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"Experimental Religion": New Paradigms and Revolutionary Patterns in Japan and North America

Panel Chair: Elisabetta Porcu | Monday, August 24, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

This panel explores “experimental” ways through which religious institutions, leaders, and lay followers have attempted to cope with secular society, both in a modern and contemporary perspective. Here, the term “experimental religion” indicates both a theoretical and descriptive approach to religious phenomena, one flexible enough to explain a broad array of dynamics and practices regarding diverse traditions. The panel, which is particularly focused on Japanese and North American religious landscapes, aims to address the following questions: How can the concept of “experimental religion” serve to contextualize global flows and institutional restructuring as well as their impact on religious practice and affiliation? What tensions and limits were involved in Buddhist “experiments” with engaged—and particularly revolutionary—political activities during the modern period? And how are religious institutions, leaders and lay followers in contemporary Japan and North America experimenting with popular culture patterns as ways of increasing relevance within their social settings?

John Nelson

“Experimental Religion”: A New Paradigm for Identifying Religious Practice and Affiliation

In an age of new and “disruptive” information technologies, immigration flows, institutional restructuring and greater personal agency, the concept of “experimental religion” can serve to contextualize these dynamics as they impact religious practice and affiliation. Religions in liberal democratic societies are increasingly seen by practitioners as flexible applications to be approached, reconfigured, and then implemented experimentally, with a focus on tangible benefits (improved health, relationships, career, spirituality, or even political ends) in this world, not the next. Even the former archbishop of Canterbury wrote recently about employing Buddhist meditation to augment his religious devotions. And yet the concept also holds relevance for understanding how an individual turns to religious extremism. Using contemporary Japanese and American Buddhist temples, priests, and their surrounding communities as case studies, this paper identifies five factors that not only characterize “experimental religion” for the individual but which also create issues that undermine institutional and doctrinal stabilities.

James Mark Shields

Zen & the Art of Revolution: Japanese Experiments in Progressive and Radical Buddhism

On 5 April 1931, Nichiren Buddhist layman Seno’o Girō (1889-1961) established the Shinkō Bukkyō Seinen Dōmei (Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism), made up of several dozen young social activists who were critical of capitalism, internationalist in outlook, and committed to both an pan-sectarian and “rational and practical” form of Buddhism that would aggressively work for social justice and world peace—even to the extent of advocating political revolution. Their activities in support of poor farmers, striking workers and burakumin “outcastes” eventually led to the arrest of Seno’o and the League’s forced dissolution in 1937. This paper analyzes the views of the Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism as found in the writings of Seno’o Girō with specific reference to the various tensions and limits involved in Buddhist “experiments” with engaged—and particularly revolutionary—political activities. What, if anything, is the legacy and lasting impact of “radical Buddhism”?

Elisabetta Porcu

Experimental Religion and Popular Culture in Japan

A noticeable expression of the historical tendency among Japanese religions to adjust to socioeconomic change is the contemporary use of popular culture formats, such as manga and anime, by religious institutions. In general terms, such cultural formats have contributed to shape the contemporary image of Japan at the global level, and have been informed by transnational influences and dynamics. The use of manga and anime, the creation of original pop characters, as well as various entrepreneurial activities by religious institutions and individual priests, are not disconnected from the aim of softening a negative perception of religion among the general public. Manga and anime also serve promotional and proselytization purposes. In this paper, I will explore how Japanese religious organizations are experimenting with such popular culture-related patterns and analyze various diversified activities carried out by both institutions and entrepreneurial priests in contemporary Japan.

Abdulkader Tayob


Abdulkader Tayob will address the issues raised in this panel in a response.


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Open Sessions

Thematic Outline

University Map (pdf, 192 KB)