Culture Differences That Matter

29 April 2019 | Life scientists, and in particular geneticists, have produced very strong scientific evidence that the biological differences between Europeans, Africans, Chinese and Native Americans are negligible. At the same time, however, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, behavioral economists and even brain scientists have accumulated a wealth of data for the existence of significant differences between human cultures.

The moral values

In light of this, the culture that nurtures and develops moral values of Jewish people is more important than the Jewish moral values themselves. “Jewish” moral values need to be incubated and grown first in families, then communities (such as companies, schools, residential areas), and then societies. There are seven core moral values of the Jewish people, including: Faith in G-d, whose representatives are the moral values, Integrity and Honesty, Hard-working, Love & Kindness, Humbleness, Gratitude, and Righteousness.

The moral values must be living. That is, communities can alter the practices of the moral values to fit in their current context. The keyword is the practices of the moral value. Without practicing, all discussion about moral values and morality is valueless. Without practicing, the moral values will sooner or later, disappear in the culture.

One potential remedy for human stupidity is a dose of humility or humbleness. National, religious and cultural tensions are made worse by the grandiose feeling that my nation, my religion and my culture are the most important in the world –hence my interests should come before the interests of anyone else, or of humankind as a whole. How can we make nations, religions and cultures a bit more realistic and modest about their true place in the world?

For example, moral values have appeared in mammal and homo sapiens societies way before the Ten Commandments and Judaism. Morality of some kind is natural. Yet though gods can inspire us to act compassionately, religious faith is not a necessary condition for moral behavior.

The third of the biblical Ten Commandments instructs humans never to make wrongful use of the name of God. Many understand this in a childish way, as a prohibition on uttering the explicit name of God (as in the famous Monty Python sketch ‘If you say Jehovah…’). Perhaps the deeper meaning of this commandment is that we should never use the name of God to justify our political interests, our economic ambitions or our personal hatreds. People hate somebody and say, ‘God hates him’; people covet a piece of land and say, ‘God wants it’. The world would be a much better place if we followed the third commandment more devotedly. You want to wage war on your neighbors and steal their land? Leave God out of it, and find yourself some other excuse.

Morality doesn’t mean ‘following divine commands.’ It means ‘reducing suffering.’ Hence in order to act morally, you don’t need to believe in any myth or story. You just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering. If you really understand how an action causes unnecessary suffering to yourself or to others, you will naturally abstain from it. People nevertheless murder, rape and steal because they have only a superficial appreciation of the misery this causes. They are fixated on satisfying their immediate lust or greed, without concern for the impact on others –or even for the long-term impact on themselves. Even inquisitors who deliberately inflict as much pain as possible on their victim, usually use various de-sensitizing and de-humanizing techniques in order to distance themselves from what they are doing.

You might object that every human naturally seeks to avoid feeling miserable, but why would a human care about the misery of others, unless some god demands it? One obvious answer is that humans are social animals, therefore their happiness depends to a very large extent on their relations with others. Without love, friendship and community, who could be happy? If you live a lonely self-centred life, you are almost guaranteed to be miserable. So at the very least, to be happy you need to care about your family, your friends, and your community members. What, then, about complete strangers? Why not murder strangers and take their possessions to enrich myself and my tribe? Many thinkers have constructed elaborate social theories, explaining why in the long run such behavior is counterproductive. You would not like to live in a society where strangers are routinely robbed and murdered. Not only would you be in constant danger, but you would lack the benefit of things like commerce, which depends on trust between strangers. Merchants don’t usually visit dens of thieves. That’s how secular theoreticians from ancient China to modern Europe have justified the golden rule of ‘don’t do to others what you would not like them to do to you’.

Yet we do not really need such complex long-term theories to find a natural basis for universal compassion. Forget about commerce for a moment. On a much more immediate level, hurting others always hurts me too. Every violent act in the world begins with a violent desire in somebody’s mind, which disturbs that person’s own peace and happiness before it disturbs the peace and happiness of anyone else. Thus people seldom steal unless they first develop a lot of greed and envy in their minds. People don’t usually murder unless they first generate anger and hatred. Emotions such as greed, envy, anger and hatred are very unpleasant. You cannot experience joy and harmony when you are boiling with anger or envy. Hence long before you murder anyone, your anger has already killed your own peace of mind.

Indeed, you might keep boiling with anger for years, without ever actually murdering the object of your hate. In which case you haven’t hurt anyone else, but you have nevertheless hurt yourself. It is therefore your natural self-interest – and not the command of some god – that should induce you to do something about your anger. If you were completely free of anger you would feel far better than if you murdered an obnoxious enemy.

For some people, a strong belief in a compassionate god that commands us to turn the other cheek may help in curbing anger. That’s been an enormous contribution of religious belief to the peace and harmony of the world. Unfortunately, for other people religious belief actually stokes and justifies their anger, especially if someone dares to insult their god or ignore his wishes. So the value of the lawgiver god ultimately depends on the behavior of his devotees. If they act well, they can believe anything they like. Similarly, the value of religious rites and sacred places depends on the type of feelings and behaviors they inspire. If visiting a temple makes people experience peace and harmony – that’s wonderful. But if a particular temple causes violence and conflicts, what do we need it for? It is clearly a dysfunctional temple.

Secularism

Not visiting any temples and not believing in any god is also a viable option. As the last few centuries have proved, we don’t need to invoke God’s name in order to live a moral life. Secularism can provide us with all the values we need.

Few people would adopt such a negative identity. Self-professing secularists view secularism in a very different way. For them, secularism is a very positive and active world view, which is defined by a coherent code of values rather than by opposition to this or that religion. Indeed, many of the secular values are shared by various religious traditions. Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. They don’t think that morality and wisdom came down from heaven in one particular place and time. Rather, morality and wisdom are the natural legacy of all humans. So it is only to be expected that at least some values would pop up in human societies all over the world, and would be common to Muslims, Christians, Hindus and atheists.

If they are loyal to scientific truth, to compassion, to equality and to freedom, they are full members of the secular world. 

It takes a lot of courage to fight biases and oppressive regimes, but it takes even greater courage to admit ignorance and venture into the unknown. Secular education teaches us that if we don’t know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging our ignorance and looking for new evidence. Even if we think we know something, we shouldn’t be afraid of doubting our opinions and checking ourselves again. Many people are afraid of the unknown, and want clear-cut answers for every question. Fear of the unknown can paralyze us more than any tyrant. People throughout history worried that unless we put all our faith in some set of absolute answers, human society will crumble. In fact, modern history has demonstrated that a society of courageous people willing to admit ignorance and raise difficult questions is usually not just more prosperous but also more peaceful than societies in which everyone must unquestioningly accept a single answer. People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

Secular education does not mean a negative indoctrination that teaches kids not to believe in God and not to take part in any religious ceremonies. Rather, secular education teaches children to distinguish truth from belief; to develop their compassion for all suffering beings; to appreciate the wisdom and experiences of all the earth’s denizens; to think freely without fearing the unknown; and to take responsibility for their actions and for the world as a whole.

If you really want truth, you need to escape the black hole of power, and allow yourself to waste a lot of time wandering here and there on the periphery. Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the centre, because the centre is built on existing knowledge. The guardians of the old order usually determine who gets to reach the centres of power, and they tend to filter out the carriers of disturbing unconventional ideas. Of course they filter out an incredible amount of rubbish too. Here is an implication in the mindsponge mechanism: innovation and new business appear in the periphery. Those who are seeking innovation have to get out of the comfort zone.

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