Tag Archives: expansie religion

“Hoorah for our Side”/”No monopoly on the route to the divine”

Cultural Relativism: There are many paths to enlightenment

Wade Davis, perhaps Canada’s most preeminent anthropologist, has spent years living with and working with indigenous people around the world. This has made him a tireless advocate of understanding traditional cultures around the world. He gave a great talk that was broadcast on CBC’s radio show Ideas. You can  probably hear his entire talk on their archive.

Davis also asserted that anthropology, his field of study, is important. It is important today because “anthropology is the antidote to Trump.” Trump of course is the equally tireless advocate for the doctrine of American triumphalism and superiority over all other cultures. In Trump’s world America is the best of everything. At least it would be if only Americans more uniformly listened to him. Ruth Benedict said that “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

As we live in a globalized multi-cultural world “anthropology has never been more important.” Trump of course would never concede that. But that does not make it any less true. America is not the be all and end all. America is one voice among many. We should listen to morevoices. We should listen to many voices.

According to Davis this multi-ethnic world is  “where connectivity is bringing us together into a single human family.” At least if people like Trump are not able to separate us. He wants to deny this connectivity, this solidarity. Too many people fail to see the connections as they look at the differences. People like Trump see “theirpeople” with whatever label you want to use, separate and apart, and superior, from the others.

Davis finds proof for this connectivity in genetics. This is what he said

“Within our lifetimes genetics has shown that the genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum, race is a fiction, we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, we are all descendants of the same handful of people who walked out of Africa 65 or 75,000 years ago and embarked on this journey that carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world…By definition every culture shares the same genius and how that genius is expressed is simply a matter of choice. There is no hierarchy in the affairs of culture. That old 19thcentury idea that we went from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized in the Strand of London has been absolutely ridiculed by modern science and shown to be an artifact of the 19thcentury, no more relevant to our lives today than the old idea of clergymen that the world was only 6,000 years old.”


Davis finds important corroboration of the fundamental insight of anthropology, which is cultural relativism, from the relatively recent science of genetics.  As Davis said, “It is genetics that allows anthropologists to say without doubt that every culture has something to say, each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine.”

Davis eloquently points out that this concept has never been more important than today with the astonishing rise of nativism, nationalism and the worst forms of tribalism.  These nationalistic views are held not just by Trump, but millions of his supporters, and by many dictators and demagogues around the world, and their millions of supporters. Each of these leaders is constantly shouting “hurrah for our side” in the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield.

A Better way: Expansive religion

I have been critical of evangelical religion. That is what I am surrounded by here in Steinbach. Some of my friends have suggested that I have criticized a straw man—i.e. a religion that is easy to attack and no one subscribes to any longer.  I disagree.

In North America it a very large religious sector. That is particularly true in the United States, but in other pockets, like Steinbach, as well. It is also rapidly growing. A lot faster than the many more liberal Christian sects. It is also very influential.  Evangelicals were a major source of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 American presidential elections, as odd as that sounds. Evangelicals are by no means a “straw man”.

Because I have been critical I don’t want people to think that I believe everything is bad about religion. Far from it. I don’t want to be a nattering nabob of negativity to quote Spiro Agnew. In fact, I think there is a better way. I refer to it as expansive religion, rather than exclusive religion. It is religion that has jettisoned the old beliefs in invincible superiority of our religion over all others. Instead it sees what is held in common by religions.

Religions are so many and so varied it is very difficult (but not impossible) to find what they have in common. Some religions have dogma; others have none. Some religions believe in an afterlife; others don’t. Some religions have a God; others subsist without one. Some religions have beliefs and those that do have beliefs, they  vary widely, if not extravagantly. What then do religions have in common? I think you have to go back to the original meaning of the word “religious” for an answer.

Religion is based on an Indio-Asian word  “religio” which basically meant connection or linkage.  In other words, religion is what connects us or links us.  To what you might ask?  I think that what religion tries to link us to is first of all other people, but also other creatures, and even, ultimately, all life itself.  What connects us is religious; what severs that connection is blasphemy. That is my fundamental religious belief.

My wife once had a pendant  which she wore that said something to the effect that “if religion leads to hate it’s not religion.”  I have likely mangled the exact wording.  Yet the thought I think is clear and very important.  It goes back to that original concept of the word “religion.”

So religion is closely allied to the concept of fellow feeling or empathy.  If we have fellow feeling for others, or other creatures, or other life forms, we are acting religiously.  If we don’t, we are acting irreligiously. That is because without fellow feeling or empathy we are no longer connecting we are dividing  from each other. That is the opposite of religion.

Thus religion is based on fellow feeling.  The most important part of religion is the golden rule.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In fact, it’s interesting that almost all religions endorse that principle as a fundamental principle.  I think it is the fundamental principle of religion.  All religions!  It is what connects us to others.  Do unto them, as you would have them do unto you. If you do you are acting religiously; if you don’t you are acting irreligiously.

I am not a religious person in any traditional sense of the word “religious.” However, I feel that the so-called “religious people” have hijacked this word for their own purposes.  I want to reclaim the word.  I feel that many people have tarnished the word “religion.” They use it to divide people rather than connect people. In  my opinion, they are sacrilegious no matter how many pious words they use.  In fact, I think it is them that are not religious, not I.

I think these things are important.  I resent those who in the name of religion try to disconnect us from others.  I resent those who try to claim that religion is a matter of us against them.  I particularly resent those that think that religion is a means of saying we’re better than them because our religion is better than their religion. That is the original sin. Worst of all are those who say those who believe like me are going to heaven forever, and those who don’t, are going to hell where they will suffer torment forever. That’s not religion at all. That’s the opposite of religion.

I intend to expand on these thoughts.