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Cultural relativity and religion

Cultural relativity and religion. Compared with the social organization of any of the higher primates, human communities are clearly different to a marked degree in the ways in which they organize, protect, and transmit their beliefs, values, social orderings, technologies, expectations, or whatever it is that might belong to a definition of culture. But ‘culture’ not only marks humans off from primates: it marks human communities off from each other. Given that the basic biology and its needs are virtually identical in all humans, what is the status of the differences in culture which can so readily be observed? At one extreme are anthropologists who regard cultural diversity as nothing much more than a change of clothes: the clothes worn are no doubt well-chosen (i.e. well-adapted for the ecological niche which a particular group inhabits), but they cover the same basic human body. At the other extreme are anthropologists (and philosophers) who regard cultural diversity as profound: there is no such thing as ‘human nature’ or ‘the person’; there are only mental and linguistic constructions which create entirely different ways of understanding and interacting with the world. In the succinct statement of E. Sapir (which underlies the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis about the way in which different languages create different worlds). ‘The worlds in which different societies live are different worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.’

It is the second of these views which leads to cultural relativity, since if each culture creates and then imposes its own view of what reality is, then there is no neutral ground (no ‘Archimedean point’—as in Archimedes' observation, ‘Give me a place on which to stand and I will move the earth’) on which to stand in order to give a neutral account or evaluation of any society or culture.

Beyond the issue of the incommensurability of different cultures, cultural relativism has raised equal questions for morality and ethics. For if judgements are relative to the context in which they are produced, there cannot be any universal agreement on the good or the beautiful—though oddly, there is more agreement on the true. The intermediate holds that cultures elaborate different worlds in which differences make such a difference that they cannot be understood except on their own terms of reference; but on the other hand, limits are set upon viable worlds by the conditions set in nature—both in the external environment, and also in the human body. Religions can then be understood as consequences of extremely long-running transmissions of somatic exploration and exegesis (i.e. long-running explorations and interpretations of the competence of the human body and its possible experiences).

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