The Equivalency Fiction
No, Not All Cultures and Religions are Equal
By Selwyn Duke
If anything renders people sheep among wolves, it’s when they convince themselves that every creature is a sheep. We live in an age in which one of the few sins is giving offense, one of the only virtues is a tendentious tolerance and one of the top priorities is getting along. In light of this, it’s not surprising that a steadfast refusal to draw moral distinctions is all the rage.
Our divorcing of charity from morality takes many forms. Enter many American classrooms and you will find a multiculturalist curriculum that paints all cultures as morally equal. Take a course in comparative religion and you’ll often see disparate faiths cast merely as equally valid (or equally invalid) competing myths. Of course, the preponderance of this phenomenon extends well beyond the walls of the academy.
To lay claim to any kind of superiority on behalf of your culture or religion is considered very bad form in today’s polite society. Dare to do so and you’ll often be rebuked with the favored mantras of the day: “Those are your values, someone else’s may be different,” “Don’t impose your values on me,” or perhaps, “Don’t be so judgemental.” Yes, it’s not so much that deviancy has been defined downwards, it’s that it has been defined as just another perspective. Such are the fruits of the equivalency fiction.
On the surface, the outer nanometer of it anyway, this seems to make sense. We live in a pluralistic society, thus, it behooves us to avoid descending into a morass in which hegemonist factions vie for cultural supremacy. Chastened by a world history replete with examples of man’s inhumanity to man, with religious disputes, cultural clashes and ethnic cleansing, we fear a moral certainty that could have some strutting about, puffing up their chests and planting their flag firmly atop Mount Olympus. So we have embraced an unwritten contract. To wit:
I won’t say that my culture or faith is better than yours if you don’t say yours is better than mine. Deal?
Then, like two callow little lads in a schoolyard who have each renounced the claim that his daddy could beat up the other’s daddy, we shake on it and bury the hatchet . . . for a time.
So we live in an age in which, ostensibly, no culture or religion is elevated above any other. That’s how it works in theory, anyway. In practice, western culture and its formative religion, Christianity, are cynically sneered at and cast as the bane of civilization. But make no mistake about it, the equivalency fiction has corrupted judgement. And, despite its seemingly benign nature and supposedly palliative effect, it breeds an indifference more perilous than any religious zealotry.
One problem with the equivalency fiction is that it negates the good it was designed to promote. The reason for this is that it – and its manifestations, such as multiculturalism and the notion that all faiths are equal – is nothing but moral relativism gussied up in a seductive guise. (As many know, moral relativism is the idea that right and wrong are determined by man and are, therefore, relative to the time, place and people. It is the notion that morality is merely a function of consensus opinion.) The reason for this is that different cultures and faiths espouse different values, so they cannot all be morally equal unless all values are so. And if you claim that all values are morally equal, that’s moral relativism.
Now let’s close the loop. The more sincere purveyors of these ideas aim to engender tolerance and civilized behavior, noble ambitions both. But if all values are equal, how can tolerance be better than intolerance? How can civility be better than barbarity? How can peaceful resolution be morally superior to violent action? The truth is that moral relativism and all the various expressions of it (i.e., multiculturalism, religious equivalency) are mere philoso-babble. They are products of emotion and a desire to buttress agendas, not that of credible intellectual inquiry. They are philosophies that collapse upon themselves under their own very, very modest weight. In the name of the principle of tolerance, we embrace the notion that principles don’t matter.
Adoption of this lie has some very serious consequences. For one, when your eyes have been trained to see all that is black and white as gray, how can you cling to the good and shun the bad? How can you distinguish between the two when you’ve been taught to recognize no such distinctions? Let’s examine how this relates to our lives in a very practical sense.
We have been told that Islam is a religion of peace, as valid as any other. And in keeping with our unwritten contract, we’re enjoined to make this a knee-jerk assumption. We must believe all religions are equal even if exhaustive evidence to the contrary rises to the fore. In fact, so powerful is this suppression of intellectual inquiry that supposedly learned men would rather descend into worthless scholarship than run afoul of its Orwellian proscriptions.
A good example of such a bad example is contained in a piece titled Why is Turkey the Only Muslim Democracy?, which deals with the possible impediments to the success of democracy in the Muslim world. Written by former Princeton college professor Bernard Lewis, ostensibly it was a scholarly analysis of its subject matter. However, I was quickly disabused of this notion upon reading the following sentiment:
If I had been writing one hundred years ago, or perhaps even less, I might have begun by considering what characteristics the Turks as a nation might possess that others lack. In the intellectual climate of our times, such explanations are no longer acceptable. Even if we replace the word "nation" by the word "culture," the inquiry would still present some hazards. Fortunately, an inquiry along these lines is hardly necessary, since a wide range of alternative explanations is on offer.
Absolutely staggering. In other words, whether or not cultural phenomena are where the answer lies is irrelevant because such discussion is forbidden. In the “intellectual climate of our times,” he says? Why, it’s more like an anti-intellectual climate. I ask you, what is the purpose of engaging in intellectual inquiry? Is the purpose merely the dual one of mental self-gratification and the impressing of others with your erudition? Or, could the goal be that antiquated one of ferreting out Truth?
What the professor was guilty of is akin to a physician observing all the symptoms of a certain cancer and saying that he won’t test for such disease because it’s not fashionable to do so. And, “an inquiry along these lines is hardly necessary, since a wide range of alternative explanations is on offer”? This reminds me of an old joke about a man who was informed by his dentist: “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that you need to have two teeth pulled. The good news is that you can choose any two you want.” Professor, you’re guilty of academic malpractice.
Now, I’m not going to present a comprehensive exposition of Islam and contrast and compare its tenets with those of other faiths, since such a venture would miss the point. For one thing, this relates to far more than just Islam. Secondly, our problem is not that we can’t find the answers, it’s that we can’t ask the questions. At least, not when they concern the sacred cows of foreign religions and cultures.
On the face of it, the equivalency fiction smacks of the most juvenile foolishness. Would we say that the ancient Aztec religion, which prescribed human sacrifice on a massive scale, could be equated with today’s dominant faiths? And one needn’t reach back to antiquity to find such jarring examples. Even today there are religions that allow similar savagery, although their darker elements are practiced most furtively. Why, just recently a Haitian woman was detained at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport for possession of a human head, and not the one on her shoulders. She believed it would ward off evil spirits, in accordance with her Voodoo beliefs. But now let’s analyze this more deeply.
Religion and culture share something with ideology, in that all three of these things involve values. Islam labels polygamy morally licit, whereas Christianity deems it not so. Our culture places a premium on equality, while others respect the hierarchy of caste and station. Communism holds up “From each according to his means, to each according to his needs” as an ideal, but to free economy ideology adherents (I eschew the word “capitalism”) such a principle is anathema.
Another commonality among religion, culture and ideology is that their values are a good indication of their validity; the value set that attends a given religion, culture or ideology informs us as to how healthy an embrace of it would be on a personal or societal level. It follows then that a refusal to evaluate that value set would render us incapable of making such determinations. Is it pristine or polluted? You’ll never know if you won’t sniff the air.
Let’s now gain some perspective. What would happen if we embraced the equivalency fiction with respect to ideology? And if values truly are relative, how can we not? How can we condemn any ideology – be it communism, Naziism or something else – on the basis that it promotes that which is “wrong” if all values are equal? If it’s all a matter of perspective, how do we justify contradicting our relativistic standard by labeling certain ideologies inferior?
But then, ponder the implications of applying the equality fiction to ideology. If we blinded ourselves to the existence of dark ideologies, we couldn’t possibly know which ones would lead us toward destruction. How could we, on a personal or societal level, know to avoid communism if we credulously fancied it to occupy the same moral plane as ideologies responsible for much that is great and good? No mainstream religion or culture can constitute the kind of destructive force that some ideologies amount to, say some? Well, we’ll never know unless we’re willing to be a good doctor, conduct a thorough examination and render a proper diagnosis. And if something, anything espouses values and demands a place at the table, it also demands scrutiny.
Hearkening back to my third paragraph, we so desperately fear the re-emergence of old prejudices that we have flipped from one extreme to the other. We have gone from condemning both the sin and the sinner to being willing to condemn neither the sinner nor the sin. We want to engender good will toward our fellow man but have forgotten that one of the challenges for anyone seeking to walk with angels is to view people as they are, warts and all, with all their frailties, foibles, vices and ugliness, and love them anyway. Thus, blinding oneself to others’ ignobility doesn’t serve the end of achieving true charity toward all. For then we are not loving people for what they are, but rather, what we imagine them to be. We don’t love the person, but the mystique we have built around him.
But more significantly, dangerously and ominously, we have been trained to cast the discerning eye only inwards, never outwards. We have been cowed into believing that any recognition of unpleasant truths involving a culture or religion not our own is to descend into bigotry. Thus, like the three monkeys, we hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil. That is, unless that evil can be ascribed to the one group where casting blame gratuitously harms our cause, and that group is us. Otherwise, we often walk where angels fear to tread, blind as we are to the differences between Hell and hallowed ground.
The United States in the third millennium stands at a precipice, with the constant accommodation of foreign cultures and faiths driving her culture steadily toward extinction. Should we allow Islam or other incongruous forces to make further inroads into our nation? We’ll never know if we remain the truly blind, namely, those who will not see. We’ll never know if we’re experiencing an age of enlightenment, or trading the promised land for peace in our time.