On Religions, Relativisms, and Races. An Interview With Greg Laden

The interview below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: I’d like to start by asking you what you think about the prospect of religion going away based on your knowledge of anthropology.

Greg Laden: I think a society could lose religion by accident if it was small enough, like a society can lose any feature. But more likelyy a subset of humans could purposefully stop being religious. The major experiments in that have failed but probably for reasons that aren’t important to this discussion.

However, I’m convinced that if you somehow magically made religion go away for all humans (or all humans in a large society isolated from everyone else) it would come back unless there was an active effort to repress or avoid it.

Daniel Fincke: Has there always been something like what we conceive of as “religion” across cultures?

Greg Laden: Of course we can’t know about the past in this way but I can’t think of a single culture without “religion”

Daniel Fincke: Do you think that godless people will require institutions that meet the needs religions presently do in a comparable way, with a comparable mixture of, say, myths, values, rituals, institutions, identities, what have you? Or do you think that culture is malleable enough that if enough distinct secular institutions simply arise to cover people’s cravings for such things, distinctively “religious” combinations might go extinct? Or, do you think that some of the apparent needs people feel today might go away if godlessness were to become an undisputed fact of life?

Greg Laden: I would assert that there might be two faces of religion. In my experience, the “religious” belief systems of traditional cultures, while they may be integrated into many aspects of life, are fairly casual, and those people often easily adopt other religious beliefs when they come along. On the other hand, some religions seem to be all about perpetuating themselves and keeping themselves going. If the latter prevails in a culture, secular people and secular institutions have to fight to exist because their extermination will at some point become the objective of religious groups.

Daniel Fincke: So do you think that atheists should take an “if you can’t beat religion coopt it approach” such that they develop godless religions which are functionally equivalent in what they do for people as religions are?

Greg Laden: Mostly not.  I think most of what religion does has no important function, while other functions are all about power relations and are mostly bad.  But, there are things that are done in our society that religion piggybacks on and that religious people and institutions take credit for, and the fact that they take credit for these things and people believe that means that secularism has a marketing job to do in that area.

Daniel Fincke: What if we were to say that it added value not by adding a distinctive good but by the complex package it offers? Can the sum be more than the parts?

Greg Laden: I’m sure a sum can be greater than its parts if for no other reason that when we evaluate parts we don’t see or measure latent value that emerges when parts link up. Anyway, if here was a specific example of that then it would be interesting to examine, but I don’t think it is necessarily true. More likely, the main emergent property of religion is its own tenacity. When religion is big and complicated enough it
comes with its own moving goalposts ready made.

Daniel Fincke: And what specific goods do you think religion is presently stealing a ride with and how can secular marketing replace them?

Greg Laden: There are a few examples that come immediately to mind. For instance, death and grieving. For that, secular marketing can work with the ways i which religious authority annoys and controls the aggrieved and how secular options are better.

I’ll give two examples off that. 1) When my grandfather died (he was religious) my cousin who happened to be an archbishop, it turns out, had already had grandad’s house willed to the catholic church. The woman who lived with my grandfather and took care of him for years (his sister-ish) was tossed out and left homeless. My family took her in, of course. So, my mother, instead of inheriting a modest house, inherited a ward.

2) When my father died, there was a ceremony in the local catholic church and my religious sister conspired with the priest to put the rest of the siblings on the spot about how were weren’t religious enough.

Those examples span a couple of spectra of severity and kind, are probably fairly typical, and could exemplify for the fence sitters why a secular approach to death and probate and grieving etc. is better.

Daniel Fincke: From what I understand, and correct me if this is wrong, but for completely understandable reasons of scientific detachment, anthropologists are scrupulously trained not to judge the morally, aesthetically, or otherwise judge cultures that they are observing, lest they make that a barrier to understanding them on their own terms.

Greg Laden: Sort of, but like a lot of methodological things the reality is more complex. But yes, in anthropology it is common practice to be “relativistic” which simply means when measuring, evaluating, describing, and analyzing, you recognize that our perspective is not the same as the perspective of the people involved in the practices we are studying. It does not really obviate judgement, though. A lot of colonial or western or authoritarian judgement of the 19th and much of the 20th century would be obviated by a relativistic approach, and that is one of the main reasons to do it.

Boas, who invented this approach and was a German Jew, hated Nazis.

Ooops, did I just Godwin the discussion? Sorry….

Daniel Fincke: I completely get why they do that for methodological reasons. But whenever I talk to an anthropology student they are resistant to engaging in value judgments even when it’s appropriate, like in a philosophical conversation. Is this just my experience or does the training in anthropology make people into relativists even when they are not doing anthropology?

Greg Laden: I think cultural anthropology training tends to create thoughtless relativism in students and young scholars. Less than stellar mentoring plus lack of experience are probably factors here. My favorite example is the question of a rape culture. There are rape cultures, and I don’t mean like some say we have in the US. I mean where sex = rape for all, or for a signficant definable part of the population (the latter certainly applies to subsets of US culture, but there really isn’t a “US culture” but that’s another line of discussion).

Anyway, a thoughtless relativist would accept rape culture on its own terms. but a bit more thought will show that the rape culture probably includes an anti-rape culture (mainly women who do not really want to get raped) but due to the mechanisms of the patriarchy we are ignoring that, systematically.

Daniel Fincke: You seem to be a strong exception in that in practice you make very strong moral judgments daily on your blog. Does that mean you have a strong sense that there are objective, cross-cultural grounds for discussing right and wrong? Or do you think that you are participating in a discourse that you recognize is relative but you nonetheless care and play along!

Greg Laden: I regard myself as an activist. There is a subset of anthropologists who see themselves as activist anthropologists. They may use relativistic approaches while doing certain work, but actually, since relativistic methods apply mainly to ethnography and modern ethnography is more often activist than not, the whole game has changed. I think that these days I’m more comfortable among socio-cultural anthropologists then ever in the past because I am a constructivist, and they have become more often activist.

One thing to keep in mind apropos this entire part of the discussion: In anthropology (especially cultural anthropology) ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Even a modern cultural anthro textbook is full of concepts that are all wrong and discredited. We teach that stuff first, to first year or second year undergrads, then spend the next couple of years deconstructing that. No kidding.

Obviously this is not ideal!

Daniel Fincke: Well, can you talk about how to be objective as a partisan activist? We should be objective, right?

Greg Laden: The thing is, relativism is not giving all perspectives or points of
view equal merit. It is really doing two things: 1) Recognizing that
different points of view exist and that it is not a priori true that
the anthropologist’s (or observer’s) perspective is more clear or
superior in some way, and 2) Actively criticizing and problemetizing
Western perspectives of non Western cultures and contexts as such perspectives have in the past been the uncriticized hobgoblin of Colonialism and all sorts of other similar things.

And although we do want the process to be objective, it is still going to remain a cultural process, meaning that efforts to reason are often going to be colored by some bias or distracted by some ancillary objective, etc.

Someone has probably done this, but if so, I’m not aware of it, but it would be very interesting to examine the literature (both formal and informal) surrounding Anthropologists’ attitudes towards female genital mutilation.

I very clearly remember numerous cases in both literature and in talks of perfectly reasonable Westerners observing FGM in the field and chalking it up to a cultural trait we must see as just part of that culture. Today, there is probably not a single anthropologist who has that view. Everyone wants FGM to stop.

Part of the problem in considering this also, which I should have mentioned earlier, is this: There is a sense of purity of culture and an idea that cultures are delicate. Some of that is true but less so than most people meant.

Here’s a story from the Masaai that I collected myself in Tanzania. A Masaai man and I were discussing burial practices. Most of what he told me is not repeatable because he told me in confidence, but one thing we discussed is not, and is generally known about the Masaai: If a man who has reached the status of Moran (elder, respected) dies, his body is traditionally left outside the village (after preparation). Hyenas or lions will then take the body away. If lions take the body away, he was a good man. If hyenas take the body away he was a bad man. There is a lot of tension and consternation
surrounding this practice.

But a few years before I met this man, the Tanzanian authorities had forced the Masaai to give up this practice, and instead, to bury the dead. This was the government Heath Department’s requirement. I asked him how he felt about this, and if it had disrupted things or had bad consequences.

He said, basically, that they still do everything the same except then they bury the body, and that eveyone is much much happier that they were forced to do that. It was a ritual everyone hated. It caused more stress than it was worth and half the time the body was taken and fought over by both hyenas and lions anyway.

That example touches in its on way on almost all of the questions you’ve asked, now that I think about it.

Daniel Fincke: Wow. That’s a great story.

Before we’re done I would love it if you would debunk some of the pseudo-scientific racist claims that seem to never die and that drive you crazy. I don’t even know specifically which to ask about but I know this is something you have a lot of knowledge about.

Greg Laden: I can’t give a complete argument for any one claim (or debunking thereof) because the claims are so well buttressed with complex bullshit that it takes a lot of work and we don’t have time here.

Races are not (usually) real, stereotypical racial traits don’t do a good job of predicting other features, how we think and how intelligent we are is not built in and does not vary or compartmentalize by race, and that applies as well to criminality, ethics, money handling ability, and yes, even sports.

But there is one point I can make that is food for thought and is usually missed by people thinking along racial lines.

Adaptations are often identified as things that seem to do something (though that might be a hard thing to define) and that both have a cost (and thus should be selected against) and persist (and thus are not actually being selected against.)

Childhood is very very costly, as is our large brain, as is our inability to be born knowing important things, even including things like basic communication with other members of our own species. That whole 0 to five year old thing is stupid, dangerous, slows down the rate of reproduction of the adults, often ends in death (in non Western people). Other primates don’t have that long period of absolutely dependence associated with very very slow brain growth.

So, it’s probably an adaptation for something. For what? Never mind, not the point. The point is this: What happens during that period is you become in large part the person you will be. And this all happens after you are born, and the vast majority of information added to the system that makes you who you are comes from your surroundings, your culture.

The only proper Darwinian view of humans is that we create much of what makes us human anew with ever single human. Once you realize that, there is not much room for meaningful innate differences between people.

A corollary for this is that it is trivially easy for researchers to demonstrate environmental causes of variation in intelligence or other measures of cognition, but looking for genetic causes in normal humans has forced researchers (who don’t cook the physical data as the old guys did) to come up with statistical models that are absurd.

We as individuals are products of our cultures, not our races.

Which don’t generally exist anyway.

Daniel Fincke: The bit about the Darwinian view being that we constantly create anew what it means to be human is beautiful! Reminds me of something from Nietzsche I have been wanting to write about.

I was talking with Zinnia Jones earlier today about the uphill climb that transgendered people face in getting even a minimum of understanding and normal treatment in our culture. To be hopeful I pointed to the remarkable progress gays have made in a relatively short span in winning acceptance. Zinnia pointed out though that there are fewer transgendered people (so there will be less people won over by having some one close to them come out) and that the experience of being transgendered was more alien to cisgendered people than being gay is to straight people because at least straight people can say, “Oh I see, your love is just like mine but for the same sex” but there’s no parallel identification point for having gender dysphoria.

What do you think is our best strategy for helping transgendered people overcome this hurdle?

Greg Laden: Interesting and difficult question.  Trying to cross fertilize the blogs are we? Good idea.

I’m not sure how I would prioritize different possible things that
should happen, but the truth is that not only are out trans people
simply less numerous than out gay people, and also less “routine” in
mass media, but I suspect that there is more social sequestering as
well.  Are there still gay bars? There used to be gay bars,  as
opposed to bars that happened to be pretty gay because of
demographics.  You were not supposed to go into a gay bar if you were
not gay, etc.  I’m pretty sure that sort of thing has dissolved as a
phenomenon and in so doing the social scene for many people
(especially younger people who still manage to get out and such) has
become less segregated with respect to gay/straight.  Even so, there
is still all sorts of segregation.  I may be wrong, but I have the
impression that there is more segregation among tran/non tran people
proportionately than gay/straight people.  (To oversimplify

As an educator, I think an important angle of attack is learning about
characterization and stereotyping and labeling as it applies to trans
people.  I’ll bet that the average science educator or social science
educator (where gender and sex and diversity might come up in several
different contexts) is perfectly happy with the concept of a trans
person being a “woman trapped in a man’s body” or a “man trapped in a
woman’s body”

There was a time what that characterization was actually a good thing
because it replaced “trans people are sick and need to be cured” or
worse.   But this is not longer an acceptable or appropriate or useful
way of thinking about trans-sexuality.   Educators, adults, outreach
people, etc. etc. probably know only a fraction of what they need to
know and if that is changed the people that those people touch will be
better citizens of 21st century society.

In the school district I live in, we had the highest per capita rate
of suicide in the country, mostly of non-straight/cis kids.  The
suicide rate was so high that the Federal authorities sent in special
investigators much like one might address any epidemic or other
problem with a high death rate.  A friend of mine became the go-to
person for this district (which is the largest one in the state) if
you were a gay or trans kid in trouble.  He got a contact from a
suicidal kid three or four times a week all school year for two years.

The response from the education community here was to make a rule that
teachers and admins, etc. were not allowed to discuss these issues in
school, especially with kids.  That of course made the problem worse.
Courts made decisions, elections were won or lost on people’s
positions here, lots of people are really mad, but at least there have
been some changes in policy and the suicide rate has dropped.

Educators getting it right vs. abysmally wrong determines if gay,
lesbian, trans-gender, bisexual and trans-sexual kids live or die, and
at  the moment were at the very early stages of enlightenment.  We’re
at the band-aid stage.  It is sickening.

So I guess what I’m saying here is that the solution is hard core
activism.  Vote some people out, vote some people in, kick a lot of
ass, agitating to simply professionalize the approach in schools and
outreach institutions and organizations.

(Another quick story. A friend of mine is a brown gay lady.  She got a
job doing outreach to  homeless kids. In the context of her job she
was not entirely comfortable being out as a lesbian.  Between 30 and
40 percent of homeless kids in her area of service are gay.  That’s an
institutional fail.  She is fixing it, though, but potentially at the
risk of  her job.)

Your Thoughts?

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