There has been, as I mentioned before, an outpouring of kind words for yours truly in response to my recent gay-marriage writings. There has also been some intelligent and thoughtful criticism, for which I am (almost as) grateful. Finally, there has been some vicious personal abuse from people slandering me in the comboxes, to which I respond with a stifled yawn, because it’s something worse than false and stupid: It’s simply boring. But what I am about to discuss is something sui generis: an e-mail from a person who appears to agree with me, but says things that are so wrong and counterproductive they actually make me enraged. I asserted yesterday that I believe strongly in the existence of absolute truth. The e-mailer writes:
Perhaps there is “absolute truth”. Let’s put aside, for now at least, the intellectual side of this discussion (quantum physics, ego, consciousness, conscience, mind, matter, soul, god, etc.)
You do realize, do you not, that people who “know” the “absolute truth” have committed unspeakable mayhem throughout all of history? Yes?
The list is long, and infamous, and while it includes obvious monsters like Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Castro, and Hitler, it also includes lots of religious figures, from pretty much every major religion, including many, many Christians. I know you know this – it is simply a fact.
Let’s face it, my friend. The quest for “absolute truth” pretty much always leaves behind a trail of broken bodies, broken minds, or even corpses.
Or, at minimum, plenty of hatred. I know you must be familiar with the comments at The Corner regarding SSM. A lot of people there, armed with the “absolute truth” provided by Christianity, refer to gays as “disordered”, with “totalitarian impulses”, and worse. . . . [The writer goes on to quote some combox comments, which, I will stipulate, are — how to put this delicately? — well, let’s just say they don’t seem to be exactly on fire with Christian love. — MP]
I am writing only to say, think about it. The quest for “absolute truth” has a pretty dismal history.
And isn’t this because, there isn’t any obvious way to ascertain the truth? So people end up looking for truth in ideologies, both religious and secular. And there you have your problem.
This, as I tried to explain to the chap, is one of the most spectacularly wrongheaded passages I have ever read. To say that it is completely unhelpful to the human cause would be an understatement. Yes, some people kill and oppress other people because they believe absolute truth requires them to. But I — like many, many others — oppose human-rights abuses in totalitarian countries and elsewhere, and take various positions on political issues here in the U.S., because I believe absolute truth requires me to. And now this fellow comes along and says, “The quest for absolute truth is what’s causing the problem here.”
Okay, so let’s say this guy wins: That means the people who kill and oppress other people may be right. I shouldn’t try to resist them because, hey, there’s no way for me to discern the absolute truth, so why even try? Let’s go down to the Village and bust some heads open — just for fun! Who’s to say we’re wrong?
I can understand where the reader is coming from. A few people who speak of “absolute truth” and rail against “relativism” are motivated not by a love of truth but merely by a desire to bully others into accepting their opinions. But that’s not true of most people. And even if it were, giving up on the search for truth — on the idea that there is a truth —- will have only one certain consequence: The bad guys will win. The Yeats line is a cliché now, but that’s only because it’s recognizably true: The worst are, indeed, full of passionate intensity.
The fight for truth is a tough one, but we must not abandon it. I hold out a hope, based largely on my religious faith, that magna est veritas et praevalebit; but I expect that the realization of this hope will be eschatological, not historical. In the meantime, I think the best we can hope for is what was expressed in the translation of that great Latin saying that our esteemed colleague John Derbyshire taught me: “Truth is mighty, and will prevail a bit.”