CULTURE AND THE PERSISTENCE
OF BELIEF SYSTEMS
Culture as a force is largely
invisible. We are aware of the artifacts of our culture and of our language, but the role culture plays in mediating and guiding our belief systems is not so obvious.
We are not born with beliefs. We are enculturated into them. Beliefs do not reside in the genes. They are in the culture and the culture transmits them from one generation to the next. Belief systems are not confined to religious belief. They permeate every aspect of our lives.
In every culture there are matters in which the culture is so heavily invested that those beliefs rise to the level of the sacred or something very close to it. In our culture, for example, belief in God is so significant that dissenters pay a considerable price unless they remain silent—don’t ask, don’t tell. In a recent interview, Studs Terkel asked his interviewer if he knew what ‘agnostic’ meant. He went on to say that this is what one asserts if he is afraid to say he is an atheist. Within all cultures there are also matters where a substantial amount of individual opinion and discretion are accommodated—but only up to a certain point. When I was a boy—and within the general culture there are subcultures, including one for male juveniles—boys arrogated to themselves expertise in the matter of automobiles. Girls, of course were seen as having no competence in this matter. Generally, one could take whatever position one liked on such automobiles as Studebakers, Nashes, Packards, Reos or Pierce Arrows. However, with respect to “the big three” the conventional wisdom was very certain. It held that Chrysler products were very well engineered, Ford products were “a bucket of bolts” and General Motors automobiles were marvels of competent and workman-like excellence. Thus, we have here an example of an area of freedom combined with a core of certitude.
Another example is an understanding in England that the monarch, who would very likely be a communicant of the Church of England, is in fact free to follow just about any desired faith. He or she could be a Buddhist, a Methodist, or even a Unitarian. But an English monarch may not be a Roman Catholic.
And finally, in every culture there are matters on which the culture is silent. Here one can believe just about anything. For example, in our culture you may adopt virtually any color as your favorite without reproach. Though if a boy declared a preference for violet he might be in some trouble. (And, of course, color in the context of ritual is another matter. In our culture, the color for death is black. In many Asian cultures the color for death is white, and that is what you wear to the funeral.) The durability of belief systems is particularly strong in religion. Novelty in religion is relatively rare. The Cross is older than Christianity. It can be found in the ceremonies of Mithraism and the ancient Egyptians. Mithraic priests baptized their followers with holy water and exorcised devils by holding two or more fingers toward the believer. In the pre-Christian worship of Osiris, cakes were identified with the body of the god and were eaten as part of a ritual. This practice was followed in other pre-Christian religions as well. The Greek god Adonis was found dead by a group of women. They wrapped the body and applied ointments, wrapped it in a shroud and placed it in a cave. From there Adonis was resurrected and ascended into heaven before the multitudes.
Superstitions are also particularly durable. The reluctance to walk under ladders is several hundred years old and goes back to a time when it was believed that spirits used ladders to make their way to heaven and it was considered best not to disturb them. Avoiding breaking a mirror goes back to a time when people believed the mirror image of one’s self contained a portion of one’s soul. The word ‘honeymoon’ goes back to a practice of having the newly married go off for a month and drink mead. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made from honey. It was believed to arouse the passions. This belief persisted even though William Shakespeare pointed out (in “Macbeth”) that drink “provokes the desire but it takes away the performance.” This is one of many examples of the durability of beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence.
A national poll conducted by
Opinion Dynamics in 2003 shows that a third of Americans believe in ghosts and an equal number in UFOs and about a quarter accept things like astrology, reincarnation, and witches. All of the respondents in this survey were registered voters (which should gives us some pause about the level of confidence we’re prepared to place in the electoral process). People are not born with these beliefs. These bits of wisdom are received from and are perpetuated by our culture. It is important to understand that the imperatives of belief and behavior into which we are enculturated can be and are enforced. The means of enforcement include ridicule, ostracism, excommunication and worse. A Muslim author wrote a book a few years ago that was apparently offensives to Islam. Officials of that faith declared that the author was a suitable target for assassination. Anthropologists have identified pre-industrial and preagricultural cultures which expel a nonconforming individual from the tribe and that individual is obliged to try to survive on his own. It is essentially a death sentence. In England there is an expression which describes the way a non-conforming individual is punished. The person is said to be “sent to Coventry.” When sent to Coventry, the individual becomes invisible. He is not spoken to and anything he says is ignored. During the Inquisition, those suspected of deviation from Truth were tried. We get the legal term ‘trial’ from this period. A suspect might be thrown into a river. If he drowned he was innocent. If he reached the shore he was guilty. Women who decorated themselves with henna were executed, as the use of henna was a practice among Muslims and Hindus. When I was in about the fifth grade my grandmother sent us a package of various items, including a pair of corduroy pants for me. They were dark maroon in color. My mother thought they would be very suitable to wear to school. I thought not, but I was overruled. As I expected, I was a subject of amusement and an object of ridicule. In that time and place cords had to be yellow. And not just that. They also had to be faded and worn. No one wore brand new cords to school, not even yellow ones. You first wore them around the house until they reached the required level of decrepitude. Eventually, I was accommodated in this matter. The maroon cords were disposed of.
Thus, each culture has its own profile of what is sacred, which matters allow some but not complete discretion, and which others are matters of relative indifference. What is interesting is that cross-culturally, these profiles do not match up. What is sacred in one culture may well be a matter of relative indifference in another. In 1917 we sent an expeditionary force to France. The dough boys, as they were called, carried with them a culture that was informed in substantial part by the Puritan ethic. This came down to them from some of the early settlers along the Eastern seaboard and was forcefully articulated by Cotton Mather. Communities across the land had what were called Blue Laws. Many still do, but they are today infrequently enforced. Essentially, the Blue Laws provided that Sunday was a day of rest. One could go to church, or just rest. After all, the good Lord had rested on Sunday, after a strenuous week of creative activity. So should we. Moreover, one should resist having fun. As a legacy of this sentiment, there is a federal tax and a stamp which is still placed on every package of playing cards sold in this country. There is also a punitive tax and stamp for cigarettes and for some beverages. Our boys in France were astonished with what they found there and they came back with some pretty exciting French post cards and bits of doggerel like “How are you going to keep him down on the farm once he’s seen Paree.”
It is at the point of culture contact that one first become aware of one’s own culture. As a subset of this phenomenon, your first real insight into English grammar comes when you’ve had to learn the grammar of another language.
Trying to change elements of conventional wisdom as enforced by the culture is not easy. Once a community achieves general consensus on a matter of cultural certitude, even the law is relatively helpless. For example, there is widespread consensus that every American has the right to have a gun. Just across the border in Canada the matter is viewed quite differently. This consensus is so powerful that it is even difficult to outlaw the possession of military weapons. Defenders of this consensus rely on the Second Amendment to support this article of faith. This is very strange of course because a reading of the amendment reveals no such right. The right to bear arms is accorded only to members of a “well regulated militia.” Here is an example in which conventional wisdom is more powerful than the Constitution, the basic law of the land.
A remarkable article of faith among Americans is that we are a land of free individualists with great freedom to say and do pretty much what we please. Our popular literature gives full reign to this belief. The cowboy, for example, is a model of this faith. He is completely unencumbered and likes his horse better than the local school teacher. (He may need counseling.) In any case, after clearing up a local crime problem, the cowboy declines the offer to be made sheriff. He rides off into the sunset alone, free, and unattached. Similarly, in the urban version of the cowboy myth, the private-eye works alone. True, unlike the cowboy he does like women, but he never marries. He remains completely unconnected in the community, free and independent. We follow these models only in fantasy. In reality our antennae are constantly out to sense what actions or beliefs are apt to arouse a critical response from others and we are careful, for the most part, to avoid them.
And, indeed, this is the secret of the persistence of belief systems. Even in our own Unitarian tradition we have a model of the free spirit, presumably immune to the imperatives mediated by the culture. Henry David Thoreau is celebrated by us as one who sometimes had to be “a majority of one.” He liked to say he “marched to a different drummer.” He also cautioned us to beware of situations that required the wearing of new clothes. We revere him and admire his tremendous contribution to the idea of civil disobedience. But for the most part he is not a model many of us are prepared to follow.
There is of course an island of rationality which resides in science and in the scientific method. Science comes down to us from the Greeks by way of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In terms of its historical provenance science is quite unique. No other culture developed anything like science. Although today science is the basis for our modern technology and for the development of new science, as a concept it is not widely understood even among the populations of the most advanced countries. Students in our high schools and universities routinely confuse science with engineering or technology in general. For example, the Manhattan Project was not primarily a scientific undertaking. It was largely an engineering achievement. The science had long since been done. Similarly, NASA has been essentially an engineering project. The science was mostly done long ago by Kepler and others. During World War II when I was in the Navy, I was given a Russian, hand-written manuscript to translate. It described how one might go about putting an object into orbit around the earth. I thought the guy must have been crazy. But I was about 21 and what did I know? In his monograph “The Two Cultures,” the scientist C.P. Snow examined the wide gulf separating the sciences from the humanities in our universities and the general absence of dialogue between them. He argued that it is not possible to consider oneself educated without at least some level of mastery in both these universes. But because science is so poorly understood in the popular culture, it seems to have little impact on our belief systems. To summarize: 1) Belief systems are interpreted, invoked, and transmitted by our culture. 2) In any given culture there are beliefs on some matters wherein heavy penalties await dissenters. On other matters, broader discretion is accepted up to a point, but then there is some core value which may not be contested. 3) The profile of such positions in any given culture does not transfer to other cultures. Each culture has its own profile of what is sacred and what is permitted. 4) Religious beliefs and superstitions are particularly durable. 5) All cultures have effective means for enforcing the acceptance of their precepts and conventional wisdom. 6) Science and the scientific method are not widely understood and play a very modest role in impacting on our beliefs. Any efforts we make to bring the light of reason to our culture is and will be an ongoing struggle. The future of our species and of its habitat probably depend on our level of success in this struggle.