To understand this article The Case for Contamination, it helps to know that Kwame Anthony Appiah is an advocate of Cosmopolitanism, a global ethics which aims to establish universality and shared values as a determinant or common denominator.(Appiah book, 2006). Cosmopolitanism is still a brewing concept, although the idea has been traced to the cynic Diogenes of Ancient Greece (410 B.C.) who claimed world citizenship and to the 2nd century stoic Hierocles who drew the Concentric Circle Model of the “self” opening out for concern to family, local group, citizens, countrymen and humanity. Whether it is simply an idea, an ethical way-of-life or a movement, Cosmopolitanism is still to gain wider acceptance by present-day thinkers, moralists, and ideologists. In his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers,” Appiah clarifies that Cosmopolitanism is basically an ethical principle. Still, he forewarns, not every ethical principle, inclusive of religion, which claims universality, is Cosmopolitanism. To understand this mind-set, Appiah’s aforesaid article deserves examination.
Unlike his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Stranger, the article under consideration focuses less on Cosmopolitanism and more on the phenomenon of cultural change. Through personally drawn examples, expressed in a descriptive narrative way, Appiah shows that cultural assimilation takes various forms. And in his own home place in Asante, Ghana, Appiah finds exotic traditional customs being observed by fellow-Ghanaians, even as they show signs of modern 21st century living, wearing Western suits and using technology gadgets like cellphones. And while rooted in their traditions, Appiah comments, Ghanaians have established connections with the West, and such is the case with his Ghana president who is a Catholic and an Oxford graduate, while Ghandian youths are students and working immigrants in London, the United States, Japan and other developed countries in the globe. Appiah notes that there are cultural purists, who advocate the preservation of pristine cultural values and traditions. However, this attitude does not conform to the ethics of globalization or Cosmopolitanism. For him the appropriate object of moral concern in Cosmopolitanism is the individual, not whole nations, tribes or peoples. Each and everyone is a citizen of the world, but the world is not closer to Cosmopolitanism, he adds, when homogeneity means only superficiality or artificiality in cultural changes. He describes how common it is for people to change in ways they like “inventing new forms of differences: new hairstyles, new slang, even new religions” (Appiah article, 2006). Also, some changes may be liked, while others disliked. For example, the influence of global economy may be a problem to those who have to adjust crops and livelihood, although acceptable even exciting for the well-placed who find opportunities in global change. In the case of religion, Christianization may have succeeded by way of mass conversions, but some elements of folk religious practices continue to prevail showing the fact that Christianity has been accepted in external form, but not in essence.
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In this article, Appiah treats religion in two distinct ways: First as a cultural artifice, subject to change as any other, and secondly as a dangerous new form of anti-cosmopolitanism. In the first form, religion plays the role of a cultural artifact, which undergoes change, and evokes different responses, good or bad. In this way, religious cultural change is like other cultural changes that are brought about by increased globalization of ideas. It plays a common role as other aspects of culture, such as dress, language or custom. It simply affects change, and some people like that, some do not.
Appiah thinks that diversity in culture, including religious traditions, is an acceptable situation. However, the process of cultural change which creates only one cultural mode is unacceptable. This is so, since artificial cultural diversity and homogeneity may actually be an entrapment which prevents man’s evolving into a higher nature. Rather than artificiality and homogeneity, diversity may be more conducive to man’s nature to attain the maturation of his mental, moral and aesthetic potentials, as well as to man’s getting a fair share in happiness in life.
For Appiah, religion can play a second and more dangerous role. He cites the neo-fundamentalist idea of a global utopia, which can be a problem to humankind. In his book, Appriah explains that a religious utopia displays a façade of faith in human dignity and shared ideals with people in many countries (2006). However, behind this façade is intolerance which can embolden utopian ideologues to make war against any nation that goes in the way of their sense of universal justice. For Appiah, whenever religion is upheld with a fundamentalist attitude to culture, the imperialist disposition is unleashed. He drew similarities from sinister ideologues like Marx, Mao and Pol Pot who used the name of universal humanity, but who also sought to stamp out religion.
Appiah’s portrayal of the roles religions play in cultural change contributes to his aim to advance Cosmopolitanism along substantial cultural change that advances global citizenry in the world. He appears too defensive however, of Christian fundamentalism and centuries of hybridization which, for example, transformed through the centuries the historical Nazarene from a beloved teacher to a Pauline liberator of the gentiles, a God-Word among Gnostics, a God-Son in Roman Christianity, the Pantacrator or Omnipotent in Greek Christian Orthodoxy and many other forms comprising what scholars consider as the mythical Jesus. Artifice in religious cultural change may be blamed but the imperialistic connivance by state and religion is more likely to the cause of prolonged religious separation, bias and violence in human history. Thus, the barriers to genuine Cosmopolitanism and universalism appear more formidable than it seems. Even today, while radical fundamentalism is worrisome, institutional differences among religions are the main barriers to Cosmopolitanism. Ethical advocates like Appiah may call for tolerance and respect for the freedom of individuals to make their own choices, but the world will remain divided among hundreds of institutional churches and thousands of religious denominations, sects and cults in the world.
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The historical Jesus was faced by the dilemma of separation among orthodox Jews and the unorthodox Samaritans, and was asked outright whether Jews should worship in Jerusalem or Samaria. To the surprise of his listeners, Jesus said it is in neither of the two places will Jews and non-Jews worship God. Rather than worship localized in places, Jesus predicted that in a future time worship will be done only “in spirit and truth.” He may have spoken his mind on Cosmopolitanism.
Cosmopolitan advocates speak in various ways, but they all agree on the need for non-curtailment of cultural freedom. Within this cultural freedom based on political, economic, religious, circumstances, autonomy should be respected in order to provide the foundation for otherness. Otherness is comprised by cultural differences in aims, structures, and other differences. I argue, however, that while religion is situated within cultures, it is also innate in nature, which has been awakening through the centuries in defining truth, knowledge, acceptance and other facets of human harmony with life.
Religious cosmopolitanism? It is an idea that already finds concrete application in the United Nations and international agencies, foundations, and organizations. The man of the world actually came during the ancient times of Greek Stoicism, but his message was far beyond his time and above the grasp of the people of his days. Through the centuries state-church imperialism held its reign and the “his rule, his religion,” principle established empires, kingdoms and fiefdoms. The social and political landscape continued to change until the advent of Humanism in the fifteenth century, paving the way for the Reformation and the Period of Enlightenment which broke Christendom and ushered in modern society. After the industrial and technological revolutions, we may have an emerging phase of civilization favorable to cosmopolitan identity. However, as Cosmopolitanism makes a demand for estrangement of one’s culture and history, the political system of nation-states may take more time to change. The fundamentalist adherence to religious culture that foments global terror is also especially problematic today. This situation makes it more difficult to say if ethical universality is near. In the end, the answer may be found in the words of the mystic George Macdonald: “Our consciousness will not be rebuilt in a night. It takes a long time to finish the new creation of this redemption.”