Commitment, contentment, and curiosity

Jolyon Baraka Thomas on the academic question that drives him.

A man in a three-piece suit stands in front of a stone building
For religious studies professor Jolyon Thomas, “faith is a black box,” he says. Rather than be a participant in religious faith, Thomas is much more interested in studying its causations, repercussions, and interplay with identity, politics, and education.

At 13, Jolyon Baraka Thomas realized that he didn’t believe in salvation. This was awkward, given that he was going through a yearlong confirmation class with the United Church of Christ. “I told my parents this, and they were distraught,” says Thomas, because religion was part of the family tapestry.

The news was especially difficult for his mother, as the daughter of both a preacher and a missionary. Thomas’ parents responded that “I had to go through with this ritual, even though I didn’t really think that it was right for me,” he says. To “add insult to injury,” Thomas wrote an essay about this experience, which the minister shared with the entire confirmation class without first seeking Thomas’s consent. Thomas was outraged, embarrassed—and intrigued. “That sparked this question for me: What is religion? What’s the point of religion? Why do we do this?” he says. Thomas decided “that religion wasn’t for me personally, and yet, endlessly intellectually fascinating.”

Thomas is now associate professor of religious studies and does research in Japan and the United States. He has published two books, “Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan” (2012) and “Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan” (2019), the second of which won an award from the American Academy of Religion.

“One of the things that Jolyon brings to our department is a contemporary look at Japan but also his interest in religion, public, and politics,” says Anthea Butler, Geraldine R. Segal Professor in American Social Thought and chair of the religious studies department. Thomas brings together two places—Japan and the U.S.—in his work on culture, identity, and education, she says. “Many times, when you work on religion, people think it’s all going to be from this perspective of piety or practice or something like that. But he’s interrogating ideas about religious freedom and identity.”

“Everything that I’ve studied so far has been an attempt to answer a question,” says Thomas. In the field of religious studies, he says, “I think what binds us together is this really irritating, unanswerable question of who calls what religion and why?”

After graduating as a religious studies major from Grinnell College, Thomas moved to Japan “on a whim,” he says. There, he noticed that while no one he knew claimed to be religious, most of them were doing things that Thomas considered to be religious behavior, like visiting shrines—a major domestic tourism industry—and buying protective amulets. “I’d be like, ‘Wow, everybody here is so religious,’ and my Japanese friends would be like, ‘Nope, that’s not religion,’” Thomas says.

The Protestant Christian notion that religion is fundamentally about an individual’s faith in a deity or assenting to a belief statement doesn’t have a natural parallel in Japanese practice, he says. “What is the same is that there’s some sort of empirically unverifiable entity, and people will act as if that entity is real.” As a scholar of religion, says Thomas, “I’m curious in the things that we can’t prove and act as if they’re real.”

Man with prayer hands stands next to an android figure in a similar pose
Jolyon Baraka Thomas poses with the android bodhisattva Mindar at Kōdaiji Temple in Kyoto during a March 2019 visit.

Thomas became fascinated with differing perceptions. “Japan is a great place to study because the background assumptions are all so different,” he says. The manga and anime that Thomas was consuming to improve his Japanese language skills became fodder for an article about religion and entertainment. He visited the Panasonic museum, whose founder had a vision of “social harmony and material prosperity,” to write about why religious scholars should investigate the religiosity of corporations.

“This is what I wanted,” Thomas says. “I wanted to think and talk about religion. I didn’t necessarily want to participate in it directly.”

Thomas is currently working on two book projects. The first is a co-authored work about something called the “the animism fallacy.” This is the idea that imagined spirits that reside in objects will somehow reverse or stop the environmental crisis. In reality, the solution to climate change is to stop using fossil fuels and reduce plastic, Thomas says, but in the absence of that “people want to look for some metaphysical thing that will allow them to go on consuming as usual.”

The second is a project that Thomas says he initially thought was about desire, but has increasingly become about taxes, consumption, and desire. Taxes determine who gets what privileges and how public life and private flourishing are imagined, says Thomas, and he thinks “we’re long overdue for a really good analysis of taxes and religion.”

“We have this assumption that’s actually built into our tax code that religions don’t have desire, right?” Thomas says “that’s ridiculous.” The façade of this claim is that institutions are “performing all of this work for the benefit of society,” he says. While that is often true, “those same organizations can use that claim to mask their own deep-seated desires.”

Thomas balances his academic work with music, hiking, cocktails, and “intermittent exercise.” Formerly, that meant competitive ultimate Frisbee, which also is how he met his spouse, Kimberly Thomas. At the time, they were both earning master’s degrees from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

Thomas finds music particularly fulfilling. He used to play electric bass and currently has a carefully edited record collection in a cabinet that holds about 500 records. “There’s a sort of deep satisfaction from putting on an absolutely terrific album and sitting in an armchair just listening to it,” he says. “Things that we can do to break the ordinary flow of time are the things where I feel most satisfied,” he says.

As much as Thomas is a skeptic—“I would say that I remain very allergic to metaphysical claims”—he is also deeply principled. He ticks off the individual steps he’s taking to decrease his carbon footprint: buying a hybrid car, flying less frequently, not having children. Thomas is very comfortable “with the notion of a greater good,” he says. “One of the things that we could all benefit from is maybe a little more altruism.

“We’re in a political economic system which forces us to strive and to compete and to brand ourselves as particular standouts,” says Thomas.

The problem with this system is that it creates winners and losers, while leaving “very little room for contentment,” he says. The religious study professor then pauses and returning to a place of inquiry says, “And for asking a very simple question, which is not, ‘What do I want,’ but ‘What do you need?’”