As the social civil wars in America continue over such issues as abortion, gay marriage, redistribution of wealth, racism, immigration, and universal healthcare, one wonders how both sides in these hotly contested debates can be so convinced that they have objective truth on their side.
In fact, it raises the question of whether there really is such a thing as objective, or absolute, truth. To be absolute, a truth would have to be based on indisputable fact. Millions of people believe that such truths exist, but millions of others believe it is axiomatic that everything in life — indeed, everything in the universe — is relative. Some even argue that the very claim that something is a fact is subjective.
Of course, if God exists, then He lays down the rules, and one would have a pretty strong argument that His rules are the objective truth. On the other hand, if there is no God, one could make a strong argument for the philosophy of relativism. But would the absence of a Creator really justify defaulting to relativism?
The idea that everything is relative — e.g., right and wrong, moral and immoral, good and evil — implies that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. The relativist insists that nothing is certain because right and wrong is determined by the circumstances of the moment, and no two sets of circumstances are exactly the same. In other words, everything is subjectively interpreted through the eyes of the beholder.
It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who popularized relativism in the eighteenth century, and his views were given an explosive rebirth by the anything-goes generation of the 1960s. Timothy Leary’s mantra, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” said it all. Translation: Life is B.S., nothing matters in the long run, so do whatever makes you feel good right now.
Where God comes into play is that if a person does not believe He exists, he can feel free to make choices based on his desires at any given moment and the circumstances that exist in that moment. And since no one can definitely prove the existence of God, relativists appear to have a sound case.
After all, who has the omniscience to know for certain whether something is “right” or “wrong?” Even the belief in relativism — the claim that we cannot know anything with absolute certainty — is subjective.
But, not so fast. Here’s what’s interesting about the matchup between objective truth and relativism: The vast majority of civilized people (emphasize, civilized) — whether they be religionists, nonreligious believers in a Creator, or atheists — believe in the basic Judeo-Christian tenets. (I define an uncivilized person as someone who believes it is justifiable to use force to impose his concept of right and wrong — often masked behind such euphemistic terms as “social justice” and “the greater good” — on others.)
Do you know any civilized person who doesn’t believe that honoring one’s father and mother is the right thing to do? Or that it’s wrong to lie? Or steal? Or engage in adultery? Or commit murder?
While these rules are included in the Ten Commandments that billions of people believe came directly from God, I’ve never known an atheist who didn’t believe in them as well. Meaning that, at the end of the day, all civilized people are pretty much on the same page morally.
Which is why I believe that Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, had it right when he said that if there is a God, he doubted that He would punish those who were ignorant of His existence. What would be the point of punishing ignorance, especially if the “ignorant” person lived his life in accordance with the Ten Commandments?
Taking it to its extreme, what if a person of great character and integrity had never even heard of the Ten Commandments — say, a Cro-Magnon man from thirty thousand years ago? Would he not be morally superior to a 21st century person who goes to church, knows the Ten Commandments by heart, and talks about them incessantly, but is a thief, a liar, and an adulterer?
I agree with C. S. Lewis’s observation that in most cases where people disagree, even heatedly, they almost never disagree on the concept of right and wrong. Arguments usually are a result of two people disagreeing — albeit often unconsciously — about which one is guilty of committing a wrong.
Person #1: “You lied!”
Person #2: “No, you lied!”
The hypothetical argument above is not about whether lying is right or wrong, but which party is guilty of lying. One could be an atheist and the other a staunch believer in a Higher Power, yet they are in agreement that lying is wrong.
Thus, I would argue that debating objective truth versus relativism is an unnecessary exercise. All civilized people know right from wrong without having to refer to scripture, the Constitution, or any other written words. I thought about this when I read the following e-mail I recently received from a reader:
“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. How do I win and have congruence in my thoughts and actions?”
The challenge this reader is trying to cope with is the same one that each of us faces on a daily basis. In the vast majority of situations, most of us (probably even a majority of those who believe they are relativists) know objective right from objective wrong. The challenge lies in having the self-discipline and moral strength to do what we know, in our heart of hearts, is right.
Easy to talk about, but not always so easy to do — even for the most virtuous among us.