How do Religions Die?

Many religions have died, some major ones like the pantheons of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, that of the Celts and the Norse, and those of the Central and South American Aztec and Inca civilizations. There are far more dead religions than live ones, but a surprising number linger on. Ever wonder why? What does it take to finally kill off a religion?

Death of the Believers

Some religions can die out by suicide, as with The Peoples Temple organized and directed by American Jim Jones in 1978 when over 900 people drank a sugar drink laced with cyanide. An American religious group, Heaven’s Gate, had 39 followers commit suicide in 1997. But these are so rare as to really not be relevant to this discussion. They are sensational, but no religion starts by assuming its own demise. These anomalies are attributable to psychotic or mentally ill leaders with followers who would blindly follow them into the abyss of their own mental illness.

Religion could also be stamped out by other religions. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are probably the all-time world record holders in this, and would surely deserve a mention in the “Guinness Book of World Records”, were such consequential accomplishments deemed worthy of notoriety.

Although, the Hebrews in Judah (the Southern Kingdom) taught that all neighboring unbelievers should be killed and they had no toleration for such people other than as slaves or concubines, they were such a puny group that their intolerance had no real effect on world events. They could never even beat the Philistines despite frequent attempts and constant divine intervention. There is no evidence that the more powerful Northern Kingdom of Hebrews (“Israel”) ever practiced this intolerant doctrine which appears to have been the exclusive perversion of the Kingdom of Judah.

Until the Christians came on the scene, there is scarce evidence for any wholesale religious persecution, per se. Yes, the Sumerians stole each other’s holy statues when they conquered each other’s cities, and the Romans often asked conquered people to sacrifice to the Roman State gods. But, before the advent of the major monotheisms, no examples were found of people (religious group?) coming in and killing people of other religions just because they refused to convert. Looking at the earliest well recorded kingdoms of the Egyptians, Hittites, Akkadians and Assyrians, they all believed that their gods were powerful, and it was up to conquered peoples whether they wanted to “convert” or not, but the gods primarily were tribal ones, as was YHWH of the Hebrews. The gods of the tribal religion worked for one select group of people, but not necessarily for anyone else.

Many times conquered peoples were killed for other reasons, like resisting the invaders (the Assyrians and later the Mongols were very good at this), but not explicitly for reasons of religion. There is some indication that the Romans did want to stamp out certain Celtic or druidic practices (mostly owing to the continuation of human sacrifice), but details are sketchy. Certain areas of the Roman world did outlaw various sects and practices, from time to time and for various reasons (like the cult of Cybele, where male devotes would ritually castrate themselves – which was not exactly a “wholesome” activity from the Roman’s rather Stoic perspective). The last gasps of the pagan Empire’s attempt to stem the tide of Christianity never really amounted to much in the way of actual persecution, despite the Christian tales to the contrary. Even the last openly pagan Emperor, Julian, in 361-363 CE , just wanted the re-establishment of the old religion and, more so, the old philosophies, and not a cancellation of Christianity. But his reign was short and the intolerance of Christianity won out.

The polytheistic religions always had room for a new god, or could accommodate someone’s differently named god for the same divine principle (fertility, earth, sky, war, hearth, rain, etc.). This ability to accept an equation with another peoples’ gods is sometimes now called syncretism, but in its day believers appear to have felt comfortable calling the gods of another religion by names from their own pantheon. “What you call “x”, we call “y”.”  There are numerous examples of this in Classical Greek and Roman literature, of which probably the most famous are the early writings of Herodotus.

We do not know if the various Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions ever developed a similar concept, or if they were just tolerant without bothering about the underlying philosophical conflicts. We don’t know if this was unique, as there are no written records of how different religions interacted in the American and African tribal groups, for example. We have no consistent evidence of either overt tolerance or of religious wars or expurgations.

Asia, including Central Asia, has always been rather tolerant of new religions, with various forms of Buddhism, Manichaeism, Hinduism, Christianity and later Islam the main beneficiaries of this attitude, as they travelled along the silk route and the Indian Ocean trade routes mingling with and in many cases merging with existing animist traditions.

But the Christians deserve a whole blog to themselves. They took religious intolerance to an obscene level, once they came to prominence which they could do because of the tremendous power that they exercised through rulers whose control over the populace was absolute and given divine sanction. Emperors and later kings ruled through the newly reinvigorated concept of divine right, and therefore the monarchy and church were united on their ability to control the population. A threat to one meant a threat to the other, and once Christians were empowered they wasted no time wiping out rivals (who were deemed heretics) and competitors (the followers of what was now deemed paganism and even the followers of “pagan” philosophy). A list of those who were expunged from history by these believers in the “gentle Jesus” is beyond the scope of this blog. But death was the sentence for heretics and many non-believers up until the Reformation and European Enlightenment took hold and wrested some control over Governmental actions away from the blind obedience to religious dogma. But even then, Jews were tolerated more often than were “heretics” in most of Christian Europe.

In the “new” world, local religions were crushed by the influx of technologically superior conquers. Often decimated by new diseases brought admittedly unknowingly by the conquering Europeans, local peoples saw little point in not following the teachings of the conquerors. “Decimated” is too weak a word, as it means “one in ten” whereas the death rates from disease were usually much higher than this.

In such conquests, the elites who had the most to gain by the maintenance of the traditional religions were usually the target of the conquerors. You didn’t have to kill the whole population, which was a bad idea anyway as there would be no one left to do the work then, but if you kill the leaders and priests, then the congregation is rudderless and open to domination by a new elite.

Forced and Voluntary Conversion

This gives rise to the second way that a religion can die, by the conversion of its adherents to a new religion under threat of force, coercion or as a voluntary act. There are many examples where people converted to a new faith, usually voluntarily over time as they saw the economic advantages of being part of the ruling class, or of being part of the majority. There is the rather unique case of the Roman Empire where Christianity came “from the bottom up” as it were, before being adopted by the elites of the society. But the roughest form of conversion is when it was forcefully instigated usually when a local ruler converted and declared that “his” people would convert too.

Europe was particularly prone to this latter insanity, starting with the mass conversions of pagans which are celebrated by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, going all the way up to the horrendous Thirty Years War, from 1618 to 1648 CE, which ended together with the longer but less ruinous Eighty Years War (between Spain and the Dutch Republic) with what became known as the Peace of Westphalia, which resulted in the confirmation of local rulers being able to determine what religions could be practiced in their own realms. This didn’t please the Pope of the time, Innocent X, who was trained as a lawyer and therefore probably lacked a sense of humor in any event. The English Civil War ended a year later, in 1649 CE, and the Catholic forces in Ireland lost there too.  Maybe the Roman Catholic Church needed a general more than a lawyer? The news was so bad out of these three major conflicts where the concept of Roman Catholic dominance was trampled by the emerging powers of Protestant States that there was nothing left for Innocent X to do but have a party, a Jubilee in 1650. A couple of stiff drinks (even if it’s of communion wine) can make you forget anything, even if it’s losing Northern Europe, England and the Dutch to the heretical stench of Protestantism.

Asian conversions en masse are also notable, as in the case of the Khazar (a Turkic people) conversion to Judaism starting in the 8th Century CE, although there is no evidence that the people were forced to convert, it’s always a good thing to follow the leader, especially when he has absolute power. Interestingly, the Khazar State in Central Asia may have a claim to being the longest independent self-ruling Jewish State, lasting from the 8th Century CE until sometime in either the 10th or lingering as a minor State until the coming of the Mongols in the 13th Century CE, depending on which historian you prefer.

The conversions to Buddhism and then back again to Hinduism in India and to Taoism and Confucianism in China were largely peaceful, but again were normally led by the elite elements of society. The same can be said of the introduction of Hinduism into SE Asia, to be later followed by Buddhism, perhaps via Sri Lanka, and Buddhism’s movement into Korea and Japan. Unlike other religions where there is an essential doctrine, Buddhism has always been able to develop new forms to fit each cultural setting, and the lack of a Buddhist pantheon meant that local spirits, superstitions, and philosophical concepts (such as the indigenous Chinese concept of the Tao or Dao (道)) could be accommodated and even brought into accord with many Buddhist teachings and principles. Taoism’s “Three Treasures” of compassion, humility and moderation were largely compatible with Buddhist values. But later generations of Chinese objected to the “foreign” Buddhism, and it entered into a prolonged period of decline, but of limited periodic persecution.

The expansion of Islam through the magnificent conquests initiated by Mohammed starting with his conquest of Mecca, accelerated after his death in 632 CE. Islam was unique in having a special place in its doctrine for expansion by conquest in the effort to create a world united under the single faith of Islam. Those within the rule of Muslims were part of the Dar al-Islam, the “house of peace”, and those outside its control were part of the Dar al-Harb, or the “house of war”, as it was conceived that only time and conquest prevented them from becoming part of the Dar al-Islam. Early Muslim conquests were highly accomplished in both their speed and relative efficiency and lack of destruction along the way. The rulers of the new religion did not force conversions onto their new subjects, but there were substantial rewards in the form of lower taxes, admission to Government service and trade that inclined many to convert. But even into the Umayyad Caliphate, it’s very likely that the majority of their subjects were not Muslim. The Koran actually allows the practice of other religions (those of Judaism and Christianity and a group which is usually interpreted to be the Zoroastrians). The early Islam was apparently much more tolerant that the religion ultimately became, although under the Ottoman Turks there was also a notable degree of toleration. As the four recognized Islamic schools of jurisprudence evolved, more restrictions applicable to Kafir or infidels (non-believers) were drawn out of the Koran, Hadith, Al-Qiyas and Ijma. Some went so far as to call for conversion or death to be the only choice for people living under an Islam rule, with Abu Hanifa being a notable proponent of this line of thinking.

The most notable mass conversion which resulted in significant violence under Islamic rule was probably that of Mahmud Ghazan, starting in 1296 CE. Ghazan was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, and became supreme ruler of the Ilkhanate Khanate, which had been formed by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu, who was responsible for the devastation of the Abbasid Caliphate and the remorseless sack of Bagdad in 1258 CE. 

Ghazan was a reluctant convert, and may have done so only in order to gain a military alliance with a local Muslim ruler. There are references to Ghazan still following Mongol religious practices, especially shamanistic divination, throughout his reign. The Mongols had heretofore been largely tolerant of all religions under their control.  But Ghazan’s reign ushered in the murder, exile and persecution of many religions not “of the book” under Islamic tradition, such as the long existent Buddhism, Manicheism, and Zoroastrianism. The relative strength of various forms of Christianity also brought it into focus as well, and later it was not spared from persecution. Some chroniclers attribute the persecutions to existing Muslim elements at Ghazan’s court who did not share the usual Mongol toleration of various faiths. In any event, once the cleansing was largely done, greater tolerance was in some measure re-displayed, at least to the remaining Christians.

I could also get into the experience of the Mughal rulers of Hindu India, but suffice to say that some Hindus converted but the best efforts of the Muslim overlords and periodic episodes of Hindu temple destruction and various forms of religious repression never resulted in a wholesale conversion of the populace. Hinduism remained deeply entrenched at many levels of the Mughal State (which lasted from 1556 CE until the mid-18th Century CE when they were crushed by the Persians and thereafter continued as a small State until conquered by the British in the mid19th Century CE). But the conversions have had a lasting influence, as there remain some 180 million Muslims in India, making it the second largest Muslim country in the world after Indonesia (tied with Pakistan on some counts).

And of course, where would we be without the modern “conversions” from religion to atheism by the numerous communist regimes in the 20th Century CE. Some anthropologists and comparative mythologists consider the cults that grew up around people like Tito, Castro, Stalin, and Mao, as well as the intentional cults of psychopaths like Pol Pot and Kim Il-sung, to be “religions” in and of themselves. But since they do not promote a supreme supernatural entity (except perhaps in the case of the Kim family in North Korea to which is ascribed many supernatural attributes - including an inordinate ability to play golf, which is about are miraculous as turning wine into water). But the results of these “conversions” were of limited duration, as current levels of religiosity in many former communist countries now exceeds the European average. The first thing the newly democratic Russians did was to renovate their cathedrals, and for the Cambodians it was to revive their monasteries. There are no reliable statistics on how many people were killed specifically for practicing religion in these regimes, but the award for most murders would probably go to China, especially in its treatment of the Tibetan Buddhists and the major monasteries during the Cultural Revolution following the military conquest of Tibet in 1950 CE, which were viewed by the Chinese as both religions and political institutions in theocratic Tibet.

But even in China, these forced conversions don’t seem to be lasting, as religion is once again on such an ascendant that the communist party has had to remind its members that membership in an organized religion is not in conformity with the communist ideal. It seems that forced conversions only last as long as the converted see some benefit in the new religion or are inured to it for so long that they forget the siren call of the old religions. But even in Russia, the longest lasting of the recent forced conversion States (with Churches being shuttered systematically starting the in 1920s), the number of people going back to Orthodox Christianity and its rapid ascent to reemerge as the religion of the elites (including Putin) is alarming for people who support the idea of atheism being a natural conclusion of logical cogitation on the subject. A monolithic Russian State religion is once again showing its value as a tool of the “monarchy” for engineering the loyalty of the people to their rulers and their interests, and you can expect the State Church to support the Government as long as the Church leaders see value to themselves in doing so.

Conversion to Disbelief

Sadly, I know of no case where a group of people looked upon their own disaster and said: “Well, so much for old Anu/Marduk/Ra/Zeus/YHWH, if he can’t save us from the tidal wave/earthquake/plague/famine/flood/invasion then we are better off without him at all” – and promptly became atheist. The only group that comes close is Japan’s attitude towards Shinto following the Second World War.

The institution of Shintoism is hard to generalize. A great many Japanese still go to shrines, especially when they need help passing a test, getting pregnant, getting a spouse, or want to avoid an accident, illness, or some other danger. The local Shinto shrine will probably have a charm for one or all of them, and many more. Shintoism is linked with the animist tradition of kami, which is a sort of spirit or force in all living and sometimes inanimate objects. It is also the word often used for translating “god” into Japanese as well. I have heard Shintoism called “Shamanism for the modern world” and it seemed an apt description.

The ascendance of modern Shintoism started with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 CE when the longstanding Tokugawa Shogunate was deposed and rulership was nominally “restored” to the Imperial Japanese Family (the kōshitsu, said to be descendants of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu). Shintoism had always been the major underlying religion of Japan, but because of its link with the newly empowered Imperial Family, its tenants became an unavoidable part of civic duty as well. Other religions, especially the rather pacifist Buddhist religion (except for the nationalistic Sōka Gakkai, a domestic brand of Buddhism) were deemed “foreign” and fell out of favor. The duty to the Emperor, which became an all-consuming passion for many Japanese, was naturally linked with his position as a divine being. He was the ruling god on earth, something that hadn’t been seen in a major civilization for many hundreds of years. And despite the availability of modern science, of foreign books, of many of Japan’s elite having studied abroad, and extensive international trade, there is every indication that the vast majority of the Japanese believed in Hirohito’s divinity.

Well, when your local god can’t protect you from defeat, fire bombings and nuclear obliteration, then it might be time to trade them in, don’t you think? Most international tallies of the number of atheists around today always ascribe a rather high number to Japan, and the Gallup Poll in 2012 had 31% calling themselves atheist. Many people today see Shinto less as a religion and more as being part of essential cultural “Japaneseness.”

But the attitude towards the religion went into decline following the defeat, especially when followed by Japan’s first and only foreign occupation by America. I can’t think of another major country that has lasted so long without a foreign occupation and conquest. Russia has never been completely conquered, but the Mongols and subsequent Golden Horde certainly did quite a job on the Kievan Rus, and Napoleon and Hitler occupied, for rather short periods, a huge amount of the country.

At least 31% of the Japanese (nearly 70 years after the fact) got the message that the religion could not deliver, at least on the big things that matter. (I still know many “atheist” Japanese who carry Shinto or Buddhist charms, known as omamori, for various reasons.)

But how to explain the lack of loss of faith by Muslims when the Abbasid Caliphate was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th Century? Instead, they largely concluded that they were being punished because they hadn’t been following the more conservative path of Islam. And what about the Jews after the Holocaust? There is a huge body of writing on this topic, which sometimes goes by the name “Holocaust Theology.”  You can pretty much find what you want in this hodgepodge of excuses, but most of it now seems focused on the old theodicy issue faced by Job in the Hebrew Bible. If there is one all-powerful god, then how do you explain evil in the world? In the Hebrew Bible, every time the Hebrews lost a battle or a war, it was the judgment of YHWH on them, because they weren’t quite good enough for YHWH - like a petulant father smacking the disobedient children. That is a very consistent line of thought in the Hebrew Bible, and it’s explicitly enunciated numerous times by the esteemed prophets of the day. So, if they were punished before for their transgressions, was the holocaust YHWH’s punishment yet again? For me, that is the essence of holocaust theology. If you really believe in this YHWH fellow, then it seems inescapable that he purposefully did this to you, just as surely as every other major defeat or the salvation from exile in Babylon by Cyrus the Great were engineered by YHWH. If YHWH is your father, this is a pretty clear case of child abuse.

But it didn’t happen. The great falling away of Jewish belief just never occurred. Indeed, there was a resurgence of the Ultra-Orthodox sects and as in the case of Islam, the conservative constructions of the religion appear to have gained some level of ascendance.

But the all-time worst for me is not the Jews, a small group who never even received their promised land of the territory from the Nile to the Euphrates, a territory larger even than the land of Israel today, which is materially larger than any historic state of Judah or Israel. They seem to be inured to broken (sorry, as yet unfulfilled) promises from YHWH, and to punishments out of all reasonable proportion to their “crimes.”

And it’s not the Muslims, who were promised they would rule the world, and ended up getting slaughtered by Mongol tribesmen, and then were dominated by the nomadic Turks, and watched from afar as the infidels invented motorcars, steam ships, airplanes, stock markets, and pretty much every modern device, including flush toilets. Moreover, it was the Christians who conquered the New World (of course it wasn’t new to the millions of people already there) and spread their beliefs through the world enabling them to become the largest religion (which it probably wasn’t in the 12th through 17th Centuries, or even before). Muslims may over take Christians in terms of numbers, but this will be largely through uncontrolled birth rates mostly in impoverished countries. How do you square this with being the “one true faith”? You’re not even coming in second economically, as the godless Asians are doing better than most Muslim countries, especially those without oil. Seems like Allah only likes a few oil rich Gulf States, and then mostly just the ruling families. How long are you going to wait for the Caliphate to re-emerge? It’s been gone since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and despite the emergence of ISIS and ISIL shows no signs of being born again.

No, for me the biggest mystery are the Native Americans who still practice their tribal religions. How badly do you have to lose before your realize that you’ve been backing the wrong team? It’s worse than being a diehard fan for an ever-losing sports team. But for Native Americans, they lost their land and it’s never coming back. All the Native American religions, like most hunter gatherer tribal religions, are bound up with the land and nature. Despite some tribes making fabulous money running casinos, the vast majority of Native Americans are at the bottom the pile when it comes to life expectancy, health, income, wealth, education, and even things like access to basic sanitation and clean water. If there were ever a people more obviously deserted by their gods, it’s Native Americans.

When I lived in the United States, I had the chance to meet a number of them who were still believers. It’s a clear case, like Shintoism and perhaps to a lesser (to my mind contrived) extent Judaism, of the religion being indelibly bound up with a cultural identity in the psyche of some believers. Many Native American tribes at least did better than the Jews, in that at least they never lost some remnant of a homeland, even if it was usually the poorest quality land that the European settlers didn’t want. I will never forget meeting one member of the Chippewa tribe, who told me, when I asked him why he still believes in tribal religion, that: “I believe, because that is what makes me, me.” It saddened me then, and it saddens me now to recount it.

That, I think, is why so few religions actually die, and why people are far more likely to convert to a majority religion or the newest fad religion (I consider atheism to be a bit of a fad now in the US and, as in the in 60s and 70s, I expect that many current atheists will go back to religion when they are older). Religious indoctrination has the perverse ability to self-define us. Unlike the days of Rome, when people would easily claim adherence to a religion and a philosophy, such as Stoicism or Epicureanism, in today’s world, modern religions have replaced philosophy and the more limited perspectives of religion with an all dominating single “answers all questions” religion.

Letting go of religion for many people is like letting go of a life vest in the ocean of doubt and uncertainty. History has taught us, time and again, that humans are very reluctant to take that step, to reject the simplistic beliefs that give them self-definition. I remember a taped lecture by Joseph Campbell, where he was talking about one of his students coming in and saying to him “If I wasn’t Jewish, I wouldn’t know who I was.” And Joseph replied “What would you say if I said that I wouldn’t know who I was if I wasn’t Irish?” For many people, changing religion is a question of “will it have immediate material benefits for me” and many will make a change on that basis. But for many others, the concept of religion has become ingrained in their psyche as who and what they are. For the Native American, will giving up belief in their gods (which by the way had names, it was not all this “Great Spirit” stuff you see in Hollywood films) result in a better living condition for them? What is the value in giving up something that they feel they still possess as their own, when so much has been taken from them already?

For all of these small groups, like the Yazidi, these religions that persist in the sea of major religions, the attraction is personal identity. The link with the tribe, some evidence that they are different from the others. Do you want to be part of the larger group or part of the tribe? For many humans, in many circumstances besides religion, it’s the tribe that counts. And the concept of “victimization” by a small tribe or community surrounded by a larger polity reinforces the religion in many cases, and instills a sense of “we are different” in their members. I see this most frequently with atheists who were Jews, and still refer to themselves as “Jewish” despite being ethnically from North Africa, or Europe, or Iran, or Russia. Maybe this is a remnant from our early development as a species, that we prize the smaller tribe which is more ‘real” to us than a larger community. Religion is more than a belief system, it’s a social network, an element of self-identification and it provides a philosophy of sorts for us to understand ourselves and the world around us. It also identifies “us” vs “them” if we allow it to do so, and for small sects this is a critical element. Indeed, I would not be surprised if someday it’s proven that it’s easier for members of a large sect to abandon a religion compared to members of a smaller sect, where these concepts of victimization and self-identification are more imperative and more forcefully indoctrinated than is the case in a dominant religion.

When you see the horrors that people have gone through, all of which “prove” that their god is either absent, indifferent or positively sadistic, and yet they fail to give up their beliefs, it’s hard to be optimistic for a future world without religion.


1. Yes, I am using the politically correct BCE and CE connotation, despite the fact that the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Japanese et al are free to use their own dating systems which are also based on mythological or religious events. Why Christianity is subject to this political correctness while other dating systems are not is beyond me. It doesn’t fool anyone, as whatever you call it, there has to be a reason for that starting date and I haven’t heard of anything special happening in year 0 other than the supposed birth of Jesus. Certainly nothing “in common” happened to all humanity at that time. But if this silly name difference makes some people happy, then so be it.

2. For me, the institution of monarchy is more intellectually insulting and stultifying than that of any religion. See

3. There are so many cases, it’s a separate blog in itself. But noteworthy is the conversion of the Bulgars in the 9th Century CE, when the Khan accepted the Byzantine Orthodox version of Christianity, supposedly because there could be a head of the Bulgar Orthodox Church under his control, unlike the position of the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church.

4. Who may have had his brother’s widow as his mistress. Who knows if it’s true, but it made for a good story: “Mistress of the Vatican” by E. Hermann (2008).

5. Although many Chinese philosophers saw Buddhism as a foreign religion and argued for its inferiority compared with Confucian and Daoist beliefs. Although there have been many philosophers in this vein, the Tang Dynasty (7th to early 10th Century CE) author Han Yu is probably one of the better remembered ones, although more for his prose and literature than religious ponderings.

6. The Khanate occupied the area now covered by the Western side of Pakistan into Turkey, and was one of four separate but marginally cooperative Khanates which formed after the death of Mongke Khan, grandson of Genghis and the last ruler of a unified Mongol Empire in 1259 CE.

7. See for a break-down of current levels of belief in former communist States.

8. Don’t look to Wikipedia for this topic, as it’s hotly contested between Tibetans and Chinese apologists of both sides. See “A History of Modern Tibet”, Vol 1, 2 and 3 by M. Goldstein (1991, 2009, and 2013, respectively) which sadly only takes us to 1957, and “The Dragon in the Land of Snows” by T. Shakya (2000).

9. See

10. Even today, I have a Shinto charm for good driving in my wallet, as a memento of my days there as a college student. But I have been involved in traffic accidents, despite the charm. But it is pretty.

11. There are some good books on Shinto, and “Shinto and the Kami Way” by Sokyo Ono and W. Woodard (2004) is a recent one that I quite enjoyed. But my favorite in terms of coming to an understanding of Shinto and what it means to be Japanese is still “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” by R. Benedict which was the guide book for Americans going to take over the governance of occupied Japan in 1945. If you’re not familiar with Ruth Benedict, I hope you take the time to become so. She was one of the world’s preeminent anthropologists in the early 20th Century, and her “Patterns of Culture” (reissued in 2006) remains one of the most eye-opening exercises of self-perception on cultural issues that I’ve ever come across.

12. He was obviously superior to other men, at least in the eyes of the American conquerors, as he and other ranking members of his family escaped being tried for the war crimes that history has now confirmed that they were so guilty of. See “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” by H. Bix (2001), and “The Rape of Nanking” by I. Chang (1997).

13. See The poll results are at

14. We frequently see this sort of position in connection with Judaism, where many adherents, and even non-believers forcefully maintain that there is a Jewish ethnicity or culture separate and independent of the religion. Personally, I’ve never found this to be convincing, as most of the elements presented as evidence of this independent ethnicity are linked inextricably to the religion. But in Shintoism the link is very different and the cultural identity element is indeed very strong and pervasive and goes far beyond the religious aspects of Shinto in terms of its religious teachings.

15. The forerunner to the Russian State, with a capital in Kiev (modern Ukraine) lasting from 882 until 1240 CE, when it was destroyed by the Mongols.

16. I am breaking my own admonition here; see

17. Do not go to Wikipedia for this, as it’s a hotly contested issue and, indeed, most internet sites are a waste of time. It’s actually hard to find many of the early books and articles on the subject, as they are often very controversial and didn’t go into reprints. Many of the early authors were accused of being “Jew haters” despite being Jews themselves. And of course the whole issue got messed up with the creation of the State of Israel. I audited one class on this when I was an undergrad, and I did a fair amount of reading on the subject at the time, but frankly it just became the biggest search for an excuse I’ve ever come across.  The “Holocaust Theology: A Reader” by D. Cohn-Sherbok has some good articles in it, but it obviously avoids some of the more controversial issues and it really focuses on the pre-existing general theodicy issue, but I still highly recommend it. If you’re really interested, I think the only way to approach this one is a trip to the library and some hours with good bibliographies from the 50s and 60s, and then work your way forward.

18. Exodus 23:31.

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