Science and Christianity in Japan

Journal: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 47 (1995), 255-259.
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer and Tim Boyle
Darryl Macer, Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba Science City 305, JAPAN

Tim Boyle, Tsukuba Christian Center, 24-7 Higashi Arai, Tsukuba Science City 305, JAPAN

The debate over the compatibility of science and religion has been a feature of the last 120 years, and has been discussed in pages of this journal before (1). The belief there is a conflict between science and faith, making belief in God incompatible with scientific belief, is called the Conflict metaphor and its origins may have been political rather than rational (2). While readers may be aware of the debate that continues in Western countries, it is interesting to take a look at the situation in Eastern countries. In this paper we examine the history of this debate in Japan, and the current attitudes found in our experiences living in Japan.

On the surface, the scientific enterprise in Japan would appear to be essentially the same as that in Western countries. The everyday functioning of scientists doing their research is the same regardless of cultural and religious background, but there is a trend to have more commercial or applied research in Japan than in most Western countries. With the founding of modern universities a little over a century ago in the Meiji Era, departments of engineering were the first to be established and have remained far larger than departments of physics. In its drive to catch up with the West, practical technology was emphasized far more than pure research. We note that the economic recessions in the West have shifted Western science toward output-measured or applied science as well.

There are significant differences in the cultural and religious history and in the historical development of science in Japan compared to the West. These have affected the way science and one's philosophical and religious understandings are viewed in relation to one another. Japanese scientists also tend to be more narrowly focused than their western counterparts, and acknowledge that a much larger percentage of Western scientists have a grasp on a broad range of related fields and are not so narrowly specialized. These comments seem to be true not only in the context of science alone, but also concerning related ethical and philosophical understandings inherent in their world view. Our purpose is to make some observations concerning these differences, particularly as it relates to Japanese scientists who also hold to the Christian faith. Our conclusions are tentative, and are mainly based on personal observations and discussions with some scientists.

Historical introduction of science into Japan

The world view that a society has makes a great impact on the type of science that will develop there. One of the basic factors is whether the world is viewed as supernatural itself, or whether it is physical and ordered, so that behaviour can be explained by physical laws. The Biblical world view of a Creator God who had created an orderly universe based on regular natural laws that could be observed and understood was an essential part of the development of modern science. In Western history, the pursuit of natural science to understand God's creation was a major reason behind the advance of science in both medieval Islam and in renaissance Christianity. We can make some comparisons to China, which did have scientific study pre-dating the import of Christianity. In China science originated in the background that the entire universe was a vast organism (3), and in general it was not believed that there was no personal omnipotent deity as the ultimate power in the universe. Originally they did have a "Heavenly emperor" quite close to the Biblical concept of God about 4000 years ago. This was maintained in the rituals to "Shang Ti" (above emperor) that the Chinese emperor maintained the form of until 1911. In practice it was lost one or two millenia before with the rise of Taoism and Confucianism.

Some very advanced technologies existed in the Orient prior to the arrival of the scientific method from the West, and in some cases they pre-date the West by a millenium. Noted technologies include the design of bellows and pumps, shipbuilding and porcelain manufacture, a mechanical clock, a magnetic compass, gun powder and paper (4). There were three major groups of Chinese thought, Confucianism, Taoism, and imported Buddhism. Buddhism had a largely negative impact on the development of science. For example, it is generally against speculation and refuses to deal with questions that are considered unknowable. Previous Chinese thought had considered the existence of individual souls, which allowed them to give their views of nature, i.e., naturalism. Buddhism and Confucianism were also predominant in early Japanese thinking, along with the native animistic religion of Shinto.

The origins of Japanese science lie with the importation of science from the West. There were attempts to develop science in the Tokugawa period during the 17th and 18th centuries (5). At this time numerous texts were imported from China, and 17th century Japanese mathematics were based on this. By the 18th century, some technical literature was imported from Europe that was to form a background onto which the Meiji period restorations were to take place in the 19th century. In the Tokugawa period, only a few researchers conducted experiments, and a world view in which knowledge was sought for its own sake was not to be found. Rather science was applied in such things as medicine, map-making and explaining the calendar anomalies. There were two main groups who became scientists: the official translators in the ports of Nagasaki who knew Dutch and Chinese, and the medical community. The physicians not only had knowledge, but also money to conduct technical studies, and several gave up all medical studies to pursue science. Before that period, and still for a time after, most learning was the luxury of Buddhist scholars; other scholars were not well paid.

We see a few early cases of empirical studies in medicine, for example the publication in 1774 of Kaitai Shinsho (New Book on Human Dissection) by Sugita Gempaku was based on a translation with drawings of the Dutch edition of Johan Adam Kulmus' Anatomische Tabellen (1722), with verifications having been made by dissections. It represented an empirical approach to nature, which was undermining the prestige of Chinese medicine (5). By the early 1800s, Western medicine was being introduced, and one European professor opened a small medical academy in Nagasaki in the 1820s. Other sciences were dependent upon physician "scientists" also. A work on astronomy based on Aristotelian and Ptolemaic views of nature (Kenkon bensetsu) was published in Japanese by a Jesuit Christovao Ferreira in the 1640s. Copernican views were introduced only in the 1792, and had limited distribution. However, there was little or no formal training, research academies, and rather unfavourable views on those doing science by the government.

When Japan was forcibly opened to the rest of the world by Commodore Perry's fleet in 1853 after some 250 years of self-imposed isolation (following a brief exposure to Christianity and European values during the 16th Century), Japan found itself overwhelmed by the technological superiority of the West. Following a few years of turmoil, the dormant emperor system was reinstated in the "Meiji Restoration" in 1868 as a means of unifying the country and supplying a rallying point for the country's rush into the modern age.

The battle-cry for catching up with and surpassing the West was "wakon yosai" (Japanese spirit, western learning), referring to their desire to import anything and everything of practical use while maintaining their own unique identity as Japanese. This resulted in a wholesale importation of modern science and the technologies it had spawned without any of the philosophical base from which it grew. One Japanese Christian professor described this in terms of "importing the branches of the tree without the trunk or roots."

Biological reductionism and naturalism

Those roots, of course, are firmly planted in the Christian world view of God and his creation. Naturalism has become the dominant paradigm through which particularly biology and related sciences are practiced today, but the philosophical basis for naturalism itself has a definite connection to the issue of religious faith and science. The paradigm shift that occurred with the Darwinian revolution had strong religious motivations based on the philosophical desire to eliminate any thought of a personal Creator God (and the moral and ethical demands inherent therein). It desired to explain everything in terms of "natural" processes alone, and at least in its origin it was an effort to give the scientists authority that had been previously held by priests. It replaced the view of the ultimate reality being the personal Creator God as revealed in the Bible, with a "blind watchmaker" (Dawkins) type of impersonal "Nature" that somehow through random chance natural processes alone resulted in the world as it is.

Many scientists in the West are not aware that practically all of the early scientists who laid the foundation for the modern scientific movement were devout Christians whose understandings of the faith were foundations for their scientific work. Likewise, the errant view that science is based only on objective facts and that the history of science is one of emancipation of the truth from the shackles of religious dogma is also widespread, despite the wide acceptance of Kuhn's idea of the importance of paradigm shifts in science and the ideas on falsifiability of science of Karl Popper by the scientific community.

The debate between religion and science in Western scientific journals continues, as seen in some recent letters (6). In general we do not see many non-scientific papers in science journals in Japan. In biological fields, the prevailing view is reductionist evolution. Josephson (7) suggested what others had raised before, that there may be a genetic basis to religious belief, based on the idea that religions are to promote human goodness. However, religions may have more to do with beliefs about eternal salvation than promoting goodness. The father of sociobiology, Ed Wilson, suggested religious practice is a biological advantage, as it provides each believer "unquestioned membership in a group" (8). Whether or not religiousity is genetic (and there is some data to support a link from adopted twin studies), these letters show that the science and religion debate continues.

Reductionism is accepted among Japanese perhaps more than in the West. Explanation of human behaviour by molecular biology and neurobiology is a common theme in media portrayals of science and in the thinking of scientists. However, science is not necessarily reductionist, and the Japanese mindset may be more open to relativism than the Western one. For example, we could consider that the book The Selfish Gene (9) is challenged more among Japanese biologists than Western ones. It is considered too simple - or perhaps too scientific. Also the status of animals is generally lower, and people do not generally think they possess the same moral capacities as people, although there are thought to possess souls in religious thought. There are memorial services held for research animals by scientists once a year at the university animal research center, however, they are generally freer to use animals than in the West. There could be a similar gap between faith and practice in the case of spiritual views of animals and attitudes expressed by practice, as there is between religious faith and science.

Logic and a consistent world view

We could say that a logical world view is one that integrates all the information and beliefs that we have in a consistent and logical way. The world view that all truth should be unified, namely that one's understanding of ultimate reality and meaning within both one's science and in one's personal view of life should somehow be congruent with each other, is a fundamental premise of Western thought. It is a natural outgrowth of the biblical world view and Ancient Greek philosophy, integrated through history by philosophers before and after Aquinas. For the Christian, this means that the fundamental premises of one's scientific paradigm should not be in conflict with one's understanding of the Christian faith. For example, as a Christian, one cannot profess belief in a personal Creator God and at the same time as a scientist truly believe that we are the result of a completely undirected, purposeless natural process that just somehow came into being without any divine input (10). Deism is the view that God exists but is not involved in the world, but it is also not an explanation for the Japanese belief, because some people still pray to animistic spirits, suggesting the intervention of spirits into the physical world.

It is not that this logical consistency, or ideal of continuity is totally lacking in Japan, but it would seem to be significantly weaker. With its major introduction into Japan during the last 130 years, western logical thought certainly has taken root. However the traditional non-logical thought processes that were part of the Japanese world view are still strong. This has led to a number of seeming contradictions, such as highly educated people living in a technologically advanced country still following superstitious, magical beliefs. The typical Japanese is both highly religious and "non-religious" at the same time. There is a very definite divorce between outward form and inward belief that manifests itself in numerous ways, including the way Christian scientists view the relationship between their faith and science.

Historically, this separation between outward form and inward belief can be traced back at least as far as when Christianity was officially banned at the end of the 16th Century and Japan began its two and a half century isolation. The main symbol of the persecution that occurred then was the "fumie", a wooden block with an image of Christ that one had to step on to symbolize one's renunciation of the faith. The foreign Jesuit priests were coerced into stepping on the image not so much by the threat of their own execution but at being forced to watch Japanese believers be tortured and killed. Part of the persuasion tactic employed was to say that they could continue to believe whatever they wanted in their hearts as long as they conformed outwardly, and it was only when they agreed to step on the "fumie" that the lives of their Japanese converts would be spared.

This same separation of outward form and inward belief was also clearly seen during WWII, when Japanese Christians were coerced into obedience to State Shinto (Shinto = "the way of the gods") and worship of the emperor. The Christian faith could be believed in one's heart provided the person, as a good Japanese citizen, faithfully fulfilled all of the Shinto ceremonies associated with national unity and purpose. For a good general description of current religious customs in Japan we recommend a 1993 book by Lewis (11). Freedom of thought and religion is guarantied in the postwar constitution, but in practice this earlier concept is still a powerful force in the lives of many Japanese today. In other words, the demands for conformity to the expected norms in family and social life effectively suppresses freedom of religion in the lives of many Japanese - that is, active, outward form. You can still believe in the Christian God in your heart if you want to, and it is respected as long as it is not expressed too actively. We suggest this trend is related to the gap between personal philosophical/religious beliefs and scientific understanding among Japanese scientists; they may believe but not link faith to their scientific world view.

We could also say that the style of Japanese religion, belief in an irrational world controlled by capricious spirits, is a "God of the gaps" mentality. God is used to explain everything we do not know. Since science can now explain many things, followers of such a way of thinking now only need a smaller contribution to the universe to come from "god", and may believe that everything could be explained eventually by science. In Japan scientists and academics are very well respected, while religious groups do not command as high a level of respect, and are perhaps viewed as more corrupt than in the West. For marriage and funeral services large fees are often requested, which has added to this image, and the suspicion that a religious cult was linked to the March 1995 toxic gas subway murders in Tokyo took no one by surprise inside Japan. Thus, we see much faith given to molecular biology and neuroscience as methods to understand the nature of human beings. Ironically rejection of this paradigm, which is inadequate to answer the deep questions of life, is also turning some Japanese to seek mysterious religions or cults to provide alternative views.

While the practice of science within the framework of one's philosophical or religious beliefs is not as pervasive as it once was in the West, there are still many Western scientists who have a religious or at least quasi-religious motivation to their scientific work. It is not uncommon to find a scientist in the West using science to promote their particular religious beliefs, be that Christian, "New Age" type mysticism or the actively anti-Christian atheism promoted by some neo-Darwinian evolutionists. We do not see scientists using science for any "evangelistic" activity, though in the media documentaries most Japanese biologists start from a reductionist explanation of the universe, even though they believe this stand is devoid of any faith.

While we think Japanese do not connect the logic of science and faith in religion as much as Westerners, this is difficult to quantify. In some opinion surveys over the last few years, attitudes to bioethical dilemmas has been explored using open response questions (12, 13). In a 1991 survey of scientists, high school teachers and the public in Japan, between 16-20% of scientists did express concerns about genetic engineering that it was "playing God" or "unnatural", which is similar to the level of concern seen in New Zealand scientists (12). In both countries the public expressed somewhat more of these types of concern, consistent with scientists having a more logical world view, but interestingly the range of concerns was similar. This similar range of concerns was also found in public surveys in 1993 in Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, India, Israel, New Zealand, The Philippines, Russia, Singapore and Thailand (12), despite the variety of religious faiths and extent of religiousity. Thus, it appears that some people do connect "religious"-type concerns to logical science and cost-benefit type of analysis. So if there is a conflict between science and faith at this level of decision-making, they may not always be placed in separate mental categories.

Use of science and values

There are different ways to explain why people may pay more attention to science than to religion. Currently Japan prospers. In times of economic security and consumerism, the wonders of science may appear more exciting. The obsession with the physical world may have taken attention away from the spiritual, and this has led to more appreciation of science and scientists. It is true that there are trends against this materialism, and one sign of this is that there is growing attention given to the quality of life. Education may have also become more focused on the scientific method and the transfer of information rather than values, so that children learn more about science than the do about life values. These factors could also be said of people of all ages in Japan, and this may contribute to the preference for scientific answers over religious ones, which is even taken into non-scientific issues. We define science here as the study of theories which can be shown to be falsifiable (Popperian science).

The issues of the misuse of science and technology and associated challenges have been recognised in many countries, including Japan. Here there is less conflict seen between religion and science by scientists. Many scientists accept a role for the lay public, as well as religious representatives when considering the value questions over application of science. Among science and medical ethics committees, the last few years in Japan have seen the growing introduction of persons representing religious viewpoints, though progress is still behind other industrialised countries (14). Even in this area we see some Western scientists continue to object to the involvement of value questions in scientific research, especially if it is associated with the "so-called" objective science, as seen in the attack on the creation of a new professorship in theology and natural science in Cambridge University by the journal Nature (15). While in questions of moral choices, religion is more readily accepted, there is also a movement in philosophy to attempt to draw clear boundaries between philosophical ways of making decisions and theological ways. Interestingly, Kant is one of the most popular philosophers among Japanese scholars and writers, but they selectively use his non-religious texts and are ignorant of the deep Christian faith responsible for this views.


We have explored some of the reasons that may explain differences we perceive in the science/faith debate in Japan and Western countries. The degree of this difference may be more significant than the differences seen between scientist members of evangelical groups in the UK and those in the USA. Despite the gap between faith and science, we can still see several times as many Christians among scientists and academics in Japan as there are in the public at large. This may be related to greater overseas exposure to Christian ideas that academics have had by virtue of time spent overseas. Nevertheless, personal faith and scientific thinking are more often separated than in the West.


1. Clark, J.P. (1994) "Fact, faith and philosophy: One step toward understanding the conflict between science and Christianity", PSCF 46: 242-52.
2. Russell, C. (1989) "The Conflict metaphor and its social origins", Science and Christian Belief 1: 3-26.
3. Needham, History of Science in China. Cambridge University Press, 1987.
4. Ronan, C.A. The Cambridge Illustrated History of the World's Science. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
5. Bartholomew, J.R. The formation of science in Japan. Yale University Press, 1989.
6. Nature 362 (1993), 583; 363 (1993), 389-90; 365 (1993), 484.
7. Josephson, (1993) "Religion in the genes", Nature 362: 583.
8. Wilson, E.O. On Human Nature. Harvard University Press, 1978.
9. Dawkins, R.The Selfish Gene.
10. Compare to Polkinghorne, J. Science and Providence. London: SPCK, 1989.
11. Lewis, D.C. The Unseen Face of Japan. Tumbridge Wells, Monarch 1993.
12. Macer, D.R.J. Attitudes to Genetic Engineering: Japanese and International Comparisons. Christchurch, N.Z.: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1992.
13. Macer, D.R.J. Bioethics for the people by the People. Christchurch, N.Z.: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1994.
14. Macer, D. (1992) "The 'far east' of biological ethics", Nature 359: 770.
15. Nature 362 (1993), 380, 689-90.

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