Monday, April 14, 2008

The necessity of combating relativism

"In saying this, we must note that atheists are not immune from unreasoned dogma. Religion is not the only place where one can go to find doctrines that promote death and human suffering.
Europe, though being more 'atheist' than America, also suffers from the influence of atheist dogmas that are as anti-science as any religion. The list of popular philosophies in Europe include post-modernism and cultural relativism, both of which condemn the idea that we can have actual knowledge of the real world. These dogmas have been as effective at holding the European culture back scientifically and economically as creationism has been in America. Focusing on religious dogmas and their harmful effects is just a part of the problem.
In fact, the philosophies of post-modernism and cultural relativism point to an important case of atheist scapegoating. Many 'new atheists' have accused religious moderates of shielding religious extremists by preventing criticism against the harshest forms of their religion. However, they did not mention the fact that these non-religious philosophies are an even greater obstacle to criticizing fundamentalist religions. It's from these philosophies, not from religious moderates, that we get the idea that no culture may criticize another. Religious moderates, in contrast, still held to the possibility of moral and objective truths.", Mar 6, 2008
This is a very important point being raised.

I don't agree with all sentiments. Relativism is not as retarded as creationism after all, and it's nowhere as widespread in Europe as creationism/ID is in USA. The problem is that relativism is more popular among the elite, instead of among the unedumecated. That makes it dangerous, because these are decision makers.

Further, I need to point out that New Atheists do spend some time criticizing relativism. So it's not true that it's not mentioned. For instance, I'll quote some examples from the the New Atheist books:

"The general retort to relativism is simple, because most relativists contradict their thesis in the very act of stating it. Take the case of relativism with respect to morality: moral relativists generally believe that all cultural practices should be respected on their own terms, that the practitioners of the various barbarisms that persist around the globe cannot be judged by the standards of the West, nor can the people of the past be judged by the standards of the present. And yet, implicit in this approach to morality lurks a claim that is not relative but absolute. Most moral relativists believe that tolerance of cultural diversity is better, in some important sense, than outright bigotry. This may be perfectly reasonable, of course, but it amounts to an overarching claim about how all human beings should live. Moral relativism, when used as a rationale for tolerance of diversity, is self-contradictory."

Sam Harris, The End of Faith (Page 179, The Demon of Relativism)

"It is the source of squirming internal conflict in the minds of nice liberal people who, on the one hand, cannot bear suffering and cruelty, but on the other hand have been trained by postmodernists and relativists to respect other cultures no less than their own. Female circumcision is undoubtedly hideously painful, it sabotages sexual pleasure in women (indeed, this is probably its underlying purpose), and one half of the decent liberal mind wants to abolish the practice. The other half, however, 'respects' ethnic cultures and feels that we should not interfere if 'they' want to mutilate 'their' girls."

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Pages 328-9, Childhood Abuse and Religion)

"The more one learns of the different passionately held convictions of peoples around the world, the more tempting it becomes to decide that there really couldn't be a standpoint from which truly universal moral judgments could be constructed and defended. So it is not surprising that cultural anthropologists tend to take one variety of moral relativism or another as one of their enabling assumptions. Moral relativism is also rampant in other groves of academia, but not all. It is decidedly a minority position among ethicists and other philosophers, for example, and it is by no means a necessary presupposition of scientific open-mindedness.
We don't have to assume that there are no moral truths in order to study other cultures fairly and objectively; we just have to set aside, for the time being, the assumption that we already know what they are."

Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking The Spell (Pages 375-6, Some More Questions About Science)
Also Hitchens briefly calls it the "morally lazy practice of relativism" in "God is not Great". He's hardly one to bend over for relativists anyway. And generally, you'll notice when you read Atheist blogs, and in Atheist forums, that most Atheists are firmly rooted in a mixture of common sense and scientific thinking. The Black Sun Journal has made a number of posts on this issue.
Anyway, with relativism this whole New Atheist thing would be meaningless, and no-one would care.

The question is of course: is it enough?
No, I don't think so.

Consider these facts:
1. The Pope in particular, and a lot of other religious conservatives constantly raise the point about relativism, as a disease of modern society. The underlying (or overt) message is that without God, there's not point in being moral, and that secularism will lead to relativism. Their major gripe with modernity is that morality has become a matter of opinion.
(I subscribe to a Google News feed that gives me a note in the Google Reader whenever there's a news item with the word "relativism" mentioned. The Pope crops up regularly, and most of the others tend to be religious conservatives attacking secularism.)
2. Most of the non-religious criticism levelled at the New Atheists come from relativists. We're angry, militant, while there are "other truths", there should be tolerance, dialogue and so on and so on. They may not identify as relativists, or use that word at all, but they usually have that kind of understanding.

New Atheists then are unfairly attacked for leading everyone into relativism while being attacked by relativists at the same time. Also, relativists are the same people who will appease fundamentalists and Islamic conservatives in general.

It's a triple problem and that's why it must be combated. When the Pope attacks secularism for leading us into relativism, we can't simply deny this. Those of us who aren't relativists will shout straw man!, and while that is true - for most of us - there is still some people who are attracted by it. We can't simply dismiss relativism as a non-problem.

In Sweden, Christer Sturmark of the Humanisterna organisation actually joined forces with an Evangelical called Stefan Swärd. Together they wrote a piece in the Expressen paper against cultural relativism in February, stating among other things that cultural relativism undermines the Human Rights. That's a very good move.

This won't make Atheism seem like a viable option for Evangelicals, but it shows that not all Atheists have the intention of lapsing into Barbary. Constantly criticizing relativists from an Atheist perspective, can show that those fears are not warranted and we can invalidate criticism. Some will continue to claim that without God, there's no point in being moral, but it won't seem to stick as well.

While I believe firmly that we must criticize both the fundamentalists and the moderates (and the liberals) on their respective issues, we must not merely dismiss accusations of relativism. It must be tackled head-on, because right now it is a legitimate complaint when there are other Atheists who keep spreading the idea (along with many religious liberals it must be noted).

There is one more thing I want to add. Conservative and fundamentalist believers are of course making a false dichotomy where you have to chose between their absolutism or relativism. And also defenders of relativism have been using the same logic.
"Since such relativism is intolerable, in their eyes, imperialist universalism must be endorsed. Either we're right and they're wrong, or "right" and "wrong" have no meaning!" Dennett
So make no mistake, there are things in other cultures that are perfectly fine. It's just that the proponents of relativism seem not to separate between FGM and spicy food.

And also, Christian and Muslims all dabble in relativism:
"God's mysterious ways" = "God's culture" in relativist language.


BlackSun said...

Great diagrams! I'd like to think that ethics are based on a little more than common sense, though. Like the structure of the human mind, the "human universals" and game theory.

The worst problem with relativism is that it allows any fact or theory to be questioned--no matter how solid the evidence. It debases the very idea of knowledge. In that sense, it's worse than creationism. Creationism can only find a footing in a culture which has already embraced a form of relativism. (They have to find a way to justify elevating feelings and beliefs over facts.) All these arguments that "science is a belief system" are based in the goal of advancing relativism. Also, such accommodationist positions as Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA are relativist.

You discussed a very important misuse of the term "relativism" by believers. You would be surprised at the number of angry emails I get accusing me of being a moral relativist since I reject scripture. This is an entirely different sense of the word than "intellectual relativism."

Fundamentalists consider intellectual relativists to be "useful idiots" but they despise moral relativists. It's hard to have any dialog at all when the terms have been so differently defined. This is of course an area that's ripe for deliberate equivocation. It's the intellectual relativists who inexplicably justify supporting practices they find personally abhorrent.

Regardless of the nuance, I think you've made a good point that there are three very distinct poles in this debate.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your comment! Yeah, about "common sense", I just didn't want to go onto a discussion about human rights and what not, so I just wanted to sum it up as "common sense". I do think that game theory is pretty much like refined common sense though. But in any case, I think we agree on that matter. Common Sense alone would not be sufficient.

"Creationism can only find a footing in a culture which has already embraced a form of relativism."
That's very true, and it got me thinking. I mentioned that believers have a relativistic view about God's morality but when they explicitly demand to be exempt from rigorous scientific research, they are in effect demanding relativism. Who are they to complain about relativism? Postmodernists are merely trying to satisfy them and everyone else who demand their own personal truth. Everyone wants their truth, and get it, so there's an inflation of truths which renders all their truths useless.

So anyway, I think that while the "real relativists" must be targeted - how the religions indirectly promote relativism while complaining about it at the same time must be pointed out more often.

bbk said...

Excellent post. Great diagrams, too. I showed them to a few friends and they laughed.

For related reading, Ebonmuse had written an insightful post about Postmodern Apologists. I think you should add the "You're intolerant" arrow from the Fundamentalist block as well, since they throw it at New Atheists as well, but even more-so at science and reason itself.