Thursday, April 21, 2005


The newly appointed Pope Ratzinger rails against 'the dictatorship of relativism", and conservative Catholics, like columnist David Warren, agree. It is the opinion of many conservative Christians that ethical values originate with and are supported only by religion, and that without religion anything goes. As Dostoyevsky put it, without God, everything is permissible.

This is nonsense, and very old nonsense at that, first refuted by Plato. Plato's argument separated morality from religion, and it still stands firm. It goes as follows: if something is good simply because God commands it, then the most horrific injustices might be commanded and therefore considered good. The definition of good and evil would then be completely arbitrary... in other words, relative. In fact, this is precisely what you do find in the Old Testament, though Plato had never read it. But if God commands something because it is good, then it is already good whether God commands it or not. So either divine authority is irrelevant to ethics, or basing morality upon such authority constitutes a claim that all ethics are relative, and can only be supported by pure force of will (in this case, Divine will.) This claim, incidently, is the guiding motive behind fascism, and the reason that a fascist will beat you up rather than engage in a discussion with you; fascists are essentially nihilists who do not believe in truth, and therefore have no faith in rational argument. The Nazi's so-called 'Triumph of the Will' was intended precisely as the imposition of a purely invented moral order onto what they believed was a moral vacuum. In the absence of the Divine Will, a State will is imposed, but in either case, there is no truth.

By insisting that divine authority is needed to support ethics, Ratzinger is in effect claiming that there is no support for moral behaviour apart from the irrational. It is this very argument which has opened the door to relativism. Ratzinger is playing a kind of philosophical brinksmanship; he is claiming that all hell will break lose unless we agree with him (fallacy of consequence.) Unfortunately, he is not the first to do this, and too many people who have abandoned religion have taken this claim at face value. The real relativists here are the likes of Ratzinger and Warren.

Consider what relativism is: in logical terms, relativism may be summarized as A & ~A, where A is any well-formed statement. One of the standard conventions of logic is that the acceptance of such a contradiction can be used to prove anything; by tolerating the contradiction, you abandon sound argument itself, and anything can be true. Contradictions are not tolerated in logic, mathematics, or in science. If something known to be true contradicts your theory, your theory is destroyed.

Religion, however, seems to revel in contradiction. Kierkegaard believed that faith required the "crucifixion of reason." The scriptures of virtually all faiths are riddled with contradictions. This is not merely due to difficult esoteric ideas--indeed, the difficult spiritual ideas are usually the first casualties to this method of teaching. These are real inconsistencies which result because the scriptures are patchworks gathered from sources with opposing views and different goals, assembled by people who may have held still other views and goals. The leaders of the faith usually consider this a good thing; you cannot charge for your expertise if everyone can figure it out for themselves (this was why the Catholic Church suppressed vernacular translations of the Bible.) And indeed, the only way you can figure out something like the Bible is to realize at the outset that some parts of it are just plain bad--bad poetry, bad history, bad ethics, and even bad religion.

Pass the Bible off as the infallible Word of God, and you can use it to prove anything. The Bible has been used to justify wars, torture, slavery, murder, genocide, and virtually any other crime you can think of. It has inspired as many serial killers as saints. Its contradictory content can make it like an empty book, waiting to be filled, but cloaked with authority that its interpreters claim for themselves.

Certainly, reason isn't the only faculty required to form a clear ethical picture of the world, but it is an essential component. Observation, empathy, introspection and self-knowledge, study, and consultation all play a part. Blind obedience is not a path to moral understanding, but a way of avoiding it. The advance and refinement of our cultural mores--indeed, of civilization itself-- does not occur within the bosom of orthodoxy, but at the fringes. Even the messiahs and saints live at these fringes, which is why they so often die horrible deaths at the hands of the authorities. Orthodoxy always brings up the rear, supporting the kings against the people, the owners against the slaves, the workhouse directors against the children. Religion is not the source of our values. At best, it expresses them, but more often, it simply co-opts them well after the fact, plagiarizing the work of others.

The most troubling aspect of this is that these religions are at heart very old and primitive. The fate of Islam could become ours. The Bible does not condemn slavery; though many have reinterpreted passages as such, there are no direct condemnations of the practice. Although Jesus himself died on the cross, there are no protestations against the diabolical cruelty of the punishment itself. Nor are there any hints in the Bible of support for democracy. We should not be surprised by this. The Bible was prepared primarily by Romans under the watchful eye of Constantine the Great; they still owned slaves, sentenced people to the cross, and Constantine certainly wanted no hint of democracy in the new religion. The Divine Right of Kings is probably the direct result of his influence. Christianity is not only primitive by our standards, it was even primitive by Roman standards.

A return to some imagined glorious past would, at best, force us to repeat a number of difficult lessons. At worst, it would squander the advances of hundreds of years of civilization, at a time when population density and sheer human technological power may well destroy us if we move anywhere but forward. The religions of the middle east may well be the cradle of our civilization, but our civilization is not a child any longer. We cannot go back there. And very few secular humanists are actually relativists; Ratzinger is arguing with a straw man of his own fevered imagination. We hold our values quite firmly. So firmly that we believe they can stand on their own, without God to bully people into believing them.