Cultural Relativism: If There Is No Right Or Wrong, Why Believe What We Do?

Cultural Relativism: If There Is No Right Or Wrong, Why Believe What We Do? 

“Where does the world come from?  Could anything have always existed?  Surely everything that exists must have had a beginning?  So space must sometime have been created out of something else.  But if space had come from something else, then that something else must also have come from something.  At some point, something must have come from nothing.  But [is] that possible?  [Isn’t] that just as impossible as the idea that the world had always existed?  [We] could accept that God had created space, but what about God himself?  Had he created himself out of nothing?  Even though God could create all kinds of things, he could hardly create himself before he had a “self” to create with.  So there [is] only one possibility left: God had always existed.  But [we] already rejected that possibility!  Everything that existed had to have a beginning.” (Gaarder, 1994, p. 7)

Cultural relativism calls attention to the fact that beliefs, worldviews, and behaviors are culturally and historically contingent; choices of what one believes and does are based largely on the social, political, and economic consequences of that decision.  The importance of relativism in anthropology is that it allows cultures to be studied from a somewhat neutral point of view, without privileging one belief system over another.  However, even anthropologists are part of a cultural system and cannot help but privilege one alternative over another, or admit that there are some ideas that seem better than others.  In fact, I would suggest that cultural relativism is itself a scientific view of society, empirically rejecting value judgments of other cultures.  In any case, truth is relative, culture is real, and the socio-economic and political realities of any culture inevitably influence how one views the world.

Because the Ancient Greek conflict between rationality and religion helped set the stage for a similar struggle throughout the historical development of Western culture, to understand modern relativism, it would help to take a look at historical ideas that have shaped our modern world view.  Before relativism was formulated, the Ancient Greek worldview was shaped entirely by religion.  Mythological explanations were unquestionably accepted as universal truths, and helped put the chaotic cosmos in order.  Universal stability and fatalism made the world comprehensible.  Stories of gods and goddesses handed down from generation to generation offered suitable explanations for everything the agrarian Greek culture and society needed explained: from struggles between good and evil and the balance of nature, to weather events and seasonal changes.  Then, city-states developed in Greece and slaves did all manual work, and citizens were free to devote time to politics and culture.  As people began to question the way society ought to be organized, mythological explanations no longer answered the deep questions being posed.  It was not simply a question of the explanations alone, because they did a fine job in clarifying how the world worked.  It was the fact that humans no longer wanted to stand idly by and wait for gods to intervene while catastrophic droughts and plagues loomed (Gaarder, 1994).  Greek philosophers began questioning their time-honored cosmology, moving away from the supernatural and towards the natural.  “With the advent of reason, everything seemed open to doubt” (Gaarder, 1994, p. 24).  Consequently, as intellectual development reached a climax in Athens during the fifth century, the Western notion of cultural relativism was born.  While Athens was emerging as an expansive commercial and maritime city with imperial ambitions, cultural creativity and political influence peaked, and the Athenian man began asserting himself with a new sense of pride and power.  A new humanistic spirit attempted to combine human rationality with the mythic order of Ancient Greece (Tarnas, 1991).

As the fifth century continued on, the Greek cosmology shifted from a belief in a pantheon of traditional deities to a more rational, natural, and scientific mindset.  This paradigm shift gave birth to the Sophists, who recognized that “truth was relative, not absolute, and differed from culture to culture, from person to person, and from situation to situation” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 27).  According to Sophists, gods were invented to instill fear and aristocratic power, and did not speak to practical human need or common sense.  This accepting of genuine objectivity as impossible and all understanding as subjective opinion led to a new social order that was more aggressively competitive.  As democracy emerged in Athens, Sophists began asserting that “the proper molding of a man’s character for successful participation in polis life required a sound education in the various arts and sciences” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 29).  Because cultural relativists believed seeking absolute truth was futile, the way to best prepare for a successful life in the world was by expanding opportunities through education in grammar, math, music, poetry, natural history, astronomy, geography, physical sciences, and so on.  Although this freeing of human thought to follow new, unexplored paths was based on good intentions, “a radical skepticism toward all values led some to advocate an explicitly amoral opportunism” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 30).  Students (only Athenian males) were taught to be able to plausibly argue any claim, which culminated in increased educational and political competition, ultimately leading to “the democracy turning fickle and corrupt” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 30).  The exploitation of women, slaves, and foreigners was exaggerated as Sophists continued to deny absolute truth and absolute values.  The relativistic humanism provided a method for success, claiming “that through its own power, man’s thought could provide him with sufficient wisdom to live his life well” (Tarnas, 1991, p. 31).  The problem was that Sophists did not actually define success, and thus the development of human reason through education acted to destabilize certainty and order, which ultimately led to a highly charged cultural climate, where oligarchy, tyranny, and war were readily argued and ostensibly justified (Tarnas, 1991).

Sophists came to be viewed by many as immoral deteriorators of human ethical standards.  Mythology had functioned in Greece as the great uniting force, a collective unconscious, where individuals did not have to think for themselves because the present and future were predetermined.  Cultural relativism, on the other hand, acted as the great divider, where individualism evoked ethical irresponsibility.  The argument was that spiritual enlightenment, not intellectual speculation, led to a virtuous life, because individual beliefs were superseded for the greater good, for universal order and moral certainty.

In post-modern society we see a recreation of this controversy between a decision to live a life that is honest in values or to live a life that is sincere in thought.  Do we follow a religious doctrine because it is morally right, or do we follow a relativistic mindset because it is intellectually honest?  A similar process as seen in fifth century Athens has brought about today’s cultural relativism – produced by institutionalized education.  Being taught a multitude of ideas by various people, especially in anthropological studies, leads to an awareness of the plasticity of human values and customs.  No matter which we choose to have faith in, whether science or religion, relativism reminds us that all beliefs are contingent upon the culture in which they exist and neither is more right than the other.

Take for example, Robin Horton’s (1967) comparison between African traditional religion and science.  To bring order to chaos, regularity to anomalies, and simplicity to complex issues, societies attempt to explain the unseen phenomena in different ways.  Science does this by using the wave theory, germ theory, atoms, DNA, cell theories, etcetera, while religion uses the theory of water spirits, ancestors, heroes, etcetera.  The similarities between the explanatory power of science and religion are virtually endless, but the point is that they are both adequate belief systems for explaining what the society needs explained.  So why did science come to be viewed as the one correct belief system in America?  One explanation is that the socio-economic and political changes of the industrial revolution were accompanied by a paradigm shift, a new intellectual approach to the world.  As mentioned earlier, theories are “people’s attempt to explain, predict and control phenomenon, to reduce diversity to unity, complexity to simplicity, disorder to order” (Robbins, 1985).  In traditional societies, the need to maintain personal connections and consensual thought takes precedence over explaining things that lie beyond the common sense of everyday life.  In this slow paced culture, anomalies tend to be avoided and glossed over, but can still be explained using historical wisdom of the ancients and past experiences to solve problems, as the Greeks did with their mythologies.  Scientific theory, on the other hand, embraces anomalies, actively seeking out causes for phenomenon beyond the everyday.  Science is progressive; rather than looking to the past for explanations or truths, science looks to the future.  Science also breeds competition, as contradicting theories play ‘king of the mountain’ to gain cultural acceptance.  As American society was rapidly changing and introducing new technologies, scientific theories spread just as rapidly.  Thus, it was the transition from primitive accumulation to our current capitalistic economy in the United States that drove technology to be invented, which created a scientific mode of thought.  As we locked ourselves into a system that requires the accelerated accumulation of capital to survive, technology continued to accelerate capital, and science emerged as theoretical attempts to explain the way technical apparatus and instruments function.  This might explain why traditional African religion does not require scientific explanations to maintain societal function (Horton, 1967).  Our scientific way of thinking, therefore, is no more right than a religious mode of thought, but is driven by modern cultures variety of needs to cope with everyday life.  It was the advent of technology that encouraged the creation of a scientific belief system, not science that spurred technology.  Furthermore, science would not be able to make its dazzling connections without the use of technology (Robbins, 1985).

So technology helped bring science to the forefront as one of America’s most widely accepted belief systems, as opposed to voodooism, or any other number of potentially valid belief systems.  And then science itself helped to propagate the socio-economic and political beliefs of the culture that chose to believe in it.  A good example of this is DNA and the double helix, considered to be one of the revolutionary discoveries in the history of biochemistry.  First, the discovery of the structure of DNA would not have been possible without the X-ray crystallographer photos contributed by Rosalind (Rosy) Franklin.  Secondly, James Watson’s (1968) book, The Double Helix, is wrought with chauvinistic undertones.  Ironic, considering it was a woman’s photos that led to the discovery.  Here I would suggest that scientific metaphors, drawn from technology, are used to perpetuate white male dominance in American society: society structures belief.  Throughout the book, Watson consistently demoralizes Rosy, making it seem as if she were simply an emotional feminist, getting in the way of scientific progress.  When not competing in the scientific arena, all the men in the labs agreed on one thing, Rosy’s scientific expertise and mental stability were utterly questionable.  Among all the scientific jargon in the book, Watson manages to solidify the inferiority of women by claiming, “Certainly a bad way to go out into the foulness of a heavy, foggy November night was to be told by a woman to refrain from venturing an opinion about a subject for which you were not trained.  It was a sure way of bringing back unpleasant memories of lower school” (Watson, 1968. p. 70).  Aside from the domineering language of the misogynistic author, the purpose of the book is to establish DNA as the secret of life (Watson, 1968).  The question then arises, why put DNA at top and center when there are so many variables that go into the creation and maintenance of life?  Again, the answer lies in Western culture.  DNA has probably been placed at the center partly because we can manipulate it, making it commodifiable, which is of utmost importance to a society that depends on accelerated accumulation of capital.  Also, by privileging heredity and DNA as the single most important purpose of life in relation to other sub-cellular components, biological determinism and hierarchical control are perpetuated through cultural metaphors.  Proteins are subordinate to genes, just as women are subordinate to men and workers subordinate to managers.  Genetics and biology have also been used to justify the idea of the Western mind’s superiority over others, as seen in the eugenics movement of the 20th century (Robbins, 2005).

Other examples of how science metaphors perpetuate inequality in America can be seen in the view that biology makes females lesser persons than males.  Menstruation is seen as failed reproduction and menopause as the cessation of functional reproduction.  Furthermore, the language used to describe the role of the male’s sperm in reproduction glorifies them as the active go-getters in the world of reproduction.  While the female egg is simply a passive, Sleeping Beauty; a dormant bride awaiting her life giving kiss.  Also, labeling hormones as male and female allows for further division between the sexes.  ‘Male testosterone’ is seen as normative and functional, while ‘female estrogen’ is anomalous and controlling.  Basically, by privileging DNA and the way we talk about reproduction, hormones, etcetera we trap ourselves in a classist, sexist, and socially stratified paradigm.  This is good for the white, male, elite scientists, but not for everyone else (Robbins, 2005).

By understanding the political, social, and economic influences and consequences of a scientific belief system, one can appreciate that every act is an act of belief determined by social interests.  Hence, there is no way to empirically determine the ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ of a view of ‘life’ that privileges an emphasis of DNA, nor the view expressed in the Gospels that Jesus is ‘life’.  Take, for example, Clifford Geertz’s (1965) definition of religion, which is just as easily a definition of science:

A system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (Geertz, 1965, p. 4)

Further proof that beliefs are contingent upon the social interests of a group can be seen in the other dominant belief system in American culture: religion.  Like science, religion took on the role of creating and perpetuating certain beliefs, which have helped shaped our modern culture.  Take for instance, the Gospels of the New Testament.  It was not until after Jesus’ crucifixion that the foundations of Christian belief were laid out by descendants of Jesus’ immediate followers, by which time various inconsistent belief structures had developed.  Also significant is the fact that early Church hierarchy selected writings of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John among a group of numerous such writings.  In other words, the Church hand-picked which gospels would be the gospels, and systematically excluded those that did not fit in to the belief structure.  Ultimately, the Church considered itself the divine authority, God’s representation on earth, and made authoritative decisions that shaped the belief structure of Christianity indefinitely.  The danger here was that these decisions were molded by a specific group of people with very specific social, political, and economic interests.  Thus, the authoritative tradition and monotheistic belief of the Church laid the groundwork for later societal structure in America, where control is centralized and beliefs are filtered through this central power for dissemination among the masses.  If the stratification and hierarchy inherent in Christianity were so pungent, and wrought with hypocrisy, what was it about the religion that drew so many followers?  Most likely, the appeal of Christianity was that this intensely focused, morally rigorous religious tradition gave meaning and value to human life, filling a void science could not.  Living in a corrupt world, and risking eternal damnation, required that you adhere to moral righteousness in expectation of the return of Jesus, the Son of God who died for your sins, thus relieving you of obligatory guilt.  Science could not do this.

The Church’s choice of which Gospels to incorporate into the New Testament went beyond creating perceptions of God moralizing the universe and encouraging people to interpret illness and catastrophes as divine judgment.  According to Elaine Pagels (1995), the Gospels actually blame the malevolence of Satan for bringing about natural disasters and affliction.   Ultimately, Satan becomes a metaphorical expression of human conflict and enemies.  So, if beliefs and the language we use to perpetuate these beliefs are contingent upon social interests of formative groups, where and under what historical circumstances did Satan emerge as a metaphor in Christianity?

Western Christianity perceived the natural world as corrupt and finite, a world ruled by Satan, and to be overcome.  The biological nature of carnal pleasures was sinful, and thus stood in the way of salvation.  The physical body was often seen as the residence of the devil; man’s spirit was seen as being trapped inside an alien body in an alien world.  Such beliefs were exemplified in Luke and John’s Gospels, which stress dichotomous divisions between light and dark, between Christ’s kingdom and the world under Satan, and between the Old and New Testaments.  These divisions were culturally important at the time they were written because Luke and John considered spiritual purity to be lightness, separating Christianity from the highly sexualized darkness of pagan culture.  Christians at the time were attempting to polarize pagan culture and moralize it.  The hidden agenda here was to create an independent Christian identity by creating a definitive distinction between themselves and others.  They also separated Christianity from Judaism, because Jew’s were Jesus’ enemies, his death sentencers, and Satan’s helpers.  In John, Satan does not appear directly, but is represented by the people, the people being the Jewish community.  Luke and John, like the other Gospels, tell the story of Jesus’ life as a struggle with Satan, a metaphorical representation of anything that opposes the progression of Christianity.  Basically, the Jews are directly attributed with Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke and John’s accounts, with Jesus personally identifying his Jewish opponents with Satan.  For not believing that Jesus was the Messiah, Christian doctrine in Luke and John turned Jews into children of the devil, who purposefully murdered God’s son.  This is especially interesting in Luke’s Gospel, because evidence suggests Luke knew it was Roman officials that ordered Pontius Pilate to kill Jesus, who had been charged with perverting the nation and claiming to be the Son of God.  An obvious reason Luke emphasized the role of Jews in Jesus’ death, and deemphasized that of the Roman governments was because he was the only Gentile author.  Likewise, John felt much animosity toward Jews because he had been expelled from synagogues, refused a place to worship, and identified as a heretic by Jews (Pagels, 1995).

Although Mathew’s Gospel does associate the Jews with Jesus’ death, he does not emphasize their role as John and Luke do.  Mathew blames the Pharisees more than anyone for Jesus’ crucifixion, but does suggest that the Roman massacre and destruction of Jerusalem was God’s punishment for Jews rejecting his son.  The reason for not characterizing primarily Jewish opponents as the main antagonists to God and Jesus is probably because Mathew’s group included both Jewish and Gentile followers.  Mark and Paul also use the metaphor of Satan to split society; distance themselves from other beliefs held by pagans, Jews, and heretics; and distinguish Christianity as the one truth.  Satan essentially developed, during a culturally charged time of ideological upheaval and struggle to find meaning in life, as “a reflection of how we perceive ourselves and those we call “others”” (Pagels, 1995, p. xviii).

By using Satan as a metaphor, Christians could identify themselves as good, righteous, and right, and others as evil, sinful, and wrong.  The social and political atmosphere of the time allowed the Church to select which Gospels it wanted to use depending on which enemies it wanted to build up.  Furthermore, throughout history, rather than replacing one enemy with another, Christianity accumulated them.  Yet, even with these overwhelming evil forces continuously building up, Christians could rest at ease because Christ has already won the battle between good and evil.  The reassurance of fatalism made Christians feel better, because they were assured redemption if they lived morally righteous lives, and their antagonists were doomed to hell.  The Christian religion was thus able to create guidelines to living a valuable life by juxtaposing their beliefs to others, and using Satan as a metaphor.

Another important aspect of the evolution of Satan in Christianity is the ultimate use of Satan to invoke a vision of a cosmic war between good and evil, and the lasting effects of this apocalyptic metaphor on Western culture.  Elaine Pagels made this point well:

Many religious people who no longer believe in Satan, along with countless others who do not identify with any religious tradition, nevertheless are influenced by this cultural legacy whenever they perceive social conflict in terms of the forces of good contending against the forces of evil in the world…a secularized version of [this apocalyptic vision] underlies many social and political movements in Western culture. (Pagels, 1995, p. 182)

In American culture, modern rationalism (scientific empiricism) and modern religion covertly have the same socio-economic and political goal: to create and maintain a hierarchical and dichotomous order of thought.  There are, of course, positive aspects of both scientific and religious beliefs.  Although Christianity cultivated an authoritarian, hierarchical, and dichotomous mindset, the certainty and morality of religion, and the freedom from obligatory guilt involved in Christianity are quite appealing.  If the belief in deities and scriptures wrought with contradiction is still too much to allow for acceptance of a morally honest path, there is always secular science.  The problem here lies within the fact that science is just as contingent as religion on social, political, and economic consequences of choices.  In science especially, the language of description perpetuates a process of privilege that maintains hierarchy.  The most important difference between science and religion is not necessarily evolution versus creation, but what Watson and Crick had that Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John did not: technology.  On account of this, it is reasonable to propose that these separate belief systems were structured by circumstance; constructed to legitimize social interests through metaphor.  In the end, the Sophists of Ancient Greece were probably right; we are incapable of finding the truth, incapable of infinite understanding, and stuck within the limits of cultural perspectives.

Works Cited
Gaarder, J. (1994) Sophie’s World.  Berkley Publishing Group: New York, NY. 
Geertz, C. (1965) Religion as a Cultural System.  Barnes & Noble Books: New York.  The Function of Religion in Human Society.
Horton, R.  (1967) African traditional thought and western science. Part I. From tradition to science. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 37: 50-71.
Pagels, E. (1995) The Origin of Satan.  Random House, Inc.: New York.
Robbins, R. (1985) The Belief Machine.  Retrieved (2005) from URL:
Robbins, R. (2005) Jesus and the Gene.  SUNY Plattsburgh: Power Point Lecture May 5, 2005.
Tarnas, R. (1991) The Passion of the Western Mind.” Ballantine Books: New York. 
Watson, J. D. (1968) The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.  Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, Inc.: New York, NY.  

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