Monday, January 7, 2013

Are modern Pagans morally and intellectually superior to adherents of "traditional and indigenous" religions?

There is another problem with the globalization of the term Pagan. It make us (real Pagans) think we are like other traditional religions like the Hindu, Buddhist, or Taoist traditions, or the indigenous cultures like the Shuar, Cherokee, or Yoruba, among so many others. We are not.
Do you think the Earth is the center of the Universe?
Do you think diseases are caused by germs and viruses?
Do you know about more elements than four (or five)?
Has the scientific revolution touched you?
Do you think democracy is a good idea?
In traditional and indigenous society the valences of the above questions are reversed and we are in no position to go back to them. (Everyone in the room who is still alive because of antibiotics, raise your hand). In fact, these ideas are so important that traditional and indigenous societies are adopting them and adjusting themselves accordingly. Good for them, but these ideas are *native* to us. We figured them out, for the most part, and they changed us permanently.
[Sam Webster, "Welcome, Thinking Pagans"]

The above quote is from an online article by Sam Webster smugly entitled "Welcome Thinking Pagans." Webster's casual ethnocentrism is, sadly, all-too common among well-educated modern "liberal" Westerners. Another example of this kind of ethnocentrism, and one which I have previously written about in this blog, is the claim made by David Loy, a prominent American Western Buddhist writer, to the effect that the very concept of social justice is utterly foreign to non-Westerners in general and Asians in particular, and that Asian Buddhists require the guidance of Western Buddhists in order to overcome this deficiency (see  David Loy & the White Buddhist's Burden). The same conceit can also be found in another contemporary Western Buddhist writer, Stephen Batchelor, as I have also discussed elsewhere (see Reason #7 in Top Ten Reasons Why Stephen Batchelor is Full of Shit). And the same kind of ethnocentrism is also implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the writings of the New Atheists (such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) whenever they deign to discuss religions other than Christianity and Islam (such as Buddhism and Hinduism).

But lets return to Sam Webster, and his claim that "traditional and indigenous" cultures have their "valences" "reversed" when it comes to things like science and democracy. Better yet, let us turn away from Webster and instead look to the writings of a genuine expert on the subject of democracy and social justice: Martin Luther King, Jr.

As always happens with the best and the brightest, Martin Luther King, Jr. searched for a guiding philosophy while he was a college student, a journey that he continued in even more earnest as a young seminarian. What he was looking for, as he later recounted it, was a world-view that applied “the love ethics of Jesus” to the problem of social injustice.

During this “intellectual odyssey”, as King himself called it, he studied the works of Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stewart Mill, John Locke, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Lenin, as well as Christian authors such as Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr, and also ancient authors especially Aristotle and Plato. In particular, King struggled long and hard with the writings of Niebuhr, especially wrestling with Neihbur's rejection of pacifism.

In addition to the above listed writers, King was also was personally influenced, during his studies at the Boston University School of Theology, by Walter Muelder, Allan Knight Chalmers, Edgar S. Brightman, and L. Harold Dewolf. It was under the mentorship of Dr. Brightman that King undertook a close study of Hegel, and King would later say that Brightman had provided him with ‘the metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God’’ [Papers 4:480].

But none of these Western philosophers, revolutionaries, teachers, and theologians, either living or dead, provided what King was looking for.

In his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, King wrote: “Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships …. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.” Moreover, in King’s estimation, “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.” King wrote further that: “The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from [Bentham, Mill, Marx, Lenin, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche] I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom."

Martin Luther King, Jr. is unquestionably one of the most celebrated champions of social justice and the basic principles of democracy in modern history. His search as a young man for a guiding philosophy was based both on moral and intellectual requirements. He was not looking merely for a philosophy that expressed the moral sentiment of social justice, but one that met the intellectual challenge of showing how to apply a philosophy of compassion not just to interpersonal relationships, but to the much broader realm of social change, up to and including social change on global scale.

Those who naively privilege the modern West as the sole font of democracy, equality, and liberty, really need to closely study that figure who, more than anyone else, personifies the modern conception of progressive social change: Martin Luther King. Anyone who makes such a study cannot help but conclude that not only does modern Western culture have no monopoly on "social justice", but that, as a matter of fact, we in the West have much to learn from others.

Also see these related posts from this blog: