Home > Atheism, Butterflies and Wheels, Edmund Standing, Islam, Morality, Susan Jacoby > Tell Me Again That Some Cultures Aren’t Better

Tell Me Again That Some Cultures Aren’t Better

After my friend Dave posted an article by Susan Jacoby which targets her fellow “political liberals” for excusing horrible cultural practices for the mistaken idea that we have no right to judge any culture as better than another.

I am an atheist with an affinity for non-fundamentalist religious believers whose faith has made room for secular knowledge. I am also a political liberal. I am not, however, a multiculturalist who believes that all cultures and religions are equally worthy of respect. And I find myself in a lonely place in relation to many liberals, political and religious, because I cannot accept a multiculturalism that tends to excuse, under the rubric of “tolerance,” religious and cultural practices that violate universal human rights.

An interesting discussion ensued. I’ll just remark that I’m firmly on the side that says we have the ability, the right, and often the duty to point out when certain cultures are increasing suffering and failing to respect the human rights of others.  It’s often argued that to claim a faith or a culture is worse than another is to argue that the people within that culture are worse. Since I’m on my fantasy football kick, let me repeat my loose analogy I used to demonstrate the flaw with this argument.

Take a football team. In Team A the quarterback is the best in the game. Team B’s quarterback is therefore inferior to Team A’s QB. We can go down the list of every player on the roster. It is even possible that every player on Team A is better than the corresponding player on Team B. Most football fans should have already noticed that just because one team has a better player or better players overall doesn’t mean that the team is better as a whole. Football is a game of players, but also of strategy, execution, and will. If the culture/strategy of Team B is superior to that of Team A, Team B might ultimately be better. Obviously, the comparison with football teams and human societies is imprecise. But recognize that to criticize a culture is not to say that the people living with in that culture are necessarily worse people.


In my reading today I came across a cultural practice that results from the religious and cultural beliefs of the people. Don’t bother trying, as many often do, to divorce the beliefs of people to their actions, it’s a foolish endeavor.



For centuries, Afghan men have taken boys, roughly 9 to 15 years old, as lovers. Some research suggests that half the Pashtun tribal members in Kandahar and other southern towns are bacha baz, the term for an older man with a boy lover. Literally it means “boy player.” The men like to boast about it. 

“Having a boy has become a custom for us,” Enayatullah, a 42-year-old in Baghlan province, told a Reuters reporter. “Whoever wants to show off should have a boy.”

[…]

Sociologists and anthropologists say the problem results from perverse interpretation of Islamic law. Women are simply unapproachable. Afghan men cannot talk to an unrelated woman until after proposing marriage. Before then, they can’t even look at a woman, except perhaps her feet. Otherwise she is covered, head to ankle.

“How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face,” 29-year-old Mohammed Daud told reporters. “We can see the boys, so we can tell which are beautiful.”

Can someone really tell me seriously that a culture that mainstreams the rape of young boys, treats women as “unclean” and unequal, forces them into cloth bags is not worse than a culture that sends pedophiles to prison and therapy, strives to give women equality under law, and allows them to dress as they please? Notice that nothing in this argument excuses mistreatment of sex offenders, lapses in practical gender equality, or the over-sexualization of women in Western liberal culture. Fortunately, our culture also promotes freedom of speech which allows us to stay vigilant in fighting for our greater ideals. But that is just the thing, the ideal that it isn’t ok that children and women are used as sexual objects and that all humans regardless of gender or race have equal rights is a better ideal than the opposite. It is not impossible to say that, even if not perfect, the ideals of the Enlightenment are better than the ideals found in the Bible or the Qur’an. It’s also not just that the ideals are better but by almost every metric the lives as they are lived are qualitatively better for those of us living in liberal cultures compared to religious cultures.

The next most common argument I get is, well even if that is true, we should stick to criticizing the specific cultural practices and not the culture as a whole or that we shouldn’t criticize “moderate” or “liberal” Muslims or Christians because they are the ones we need on our side to fight the extremists.

I concede that as a strategic and tactical matter this argument may be correct. But recognize that even if it is true, it does not mean that in principle we can’t appraise different cultures and value systems. However, I have my doubts about the practical argument as well. This argument is utterly condescending to religious liberals and moderates – are we suggesting they’ll stop standing up against terrorism if they hear criticism or that they’ll become terrorists!? How liberal or moderate are they really if that is the concern?

Aside from the condescension, the argument lacks strong evidence and logical foundation. If religious faith and strict adherence to an ancient and barbaric book(s) are roots of the cultural practices we find abhorrent, shouldn’t we cut the root from under the poisonous and invasive plants? The plants are the cultural practices not the people for the record. Edmund Standing writing at Butterflies & Wheels explains, “On the Validity and Necessity of Atheist Criticism of Islam.”

During the debates over religion that occurred during the Enlightenment, which were often framed in extremely harsh language, it was not violent extremists under attack, but the very notion of God, supernatural authority, and so on. The result of those debates ultimately was that religion in Europe took a beating and no longer represents any sort of threat to liberal democracy. Likewise, religious arguments in the political sphere are longer accepted on ‘divine’ authority, but must be articulated in such a way that they make sense in a secular context. While Muslim moderates are doing – or trying to do – good work in hindering extremism, they must also accept that the Enlightenment critique also applies to their beliefs, and that in the adult world people have every right to make criticisms, even of liberal religion, that may appear ‘nasty’ on first reading. If liberal Muslims are willing to trample on the beliefs of their less moderate co-religionists, then they must also be prepared to have their beliefs trampled on as well. No-one would consider that their personal political views should be exempt from criticism just because they are non-violent political views, and it would be an absurd and worrying precedent to be set were that the case. Religion is no different. Despite the fact that religious people seem to have a lot emotionally invested in their ‘faith’, the fact remains that religion, just like politics, is an ideology, and as such it is a perfectly legitimate target for criticism and debate, even if it is liberal and moderate in its nature.

[…]

Ultimately, Islam and the Qur’an do not pose problems because of ‘misinterpretation’, but rather because they belong to a world far from modernity and are actually of no relevance to modernity. Atheists have every right to point this out, even if it means criticising those who are nonetheless doing good work against extremism. Moderate Islam and moderate Quran’ic ‘interpretation’ offer no real bulwark against those who read the text of the Qur’an and take it at face value, as a perfect and divinely authored text. Only by acknowledging that any notion of a divinely authored book is simply false, by accepting the harsh reality that this book is in fact useless (and indeed dangerous) in the modern context, and by embracing human reason and freethinking will the curse of Islamic extremism ultimately be overcome. (my emphasis)

Should we be careful not to demonize groups of people? Of course. But arguing that some cultures do a better job at improving human well-being is perfectly valid and possible. The American Left often has no problem arguing that it is our culture that leads to eating disorders, or stigmatizes the poor or homosexuals, or “commercializes” other cultures. It may be lack of nerve or lack of sufficient time thinking about it, but their failure to recognize that certain cultures are the cause of the cultural practices that lead to greater suffering is dangerous and insensitive. Real compassion is a concern for the well-being of the people that suffer within these cultures, not for the feelings of those that buttress the continuation of avoidable misery.

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  1. Pat
    September 2, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Wow. We actually agree. I love Susan Jacoby. If you have a chance to read her book The Age of American Unreason, do so.

  2. September 3, 2010 at 1:52 am

    Glad you enjoyed the piece! I'll be posting the debate the followed my posting soon.

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