Membership, Community, Diversity

Are joining or leaving the Shinto community significant membership issues?

Membership in traditions so closely identified with ethnicity as Shinto has a great deal to do with trends in society generally. That is of course true of most religious traditions, but here there are several features about Shinto worth noting. Japanese ethnicity does not imply adherence to Shinto beliefs and practices any more than Jewish ancestry implies that an individual actively participates in Judaic religious traditions. Shinto is integral to the fabric of Japanese life, yet large numbers of Japan’s present population do not engage in regular Shinto rituals at all, and many others are very selective as to their involvement. But that does not imply a deliberate choice to reject the ancient traditions as such. It does, however, underscore the impact of cultural and social change on all things traditional. Shinto tradition calls people to unhurried, careful attentiveness to the mysterious details of life. In a fast-paced, often tumultuous world, the drum-beat of change can easily drown out the sound of the drums that announce the beginning of a sacred ritual.

Since Shinto is so intimately identified with being Japanese, the concept of conversion is largely irrelevant. That does not mean that no non-Japanese has ever deliberately chosen to become a practitioner of Shinto, but such instances are very rare. The case of Judaism offers a rough parallel. Many consider membership in Judaism a matter of ethnicity, but some Jewish congregations nevertheless welcome converts into their community. Some have developed formal initiatory rites for ethnically non-Jewish individuals, but Shinto tradition does not have such a rite for non-Japanese who wish to practice and profess Shinto tradition. The difference here is that membership in Judaism presupposes assent to certain basic creedal affirmations, whereas Shinto does not.


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