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Press: Japan’s government falls into New Atheist trap  

13 January 2023


ONE of the foundational texts of the New Atheist movement was an Amnesty lecture that Mary Midgley used to call “Nick’s Fascist paper”. Delivered by the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey in Oxford in the late 1990s, it argued that bringing up children as Creationists ought to be classified as child abuse and punished by the State accordingly. While not as egregious as Sam Harris’s later claim that science and objectivity demanded that we torture terrorist suspects, it was still an early sign of the rage for persecution which overcame the nice liberal Left as its dreams began to sour.

Now it appears that the Japanese government is learning the same lessons, or falling into the same trap. It has brought forward a law in response to the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, by a man who blamed the Moonies for his mother’s descent into bankruptcy after she gave them more than half a million pounds, and the subsequent impoverishment of her children (News, 15 July 2022).

The less controversial aspect is the one highlighted by The Guardian: “The new law prohibits all organisations — not just those of a religious nature — from using scare tactics and gaslighting, as well as making ‘unreasonable’ spiritual claims, to secure donations, the Kyodo news agency said.

“Members of groups found to have unfairly solicited donations could face a prison sentence of up to one year or a maximum fine of ¥1m (£6000), according to Kyodo. It will also allow donors’ spouses and children to cancel financial contributions on their behalf, it added.”

True to form, the paper then goes on to speculate about the group’s influence on Japanese opposition to same-sex marriage, since it is an almost unbreakable rule of Guardian coverage that churches exist to prohibit sexual expression of one kind or another.

FOR the Financial Times, however, the story is more complicated. “The new law . . . seeks to codify whether donors are under ‘mind control’ at the point of donation and to clamp down on the excesses of ‘spiritual sales’ — religious items presented as indispensable and sold for exorbitant sums.

“But there are other prongs to the government’s attack. . . Using religious threats to forbid a child from reading manga comics or playing video games, under the new guidelines, could be considered psychological abuse. Critically, that could also now include a parent warning their child that they will go to hell (or similar) if they do not do as instructed. Various faiths will argue that parents have the right to warn their children of any unprovable threat — from the agonising torments of Naraka, the Buddhist version of hell, to navel-stealing ogres — in which they themselves believe. And even if they do not.”

So far as I can see, if the law were universally adopted, it would empty the shops of the Via della Conciliazione, which leads up to St Peter’s Square, and destroy the merchandising branches of the big Pentecostal operations. As the FT says, in a Japanese context, “The concept of fair value, for example, in the sale of any spiritual goods . . . is meaningless if their worth to the buyer lies in the blessing placed on them.”

The last time I was being shown around Osaka, we dropped into a temple where a tree in the courtyard was festooned with little prayer tablets asking for success in examinations. I doubt those were free, either.

Everyone knows that the Japanese law is, in fact, aimed at the Unification Church, and is part of a purge of those Liberal Democrat politicians who have profited injudiciously from its funds: four Cabinet ministers have already been forced to resign. It’s most unlikely to be extended to cover anything that mainstream opinion regards as respectable. The FT story warns that if it does “come to include, however obliquely, Japan’s mainstay religions of Shinto and Buddhism, and even the substantial Christian presence here, the political backlash could be more severe than the one it was meant to head-off”.

THE whole story is an extreme example of the widespread contemporary belief that “religion” is something that other people do, and a reminder that whether something qualifies as a cult depends on its social distance from the outside world, not on any intrinsic properties of its beliefs. Faith systems can move both ways, as is shown by the slow transformation of the Quakers from outcast lunatics to cuddly eccentrics who believe what every other Guardian reader does, only more so. But that took centuries.

In fact, you could construct a scale that ran all the way from “useful social-bonding rituals” through “religion” and on to “cult” which simply measured how widespread any particular practice was in a society, and how much revulsion it aroused in outsiders. Where would tithing fall on such a scale today?

Evangelical and conversion-orientated religious movements will always want to emphasise their distinctiveness and distance from mainstream society. Otherwise, why bother with conversion? As Christianity moves to the periphery of normal life in Western Europe, we see forces within the Churches trying to push it still further out.

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