Mayor of Rikuzentakata Balances Bitterness and Hope


Today I attended a lunch with the mayor of Rikuzentakata, Futoshi Toba. His town was almost completely destroyed in the 3/11 disaster. In the almost two years that have followed, he has gained a reputation as a fierce fighter for rebuilding efforts, often butting heads with the national government about how things are being done–or more commonly, not being done. Continue reading


Yokohama’s Smart Illumination


I like Yokohama. Every time I go, I wonder why I don’t go more often, not least because they always seem to have some fun, community oriented event going on. This weekend, the hubby and I went to Tsurumi to visit a temple and decided to swing by Yokohama for dinner on the way home. And lucky we did, because they were having a great, whimsical light-up event that was half art instillation, half holiday illumination, with individual exhibits spread all around town. In the interest of conserving power in the post-Fukushima world, all of the exhibits were made using candles or LED lights. Here’s a little of what we saw: Continue reading

A New Old Tokyo Station

Tokyo Station soon after completion

On Monday, I attended a press tour of portions of the newly renovated and restored Tokyo Station. Although I was a little disappointed to discover that the bulk of the tour had to do with the soon-to-reopen Tokyo Station Hotel, rather than the changes to the station itself, it was nonetheless interesting. Continue reading

Ishihara Defends Purchase of Senkaku Islands

Today, I attended a press conference with the controversial Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. He is infamous for his blunt, very non-PC way of speaking and highly conservative views. He seems to enjoy this reputation quite a bit, as he laughingly commented when a gaggle of photographers began snapping away at the initial photo opportunity, “I’m so notorious!” Indeed. Continue reading

An Illuminating Date in Sagamiko

A couple snuggles up while enjoying the lights.

If you live in or near Tokyo and are trying to come up with some Valentine date ideas, let me recommend the Sagamiko Illumillion at Pleasure Forest. The organizers have created a fantasy world out of 3 million LED lights. The park has been separated into different themes, including a section that models our solar system.

There are also amusement park rides to enjoy, including a Ferris wheel lit up like Mt. Fuji. You have to take a ski lift over the lit fields to get there, which is almost worth it in and of itself. Other attractions include the largest mirror maze in Japan, a snow field for the kids, and a variety of food stalls.

The illumination is set to continue until early April, so you have plenty of time to visit. But be sure to dress warmly when you do, because it gets darn cold atop that mountian!

Beyond Belief

You may remember a bit of a kerfuffle in September of last year when Fort Bragg in North Carolina held the Rock the Fort event, an evangelical festival featuring Christian rock bands and speakers. The event was co-sponsored by the Billy Graham Association and had a stated mission to convert as many attendees as possible. The military brass at Fort Bragg not only approved and co-sponsored the festival as part of its Spiritual Fitness Initiative, but over $100,000 of your tax dollars were used to fund it.

At the time, church-state separation organizations protested, saying that the endorsement and support of the event was clearly a violation of the Establishment Clause.  Lieutenant General Frank G. Helmick, commander of Fort Bragg, argued that it was not a problem because no soldiers would be forced or coerced into attending, and because the base would “would be willing and able to provide the same support to comparable events” as required by Department of Defense regulations. The event went ahead as planned.

Sgt. Justin Griffith, an atheist posted at the base, decided to take him at his word and organize a similar event in support of non-religious soldiers, free thought and secularism. Over a five month process, he and his team of volunteers managed to get a veritable who’s-who in the atheist world lined up as speakers and performers, including Richard Dawkins, Dan Barker, and Margaret Downey. He worked closely with base personnel in crafting his proposal, careful to ask for nothing more than was given to Rock the Fort organizers. Through the necessary officials and committees, the promise to provide the same support was repeated again and again, and as Griffith approached the final step, the approval of the base commander, he felt confident that his proposal would be approved with everything he asked for.

Lieutenant General Helmick is apparently not a man of his word, however, because he approved the event only under such restrictive conditions that it was impossible to move ahead. Compared to the tens of thousands of dollars given to Rock the Fort, Rock Beyond Belief was allotted absolutely nothing. While Rock the Fort was held in the expansive parade grounds, allowing for large numbers of attendees, information booths and family-friendly activity areas, Rock Beyond Belief was offered a much smaller indoor venue with a maximum capacity of just 700, too small the the expected turnout. And while the Christian event was officially sponsored and promoted, Helmick required that any materials for Rock Beyond Belief contain a disclaimer that the event was not supported by the military. With the expected funding having failed to materialize and without a suitable venue for the event, Griffith was forced to cancel Rock Beyond Belief at the last minute.

How anyone could see this as providing the same level of support is beyond me, so I can only assume the Helmick is being swayed by his personal prejudices rather than a sense of fairness or even his constitutional duty, especially considering he is going against the advice of his own legal department in this matter. This was a chance for the military to counter allegations that they engage in Christian proselytizing and are hostile to secular and non-religious soldiers. Instead, since the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has offered to litigate on behalf of Rock Beyond Belief, they are going to end up in court, likely spending more of your tax dollars fighting legal battles than they would have if they had just approved the festival as requested.

What a waste.

Where do atheists go for moral guidance?

Recently, primate biologist Frans de Waal, author of the excellent book The Age of Empathy, wrote a piece for the New York Times asking if morals are possible without religion.

Much of the piece echos the argument in his book that since the building blocks for morality–empathy and a sense of fairness–are present in primates and other mammals, they must have predated the origin of modern religion.

We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates. Rather than having developed morality from scratch, we received a huge helping hand from our background as social animals.

However, de Waal goes on to argue, the instinct towards assisting others is not enough to be considered a moral being. True morality requires a logically coherent system of justification, monitoring and punishment, and this is where religion steps in. Asking questions about good and evil in the abstract is a solely human characteristic and finding the answers is not something that science alone can help us with, he says.

The problem with atheism, according to the author, is that it doesn’t offer a replacement for this system of moral guidance traditionally offered by religion. The removal of religion would not result in anarchy and total selfishness, as some have claimed, but the framework for deciding these abstract ethical questions would be gone.

…What would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good.

I find two assumptions in this argument to be problematic. The first is that religion actually provides worthwhile moral guidance. There are certainly examples of religious teachings that I consider to be ethical. The Sermon on the Mount is the first example that jumps to mind. But it is equally true that there are religious teachings that many people would find morally abhorrent. The Bible justifies slavery, the Koran makes allowances for spousal abuse, and the Bhagavad Gita lays out the reasons for the caste system.

And those are just the teachings encoded in religious texts. The name of religion is used every day by powerful men and women to encourage their followers in all manner of unethical behavior. From genocide to female genital mutilation to torture, religion pops up again and again as a justification for atrocities against human rights, so how can we claim that it has some sort of privileged place as the well-spring of morality?

Some will say that these cases are perversions of the true teachings or that you have to look at religious texts from a historical perspective, but if that is the case, than the true determination of the moral guidance on offer is made through human logic, not by divine gift.

The second problematic assumption from de Waal’s article is that atheists suggest turning to science for ethical instruction. The majority of the non-religious I know revere science and empirical knowledge, but it is not their moral compass. Science can provide the answers about why things are the way they are and it can inform decisions about how things should be, but it cannot make them for you.

For example, atheists are often split on the issues of whether abortion should be allowed, how late it should be allowed and under what circumstances. We can look to biology for answers about fetal development, we can look to sociology for statistics about maternal mortality and quality of life, and we can look to genetics for the likelihood of the baby being born with defects, but the final determination is made on a personal level, using the same gut instinct for fairness that de Waal finds in his primate subjects to balance the rights of the mother against the rights of the fetus.

It’s not that atheists have no framework for deciding moral questions, but that their framework is based on empathy, social mores, logic and humanist philosophy rather than a single book or the opinion of a religious leader. Frankly, I think an approach that requires this level of thought and introspection is more likely to reach an ethical conclusion that one where you simply follow instructions laid out thousands of years ago.

De Waal says it is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion because our culture is too completely steeped in it, and maybe that is true in terms of completely escaping the influence of religion, but I hope we will one day have a society where moral choices are informed by the best all religious philosophies have to offer without being restricted by the worst.