The Corner

Relatively Speaking

Of course religious belief is relativistic. Religious people say it is! Suppose I line up a Christian, a Moslem, and a Hindu, and ask: “You guys all promote a different set of ‘fundamental truths.’ How can I figure out who’s right and who’s wrong? What external test can I apply? What can any of you point to in the beliefs of the others that doesn’t square with observable facts about the world, or about human life?” What will they say? After a lot of babbling and pointing, it will boil down to: “You gotta have faith. You have to feel the truth within yourself.” In other words, it’s an interior, subjective experience. What’s more relative than that? There is no objective test one can apply to confirm or falsify statements like “Jesus was the Son of God,” or “Mohammed was the Messenger of God,” or “Vishnu has four arms.” You just gotta believe. How is that not relative?

To those readers who apparently (according to them) believe that astronomy, biology, chemistry, and the rest really are taught differently in different places, my advice would be: Before you get on a plane, make very careful enquiries about where it was designed and built.

To Jack Fowler’s argument that if I had studied plant science at a university in a mid-20th-century Marxist country, I would have learnt wrong science, of a sort that led to the death of millions: that’s kind of the point, Jack. That (non-Darwinian!) Marxist plant science was wrong science, as was demonstrated by its failure in practice … which is why it is no longer taught anywhere. Presumably Jack thinks that Hinduism is wrong religion. What practical test would demonstrate that, Jack? Causing Hinduism to no longer be believed in anywhere? Of course there isn’t one. Hinduism persists because it feels right to Hindus, just as Christianity feels right to Christians. All together now, you know the tune: “Feelings, wo wo wo feelings …” It is interior and relative. I’m fine with that if it gives purpose to your life; but relative is what it is.

To readers who scoff at my saying that scientific knowledge has not changed in 500, 1000, or 1500 years: I never said such a thing, nor ever would say anything so obviously daft. I said that church teachings have changed, and so they are relative in time, which seems to me indisputable, and makes the Pope’s ramblings about “relativism” nugatory. The teachings of the Catholic Church have changed a lot in my lifetime. I often hear conservative Catholic friends and colleagues complaining about this. Indeed, I once heard the founder of National Review complain about it; and since that gentleman rarely said anything he didn’t give written expression to, someone with more time than I have could, I am sure, come up with a reference.

Scientific method has only been around since the later 17th century, since when it has uncovered innumerable true facts about the world, to the immense benefit of all. The truths of science are tested constantly against reality, and improved — sometimes discarded — when they fail the tests. Careful enquiry, classification, and measurement; comparison with the inquiries of others; discussion and publication; test against observation and experiment; that is how we learn truths about the world. There isn’t another way. The truths of religion are revealed … to individuals … as interior, subjective experiences … with different individuals receiving and interpreting thm differently. That’s relative.

Boy, how I love the Enlightenment!


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