Re: Religion and ethnocentrism

Brian Michael Howell (bmhowell@ARTSCI.WUSTL.EDU)
Wed, 10 Apr 1996 18:29:35 -0500

> > Do you, Dr. Kephart, believe it is the duty of the anthropology
> > instructor to "teach" students that their religion is false and that to
> > think otherwise is ethnocentric?
> No, absolutely not. I do think think that we should teach them that religion,
> like the rest of culture, is a human universal which is expressed in a number of
> ways and can be studied from an anthropological perspective. I think we should
> also tell them that to persist in the belief that their religion is the ONLY
> true one, and that all others are false, is (partial?) ethnocentrism which might
> ordinarily be harmless, like food preferences, but which has also led to things
> like the Inquisition.

To say that "religion" is expressed in a variety of ways is to imply that
the content of religious belief is irrelevant. Muslims are not merely
"expressing religion" they believe that a historical event, in which
Allah gave teachings to Mohammed, actually happened. If you believe that
this actually happened, how can you turn around and say that these
teachings - GIVEN BY GOD! - are just one way to "express a universal?"
The same can be said of Christianity, Judaism, and, to some extent
Buddhism. These are not, in the belief if their adherents, merely
ahistorical expressions of a human capacity for
mythology/cosmology/whatever. They are historical instances of God
interveining in human affairs or true enlightenment. You can encourage
anyone in any of these systems to be tolerant (i.e. not want to attack,
harm or insult) of other religions, but to tell them they should abandon
the idea that they are exclusively true, is to tell them to abandon the
core historical foundation of their beliefs.