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What does it mean to respect another culture, or the people and ideas within that culture? In the prevailing climate of contemporary academic religious studies, it seems taken as a given that one should refrain from criticizing other cultures and their beliefs and ideas. Older Buddhologists like Edward Conze are viewed as an embarrassment, with their strong opinions, positive and negative, about Buddhism and India. We are told not to judge other cultures the way Conze did. Sometimes the refusal of judgement derives from a positivistic desire to ape natural science, with an “objectivity” that denies reference to value; but more often, making judgements about other cultures seems imperialist and disrespectful, a form of Orientalism or even racism.

This refusal to make judgements seems to me to underlie the currently fashionable “performance theory” in studies of ritual, and religious studies more generally. The approach here (usually drawing on the speech-act theory of J.L. Austin) is to remove attention from ideas and truth claims and direct it instead toward social functions: don’t look at what people’s claims say, look at what the claims do in their social context. (As a former sociologist it’s curious to me that the hot and trendy methodology in religious studies – look at functions rather than ideas – looks very similar to the sociological functionalism of Talcott Parsons, an approach that sociologists now discuss only to explain how discredited it is.) One former colleague of mine, describing his studies of Vedic texts, explained his approach as follows: “What do these texts mean when they say ‘gold causes jaundice’? They can’t really believe that gold causes jaundice! There must be something else going on here, something that it does to say such a thing.” As far as I understand it, much of this performance theory is motivated by a desire to respect other cultures. Surely people can’t be so stupid as to mean these bizarrely unscientific things they say; they must be saying it for another reason.

It seems to me, though, that this view gets it exactly backwards. We truly show a disrespect for another culture when we refuse to take their claims seriously, as claims to truth. If we don’t air our disagreements, we effectively treat the members of other cultures like children. If a child tells us “I just saw a purple dragon,” we might reply “Oh! Was it a friendly dragon? Or a scary dragon?” If an adult tells us “I just saw a purple dragon,” we reply with some variant of “Are you on crack?” We do this because we respect the adult, in a way that we do not respect the child. Because we believe that the adult has mature intellectual ability, we are ready to tell the the adult that she is wrong. We don’t tell the child she’s wrong, because she’s a child; we don’t expect her to be right.

Similarly, I think, we give other cultures the greatest respect when we treat their views seriously, believe that their members could actually mean the things they say, take those views as candidates for truth – and for falsehood. The community organizer Saul Alinsky put the point very well a while ago, quoting and describing a conversation with some First Nations Canadians he wished to work with (warning, profanity):

Indians: Well, you see, … that would mean that we would be corrupted by the white man’s culture and lose our own values.
Me: What are those values that you would lose?
Indians: Well, there are all kinds of values.
Me: Like what?
Indians: Well, there’s creative fishing.
Me: What do you mean, creative fishing? …
Indians: Well, to begin with, when we go out fishing, we get away from everything. We get way out in the woods.
Me: Well, we whites don’t exactly go fishing in Times Square, you know.
Indians: Yes, but it’s different with us. When we go out, we’re out on the water and you can hear the lap of the waves on the bottom of the canoe, and the birds in the trees and the leaves rustling, and—you know what I mean?
Me: No, I don’t know what you mean. Furthermore, I think that that’s just a pile of shit. Do you believe it yourself?
This brought shocked silence. It should be noted that I was not being profane purely for the sake of being profane, I was doing this purposefully. If I had responded in a tactful way, saying, “Well, I don’t quite understand what you mean,” we would have been off for a ride around the rhetorical ranch for the next thirty days. …
[The conversation was filmed, and when they showed it to some white Canadians in the company of the Indians, the whites looked awfully sheepish.] After it was over, one of the Indians stood up and said, “When Mr. Alinsky told us we were full of shit, that was the first time a white man has really talked to us as equals—you would never say that to us. You would always say, ‘Well, I can see your point of view but I’m a little confused,’ and stuff like that. In other words, you treat us like children.” (109–112)

Likewise, it’s perfectly respectful to say that, based on their experience of the world, the composers of the Vedas found it the best available hypothesis to think that gold causes jaundice. I’m quite ready to believe that without access to the wide array of experimental evidence that we have now, people far smarter than me might have sincerely thought that the most convincing explanation for the particular natural phenomenon of jaundice. It is no disrespect to them to say that they did the best they could and a few centuries of experimentation has allowed us to do better. Moreover, as Robin Horton acutely notes, when it comes to psychology and sociology (let alone ethics), our knowledge in the West is still quite rudimentary; there may yet turn out to be many cases when the weird ideas we find in other cultures might actually be right, and ours wrong. But if we only look for functions and not for the content of ideas, we’re not going to find them. The study of Asian traditions would do well with more Conzes, ready to evaluate the truth and falsity of the ideas they study.