On offense

Ruchira Paul has a post up, "Religious, superstitious, nonsense" and other harsh words. The point at issue is the fact that a teacher who expressed anti-Creationist views in harsh tones was sued. Ruchira asks somewhat rhetorically as to the sort of things parochial schools say about other religions and atheists. The bigger issue is one of public decorum, and decorum is very contextual. When my 7th grade teacher had us read Medea she explained a bit about the context of Greek society, including the nature of their religion. She spoke of "their gods" and "our God." Her reference to "our God" was absolutely ecumenical, and in the most general of tones, while her reference to "their gods" was clinical and disrespectful. Disrespectful because she perceived Greek paganism to be superstitious, if interesting, nonsense, and said so (I agreed with her, but my own sentiments were a bit more catholic). Ludicrous on the face of it was her stance, which she made plain. There were no Greek pagans to protest.

The issue and dynamic are general. In the ancient world the Jews and Christians were considered atheistic because they denied the existence of all gods but their own.This was an offense to the pagan majority, who did not exhibit reciprocal disbelief. I have talked to Hindus who are hurt by the exclusive and atheistic stance by the Abrahamic religions about other gods (from the perspective of a non-Abrahamist much of the scriptures of those religions and the writings of their most respected divines are hate screeds). In any case, with the rise of Christianity to be called heathen or pagan was an offense, and the old gods became blasphemous demons (and naturally fundamentalist Christians are wont to identify Hindu deities such as Shiva with demonic figures in the Book of Revelation). When the Chinese encountered Christianity (again) in the 16th and 17th centuries, in particular its Catholic forms, the exact same accusations of cannibalism which were common in the ancient world reemerged. Outside of the proper cultural context, a plain explanation of transubstantiation seems more offensive than sacred.

One can expand the point outside of religion. In much of pre-modern Europe a bare breast was reputedly less sexually charged than exposed shoulders or legs. Sexuality is not totally culture variant, even societies where nudity is common have norms (e.g., notice that Amazonian women in the older National Geographic specials never squat). But there's enough variation that software differs from society to society. The human mind operates on autopilot much of the time, and internalizes particular cues and contexts, and fires programs which come preloaded. When put into an exotic circumstance it takes some time to adjust, and when two individuals come together when there are cultural differences confusion can often ensue (immigrants may often never become totally acculturated).

Back to religion. In the World Values Survey there's a question about how much you "Trust People Of Other Religions." There are 4 responses, trust complete, trust a little, not trust very much, and not trust at all. I created an index of trust, whereby the above response were coded as 0, 1, 2 and 3. So if 100% in a country did not trust at all, the value would be 3. Below are the responses for nations in WVS wave 5. I've ordered them. You might be surprised.

  Sweden 0.976
New Zealand 0.986
France 1.009
Norway 1.096
Great Britain 1.131
Mali 1.15
Finland 1.152
United States 1.189
Canada 1.201
Australia 1.255
Switzerland 1.286
Andorra 1.294
South Africa 1.305
Rwanda 1.329
Argentina 1.372
Trinidad and Tobago 1.402
Burkina Faso 1.455
Uruguay 1.484
Ghana 1.502
Taiwan 1.583
Serbia 1.591
Poland 1.601
Brazil 1.601
Netherlands 1.617
Spain 1.629
India 1.643
Ethiopia 1.644
South Korea 1.646
Bulgaria 1.649
Indonesia 1.675
Georgia 1.689
Germany 1.702
Ukraine 1.732
Zambia 1.74
Italy 1.744
Malaysia 1.763
Chile 1.786
Egypt 1.794
Thailand 1.842
Colombia 1.848
Russian Federation 1.849
Viet Nam 1.85
Slovenia 1.891
Romania 1.907
Jordan 1.951
Mexico 1.987
Turkey 1.988
Cyprus 1.998
Moldova 2.02
Morocco 2.085
Peru 2.111
China 2.112

As Muslims go the people of Mail have a reputation of being atypically chilled out. These data would support that. At the bottom of the list are nations where religion, nationalism, and their intersection are rife. No surprise. But what about Vietnam and China? East Asian nations are arguably even more secular than the Nordic countries, and unlike Sweden they don't really have a recent history of religiosity which gave way to secularity. They think religion is weird, and Communism didn't help change that attitude at all (both China and Korea broke the power of the Buddhist orders nearly 1,000 years ago, while Oda Nobunaga was a great monk-slayer).


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As someone who has been in the unfortunate position to analyze scale survey data by the hour, I'm familiar with the phenomenon that people skew in different directions on scales by country. Even within Europe, they're all over the place on basic questions that should be similar. Americans tend to give more "positive" answers about just about anything you ask them. There seem to be underlying cultural dispositions about surveys in general, perhaps in how much people try to match what the "correct" or "expected" answer is.

I bring this up because some of this list seems weird to me. Also, it's a badly phrased question. For me personally, it depends entirely on how much they yammer on about their religion.

So, I guess what you're saying is, in non-religious East Asia, maybe much of it is "not trusting people of other religions" means the majority non-theists being suspicious of the religious in general?

That was my immediate gut-response to the question (as an agnostic) - how much do you trust religious people-not very much!

By stripey_cat (not verified) on 30 Oct 2009 #permalink

More like they are parroting culturally imposed views of other religions. I don't know how you measure religious tolerance, but self-reporting is probably a bad way. Americans generally think they live in the most tolerant and otherwise awesome country in the world so they probably rate themselves accordingly. I've never met a Chinese person who gave a shit about anyone else's metaphysics. Southeast Asian Muslims just feel kind of sorry for me when I tell them I'm an atheist--I'm not sure how the concept of "trust" enters into this, but it's probably not a very culturally portable concept. Trust to what?

Whoah... the worst behavioral genetics news in months just popped up on an rss feed. "Lighter sentence for murderer with 'bad genes'"


Outside of the proper cultural context, a plain explanation of transubstantiation seems more offensive than sacred.

I fail to see how cultural context changes that one at all.