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Dojo: Rethinking Projection Theory

Religion, Briefly Considered: Part 4

Winston Davis’ “Religion, Briefly Considered” series:
Part 1: Darwin’s Dog, or the Evolution of Religion
Part 2: When You Wish upon a Star: The Projection Theory of Religion
Part 3: Carving the Buddha: Was Feuerbach Right?.
Part 5: Religious Magic
Part 6: Religious Experience – An Open Letter.

Scholars can only speculate about the original creation of religion. We know far more about the on-going re-creation of religion in recently founded sects.

Dojo: Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan, Winston Davis. Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1980. About 35 years ago, I stumbled upon such religion in Japan. Formally, it is called Sukyo Mahikari (The True Light Supra-Religious Organization). Less formally, members call themselves the “Lucky and Healthy Sunshine Children.” Feuerbach could have designed the group himself, so well does it fit his theory of projection. Today, I’d like say a few things about the projection theory that I used in my book Dojo: Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan .1

Mahikari claims to makes people happy and lucky, or glücklich, to use Feuerbach’s word. It teaches that all human problems are caused by evil spirits. Fortunately, spirit possession can be cured by wearing an amulet transmitting “divine light rays.” Every day, members raise their hands over each other, cast out evil spirits and perform all sorts of miracles. Or so they say.

As Feuerbach said, it all begins with wishes. When medicine fails, people still want to be healed. They want their asthma to end, their stuttering to go away, their tumors to disappear. And so they go to the dojo to get “cleaned up.”

With the help (and suggestions) of sect leaders, members put together “spirit-stories” that explain how and why various evil spirits are possessing them. The story—Protestants might call it a “testimony”—can be a simple one-liner such as “a fox spirit possessed me, so I got stomach cancer.” Or, “my periods became irregular when a samurai spirit from the Tokugawa Period fell in love with me.”

Shikami mask, Japanese Theatre Masks, http://www.micheleyounglive.com/masks2.htm Mahikari claims that the “World of Miracles” is not just wishful thinking. I was told that one woman who joined Mahikari was born (“like a dog”) with six breasts, four of which disappeared after she was “purified.” Exorcism is also used to start cars, extend the life of batteries, fix air conditioners, and so on.

I told the leader of my local dojo that when I went back to the States and told people about Mahikari they would laugh at me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Just raise your hand over a dead goldfish, bring it back to life and they’ll stop laughing!”2

To explain how believers create their world of good and evil spirits, I turned to projection theory. Today, I don’t think this was a mistake, but I do feel that projection is more picture than theory. What, after all, does it mean to “pro-ject” something? Etymologically, it means “to throw (something) forward,” e.g., to hurl an idea or image into empty space. But this is merely a picture of a gesture, a metaphor describing the acts of the imagination. Feuerbach wanted to “explain” religion. But can pictures and metaphors do the job? What is it that people actually do when they create gods and evil spirits?

Were I to rewrite the book today, I would probably talk less metaphorically about “projection” and more concretely about the staging of religion and its performances. It is religious drama in This (secular) World that conjures up gods, spirits, salvation and miracles in the Other (metaphysical) World. Like a play, a film or an opera, religion has its own playwrights or librettists. I call them fabulators.

To bring his or her script to life, the fabulator must join hands with various actors, stagehands, managers, ticket agents, impresarios and audiences. Like the other performing arts, the fabulator’s religious theater needs walls and curtains to block out the workaday world. And don’t forget the music. Nearly all religious performances make use of music to create a suitable mood. One thinks of the professional choir in a great cathedral, the band pumping up the faithful in an evangelical mega-church, or the simple bell or gong at the beginning and end of meditation session.

Writing Dojo, I found ample evidence that religion is a matter of wishful thinking. A religion doesn’t need to fulfill all wishes; it only has to convince people that it can eventually do so. I also learned that popular religion doesn’t live on the thin gruel of Religion Lite. Religion is more than a “search for the meaning of life,” the tired mantra of bourgeois theology and the liberal Religious Studies establishment.

The religions of “the huddled masses” are responses to real desperation. They claim to heal the sick, overcome poverty and relieve personal misery. Popular religion—i.e., religion that is statistically significant—is therefore the first cousin of magic. It makes people lucky both in this world and the next. That’s why it never achieves respectability in the eyes of the devotees of mainline religion, i.e. churches that have replaced traditional religious magic with “meaningfulness.”

Feuerbach realized that people first turn to the gods because they want to be happy, healthy and lucky—but can’t be so on their own. A sly Japanese saying says it all: kurushii toki no kamidanomi. “The gods exist only when there’s trouble.”

A final note about political values. When I wrote Dojo, I realized there was a sinister current of ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism running beneath Mahikari’s “World of Miracles.” Since then, I have learned how deep and strong this current is.

When I first encountered Mahikari, I realized that its feast of miracles was garnished with ethnocentrism, emperor-worship and the reactionary values of fascist Japan. I knew that the sect rejected “materialistic” Western medicine because it was “Jewish.” I also knew that, statistically speaking, the more involved people were in Mahikari the more politically conservative they tended to be.

Only later did I learn that students in advanced training courses were studying the disgustingly anti-Semitic Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,3 and that World War II was the Creator’s way of punishing the Jews for the failure of their ancestors to defend Solomon’s temple.

Here too Feuerbach was right.4 People who are religious children (e.g. “Lucky Sunshine Children”) can’t be expected to act like political adults.


1Dojo: Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980.

2 I was amazed to learn that after Mahikari leaders read Dojo, they stopped talking about evil spirits, at least in Western dojos. They now claim (more vaguely) that Mahikari is the key to “spiritual purification.”

3 About the so-called Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, see, for example, the following:

4 Feuerbach, who claimed to be a “communist” (i.e., socialist), came from a famously liberal family in reactionary Bavaria. He and other members of his family were repeatedly harassed by the police.

Image Sources

Dojo: Magic and Exorcism in Modern Japan [cover]. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980.

Shikari mask, from Japanese Theatre Masks, on the website of Michèle Young.

The shikami masks are used as the demon masks. You can tell when you look at the masks that this is what they are used for because of the way they look. The fang teeth and the evil looking mouth show the fear that is portrayed in this mask. There is a red complexion on the mask. This shows the anger in the demon just like in the hannya mask. Both the teeth and the eyes are painted a metallic gold as well.


Thank you for the interesting blog post. Having read and thought about similar topics, I, too, have wondered about ‘performances’ rather than ‘projections’. I will find a chance to read your ‘Dojo’ soon. Two other useful ideas I have picked up mostly from various readings. One is the idea of ‘negotiating reality’, which human beings often do over whatever their behaviors and beliefs may determine, anyway. Another idea related to ‘projection’ is ‘pull’. We can ask what is ‘projected’, if this will help us discover anything, but we may also wonder if meanings, feelings, ideas etc are ‘pulled’ out by stimuli or relation or whatever. So Gods may be durable constructions because they are not exactly JUST wishes. Anyway, thanks:-)
Interesting observation of anti-Semitism, as Jewish tradition does not practice idolatry (Exodus 20:4-6).
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