Does It Matter Whether People of Faith Do Awful Things For “Cultural” Rather Than Religious Reasons? February 3, 2015

Does It Matter Whether People of Faith Do Awful Things For “Cultural” Rather Than Religious Reasons?

When someone who subscribes to a dubious belief system commits an act of savagery, can the true motivation be pinpointed as that person’s faith or creed? What if it’s the person’s culture? Can we tease those things apart? Is it relevant?

The question of the prime motivator frequently comes up when the topic is the concept of honor and shame that drives so many atrocities against (especially) women in Islamic communities.

PBS, for instance, is happy to tell us (not very convincingly, as far as I’m concerned), that

Honor killings are part of a culture, not a religion, and occur in Arab communities in the United States and many countries.

Hmm. I wonder what religion the perpetrators overwhelmingly are, but it appears we are not encouraged to inquire — it’s “culture,” and that’s that… just like we’re often reminded (with more demonstrable truthfulness) that female genital mutilation is a product of “culture” and that religion plays a small(er) part.

I had related thoughts and questions about this New Zealand news story of (presumably Maori or other indigenous) parents inflicting terrible injuries on their children.

At least eight young boys have been admitted to Starship Hospital in recent weeks with severe infections from what’s being called “backyard circumcisions.” The Auckland District Health Board (ADHB) confirmed [that] eight boys, believed to be between the ages of eight and 14, have been admitted to Starship with infections. …

Pacific Medical Association president Dr. Kiki Maoate says the cases are culturally related, and it’s likely the families of the children involved brought someone from the Pacific Islands to perform the procedures.

He added that the circumcisions were probably done at home to save money,

…as they [are] not covered by district health boards if they [are] carried out for cultural reasons.

Clarity is hard to get — were these botched circumcisions motivated by religion, culture, economic circumstances, or some combination of all three?

With regard to crimes committed over things like blasphemy and family honor, one commenter here at Friendly Atheist recently asked,

[In Islamic societies,] shame/criticism is not permitted and must be avenged. However, from what I have heard it does not sound as though the Koran speaks of avenging this shame (please provide verses if I am incorrect). I am curious as to whether this is more of a cultural belief or a religious belief.

I liked the response by PsiCop:

Is there really a difference? The powers of “honor,” “shame,” “blasphemy,” etc. are all essentially metaphysical, as are religions generally. If people believe they can be metaphysically damaged by things like “blasphemy” or “shame,” how could those ideas not be related to religion?

I suggest there really is no differentiation here. We’re still talking about belief in magical forces. And they’re magical forces for which there is no rational explanation. Consider: How, precisely, can Muslims or Islam actually be “damaged” by Mohammad cartoons? How can they be “damaged” by burning Qur’ans (to use a different example)? As it turns out, there’s nothing one can point to which supports any such contention; there’s no identifiable mechanism by which this works. No such magical force exists. Period.

The bottom line is, I really don’t care whether notions like these are inherently or literally part of Islam … or any other religion. They remain dysfunctional, if not horrific, forms of metaphysics which need to be purged from humanity; the sooner, the better.

I asked PsiCop to elaborate via e-mail, and he did.

I think “culture” is almost too big a word to use in this context. What’s important is, a lot of metaphysical beliefs which are within a culture get intertwined with their constituent religions. When you’re talking about notions which I referred to in my comment as “magic,” while those beliefs might be part of a culture, the people within it generally can’t separate them from their religion, because anything resembling “magic” gets integrated, within their minds, into the framework of the religion.

And like them, we might lack the tools and the knowledge to pry those things apart. But maybe we shouldn’t have to, is PsiCop’s point.

[O]ne might arbitrarily label belief in these “magical” forces as “cultural” rather than “religious,” but if the people who have the belief interpret it as part of the “religion,” who’s to say they’re not correct, and that the belief really is integrated in the religion?

If you agree that this is a discussion worth having, jump in.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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