Is Any 'One Culture Superior to Others'?

Recently, while apologizing to "indigenous peoples" and denouncing Christians — without the all-important historical context — Pope Francis declared, "Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others[.]" 

This — claiming all cultures are equal — is a dangerous position, not least as it leads to relativism and the abnegation of Truth. 

For most Western people today, the word culture conjures at best superficial differences — "exotic" dress or food.  In reality, however, cultures are nothing less than entire and distinct worldviews with their own unique sets of right and wrongs, often rooted in a religion or philosophy.

Indeed, for some thinkers, such as essayist T.S. Elliot, "culture and religion" are inextricably linked and "different aspects of the same thing." 

Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living. ... [N]o culture can appear or develop except in relation to a religion. ... We can see a religion as the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night and even in sleep, and that way of life is also its culture. [From Elliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1943, p.100-101, emphasis in original.]

Similarly, for Anglo-French historian Hilaire Belloc,

Cultures spring from religions; ultimately the vital force which maintains any culture is its philosophy, its attitude toward the universe; the decay of a religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it — we see that most clearly in the breakdown of Christendom today.

In short, cultures bring much more than, say, the convenience of having Indian cuisine down the street.

The fact is, all values traditionally prized by the modern West — religious freedom, tolerance, humanism, monogamy — did not develop in a vacuum, but rather are inextricably rooted to Christian principles that, over the course of some two thousand years, have had a profound influence on Western epistemology, society and of course culture.

While they are now taken for granted and seen as "universal," there's a reason why these values were born and nourished in Christian — not Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Confucian — nations.  Even if one were to accept the widely entrenched narrative that the "Enlightenment" is what led to Western progress, it is alone telling that this enlightenment developed in Christian — as opposed to any of the many non-Christian — nations.

All this is missed by those ignorant of the spiritual and intellectual roots of Western civilization — including, apparently, Pope Francis.

This is, incidentally, why secular Western people arrogantly see themselves as the culmination of all human history — "enlightened" thinkers who have left all cultural and religious baggage behind with concern only for the material.  For them, all religions and cultures are superficialities that will eventually be sloughed off by all the peoples of the world.  The non-Western world, according to this thinking, is destined to develop just like the West, which is no longer seen as a distinct culture, but rather the end point of all cultures.

The folly of such thinking is especially on display in the context of Islam and Muslims, who in this new paradigm are seen as embryonic Westerners.  Whatever a Muslim may say — calls for jihad, hate for infidels — surely, deep down inside, he values "secularism" and appreciates the need to practice Islam privately and respect religious freedom and gender equality and so on.  Thus is he made "in our image," except, of course, we forget the roots of "our image."

In reality, the Muslim has his own unique and ancient worldview and set of principles — his own culture — which in turn prompt behavior that is deemed "radical" by Western standards (which are falsely assumed to be "universal" standards).

As T.S. Elliot, who gave these questions much thought, wrote, "[u]ltimately, antagonistic religions must mean antagonistic cultures; and ultimately, religions cannot be reconciled."

Portraying what at root is a Christian paradigm as "universal," and then applying it to an alien culture like Islam, is doomed to failure.  The idea that Muslims can be true to their religion and yet naturally fit into Western society is false and built on an equally false premise: that Christianity somehow also had to moderate itself to fit into a secular society.  In fact, Christian principles, which are so alien to Islam, were fundamental to the creation of the West.

What, then, of "multiculturalism" — this word that the West is supposed to celebrate and embrace wholeheartedly?  Behind it is the idea that all cultures are equal, and none — certainly not Christian or Western culture — "is superior to others," to quote Francis.  In reality, multiculturalism is another euphemistic way of undermining and replacing the truths of a religion and its culture with relativism.

Earlier Western peoples understood that capitulating to a foreign culture was tantamount to suicide.  Again, Elliot:

[I]t is inevitable that we should, when we defend our religion, be at the same time defending our culture, and vice versa: we are obeying the fundamental instinct to preserve our existence.

One anecdote well captures this "clash of cultures."  After the British colonial powers banned sati — the Hindu practice of burning a widow alive on her husband's funeral pyre — Hindu priests complained to British governor Charles James Napier that sati was their custom and therefore their right.  Napier replied:

Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

Incidentally, being opposed to "multiculturalism" — that is to say, relativism — is in no way the same thing as being opposed to other races or ethnicities, but rather being opposed to disunity and chaos.  

After all, racially homogenous but culturally heterogeneous nations are much more fractured than the reverse.  One need look no farther than to the United States, where "leftist" and "rightist" whites often abhor one another.  Or look to the Middle East, where Muslims and Christians are largely homogenous —  racially, ethnically, and linguistically — but where the former are ruthlessly persecuting the latter, exclusively over religion.

In short, there's nothing wrong if a nation's citizenry is composed of different races and ethnicities, but only if they share the same worldview, the same priorities, the same ethics, the same rights and wrongs — in a word, the same culture.

Raymond Ibrahim, author of Defenders of the West and Sword and Scimitar, is the Distinguished Senior Shillman Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and the Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Image via Pexels.

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