- Religion and Philosophy»
- The Role of Religion in History & Society
Cultural relativity is the ability to study and describe another society/culture from its point of view without imposing our own cultural values on those descriptions and analysis. We have to be able to put aside our own cultural concepts in order to analysis and then describe the society that we are studying. This could prove hard for some of us, depending on the circumstances. In some cultures it is considered perfectly normal for the women to be subservient and meek, in most of the modern western world it is not, there are exceptions to this though. If we are studying a group such as this we have to accept that it is their culture and not try to impose our point of view on them. It is our job to observe and report and not to morally judge. At times this can be hard to do, especially when we see something that we have been taught is wrong. I think an example of this might be the plural marriages of the Fundamentalist Mormons, to them it is a way of life, handed down to them for generations yet it is against the law in the U.S. That means they are breaking the law if they have more than one wife. So how do we describe this and do we try to do anything about it? Sticky subject I would think, if a man comes here from Africa or the Middle East where he has more than one wife he is allowed to visit and bring his wives with him; if a man in the U.S. has one legal wife and several live-in girl friends, that is fine but this culture is prosecuted for their practice of plural marriage. O.K. personally, I will qualify what I think here, as long as the women are all of legal age, doing it of their own free will and can accept it as their way, I see nothing wrong with it. When I lived in Wyoming I knew quite a few Mormons, in fact my best friend was, and her parents were both children from plural marriages. I went with her to a little town in Utah for their 50th wedding anniversary and I discovered that in the town of about 700 at least 75% were all the descendants of three men, who had large extended families. These people are no longer practicing plural marriages but you are aware of the fact that they are only a generation or two removed from it. So culturally it is the practice of the Fundamentalist group, but legally it is unlawful and morally, I think that depends on who you are asking.
I travel to a lot of pagan gatherings as a speaker. I am not Wiccan and consider myself more heathen than pagan. I know that is splitting hairs. Fifteen years ago when I first began this venture, I found myself in for a culture shock. I had been raised in a religious path that was what most people now days would call “hedge witch”, my grandparents were raised in the Appalachians and were members of a group known as “Wayest”. They did not consider themselves as anything but followers of the old ways. They lived in a very closed society that in itself was the death of the Wayest. They were descendants of people who had come here from Europe (mostly Sweden and Germany) in the early 1700’s in search of religious freedom. Only they were looking for a place where they could put down roots and no one would try to torture them for their beliefs. They had survived the centuries in Europe by keeping secrets and staying to themselves so it was not so hard to do here where they had a huge wilderness to settle in. At best there were five or six families that settled in a valley in Virginia and from there the children moved to the Carolinas, Kentucky and finally to Georgia. They married within their own groups much as the Amish and Mennonites do. Marriages were arranged by a family elder usually. My grandmother was raised in Georgia but her husband came from the South Carolina group. After World War II, the young men returning from the war chose to move into the cities to work and they began to marry outside of the groups. I remember my grandmother telling me that her greatest fear was that the way would die with the Elders. She taught me the history of our clan and some of the old ways but I was really not interested at the time, so I missed so much she could have taught me. In the late 1960’s and 1970’s the last of the elders were dying, my grandfather and grandmother died and the other groups were losing their elders too. I found many years later in a little town in Texas, some more who were of The Way, through them I found some of my own in Kentucky and I have found a lot of the American history of the group. I have tried to raise my children in this Way and teach them, I am trying to revive what through my disinterest as a youth I almost let die. A culture that had survived for over a thousand years and technology all but killed it.
Getting back to my cultural shock, I had been raised Wayest, (this is the equivalent of a Puritan) no naked people dancing around fires, no wild sex, not a whole lot of drinking (although some are good brewers); so at my first gathering I run into full nudity and sex in public more or less. Not my cup of tea, definitely not something I would take my children to. So I was to give a talk on Pagan Ethics, were would you have started? Definitely, if it is an open gathering with many different groups present, then at least have a curfew and a designated place to act like whatever. I probably crossed the line on that talk as to the cultural relativity of the group but I am not sure. Over the years I have gotten a little more selective about where I accept speaking engagements and I have also found that there are groups and there are groups.