Posts Tagged ‘mythology’
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]
Cultural differences in moral reasoning are driven by various influences — history, leadership, religious belief, experiences with peace and warfare, available resources and the strategies for extracting and distributing those resources. These cultural differences are not limited to the scale of nations. There can also be differences in the culture and moral reasoning between schools, communities, companies, even families. Moral reasoning has a way of adapting to or being shaped by people’s needs and perceptions.
Absolutes vs. Relativism
There’s an ongoing, cross-cultural debate on whether moral values are absolute or relative. Are there universal morals that apply to all regardless of culture, or are moral values a negotiation between the environment, natural selection and social conditions? It’s a hotly debated topic, but clearly moral reasoning diverges among cultures. In some areas, gay marriage is accepted and not in others. Some countries permit personal firearm ownership, in others you can be jailed. The same is true for possession of certain plants.
Overpopulation has led China to impose some restrictions on family size. Today it has over 1.35 billion people and most Chinese live with an average density of 326 people per square mile. People living at that density calls for, and perhaps requires, a moral system that emphasizes cooperation and harmony — exactly what Confucianism teaches. In China, conditions and moral reasoning lead to limits on family size.
In Russia, conditions and moral reasoning lead to an opposite conclusion. Russia’s population density is slightly below 14 people per square mile, with about 143 million total population. Government policy encourages families to have as many children as they can (which also requires cooperation and harmony).
Japan’s situation is complex. They face a rapidly aging population and steep decline in fertility, in part because strong Confucian values demand marriage before children, but marriage rates are dismally low. Japan is caught between cultural values and an inevitable economic decline unless fertility and immigration increase; thus Japanese moral reasoning is now forced to resolve this conflict to maintain national prosperity.
Consider a simplified example of conflicting interests between a factory owner and a farmer. To remain in business, the factory owner must balance costs and expenses. This may mean discharging pollutants in the atmosphere because it is the lowest-cost way to eliminate wastes. If costs are not well-controlled, the factory could fail and people would lose jobs. From this perspective, cost control is a moral good.
From a farmer’s perspective, if crops are contaminated by mercury particulates from the factory, the moral good of cost control becomes the evil of food poisoning. Similarly, an agricultural society will have a different moral perspective on some issues than an industrial society. Cultural values — morals — tend to dovetail with practical needs.
On the issue of global warming, there’s a clear clash between the view in academic culture, which is driven by several lines of evidence pointing toward anthropogenic climate change, and the views of fossil fuel and other industries, a culture that tends to combat any conclusion that will affect profits. When scientific facts and self-interest diverge, the effect on moral reasoning is illuminating.
Cultures vary in how they value others in their midst. Slavery is a stark example, and had its advocates. It is now widely condemned, yet persists in the form of human trafficking, or sex slavery. Sexual slavery victims tend to flow from economically insecure areas to regions of relative stability. When times are hard, the young women who comprise the majority of victims can be manipulated and entrapped with promises of phony jobs. Some locales, most famously Bangkok and Amsterdam, tolerate the sex trade by reasoning that it’s a matter between consenting adults. This blurs the line between consent and coercion and complicates enforcement against human trafficking.
Other forms of devaluation persist, cutting across lines of ethnicity, gender, age and disability, resulting in societies stratified by economic class (U.S.), social castes (India, Pakistan) and ethnicity (U.S, Japan). Social stratification is inherently hierarchical, a pre-rational behavioral pattern, and proactive moral reasoning is working to reduce it through affirmative action programs in the U.S. and India.
Moral reasoning varies by culture in accordance with what the culture values. As noted American author Robert A. Heinlein pointed out, “Man is not a rational animal. He is a rationalizing animal.” It’s clear that moral values are relative in practice. If there are also absolute universal moral values, no clear consensus has yet emerged that identifies them.
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]
Culture influences morals. But it is not the only influence, nor necessarily the strongest one. Thinking about how culture influences morals raises several questions. What are morals? What is culture? What are their sources and what causes them to change? The dictionary definition for morals is “relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.” The definition of culture is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” And it may well be that both culture and morality are less an agreement than a constant process of adding and subtracting effective rules for social cooperation and survival.
Popular culture — TV, movies, media, fads — is a social conversation. The media provides news, ideas and entertainment, generally presented within the bounds of existing moral codes. For example, kissing on TV shows and movies has long been depicted in American media, but was taboo in Indian media for decades. The social conversation is about where the boundaries lie. Sometimes, morality sets the parameters and culture determines what behavior, within those parameters, is acceptable. Both America and India have moral codes, but the boundaries have sometimes been in different places. Different cultures, different ideas about right and wrong.
Family and Other Influences
We are exposed to cultural values from many sources — family, peers, education, authorities, religion. Because we spend most of our formative years with family, the values of the family, good or bad, are a powerful influence. The impact of other sources varies with age, experience and understanding. As we enter adolescence, for example, the influence of peers grows and that of family often wanes. These multiple influences affect our personal values and our outlook. Who we are and what we believe evolves, even as we recognize some enduring principles.
Conflicting Moral Sources
Values from multiple sources sometimes conflict. Behavior that is accepted at home may not be accepted at school and vice versa. Where does culture end and morality begin?
The religious answer is that our aspirational values are set down by a deity and it is our task to live in accordance with them. But another answer has been suggested by research on primate behavior by Dutch/American biologist and ethologist Frans de Waal. His studies have identified moral behavior in socially intelligent mammals — chimpanzees, monkeys and elephants — implying that morals have developed as a result of natural selection.
We are born into a world of values that have existed throughout humanity’s history. We absorb these values as children while we navigate our social environment, processing and reevaluating them through our adult lives. While value systems resist change within generations, they are subject to fresh inspection by each new generation, and each new generation chips away at the norm.
Samuel Butler once observed that “Morality is the custom of one’s country and the current feeling of one’s peers.” Morals are also subject to change, but usually over longer stretches of time. There are clear instructions on slave management in the Bible; it was an accepted practice at the time. Our moral values and our culture are different now. Our culture says slavery is wrong, and our moral code agrees.
Culture influences morality, and morality influences culture. But they don’t always agree. That’s why the social conversation never ends.
[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]
Astro-Theology and Shamanism both explore the intersection of ancient astronomy, early religion and psychoactive plants, as part of a genre known as entheogen studies. This focuses primarily on past and present use of psychoactive plants and fungi in spiritual/religious contexts. A variety of authors in the genre claim that aspects of Judeo-Christian tradition are rooted in fertility cults, pagan rituals and the use of hallucinogenic plants — such as mushrooms and peyote – which were integral to worship. As the subject matter necessarily entails a study of ancient cultures and mythologies, supporting evidence for some claims are drawn from rich stew of fact, conjecture, educated speculation, and uncertainty. Caution regarding claims and evidence is advisable.
The field of archaeoastronomy examines the historical, cultural and scientific roots of humanity’s relationship with the sky. Prehistoric skies, undimmed by modern bright lights, were a rich source for ancient myths and cosmologies. Astro-theology is rooted in this tradition. Even today, references to God assume a position skyward, in the heavens.
The earliest astronomers and astro-theologians, the Chaldeans of Babylon, were priests and scribes in the 6th century BCE. They believed planets were deities — Ishtar was their name for the planet Venus — and the practice of naming gods for planets continued through the Greek and Roman empires. The Chaldean legacy is written in the surviving legends, artifacts, calendars, relics, rock paintings, and megalithic structures, More importantly, their attempts to understand the world through observation and record-keeping was an early example of the scientific method.
Historically, shamanism refers to northern European and Siberian beliefs in “an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits, responsive only to the shamans,” according to Merriam-Webster. In the context of their native cultures, shamans are seen as community leaders and intermediaries with the spirit world, a role that bears similarities to modern clergy.
Shamans functioned as doctors at a time when an understanding of medicine was incomplete. Their knowledge of natural resources, particularly plants, could be useful for the alleviation of pain or illness. They employed entheogens in ritual, such as to cleanse away evil spirits, and thus entheogens became imbued with mysticism in recognition of their mind-altering properties. Beyond physical pain or illness, hallucinogens were considered a way to treat sickness of the soul and communicate directly with guiding spirits.
The authority of astro-theologians was based on their knowledge of the sky and their interpretation of its meaning. The authority of shamans was based on their understanding of plants and their ability to heal. Between them, they sought understanding of the earth and the sky.
Prehistoric use of psychotropics and worship of astronomical phenomena is well-documented. It is known that Mayan, Aztec, Egyptian and other ancient civilizations used entheogens spiritually and celebrated its use through art. Modern groups still practice entheogen use in spiritual contexts; examples include the Urarina of South America and Rastafari of Jamaica.
Evidence cited in support of entheogen origins of Christianity include a 13th century illustration in the French Plaincourault Abbey that appears to show Adam and Eve separated by a large mushroom, suggesting that the mushroom is the “forbidden fruit” in Genesis. Also cited is a King James version biblical passage in Exodus 16:14-15 that describes manna as a small round growth. The intimation is that the growth is a psychotropic mushroom.
John Marco Allegro’s 1970 book “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross” develops the thesis that Jews in Rome created a pagan fertility cult to hide their true convictions during a time when Christianity was illegal. According to this view, aspects of the cover story, particularly the use of entheogens, were adopted as part of early Christian practice and spread as the religion did. Allegro’s analysis met with controversy, with some critics declaring he had committed academic suicide.