Cultural Values and the "random accident of birth"

We automatically, and inescapably, adopt many cultural values of our family and society from early childhood. These values are not necessarily based on the objective reality. For example the typical male way of enjoying sport (beer, mates etc.) in Australia is purely subjective. The typically Australian enjoyment of open spaces and countryside is again subjective. There is no objective merit in these things, despite many Australians believing it to be so. There is nothing about being Australian that makes us "better" in an objective sense than some other nationality. Sharing the same cultural values allows people to develop a common identity, such as being Australian, and the advantages that go with that identity, including a sense of belonging. Nevertheless these cultural values are firmly imbedded in the subjective world. The reason many people identify with a nationality is because they were born and grew up in a particular country, or inherited the identity from earlier generations. Had circumstances been different and they were born or lived for a considerable period in another country, they would instead identify with the corresponding nationality. So we are Australian, or whatever nationality, because of a "random accident of birth".

The ethical principles and the sense of good and bad, are part of this subjective cultural heritage that we inherit from family and the society at large. There is no objective way of determining what is good and bad. "Goodness" and "badness" are not elements of the objective reality. The laws of a country represent what its society defines to be "good" and "bad". But having written laws does not make "good" and "bad" any more objective. The laws are a kind of an average of the subjective views of the people, at least partially in a democratic country.

We also inherit religious values and beliefs particularly from our family. These beliefs are part of our larger cultural heritage. Indeed it seems that people have an overwhelmingly greater propensity to inherit the religious beliefs of their immediate family than to discover and adopt completely independent religious beliefs. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and so on are overwhelmingly found in families of the corresponding religion. The interesting thing is that the intense beliefs of a fundamentalist Christian would be replaced by those of Islam had the person been born into a fundamentalist Muslim family. To labour this point further, imagine 10 newborn infants in a maternity ward. One common characteristic the infants all share is a lack of bias towards any religion. Indeed they have the propensity to adopt any religion. However if the infants are followed through their later lives, it is more likely that they will be found to have adopted the religion of their families, or some close variant, than any other religion. In this sense religious belief is also a "random accident of birth".

However, this "accident" is not generally acknowledged by theists. For example, when Christian fundamentalists are asked why they choose Christianity over another religion, typically their response is that Christianity is the "right one". When it is put to them that had they been born into a Muslim family they would regard Islam as the right religion, their typical reply is along the lines that they would still regard Christianity as the right religion and presumably they would convert. But for this to be true, all people born into Muslim families would face the same fate, and consequently Islam would reduce with each generation. This is just not happening on a large scale in the world today. Such theists appear not to recognise the cultural dimension of their religious belief. Christians see Christianity as the right religion because overwhelmingly their subjective world has been molded by their upbringing in a Christian family. If they were born into a Muslim family, their subjective world would be molded by their upbringing to see Islam as the right religion. This is exactly what Christians and Muslims have being doing for a millennium and more.

There are other cultural aspects of religious fundamentalism. The last 50 years or so has seen the growth of many subcultures such as skin heads, mods, beatniks, hippies, punks, goths and so on. They emerge as a reaction to what is seen as problems in the dominant social climate. For example, when the hippy subculture emerged in the 1960's and 1970's, nuclear weapons had proliferated to the point where the annihilation of whole countries was possible and the Vietnam war was claiming many young lives. Hippies questioned the mainstream values that led to and maintained such social problems. They developed a unique dress code (long hair, beads, Indian style cloths) and words ("far-out", "dig it", ...) that allowed members of the movement to distinguished themselves from the so-called "straights", or non-hippy people. It also allowed them to readily identify each other as hippies and thus as "one of the acceptable people". There are strong parallels between these typical subcultures and the emergence of religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians appear to be disillusioned with mainstream society. They typically feel that mainstream society is heading in the wrong direction, becoming more sinful, becoming ever more evil. Members of the subculture adopt expressions and words, such as "praise the lord" and "alleluia" that reinforces their identity as members of the subculture and to reaffirm social bonds with other members. Bumper stickers of a stylised "fish" allow the owner to be identified as "one of us" by other members. In these respects, the Christian fundamentalist movement is no different from any other subculture. Rather than being driven by divine motives, individual fundamentalists are unwittingly taking part in a social movement like many other groups before them.