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Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
#1

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
I'm an American living and teaching English in northern Taiwan. One of my hobbies is visiting temples dedicated to Qitian Dasheng ("Great Sage Equaling Heaven"), a monkey god whose story is told in the Chinese classic Xiyouji ("Journey to the West", 1592). More commonly known as Sun Wukong or the Monkey King, this god is celebrated in southern China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore as a great exorcist, healer, and protector of children. His followers have the option of personally interacting with him via tangki (“divine children”), or spirit-mediums, who are thought to channel the god (tangki are common to the cults of other Buddho-Daoist gods in the aforementioned countries). These mediums regularly perform self-mortification by chopping themselves with all manner of sharp implements or skewering their cheeks and back with poles and hooks as a form of self-sacrifice. And the resulting blood (see picture below) is believed to have demonifugic properties, hence the reason why it is smeared on paper talismans. 
 
It sometimes feels strange being an atheist who likes researching living folk religious traditions, especially since I'm sometimes required to take part in them (per participant observation). For example, in an effort to gather data for a blog article, I recently joined a small Qitian Dasheng temple on a pilgrimage south to other houses of worship, during which I paid respect (bowing, lighting incense, carrying palanquins bearing religious statues) to various Buddho-Daoist gods. As a researcher, I need to separate my own non-beliefs from the ones I’m studying, but I still feel weird when doing such things. 
 
Oddly enough, I’ve also defended the worship of this deity (per cultural relativism). Qitian Dasheng is far more widely known as a character in the aforementioned novel. Many modern people, even in Asia, look at Ming-era fantasy novels from the western perspective of literary fiction. However, originally, such novels often spread a particular deity’s mythos. There are some who claim the god isn’t real and question, “Why would someone worship a character from a book?” I tell these people that Qitian Dasheng is real to the thousands who worship him across Asia. I also ask them this question: What is the difference between the mythological feats of Jesus from the Bible and those of this god from the Xiyouji?
 
It's even stranger since I'm married to a superstitious Taiwanese wife. For instance, her friend, a Lamaist, looked up my zodiac and noticed that I am under Taisui, a negative star/god who brings bad luck when angered. My wife noticed that this coincided with a variety of health issues I’ve been having, so she called the Qitian Dasheng temple and had them do a ritual to supplicate Taisui. Additionally, she bought ritual rings and had them “blessed”. So now I have to wear them on a necklace to make sure that I stave off bad luck. Her friend actually believes that I worship the god. They don’t know that my interest is purely academic.

Here are some pics from my trip with the temple.

[Image: PEGHBU.jpg][Image: rkbvjG.jpg]
[Image: Iy1YP3.jpg]
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#2

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
I think folk religion is a fascinating thing. Fantasies fortified with hopes and wishes of every day people. 

The importance of rituals, be that in religion, government, culture or personal lives, has always been an enigma to me. I suppose rituals are comforting because they remain reliably the same, and most humans are basically afraid of change. It is kind of strange we evolved this way, given that change is likely the only real constant in life.
[Image: color%5D%5Bcolor=#333333%5D%5Bsize=small%5D%5Bfont=T...ans-Serif%5D]
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#3

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
(12-04-2020, 03:58 PM)Dom Wrote: I think folk religion is a fascinating thing. Fantasies fortified with hopes and wishes of every day people. 

The importance of rituals, be that in religion, government, culture or personal lives, has always been an enigma to me. I suppose rituals are comforting because they remain reliably the same, and most humans are basically afraid of change. It is kind of strange we evolved this way, given that change is likely the only real constant in life.

I have begun to think humans have used ritual as a way to refocus the mind - almost like life long therapy sessions. It would be kind of like putting the overactive body-brain on autopilot while the chemical-brain finds equilibrium.

I think a (ritual) refocusing would be especially comforting after some trauma like a death, illness, conflict or, an unexpected disaster. I also see how ritual might be viewed as 'beneficial' in a decision-making process - like psyching up prior to some planned event and even decompressing after one. Hunting comes to mind and of course, war. Shy
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#4

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
(12-04-2020, 03:58 PM)Dom Wrote: I think folk religion is a fascinating thing. Fantasies fortified with hopes and wishes of every day people. 

The importance of rituals, be that in religion, government, culture or personal lives, has always been an enigma to me. I suppose rituals are comforting because they remain reliably the same, and most humans are basically afraid of change. It is kind of strange we evolved this way, given that change is likely the only real constant in life.

I'm not sure if I'd agree that rituals at large represent aversion to change. For example Buddhism has plenty of rituals, despite the fact that impermanence and the constant state of change we find ourselves in is an essential doctrine.
[Image: nL4L1haz_Qo04rZMFtdpyd1OZgZf9NSnR9-7hAWT...dc2a24480e]

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#5

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
@ghostexorcist
I'm sure then that you would have heard of the Thaipusam.
I went to the one in Kuala Lumpur many years ago.
They also self mutilate quite extensively.
Although the atmosphere is very peaceful, welcoming and, dare I say it, spiritual.
The parade winds through many streets before ending up at the Batu Caves with the giant Buddist Staute and the long stairs leading up.
I had a marvelous time.
I had booked to go again in January next year but I had to cancel.
Maybe I'll go in 2022.
I'm hoping to find accommodation in or close to the Tamil community but I don't like my chances.
I spend a lot of time in that area when I'm in Malaysia.
I love the sounds, smells and friendly people. :-)
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#6

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
(12-05-2020, 02:18 AM)Little Lunch Wrote: @ghostexorcist
I'm sure then that you would have heard of the Thaipusam.
I went to the one in Kuala Lumpur many years ago.
They also self mutilate quite extensively.
Although the atmosphere is very peaceful, welcoming and, dare I say it, spiritual.
The parade winds through many streets before ending up at the Batu Caves with the giant Buddist Staute and the long stairs leading up.
I had a marvelous time.
I had booked to go again in January next year but I had to cancel.
Maybe I'll go in 2022.
I'm hoping to find accommodation in or close to the Tamil community but I don't like my chances.
I spend a lot of time in that area when I'm in Malaysia.
I love the sounds, smells and friendly people. :-)

Yes, I've heard of it but my knowledge is limited. I've seen pictures of the elaborate self-mortification braces that they carry during the parade. I would love to go see it in person now that I've read up on the subject. I just found a paper on the ritual that I'm sure will inform my own research.

Ward, C. (1984). Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Psycho-Anthropological Analysis of Ritual Trance, Ceremonial Possession and Self-Mortification Practices. Ethos, 12(4), 307-334. Retrieved December 5, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/639977
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#7

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
I hear it's tamer compared to the Indian Thaipusam.
One thing I found amazing was the path in the street kept changing.
If you weren't following it you could suddenly find yourself right in the thick of it.
And a lot of those people are in a trance from fasting.
All the metal shit sticking out of them, you wouldn't want to get run over.
And you just might have never seen that many people at once.
Over a million people. :-)

And I should say that Malaysia is a great destination.
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#8

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
There are times when human stupidity and superstition just utterly baffle me. Do such people crawl out from under rocks and logs in the woods or something like salamanders and skinks? I just do not understand how people believe in "junk".
I came to a fork in the road, and I took it!
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#9

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
There is a tribe out on a small island in the pacific who worship Prince Philip as the son of god.  Yup.  


[Image: Tribe-Rex-439264.jpg]


From the Wikipedia page on "The Prince Philip Movement", as it's called.  

Quote:The people of the Yaohnanen area believe that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the consort to Queen Elizabeth II, is a divine being. They had seen the respect accorded to Queen Elizabeth II by the colonial officials and concluded that her husband, Prince Philip, must be the son referred to in their legends.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Philip_Movement


I think this proves how easily Christianity could have developed.
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#10

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
(12-05-2020, 04:08 PM)Dancefortwo Wrote: There is a tribe out on a small island in the pacific who worship Prince Philip as the son of god.  Yup.  


[Image: Tribe-Rex-439264.jpg]


From the Wikipedia page on "The Prince Philip Movement", as it's called.  

Quote:The people of the Yaohnanen area believe that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the consort to Queen Elizabeth II, is a divine being. They had seen the respect accorded to Queen Elizabeth II by the colonial officials and concluded that her husband, Prince Philip, must be the son referred to in their legends.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_Philip_Movement


I think this proves how easily Christianity could have developed.

This seems almost like the "cargo cult". Ignorant people (in the true sense of the word) are not stupid, just uninformed of facts. And I say that in the sense that Carl Sagan did in 'Cosmos' where some native people in the NW North America saw a French ship approaching and mistook it for a deity. Until one old guy there went out on a canoe to look at it and realized the ship was the work of humans.

People can be "ignorant" (and some remain so) but some brave on as they search for understanding. I admire that old guy who sought to understand something new to him.
I came to a fork in the road, and I took it!
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#11

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
I met the people of the John Frum group at Tanna Island.
They're cargo cult.
I also learnt to use a bow and arrow, make fire, dance with the local men, eat the local food and stand on the edge of an active volcano.
Great place. :-)
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#12

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
(12-05-2020, 09:32 PM)Little Lunch Wrote: I met the people of the John Frum group at Tanna Island.
They're cargo cult.
I also learnt to use a bow and arrow, make fire, dance with the local men, eat the local food and stand on the edge of an active volcano.
Great place. :-)

Yabut, Prince Philip is almost 100 years old so maybe he's immortal and IS a god.  Cargo Cult, indeed!   Toetap   Hrumph! 







Nice that you got to meet them,  make fire and shoot a bow though.   Smile
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#13

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
Cargo-cult was my first thought opening this thread. I suspect most religions are both synthetic and syncretic.
Freedom isn't free.
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#14

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
(12-05-2020, 11:31 PM)Thumpalumpacus Wrote: Cargo-cult was my first thought opening this thread. I suspect most religions are both synthetic and syncretic.

"Syncretic"? Well, learn a new word every week. Wink
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#15

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
(12-05-2020, 11:31 PM)Thumpalumpacus Wrote: Cargo-cult was my first thought opening this thread. I suspect most religions are both synthetic and syncretic.

I wasn't aware of cargo cults. Such a fascinating concept. 

Folk religion in Asia is syncretic, being a mix of Buddhism and Daoism. There is even an emerging trend where temple dancers include blinking neon lights and loud techno music into their routines.
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#16

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
(12-05-2020, 09:53 PM)Dancefortwo Wrote: Yabut, Prince Philip is almost 100 years old so maybe he's immortal and IS a god.  Cargo Cult, indeed! Hrumph! 

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#17

Researching living folk religion beliefs as an atheist
(12-04-2020, 06:42 PM)Aegon Wrote:
(12-04-2020, 03:58 PM)Dom Wrote: I think folk religion is a fascinating thing. Fantasies fortified with hopes and wishes of every day people. 

The importance of rituals, be that in religion, government, culture or personal lives, has always been an enigma to me. I suppose rituals are comforting because they remain reliably the same, and most humans are basically afraid of change. It is kind of strange we evolved this way, given that change is likely the only real constant in life.

I'm not sure if I'd agree that rituals at large represent aversion to change. For example Buddhism has plenty of rituals, despite the fact that impermanence and the constant state of change we find ourselves in is an essential doctrine.
Agreed. A ritual does not have to be longstanding to be effective. I can invent a ritual right now and practice it for 2 or 3 weeks and it will be just as effective as something handed down through the ages. In addition, ritual has nothing inherently to do with religion.

Ritual is simply a habit or practice that focuses the mind on something of interest, usually something counterintuitive or easily neglected or that requires some level of discipline that one is resistant to. A well constructed ritual in the service of something beneficial can be a good thing.

My wife's grandfather for example had a morning ritual of doing calisthenics immediately upon arising each day. This and other things he did to structure his day kept him physically fit and alert and calm and provided focus. That was important to him as an FBI agent and, later, a judge and politician. He didn't do badly; he lived to be 102.

I have a ritual of walking at least a couple miles a day, or equivalent treadmill time in inclement weather.

Ritual and tradition, then, in and of themselves, are simply ways to focus. The problem with religious tradition is that the focus is, in significant part, on imaginary beings and their imagined demands and commands. But even religious rituals have practical applications. A certain order of church service or liturgy is a source of comfort and calm to many people, something they look forward to for its centering effects, even if the topic matter itself is useless. Indeed, you could achieve the same effect by, say, immersing yourself in a hobby or listening to music rather than attending a church service.

When engaged in by a group, ritual can also provide a shared experience and the resulting social cohesion. Those who went to Catholic school for example may grouse about the regimentation, the uniforms, the nuns ... but they also have a shared experience that they can harken back to decades later, that gives them structure and identity, even though in some ways it's negative. You can say the same about secular school -- the bell rang at certain times, classes were in a certain order, there were rules to follow and practices to adhere to, and that both forms and informs you, for better or worse.
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