ETHNOCENTRISM and ENCULTURATION:
Why They Affect Spirituality

by Sharon Cornet


Which religious view is the "right" one?  What kind of spiritual epiphanies are "real" vs. "false"?  Are any truly real, or even truly false?   Why are there even such dualistic divisions in views throughout the world?  These very concepts and thoughts of what is "right" and "wrong" are all part of an anthropological term called ethnocentrismEthno, referring to ethnicity, and centrism referring to central, or being "the center" of something.  An ethnocentric view is how people look at the world, and judges it accordingly, through a specific cultural lens (one's own view and interpretation of how the world "is" or even "should be").  Ethnicity by itself is not what I am talking about.  It is also not about biological "racial" differences.  This is about the differing backgrounds of peoples around the world, and how each group (including individuals within these groups) sees the world, lives in that world, makes decisions daily, contemplates the meaning of the world and their place in it.  Ethnocentrism is a different concept from ethnicity and does not just apply to a "right-wing, born again Christian", for instance, or to a "gay rights activist" or to a "Buddhist group" or a "German country" or a "communist nation" etc., but to ALL cultures of the world.  Ethnocentrism simply means that cultures, and sub-culture groups (and individuals) take their knowledge, beliefs, views, values, etc. for granted because it was what they were raised with.   It is looking at the world through our own, personal, cultural lens and analyzing everything accordingly. 

Culture is learned behavior, and a culture is defined by its language.  Language, and western thought, both influence our civilization immensely.  To be able to look through a cultural lens (like "walking in someone else's shoes") from the emic (inside) perspective, rather than the etic (outside) perspective, is KEY to overcoming bias, prejudice, and critically evaluating our own perspectives and enculturation.  Especially in overcoming ethnocentrism (which is still just judging others and others' beliefs through our own cultural lens and calling their way as "wrong" and our way as "right").  ALL people on the planet are enculturated, and MOST are ethnocentric.  Most are like what is sometimes comically referred to as "sheeple" (people who flock together in blind agreement), simply followers of what they have been taught to be "true" and do not seek out opposing opinions and beliefs to test their own faith.  And so they don't grow, but are stuck in their place like a stagnant pond with no fresh water coming in, and can only wallow in their own elements, algae, bacteria, etc. that are already in place.  Most of what is believed, taught, upheld, and made into rules (spoken or written) and laws, etc. is done by each individual culture and is based on agreement within that culture. 

Sub-cultures can include church sects, motorcycle gangs, tennis players, cliques at schools, the homeless, women's groups, individual families, and just about every other social group you can think of.   The Bible says, "Where two or more are gathered together in my name..." is an example of a religious social group's beliefs that has its members in agreement with one another.  These groups adhere because of a like-mindedness, so they gather together in agreement and support each other within those views they share.  They are able to talk together amicably, and worship together.   This is most comforting and does not exercise the fact that their own sub-cultural views, values, beliefs, etc. even exist, or why.  It is a fact that is taken for granted.  Much like a baby learning to speak a language, and not realizing their language is such until they hear a foreign language to compare it with.  Or like learning the alphabet, memorizing the sounds, learning phonics, and how to read the words, and combining the words into sentences, paragraphs, and tomes, etc., and taking for granted those initial steps of how it was learned because we are on automatic pilot and just "know how to read."  We simply don't think of why or how or any of those details anymore because they have become incorporated into our brains into a unit of automatic thought and behavior.  We don't have to re-learn how to read, or to think about phonics in order to read... we just do it.  Culture is the same thing.   How we are enculturated (taught) as humans is entirely based on where we live, who we live with, what our environment is, what we do, how we are taught to do it, what is "right" or "wrong" based on the agreement within a society, etc.  

Cultural relativism recognizes the fact that in a tribe in South America there are cannibals, and they consider their canibalistic deeds not only commonplace, but to be esteemed of, something they are proud of being able to do better than their enemies.  To eat ones enemies is the height of achievement and praise that brings one and their family into honor and a higher status level.  In the culture of a nearby country, cannibalism is seen as a horrid act and treated as a crime, as murder.  What is done regarding cannibalism is directly related to the society's rules (which are based on agreement) in which it exists.  What is "right" for one culture or society may be "wrong" for another.   Looking at another culture and judging it as being "wrong" is a product of ethnocentrism.  Morals and values and deeds are conceptualized by societies based on their agreement of what they consider to be right or wrong or good or bad or simply "ok."  A cultural relativistic view understands that all of these things are relative to the culture in which they exist.  If an element is removed from the context of its culture then it stands alone without any morality attached to it.   Some people agree that God sets the highest morality standards, while other cultures agree on some other aspect of that.  Who is right or who is wrong?   It is our personal lenses that we look through that filter our perceptions and thoughts and feelings on the matter.  Chances are, if someone feels that one view is wrong, it is because they were enculturated to think that way. 

Native American's have different colors that are associated with the four directions.  A tribe is in agreement as to what symbolic representation each of those colors means, but the colors and meanings may vary between differing tribes.  They may yell and scream, "NO!  Yellow is this direction because of this..." and the other says, "No, yellow is not even included as a color for any of the directions, so you are wrong, it is this color because of this...." and so each tribe is so caught up in their own enculturation and do not realize why they are even in disagreement.  They cannot get past their ethnocentrism to realize that what they are arguing about is arbitrary, and socially and culturally dependent.  It doesn't matter, though, if it is a native tribe, or a civilian group, or a church, or an urbanized area, or something else.  It is the social groups who are most adamant about their "rightness" in their enculturated views that are typically the most radical and prejudice. 

There is a direct link (based on actual studies done worldwide) between the amount of education a person receives that causes the amount of prejudice and intolerance (toward other views, or groups) they have, to change.   As education rises, prejudice falls.  When education levels are low, prejudice peaks.  Narrow ethnocentric views are typically the most abrasive and heated when it comes to discussion time (or argument time).  As the knowledge and bigger picture of the world, and its many, many, many cultures and variations (of people and beliefs) grows within a person, the less likely they are to be warlike and intolerant, and more likely to be forgiving and loving and accepting.  The suicide bombers of this world are being taught (enculturated) into believing they will go to heaven and are doing God's work from the age of 10 or so.  They do not realize their own enculturation so they buy into it hook, line, and sinker.  Their view is so narrow that they are even taught to see no other view because anything else is "ungodly" or "wrong."  They do not think about WHY they believe it, they just believe it because they are taught it is THE TRUTH.  They do not think about it at all, but follow the "instructions of God" to kill themselves for their agreed-upon-purposes.  To them, this is the best thing they can ever achieve or do to show their loyalty to God and country.  Motives and values are all relative to the culture in which it is contained.  Christians of all types (conservative to liberal) often disagree because they are all equally in a social group that already internally agrees there is a different way in which God does things, and they side with one view or another... one interpretation (perspective - cultural lens -- filtered perspective) or another.  That does not even include other religions outside of Christianity, who may see things throught an entirely different cultural lens.   War is based on disagreement, and very often they are religious ones.   Many wars have been fought in the name of God.  But is this really God, or is it mankind's doing and calling it God?  Would God truly purposefully pit one group of His children against another group of His children, and continue that trend throughout all the cultures of the world, telling them all to "do this in my name"?  I'm sure the answer to that is also a product of ones enculturation (as is the question itself).

Political views are enculturated (taught/learned behavior), religious views are enculturated, family rules are enculturated, etc.  Disagreement on any issue between individuals or groups is entirely dependent on their experiences, thoughts, behaviors, feelings, knowledge, scruples, and other aspects of the human psyche, for if you took all of those things away no disagreement could occur because the person or group would be vegetable(s), mentally and emotionally and even spiritually.  To take away the ability to think is like slicing out their brain.  This is why the ability to think is related to the concept of free will, which is what God gave to Adam and Eve in the garden.  To share ideas and concepts culturally is done through language (verbal or nonverbal).  This is why childhood takes so long in humans compared to other animals, because it takes a long time to develop habits and thought patterns and to acquire enough knowledge to mature enough to get educated, become independent, hold down a job, raise children, etc.  We take our beliefs and knowledge for granted.  If someone says something we agree with it comforts us.  If someone says something that "goes against our grain" (the concept of "grain" meaning a directed growth - learned behavior) then we feel uneasy, and perhaps even upset or angry.  We get defensive.   This also, is part of human nature, and is even sometimes enculturated rather than natural/in-born.  Some fundamentalist Christian men who are taught that women are inferior and the "weaker vessel" and should not EVER take the pulpit, and cannot and would not ever be told by God to do so, are products of their own enculturation.  And they know it not.  Their ignorance precedes them, due to eating only a diet of fundamentalist views their entire life.  The same goes for other sects of Christianity, or any other "belief system" that exists on the planet.  The grooves worn into peoples' psyches are so deep that it seems to hard to climb out of the pit they've made for themselves.  They believe it all because they were exposed to people who taught that specific interpretation of the Bible (or whatever) to them.  Even the concept of there being an Adam and Eve in the garden is a learned concept, taught by people who can read the Bible and pass down these words and ideas from generation to generation.  Buddhists out in the deep country may have no concept of Adam and Eve because their enculturation and language are different from Christians.  We are ALL products of our enculturation. 

I even have my own enculturated thoughts and feelings based on my experiences, values, beliefs, etc.  This is the bottom line for me, and frankly, all of the arguing about semantics or whether people are in agreement or not is simply arbitrary.  I believe that sometimes (many times) people disagree, because of the variety of cultures and sub-cultures that God has produced in His world, and that THAT is the constancy of the universe... that change is inevitable, and a sure thing, and can always be counted on to occur.  Time changes by moving forward (also an ethnocentric view, since some cultures believe time moves differently, or that past, present, and future all overlap, etc.), and bodies change by aging, and our mindsets change as we learn more, etc.  Either we ebb and flow with it, like a willow tree by the river during a storm, or we remain rigid in our ways and crack and break in the next big wind.   It is important to respect the beliefs of others, their enculturation, their stance, their views, their motives, etc.  Sometimes it means we have to agree to disagree and leave it at that.   I don't typically state what I believe -- because what I believe is constantly evolving, changing, growing.  What I learn today may be replaced with a higher concept tomorrow, and to me, that is OK.  It's ok to bend, and change, and alter our beliefs.  If we are stuck in one place then we are not growing, but dying.  But even that view is a product of my enculturation. ;-)

This is why sometimes we just need to stand still and just "be."  

Sharon

(c) Sharon Cornet, August 2007

 

 

 

Articles 2 Page

 

(c) Sharon (Eby) Cornet 2011