogus cults are so confused and full of contradictions, that anyone with even a moderate background in philosophy and religion can easily discern these and avoid being tricked. Again, I cite Aum as an example. By now, almost any TV watcher in Japan knows the major points of the background of the top twenty or so members of the sect. From the guru Asahara on down, have we yet heard of any member who possessed a previously strong background in religion? I'm sorry, Professor Arima, but all of the people with high levels of education were scientists. The rest were lawyers, policemen, SDF members, businessmen or even yakuza thugs. Furthermore, in discussions I have had with Aum followers, I have uniformly found even senior believers to be wholly ignorant of actual religious doctrine. They claim to be Buddhists, but in fact their heads are merely filled with a mishmash of confused doctrines that they have been taught within the sect. I have found this to generally be the case with cult members around the world. What they know of philosophy and religion is nothing more than what comes directly out of the mouth of the guru. And the guru himself, quite commonly has only read a smattering of arbitrarily selected texts in the process of creating his "doctrine."

So we need to re-institute or increase, some form of education on philosophy/religion and morality in the schools. In implementing this, care must be taken that this moral education does not contain sectarian biases, or become a vehicle for extremists with political ambitions. The fundamentalist cry to "return to a moral society" has been repeated many times in history, in various cultures. But when such fundamentalist, retrogressive changes have been attempted, they have almost always become the vehicles for ascendancy to power of selfish, narrow-minded and oppressive political groups. Therefore, it is essential that future moral/religious instruction be open-minded and non-sectarian. Once a proper, unbiased curriculum is developed, the re-introduction of morality/philosophy/religion to education need not be a total revolution of the system. Just perhaps the addition of one course throughout all levels of education, which directly addresses humanistic- spiritual principles, teaching the basic tenets of the world's major traditions in a manner appropriate to the age of the students. The instruction on, and valorization of morality should be carried out at all levels of education, but is perhaps most important at the primary level.

The second aspect of the remedy consists of rigorous instruction in methods of critical humanistic thinking, similar to those being taught in humanities and social science programs at the better universities in the United States. This kind of approach to education would be of value anywhere in the world, but particularly so in Japan, where students are so benumbed from the kind of learning which consists mainly of the memorization of facts and the learning of techniques for passing entrance examinations. Of course, trying to make changes within the current style of the examination system to reflect this new kind of study will be problematic, because the kind of training in critical analysis of which I am speaking, by its nature defies the kind of ritualization, standardization and ideological conformity demanded by the current examination system.

Nonetheless, a start could be made at the university level, which is the stage where students no longer have any entrance exams to take, and are preparing for their assimilation into society. The university is our last chance to offer students more opportunities to develop their spiritual awareness, as well as a sophisticated set of conceptual tools, so that they are capable of analyzing themselves and their world in a critical and accurate fashion. I suspect that Japan, like most countries, will drag its heels in making these vitally necessary changes, and just keep on trying to get away as long as possible using the current imbalanced system.

On the other hand, the country which first demonstrates the courage to tackle the problem of spiritual nihilism, is the first country that is going to begin its return to mental health.