Shinto: Window on Universal Religion

To claim that Shinto is in some way connected with “universal religion” would appear to be an oxymoron. As explained in any guidebook on Japan, Shinto is the indigenous religion of the Japanese people, and only the Japanese people. By comparison with the five great world religions, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, Shinto appears to an exclusively ethnic religion.

At the same time, it is important to recall that everyone alive today is a homo sapiens, a human species with a history of at least 200,000 years and likely longer. Nevertheless, the five major world religions have, at most, a history of only 5,000 years. Even older religions, such as those of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Indo-Europeans, add perhaps another five thousand years to our knowledge of religious history. Thus, we currently have some idea of the spiritual life of homo sapiens dating back, at most, 10,000 years. This means we currently understand only about 5% or less of our collective religious history, or in other words, we are largely ignorant of 95% of the spiritual life of our species.

The thesis of this paper is that what existed prior to known or historic religions, and therefore the oldest form of religious belief, is today called “animism.” Animism is a religion (or, more accurately, a series of closely related religions) once prevalent throughout the entire world and can therefore be rightfully identified as the universal religion of all homo sapiens. Inasmuch as Shinto is today one of the most vibrant forms of animism still in existence, it can serve as a window to that time when animism was the universal religion of humankind. This paper explores not only Shinto’s ritual and mythological content but also the impact that animism, as manifested in Shinto, has had on today’s world religions.

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Posted by IAFOR