Detail from the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts showing ghosts devouring corpses in a graveyard. Click to see the full image.
A few years back, I took a graduate course called “Japanese Ghosts.” It was a fascinating blend of cultural, folklore, literary, feminist, political and religious studies. One article argued against the common assumption among academics that the pre-modern world view was somehow less rational than our own and brought in hungry ghosts (Japanese: gaki 餓鬼, Sanskrit: preta) to support this assertion. (I’ll try to track this articlke and provide a reference.)
In medieval Japan, there were many influences on cosmology, but the Buddhist concept of the Six Realms of rebirth (rokudô 六道) was a powerful one. Depending on your karma in this life, you could be reborn into anything from paradise to hell, including the in between states of animals and hungry ghosts. Hungry ghosts had a pretty bad lot. It wasn’t quite as bad as the many Buddhist hells, which included the familiar Christian themes of fire and brimstone and demons jabbing poor souls in the groin with pointy things, but one-upped them with creative tortures like drowning in pools of menstrual blood (apparently all women who reached puberty qualified for this punishment) and getting devoured from the inside-out by disease and insects (reserved for merchants who watered down their sake). Hungry ghosts got to hang out in our world, trying to force organic garbage, fecal matter, and dead bodies through impossibly thin throats into bellies swollen with hunger.
Buddhism dominated the intellectual world of medieval Japan. It was of great antiquity, had been transmitted to Japan through the long established Chinese and Indian civilizations, and had a huge canon of complex philosophical and theological support. Given this intellectual framework (and the apparent lack of microscopes), it’s not surprising that some Japanese speculated that hungry ghosts were responsible for nibbling at feces, corpses and last week’s bad tofu. This happened even when you protected the repugnant stuff from insects. Something had to be eating at it, and Buddhism provided yet another convenient and entirely rational explanation for the unseen world.
Detail from the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts showing ghosts consuming human feces. Click to see the full image.
You westerners out there, don’t laugh–hand-washing by surgeons was mocked until well into the second half of the 19th century. This was almost 200 years after Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria.
When I converted to Mormonism, my new belief was based more on experience, evidence and rational argument than on any kind of blind acceptance of religious dogma. I was told, that if I prayed about the Book of Mormon, God would tell me (in my heart) that it was true. If the Book of Mormon was true, then it followed that it’s translator was a prophet and the church he established were also of God (but I could pray about these things as well). I had never prayed or meditated before, and the mystical experiences I had were so powerful and new that they were difficult to argue against. In my case, Mormonism provided the explanation and context for them; from my perspective at the time, there was a clear cause and effect.
As I began to doubt, I found my that my questions had been posed by intelligent theologians and religious philosophers over and over again. For a long time, their well thought out, carefully reasoned explanations convinced me. When the Dawkins and Hitchens gang s assault religion, they usually pick out the easy targets; they don’t go after the Niebuhrs, Tillichs, Barths, and other theologians who have fought to keep Christian belief relevant in the modern world.
The story of my religious belief ended when I collected enough material (which I had to seek out, discover and study, a luxury that many in this world do not have) to explain the world in a way that made more rational sense to me than what my Mormonism and Christianity could offer. Believe me, this was no casual dismissal here, but a long, hard fight–we’re talking Gandalf versus the Balrog.
I’m not saying that all religious faith is rational. I am arguing that faith can be rational and that the full context of a person’s belief needs to be considered. When atheists make blanket arguments against the rationality of religious belief, they ultimately hurt their own cause among the most rational of believers.