David Eller’s main point in his book Natural Atheism is that immersion into the study of anthropology leads one to accept cultural relativism, and that, in turn, makes one into a freethinker. But is there in fact any connection between three things?
Cultural relativism, in Eller’s understanding, “does not maintain that ‘anything goes’ but merely reports that this goes here and that goes there.” If that were all, then cultural relativism would be a science describing different individuals and cultures. Relativism would be anthropology. But that is a strange and hardly adequate definition of relativism.
And, of course, Eller thinks nothing of contradicting himself in the next paragraph: “we must abandon the notion of absolute morality” (109), getting closer to the dictionary definition of this term: “the view that ethical and moral standards are relative to what a particular society or culture believes to be good/bad, right/wrong.”
In his example of the debate within the Catholic Church on the status of Indians soon after the discovery of America, Eller writes that neither those who considered them subhuman nor those who considered them fully human but cared only about converting them to Christianity “considered the relativistic option — to learn from and about them, to tolerate their difference, and to leave them alone.” (116) Our author does not take his own doctrine seriously. It was part of the Western culture at that time to be imperialistic. Who is he to condemn that culture on moral grounds? If a culture is intent upon razing and pillaging, then that is just its peculiar feature and our response should be “to learn from and about them.” (Learn what? How better to raze and pillage?)
And what does it mean, “to leave them alone”? Is our author against miscegenation, whether of blood or ideas? Is no culture to influence another? Must there be no intercourse, whether of commerce, travel, science, etc., between cultures? But if this idea is absurd, then why is it wrong for a person to become a missionary and work within foreign cultures to convert folks there to Christianity? It seems like an eminently peaceful occupation. Eller objects: “Few if any American missionaries ever arranged debates with Indian tribal leaders; instead they threatened them with hell, rewarded or punished them with material goods, and coerced them with military power.” (126) Has it occurred to him that Indian tribes were unprepared for formal disputations? How many intellectuals even today are so prepared? In any case, this is an objection to the means by which conversion was effected, not to the end of conversion itself. Eller himself is on a crusade to spread atheism.
Eller cannot in the final analysis completely divorce himself from the natural law. Traditional cultures range “from the happy to the miserable, from the peaceful to the warlike.” (118) Could it be that those cultures are happy because they are in some sense better than those cultures that are miserable? Mises sets up the argument as follows:
Some ethnologists tell us that it is a mistake to speak of higher and lower civilizations and of an alleged backwardness of alien races.
The civilizations of various races are different from the Western civilization of the peoples of Caucasian stock, but they are not inferior. Every race has its peculiar mentality. It is faulty to apply to the civilization of any of them yardsticks abstracted from the achievements of other races.
Westerners call the civilization of China an arrested civilization and that of the inhabitants of New Guinea primitive barbarism. But the Chinese and the natives of New Guinea despise our civilization no less than we despise theirs. Such estimates are judgments of value and hence arbitrary.
Those other races have a different structure of mind. Their civilizations are adequate to their mind as our civilization is adequate to our mind. We are incapable of comprehending that what we call backwardness does not appear such to them.
These ethnologists… are utterly mistaken in contending that these other races have been guided in their activities by motives other than those which have actuated the white race.
The Asiatics and the Africans no less than the peoples of European descent have been eager to struggle successfully for survival and to use reason as the foremost weapon in these endeavors. They have sought to get rid of the beasts of prey and of disease, to prevent famines and to raise the productivity of labor.
There can be no doubt that in the pursuit of these aims they have been less successful than the whites. The proof is that they are eager to profit from all achievements of the West. Those ethnologists would be right, if Mongols or Africans, tormented by a painful disease, were to renounce the aid of a European doctor because their mentality or their world view led them to believe that it is better to suffer than to be relieved of pain. …
The North American Indians lacked the ingenuity to invent the wheel. The inhabitants of the Alps were not keen enough to construct skis which would have rendered their hard life much more agreeable. Such shortcomings were not due to a mentality different from those of the races which had long since used wheels and skis; they were failures, even when judged from the point of view of the Indians and the Alpine mountaineers. (HA, 84-5)
There have been spiritual failures, as well, to come up with a half-decent religion. Eller reports that he spent two years among Australian Aboriginals, “trying to speak their language, eat their food, practice their culture, and enter their universe of meaning and action.” What he failed to grasp, unfortunately, was that his own ideals of unbiased scholarly work were part of his own Western culture and were not shared by his subjects. Even if he was genuinely attempting to try their “cultural glasses” on and “‘see’ or think or understand as those others do,” (111) it was he who was studying them; they did not study him, a fact which demonstrates his own superiority as clearly as day.
Again, Eller obviously feels, and I agree, that the development of anthropology was a significant achievement. But “it is a certain kind of society that embarks on either anthropology or freethought and modern European society is such a society for a variety of reasons.” (120) Eller’s Australian Aboriginals failed themselves to learn or practice anthropology, a fact that makes them, even from Eller’s point of view, inferior.
In particular, the Australian Aboriginal “culture” is dead or at least arrested; it has existed for thousands of years but never changed, never improved, even from the standpoint of the Aboriginals. These people contributed nothing to the development of civilization. They have had zero economic, technological, scientific, artistic, philosophic, etc. progress:
… not one of the 1500 discoveries listed in Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery was made by a Negroid people. None of the 200 most important persons in history in Michael’s Hart’s list is Negroid.
… Baker’s criteria for civilization, which include the wheel, metallurgy, building with stone, cultivation of food plants, roads, domestication of animals, money, laws ensuring personal security, recognition of a right of the accused to defend himself, written language, abstract knowledge of numbers, a calendar, schools, appreciation of art and knowledge as ends in themselves, and the absence of gross superstitions, cannibalism, torture, and self-mutilation.
Laying aside the honorific term “civilization,” it is an objective fact that only “Europid and Mongolid peoples” have displayed these features. (Levin, Why Race Matters, 119-20)
Eller treats culture as something unchangeable, something to be put in a museum and marvel at. But a museum-suitable culture is dead. Perhaps Eller enjoys dissecting corpses. But his assumption of cultures as permanent or isolated from each other is untenable, and he realizes it, because he himself seeks the destruction of all religious cultures.
Just as with the individuals, there are cultures that are winners and cultures that are losers. There is no relativism with respect to civilizational success. Concludes Mises:
The scholars of the West have amassed an enormous amount of material concerning the high civilizations of China and India and the primitive civilizations of the Asiatic, American, Australian, and African aborigines.
It is safe to say that all that is worth knowing about the ideas of these races is known. (86)
The sad fact is that there is nothing to be learned from the Australian Aboriginals. Eller’s studies were probably entirely useless.
It does not follow from the nature of anthropology that one needs to abandon his own culture. Is studying metal a good reason to despise wood? Is the fact that other nations have different legal systems a reason to abandon our own? On the contrary, it seems that studying “comparative law” can lead to improvements in our own jurisprudence.
Finally, moral relativism is of course a philosophical doctrine, to be defended with philosophical arguments. Eller needs to prove that ethics is a pseudo-philosophy. It’s not an inevitable consequence of mastery of anthropology; nor is atheism a consequence of “freethought”; perhaps by thinking freely one can prove the existence of God. Eller is guilty of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy: when I say that I have thought freely and adopted theism, Eller replies, “No true freethinker would ever be anything but an atheist.”