All in the name of God

Monzurul Huq writes from Tokyo
Every religion proclaims God as a supreme authority who decides our fate and destiny. Hence there always has been a certain amount of fear and respect for the supreme power whose wrath might lead us to the eternal fire of hell. And, who is not scared of that? As a result, despite all our misdeeds throughout life, all of us cherish the deep desire in the heart to be forgiven by the supreme authority and escape from the fate of being dumped in eternal hellfire. And when misdeeds and sins accumulate, many of us tend to look for other mortals like us who might seem to be closer to God as they usually claim, so that the self-proclaimed loving children of divinity might act on sinners’ behalf to convince God that the crime committed by such and such persons are not serious enough for them to be sent to hell. Despite the fact that not a single religious teaching overtly recognizes the existence of such go-betweens in Gods’ relationship with mortals, in each and every religion their presence is virtually unaccountable. More sinners a society has, more frequent they are. The covert reason no doubt is that, for some religion is a good business too.

From time immemorial, God has served as a source to many as a lucrative means of making some extra inroads in this life beyond the attraction of the promised paradise after death. And in every society, there has never been any shortage of such people who are involved in conveying the message of God and his teachings to the people not with the motive of getting heavenly rewards, but to ensure rewards that are very much worldly.

I am sure many of our readers still remember the self-proclaimed saint of our society, who, during the military regime, tactfully utilized the weaker points of our sinful and corrupt military-civilian bureaucracy to build his own glittering world of money and power. Through carefully manipulating the teachings of God and conveying the message to his disciples, many of whom were highly corrupt individuals holding prominent positions in the society, he pretended to guide them to the path of salvation despite their dubious and checkered careers. Since supreme salvation is all that each of us desires as a human being, there was no shortage of his disciples. We might be utterly corrupt to the extent that we don’t hesitate to grab food from the plates of hungry and underfed, but we are all afraid of burning eternally in the fire of hell. This paradox in human character is what the manipulators of faith use to inflate their coffers. No society is immune from such religious malpractices and we only know about the incidents when things turn grossly wrong.

Japan, for quite long, has been known as being a unique country where religion plays no significant role. Majority of the people of Japan tend to claim themselves agnostics as far as religious faith goes. But there are obviously those who follow religious rituals methodically, but they tend to belong to the minority. For the majority, Japanese religious rituals touch their lives only three times throughout the period of their existence in this world.

The first time religion reaches a person’s life in Japan is when he or she is taken to a Shinto shrine to get God’s blessings immediately after birth. The next religious ritual is during marriage. And finally, religious ritual makes a third comeback in one’s life after death as religious ceremony to mark the death. It is organized following Buddhist teachings where the deceased also gets a new posthumous name.

So, religious practices in Japan seem to be few and quite simple. As a result, many in the country claim either being atheists or simply agnostics. But once again, the fear of burning in eternal hellish flame is something that compels many to look for a way to get rid of that fear as well. And if the fear gets mixed up with earthly problems like being laid off in the work, or shortage of money or love; the attraction towards something that can heal the wound or at least can provide solace might suddenly look quite lucrative. And here come various religious cults to fill the vacuum.

Japan is also known as a country that is tolerant of religious cults, some of which are extremely dubious in their nature and acts. Many around the world still recall the name of Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that conducted deadly sarin gas attacks on Tokyo subway in March 1995, killing a number of passengers and injuring many others. Aum’s eventual twist and turn and reversal of fate were supposed to send an alarming signal to those who still cherish the desire for salvation through the services of self proclaimed “God’s loved ones.” But no, it did not happen and new forms of religion in Japan still continue to be good business for many who are smart enough to see in religious practices a vary lucrative source of earning easy money through the exploitation people’s blind faith.

A new sect that has been in the media limelight in recent days in Japan is known as Setsuri. The meaning of the Japanese word Setsuri is providence and it is now known that the founder of the sect, the 61-year-old Korean, Jung Myung Seok, is in the Interpol wanted list for his alleged sexual assaults on female followers in South Korea. Japanese media have reported that even before he was put on the wanted list, Jung visited Japan frequently and was suspected of sexual violence against many Japanese female students who were attracted to the cult through its tactful recruitment campaign.

Jung founded the Setsuri cult around 1980 after breaking away from the Unification Church led by Sun Myung Moon. The Guru coerced more than 300 Japanese members to wed in mass ceremonies modeled on Unification Church. Former cult members now say the founder would interview perspective brides and sometime sexually assault them. Between the year 2000 and last spring, Setsuri organized five mass weddings. A group of lawyers trying to help Japanese members leave the sect has filed a criminal complaint against three of cult’s main figures and they say they would also seek to hold the founder criminally liable for his alleged rapes.

It is quite surprising that most of those who were attracted to the cult are serious-minded young people who feel alienated from their families and educational institutions and wish to change their lives. As a result, it seems that the business minded religious Gurus are well aware of the underlying problems of a given society and they tactfully maneuver in such troubled waters to recruit their followers. Setsuri, for example, approached students under the guise of sports or cultural circle.

Japan might be overtly seen as a country not so keen on religion. But the growth of various new religious cults give a clear indication that neither the social interaction of people nor the country’s perfection oriented education system could fill up the vacuum created by the absence of religion. As a result, as long as that vacuum remains, religious cults would probably continue their dubious business endeavors in the name of divine salvation.

Monzurul Huq is a Daily Star columnist.