Secularism and the Scourge of Relativism

Atheist Society Lecture 10 September 2013 by John Perkins

A scourge is defined in my dictionary as a widespread severe affliction. In one of our Atheist Choir songs, religion is described as a scourge. Religious people can be charitable and well meaning, however given the unnecessary harm that religions do in the world, and the violence they cause, it is no exaggeration to say that they are indeed a scourge.

This lecture is intended to be provocative. This is necessary because, as I see it, we are so beset by a dangerous complacency, and a failure of intellectual diligence with respect to religion and relativism.

Religions derive from, and are a form of, relativism, as I will explain. Hence I will argue that the real opponent of secularism is not religion in particular, but relativism in general. I will seek to identify the different forms of relativism that are, I think, rampant, and who are guilty of perpetrating and perpetuating this widespread scourge.

Those guilty of this scourge can be from the left or the right. They can be religious, fundamentalist or moderate. They can socialists or capitalists. They can also be atheists and humanists, and dare I say, secularists. Thus, by the end of this talk I may perhaps have few friends left. I might say though, that I don't think that feminists are generally part of the scourge, so I hope I will still be able to find some friendly company.

First, what is relativism? I can identify at least three kinds of it: moral relativism, post-modern relativism, and cultural relativism. These categories are overlapping but there is a common thread. This is how I define relativism: the failure to accept, or to use, objective criteria.

In terms of my three sample categories, 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. Post-modern 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 don't 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. Post-modern 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.

I have said before that religions are the worst idea every invented, and that they are pathological delusions. I now realise it is even worse than that. Since September 11, it has been apparent that the actions of religious maniacs could imperil our future. 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.

Before I elaborate on my three examples of relativism I would like to comment on another important area in which the truth is systematically manipulated for ideological purposes. I refer to my own profession, that of economics. It is commonplace that views about the economy and economics are used to push a political agenda, usually a right wing one. I would not call this relativism. It is not so much the case that objective economic facts are ignored or denied, but that they are selectively chosen and alternatives ignored. Complex interactions are presented and emphasised from one side only in order to advocate a view. However objective criteria are usually at least considered relevant.

Moral relativism

A comment was made after September 11 that surely relativism is now dead. The Islamic terrorists who perpetrated the 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. Now twelve years later, it is clear that moral relativism did not die. If anything the idea that mere beliefs justify morals has intensified.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, on false pretences, was not legally justified. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a devout Christian, when asked how he justified it, says "I did what it thought was right". No doubt he did believe it was right. But merely believing something to be right does not make it so. You need objective criteria.

I would like to refer to some previous Atheist Society lectures. In 2010 Russell Blackford gave a lecture here entitled "Living in a world without objective values". I donít think he was saying that certain criteria are irrelevant to moral decisions. I think he was saying that there are no hard and fast rules that can prescribe morality, as theistic perceptions of morality maintain. However I part company with Russell on the issue of objective criteria, to the extent that he denies their relevance.

Theists often wrongly claim atheists have no basis for morality. In a simplified version of my own refutation of this, I often use the line: "morality is best determined on the basis of universal principles such as compassion, honesty, freedom and justice". That is, there may be hard choices, with no easy solutions, but there are objective criteria that can and should be used in moral decision making.

Postmodern relativism

Post modern 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.

Alex McCullie gave a lecture here in 2011 entitled "Science and the Objectivity Myth". In it, he referred to the iconic 1967 book "The Social Construction of Reality" by Berger and Luckman. This, or perhaps its near antecedents gave rise to constructionism, and what I regard as being the on-going academic cult of postmodernism.

Alex compared constructionism with the scientific view as follows:

Constructionists, by contrast, see truths and knowledge coming from our social interactions and social histories, and not from any claims about an external reality. Simply put, truth and knowledge are moved from referring to a world out there, independent of human experience, to beliefs that come from social agreements . So knowledge for constructionists then becomes a social knowledge. By the way, this social knowledge is often not a conscious agreement but something that is taken for granted or asserted as self-evident. Alex, as can be seen from his lectureís title, and from my observation of his lecture, was somewhat convinced by the constructionist view, or at least could not entirely reject it. His transcript does not contain a clear conclusion. I think I must part company with Alex on this.

He did refer to physicist Alan Sokalís hoax article published in Social Text. Let me quote the following from the article Constructive Discourses: Subcapitalist nationalism and cultural narrative, by díErlette and Buxton.

"Society is part of the absurdity of culture," says Debord. In a sense, Lacan promotes the use of neodialectic discourse to modify reality. La Tournier[5] states that we have to choose between subcapitalist nationalism and precapitalist desituationism.

If one examines textual postsemiotic theory, one is faced with a choice: either accept subcapitalist nationalism or conclude that culture is intrinsically elitist. But the main theme of the works of Eco is a mythopoetical whole. The subject is contextualised into a subdeconstructive paradigm of reality that includes sexuality as a paradox.

In the works of Eco, a predominant concept is the concept of textual truth. Therefore, if predeconstructivist nationalism holds, we have to choose between cultural narrative and cultural narrative. The feminine/masculine distinction which is a central theme of Ecoís The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas is also evident in The Island of the Day Before.

Isnít postmoderist prose wonderful? The above is an excerpt from just one of more than nine million completely meaningless essays randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator.

A serious critique of the sham of postmodernism can be found in the book Why Truth Matters, by Benson and Stangroom. In it they provide a quote from 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) not 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. By the "actors categories" they mean the cause that they deem a priori to be justified, and which they advocate with a presumed moral purpose that transcends facts and evidence. Why I say it is a cult is because these dogmas are passed on from teacher to student in the social sciences and perpetuated in a compliant academic environment. Transgressors are ostracised, with serious professional consequences, many instances of which are detailed in Why Truth Matters.

Given the truth denial and cult aspects of post modernism, it is no surprise that religious believers have jumped on board and exploited it for all it is worth. Sociology departments that once were atheistic are now dominated by Christian believers, especially in the US (refer to Finke and Stark).

My background is in science and economics so in my professional and academic life I have never had to deal directly with postmodernism. However I have certainly encountered it in my debates about Islam at LaTrobe and the University of Western Sydney. Constructionism is alive and well in Islamic Studies Departments, together with a steadfast denialism.

From this perspective, to be a critic of Islam is to be firstly inherently ignorant, and secondly to be so adversely socially constructed that one is inevitably held to be a racist, imperialist, post-colonialist capitalist or whatever undesirable attribute that may seem appropriate. But postmodernism is only a surrogate servant of Allah. We inevitably hear the refrain "Iím not a postmodernist, Iím a Muslim". Of course it is inconceivable, from this perspective, that the mindset of the Islamist could have been influenced by any form of construction, socialisation or indoctrination.

Cultural relativism

Before commenting on cultural relativism in general, I would like to comment on a lecture that Rosslyn Ives gave here in 2012 titled "Is Atheism Culturally Weak?" Her lecture seemed to be a defence of Humanism against atheism, which I thought odd, because the two are not opposed. She said was not a religious apologist but described religion as a "brain enhancer". I regret that I really have to part company here with some of my friends and respected associates.

How can belief in falsity enhance the brain? There is a school of thought within Humanism 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 of Humanism.

In her talk Rosslyn referred favourably to Alain de Bottonís book Religion for Atheists. I did not buy or read that book because a review said that the first thing he says in the book is "The most boring question you can ask is Ďare religions true?í". No Alain, the truth matters. To say otherwise is to endorse relativism. What makes relativism such a scourge is that, as we see here, our so called allies are often the ones promoting it.

Where cultural relativism most raises its ugly head is in relation to Islam. Some criticism of Islam is based on bigotry. That does not make all criticism of Islam illegitimate. Yet 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.

In the Aug/Sept 2013 issue of Free Inquiry, there is an article by Madeline Weld entitled "Islam: A Totalitarian Package of Religion and Politics". Weld is a person who has spent a lot of time in Muslim countries. She laments the inability of some humanists to accept that some religions are more harmful than others. At the start says:

Declare emphatically that among currently existing religions, Islam presents a clear and present danger in a way that other religions do not, and you just might set off a Ďreligiousí war in the humanist community. I have experienced the same reaction myself frequently, almost inevitably. She continues: The point of view that sees Islam as just another religion, albeit one burdened by a fringe of over zealous individuals who do crazy things, does not recognise an important difference between Islam and other religions: Islam is not just a religion but a totalitarian political system and a religion. Moreover this status is mandated by its own sacred texts. If you do not understand this you have not been paying attention to what is going in the world today. You may need to try to stop cultural relativism from impairing your perceptions.

Another person who has condemned cultural relativism was Dutch MP Geert Wilders on his tour of Australia earlier this year. I do not agree with everything Wilders says, but he did say that Islam was a totalitarian ideology and that the Prophet Muhammad was a warlord. These statements were considered in the press as being totally outrageous and he was widely condemned as a bigot. But what he said was perfectly true. The truth of the matter was not even considered to be relevant.

How prevalent is the scourge of relativism? In London in May this year British soldier Lee Rigby was murdered by an Islamic extremist, who with bloodied hands, took the opportunity on national television to explain why his religion had compelled him to commit his crime. In response British Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement saying that the murder was a betrayal of Muslims in UK and that there was "nothing in Islam to justify it".

That statement was a blatant lie. How is it that our societies can so willfully suppress the truth, as if it is of no consequence? The scourge of relativism is rampant and the UK is particularly afflicted.

Recently, in one of Nigel Synnottís most informative email postings, there was an article from New Humanist, by Daniel Trilling, introducing himself as the incoming new editor of the magazine explaining that he "wanted it to stand for something different" . His article was "How to talk about religion" and he said that Richard Dawkins had provided a case study in how not to do it. Richard Dawkins had tweeted "All the worldís Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."

The only quibble I would have with that is that the achievements of the Arabs in the Middle Ages should be attributed to the Arabs and not to the Muslims. However Dawkins, despite his protestation that it was true, was widely condemned including by atheists for "singling out" Islam. Daniel Trilling joined in the condemnation.

He then set out three principles in which he condemned "Islamophobia", defended the intelligence of religious believers, and welcomed their inclusion in public life. Being rather incensed by these apparent new developments, I immediately sent out a letter to the current editor as follows.

I regret to say that I am less than thrilled at new priorities of Mr Trilling, who says he wants New Humanist to "stand for something different".

What I gather he wants New Humanist to stand for is for not speaking the truth, because the truth might offend some believers. It is apparently to be considered a valid humanist policy to suppress the truth. This is postmodern relativism of the worst kind.

Richard Dawkins is condemned by Mr Trilling for drawing attention to the scientific backwardness of the Muslim world. This backwardness is a legitimate concern. The Islamic world has historically failed to progress in science because the ideology of Islam is itself anti-science. This a fact that should be tweeted from the rooftops. Muslims suffer greatly because of this backwardness. How can Muslims be expected to ever overcome their disadvantage unless they are aware of the cause of it?

We are also to be censured by Mr Trilling for suggesting that "Muslims may be uniquely savage, or violent, as a result of their religion", This stands in contrast to the fact that if we look at the violent turmoil endemic in the Muslim world today, the effect of the religion of Islam on its believers is, in fact, unique. This follows from the fact that, in the origins of Islam, unlike other religions, the Prophet Muhammad was a violent and authoritarian leader. It is the duty of every Muslim to emulate the Prophet. Thankfully not all Muslims fulfil this duty. These facts should not be denied or suppressed.

Mr Trilling expresses the desire to find common ground with the religious. This is a laudable aim, but it should not be pursued to the extent that one's views are indistinguishable from that of a religious apologist. The truth cannot be compromised without sinking into the mire of relativism. To do so is intellectually dishonest.

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. To do this surely runs counter to the objectives of Humanism.

Before concluding on the issue of cultural relativism, I would mention its relevance in another context. People have come to Australia from all over the world and all immigrant communities have been able to achieve higher average living standards than that of our indigenous communities. There is nothing wrong with granting due respect to cultural heritage, however I wonder to what extent our failure to clearly distinguish between aboriginal mythology and scientific reality is an on-going cause of this disadvantage.

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.

Secularism and relativism

I hope I can bring to peopleís attention the evil of relativism which so permeates popular thinking today. It is a modern, (rather than postmodern) problem. It is largely associated with multiculturalism. In post-Enlightenment days when societies were more monocultural, or at least mono-religious, the debates about religion were more centred on the truth claims of religion than they are now. When the debate was within one culture, there was no risk of cultural offence.

Now, because we are multicultural, we benefit greatly from the enrichment that cultural interactions provide. However we now avoid challenging issues that cross cultural boundaries, and the most challenging issues are those that involve the conflicting truth claims of religions. Each religion embodies a different kind or relativism in which they entertain a kind of private truth that has no need of wider resolution. It may be claimed that each provides "a different path to the truth" but actually they are different paths away from the truth. If religions were true, they would not be religions.

Our society today supports and subsidises all religions, where any kind of religious myth can be used to indoctrinate children in schools. We do not just accept the ludicrous notion of multiple truths, we embrace and promote it. Relativism is now the dominant paradigm, at least in regard to education. It is no wonder them that the value of secularism has been lost. Secularism seeks to uphold a society based on reason and evidence. Relativism is the enemy of secularism and the cause of its erosion.

Given the dominance of the scourge of relativism in our society it is no wonder that truth in politics has little value. In religion it is popular to accept the myth and reject the science. Now, apparently with respect to climate change we can also reject at will the science and its implications.

As individuals, if a serious psychological issue arises, such that it threatens our well-being, we may seek resort to a remedy such as cognitive behavioural therapy. That is, we may adopt a method to systematically retrain our thought processes to get them back on a more rational and productive track. As societies we now need to do something similar. Only atheists can provide the leadership for this because the religious never will. We cannot shirk this responsibility.

At an international level, nowhere is this needed more than in relation to Islam. The inherent contradictions between Islam and secularism, democracy and modernity is driving Muslim countries towards ever deeper crisis. This is particularly apparent in the Arab world but affects all Muslim countries. The effects are devastating.

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.

John L Perkins, 10 September  2013
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Atheist Society, Melbourne

Note: These are my personal views and not necessarily those of the Secular Party