This study focuses on how the German pair of concepts opposite in meaning “wissen” (to know) and “glauben” (to believe) was expressed in Japanese texts critical of religion and religious organizations before and after the onslaught of Western ideas in the second half of the 19th century. A comparison of the words used for the actions commonly associated with “believing” and “knowing” in a text on peasant life in rural Kyūshū in the 1810s with the terminology used by a leading member of the bureaucratic intelligentsia in Tokyo in the 1910s reveals that the basic conflict between “knowing” and “believing” before and after the mid-19th century period of transition differed fundamentally from the archetypal opposition of “belief in transcendence” versus “acquisition of knowledge by empirical methods” which characterised the Western Age of Enlightenment. In fact, religion was blamed above all for deflecting the allegiance of believers from the political authorities to religious organizations. Accordingly criticism in both periods focuses mainly on those religious organizations which on grounds of their popular appeal were seen to pose an immediate threat to the government’s claim to “knowing”, a term which in Japanese is emantically closely linked with “governing”. Since faith was not regarded as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11.1) but as a form of allegiance ( kie ), criticism of religion in the texts surveyed should be understood as being rooted in political concerns, not in a radical denial of religion as such.