Culture Warriors (redux)

This is another slap-dash combination of old posts that I’ve been thinking about, touching on the issue of cultural change.

A friend of mine posted on facebook:

I find the argument that people generally belong to a given religion based on the place where they were born or the family into which they were born to be one of atheism’s weakest arguments and I also find it to be personally insulting, and you should too. How many atheists here were born in “Christian countries” or had Christian parents (or otherwise depending on the religion in question)? Could I not have had the same opportunities and circumstances in my life that would have lead me to become an atheist? And yet, I am still a believer. Why is that? Is it because I failed to get educated on the matter or that I have not thought it through? No. Try again. Is it because my neurons are connected differently than yours and they fire differently? Well that holds for everyone doesn’t it? My neurological structures could be exactly the way they are now and I could be an atheist (unless science can now show what the mapping of belief vs disbelief looks like). The more we analyze the issue, the more we move away from the original issue, namely, demographics. The argument for atheism based on demographics is about the most futile thing I’ve ever heard.

What he is referring to is the argument that since statistically people practice the majority religion of their homelands, religious conviction is a matter of cultural conditioning and, let’s face it, narrow intellectual horizons. After all, if you call yourself a committed Muslim and were born in Yemen, you would probably call yourself a Catholic had you been born in the Philippines. Your so-called “conviction” is completely relative and no one religion has more claim to truth than any other.

What is fascinating about this discussion is the whole problem of culture and truth. Different cultures have incompatible ideas about God, the world, and human behavior: what is “true” in Yemen is “false” in the Philippines. I think the atheists do not carry the point far enough: the problem isn’t “people disagree about Jesus and Allah, so let’s throw the whole thing out!”, but whether even the notion of “truth” can be valid.

It is tempting to look at human thought as a closed circle: our cultural ideas about God, the world, and man determine how we see reality, and in turn this vision of reality reinforces our original ideas. The same could be said for our political ideologies. Even scientific theories have the unavoidable tendency to filter out seemingly insignificant data that could end up contradicting it. If we have such a pessimistic view of culture then our greatest heroes are the counter-cultural rebels.

They represent a tiny minority who are able to buck the trend and undergo a mental conversion against their cultural tradition: noble philosophers, persecuted free-thinkers, Nietzschian supermen, (etc.) who burst the chains of superstition, step forth from the cave of shadows and into the light of pure reason (and so forth), only to be outcast, hated, and hunted down (ad nauseam) by the fearful, unenlightened and un-deodorized masses.

Well… not quite. The truth is that while everyone is culturally conditioned, most everyone goes through a complex process of examining and questioning his cultural inheritance called “growing up”. When we are very little, our parents and social institutions fill our cultural backpacks with all kinds of stuff: some items carefully wrapped up with love and little bows, others just thrown in, and some things getting into our backpacks despite the efforts of our parents and institutions. Eventually we sit down, open the backpack, and sift through our cultural baggage, comparing it to our experiences and the longings of our hearts.  The process starts with adolescence and never really ends, but we are all familiar with the arc from childhood (uncritical acceptance) to teenage rebellion (faux-critical rejection) followed by real-life experience (the “My God! My parents were right!” stage, marked by a growing critical acceptance) to full adulthood and the responsibility to pass on lessons to the next generation.

Critical acceptance does not mean reverting to the cultural programming of childhood, but reaching a stage where you understand why your parents stuck all that stuff into your backpack, discerning what corresponds to your life experience, and maybe adding or subtracting some things. Most of us never really abandon our culture for another, but we all go through a process of trying to improve on the culture we have received.  This is why all cultures change over time, sometimes evolving into something purer, sometimes degrading into something worse, or just different.

On the one hand, we cannot say that our ideas about the meaning of life are independent of our cultural backgrounds; on the other, we cannot simply dismiss people’s opinions as the result of cultural conditioning, since we all go through a process of re-evaluating our cultural inheritance as we grow older.

No one can say he is free of cultural influences: first because our cultural influences are often unconscious, and second because even people who claim to be counter-cultural radicals are generally just switching one cultural pose for another.

Exhibit One: The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens

Exhibit One: The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens

This leaves us with a problem: how can we hold to our convictions while admitting that they are culturally conditioned? I do not have a clear answer myself, but these are some of the thoughts I have as I try to grope around the issue:

1) Three facts, (first) that most of us re-evaluate our cultural backgrounds as we mature, and (second) the resulting fact that all cultures change over time, and (third) the fact that people can undergo radical cultural shifts, show us that the average person does think semi-independently of his cultural background.

2) Some cultures have many centuries of development, can include many sub-cultures, and live in regular contact with other cultures. When referring to things like Christianity, Islam or Western Civ, we could probably speak of “super-cultures”. Our basic assumption when confronting this sort of reality should be that given the huge store of human experience contained in them, they probably have something positive to teach us about human nature. For example, it is easy to look at news of suicide bombers in the Middle East and dismiss Islam as something grotesque, but given Islam’s millennial tradition and multi-ethnic membership, it is more likely that we are getting a distorted image of it in the news, that there are other factors involved in these horrors besides religion, or that Islam finds itself at a low-ebb in history and these deformities are not a reflection of the whole.

3) We often glorify cultural rebels, but I often feel like cultural rebels are annoyingly superficial, as if they never took the time to understand what they are rebelling against. At best, their rebellion is a symptom of a deeper cultural crisis which they themselves lack the mental tools to address. Then there are men who are celebrated as counter-cultural, but when you look closely at them they seem much more mysterious. Socrates was a critic of Athens, but after reading the dialogues of Plato it is hard to imagine anyone in the city of Athens who was more Athenian than Socrates. Jesus was a critic of Judaism, but after reading the Gospels, especially in the light of recent scholarship, it is hard to imagine anyone more Jewish than Jesus. Both men were immersed in their cultural worlds, but both men had universal aspirations. Both men have had a cultural impact that has spanned centuries.  It is almost as if by becoming more perfectly Athenian and more perfectly Jewish they become more universal.

What do these reflections add up to? Not a formula for knowing some trans-cultural truth, but maybe an attitude of patience and a desire to learn more about my own cultural heritage.

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