Are Cultures Moral?

Those who believe that people are basically good tend to think that cultures are not good or bad, just different. Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures. Anthropologists work hard to study cultures objectively and not judge ancient people groups for their practices. The greatest wrong seems to be for one culture to think it is better than another and impose itself on another. Respect for the dignity of all cultures appears to be the mantra of anthropology today. That’s one choice.


Another choice, more traditional, is that mankind has a natural social tendency to evil, which is why we have laws, and that some cultures are better than others. Ancient Jewish writing strongly emphasizes the moral difference between Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the neighboring Canaanites and Hittites. They went so far as to return to Syria for good wives. Centuries later, Moses instructed the nation of Israel about culture: “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you” (Leviticus 18:3). The context shows that he was referring to common practices of incestuous relationships, bestiality, and offering up the lives of their firstborn children in the superstitious hope of future fertility. Since those practices are illegal in our culture today, should we not consider the cultures that practices them immoral?


Christopher Columbus, who was once considered to be a great American hero, is now criticized by many as a destroyer of cultures. Of course, he was a tyrant to the Spanish as well as indigenes. Most explorers were. That should not taint the question of whether of not the Christian religion that he brought was better than the local beliefs. The high moral principles of Christianity, even when they were not followed by Columbus, provided a clear standard of good.


I was impressed by the words of Geronimo that I read in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. He was captured after a life of raiding, plunder, slaving, torture, and killing. He converted to Christianity as a prisoner. In his 1905 biography, Geronimo says that his traditional religion could not give him any clear instruction about life after death. No one really new. Those who brought Christianity to the West were convinced that they had the very words of God, delivered by prophets and established by fulfilled prophesies. Specific, coherent, objective revelation, spoken and written down across centuries, logically holds more weight than the vague, personal beliefs of animism.


Religion was once considered essential to establishing a moral society. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw Americans become more indifferent to religion, and morality more relativistic and subjective. Today, a small but growing trend is to consider religion as the greatest evil in the world. After all, didn’t John Lenin Imagine a world with no religion? Why would our culture need religion if all cultures are naturally good?


Everywhere we look, our lives, history, culture, and future are shaped by our beliefs about our human nature. Do you believe that people are innocent and evil comes from society and our environment? Do you believe that we have a tendency to evil and need to fight against temptation within ourselves? What shapes the way you think? Let me know. I would be glad to hear from you.

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