A scourge is a widespread severe affliction. Religions are a scourge, as is relativism in general. I identify three kinds of relativism: moral relativism, postmodern relativism, and cultural relativism. There is a common thread: the failure to accept, or to use, objective criteria.
Moral relativism is the idea that there are no objective moral standards and that what is morally right is simply what someone sincerely believes to be right. Postmodern relativism, so popular in academia, is the idea that all reality is socially constructed, including scientific reality, and that therefore all issues must be evaluated in the light of a preferred and justified social perspective. Cultural relativism holds that all cultures have their own inherent value, and that these should not be assessed or criticised with respect to any outside criteria. The common theme is that objective criteria either donít exist, are invalid, or should not be used.
Relativism, however, is false. It is not only false but self-contradictory. Relativists claim or imply that their relativist views are true. But if relativism were true, how could this be established? Only by reference to objective criteria that relativism itself rejects.
Relativism is not only wrong but reprehensible. Moral relativism leads to serious moral failure. Postmodern relativism is intellectually dishonest and has created a whole academic fashion of ideology based advocacy. Cultural relativism leads to a perverse form of multiculturalism that can perpetuate human rights abuses, poverty and depravation.
Relativism is also psychologically damaging. It has led to the widespread acceptance of ideas that hold that truth is arbitrary, that scientific facts can be ignored in favour of religion or ideological preferences. The culture of denial is now acceptable. Disconnection from reality is welcomed.
Religions are pathological delusions, which became apparent to me after September 11. But disconnection from reality and the rejection of science is not confined to religion.
Despite global warming getting worse, and the evidence of it becoming more apparent, we now see less action being taken because of denial of the science. The mass psychosis of relativism, the idea that facts can be rejected and the truth chosen according to ideological persuasion is thus putting the future of civilisation at risk on multiple fronts.
The Islamic terrorists who perpetrated the September 11 atrocity were not psychopaths. They were relatively normal human beings who were imbued with a particular type of moral conditioning. They believed that what they did was right and justified, and they expected to be rewarded for it in their imaginary afterlife.
Moral relativism would hold that September 11 was justified. It would be hard to find a better example of how flawed all kinds of religious morality are. Yet a non-religious ethical basis is easy to state: morality is best determined on the basis of universal principles such as compassion, honesty, freedom and justice.
Postmodern relativism purports the view that there is no objective reality and that all reality is socially constructed. The scientific viewpoint, on which conclusions are drawn on the basis of reason and empirical evidence, is merely one view, so they say, which arises from a particular form of cultural socialisation.
I quote Philip Kitcher: "The road to relativism is paved with the best of intentions and the worst of arguments. So practitioners come to hold in their hearts the Four Dogmas: (1) There is no truth save social acceptance; (2) no system of belief is constrained by reason or reality, and no system of belief is privileged; (3) there shall be no asymmetries in the explanation of truth or falsehood, society or nature, and (4) honour must be given to the actors categories."
Given the truth denial and cult aspects of postmodernism, it is no surprise that religious believers have jumped on board and exploited it for all it is worth. It is apparently inconceivable, from this perspective, that the mindset of the religionist could have been influenced by any form of construction, socialisation or indoctrination.
There is a school of thought accepted also by some freethinkers, that in order to find common ground with the religious, the truth about religions should be buried. This is an insidious form of relativism that I actually find quite reprehensible. I regard it as a betrayal.
Where cultural relativism most raises its ugly head is in relation to Islam. Some criticism of Islam is based on bigotry, but we continually see liberals, atheists and humanists leaping to the defence of Islam that they would not do for other religions. The same groups often condone and even defend the misogyny of Islam, presumably because "itís their culture". This is an ill-conceived and shameful failure to use objective criteria.
The people who suffer most from Islam are the Muslims themselves. We cannot be indifferent to this suffering. Cultural relativism holds that all cultures deserve respect, irrespective of any objective criteria. To accept this philosophy is to disregard, to condone, and hence to thereby contribute to, the suffering that religions cause.
In my critique of relativism, I am not saying, of course, that the quest for truth, and the application of scientific method cannot be flawed, or that subjective judgement and social factors play no part in it. What I am saying is that at all times in our social interactions we should have objective criteria in mind that play a part in our deliberations. What I am saying is that, however elegant the intellectual contortions that may try to show otherwise, the truth matters and reality is real. We all know it is nonsense to assume it is not, otherwise we would not survive.
We now have sufficient knowledge to finally reject the mythical truth claims of religions (irrespective of whether gods exist). Relativism and the abandonment of truth affects us all. The progress of human civilisation has been built on the quest for truth and the use of knowledge to advance and improve the human condition. We abandon it now at our peril.
Atheist Society, Melbourne