”In the journal of his third voyage Captain Cook records the first discovery by English speakers of the Polynesian word taboo (in a variety of forms). The English seamen had been astonished at what they took to be the lax sexual habits of the Polynesians and were even more astonished to discover the sharp contrast with the rigorous prohibition placed on such conduct as that of men and women eating together. When they enquired why men and women were prohibited from eating together, they were told that the practice was taboo. But when they enquired further what taboo meant, they could get little further information. Clearly taboo did not simply mean prohibited; for to say that something – person or practice or theory – is taboo is to give some particular sort of reason for its prohibition. But what sort of reason? It has not only been Cook’s seamen who have had trouble with that question; from Frazer and Tylor to Franz Steiner and Mary Douglas the anthropologists have had to struggle with it. From that struggle two keys to the problem emerge. The first is the significance of the fact that Cook’s seamen were unable to get any intelligible reply to their queries from their native informants. What this suggests is – and any hypothesis is to some degree speculative – that the native informants themselves did not really understand the word they were using, and this suggestion is reinforced by the ease with which Kamehameha II abolished the taboos in Hawaii forty years later in 1819 and the lack of social consequence when he did.
But could the Polynesians come to be using a word which they themselves did not really understand? It is here that Steiner and Douglas are illuminating. For what they both suggest is that taboo rules often and perhaps characteristically have a history which falls into two stages. In the first stage they are embedded in a context which confers intelligibility upon them. So Mary Douglas has argued that the taboo rules of Deuteronomy presuppose a cosmology and a taxonomy of a certain kind. Deprive the taboo rules of their original context and they at once are apt to appear as a set of arbitrary prohibitions, as indeed they characteristically do appear when the initial context is lost, when those background beliefs in the light of which the taboo rules had originally been understood have not only been abandoned but forgotten.”
After Virtue, p. 111-12, A MacIntyre
Part of the argument here is that one of the reasons why religious morality is seen as arbitrary, incomprehensible and downright puzzling by those who do not share the religious point of view, or beliefs in God or the supernatural, is simply because they don’t share the religious context; that is to say the cosmology and other beliefs that are embedded within a religious context. This would go some way in explaining some of the difficulties in explaining/defending religious rules, rituals and morals with the absence of ‘shared vocabulary’ when speaking to others who don’t share those beliefs.
The inability of religious people articulate ourselves convincingly to others, is partly a consequence of sometimes forgetting that such shared vocabulary is absent, but also the incredulity that our explanations seem to have within contemporary Western culture – sometimes even to ourselves. This alludes then to the reality that we reside in a society that has a ‘context’ that takes for granted that not only is a religious context ‘forgotten’; but in many cases more strongly, even ‘unbelievable’, or more weakly ‘unpersuasive’ in the everyday ‘common sense’ that pervades the discourses of media, academia, etc.
It ought to be quickly noted, that one should not confuse whether a belief is valid/rational or otherwise, with the seeming ‘puzzling’ or ‘arbitrary’ quality that these rules/prescriptions/morals seem to possess. This ‘puzzling’ and ‘arbitrary’ quality is taken for granted, and therefore one assumes a perception that is commonly shared. Given this ‘quality’, it’s notable how common place it has become to ‘unmask’ these beliefs as nothing but ‘manipulations’ or ‘indoctrination’, or ‘bad faith’ from a patriarchy, clericalism, or as an ‘opium for the poor’ and so on, on what must by necessarily be passive ‘religious savages’, ‘illiterates’, ‘lower classes’. This being the only satisfactory way to explain the fact that a large portion of mankind still persist in believing in what are considered incredulous religious beliefs. (MacIntyre also gives other subtle and more fundamental reasons why beliefs are continually ‘unmasked’).
On the question of the validity of beliefs and why they seem for many people now ‘unbelievable’, well that’s a different story altogether. Part of the answer, MacIntyre goes through earlier in the book. Another useful book in that regard is The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science – E A Burtt – for a quick summary see, and here’s where you can download it.