The great Roman orator Cicero asserted that gratitude is the greatest of all virtues. With this in mind, those of us who believe in justice and human dignity should send a sincere “thank you” in the direction of that oft-maligned force, religion.
As 21st-century Americans, we tend to take some truths for granted. Murder, racism and the abuse of children are unquestionably “wrong” while fairness, tolerance and acts of compassion are “right.” In politics, corruption and hypocrisy are “wrong” while consistency and honesty are “right.” On many issues, it would be accurate to say that a near-universal moral consensus exists.
On the surface, this is not surprising. But we live in a world that claims to have grown beyond the absolute moral judgments of traditional religions. Along with his proclamation that “God is dead,” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche also coined the phrase that still defines our postmodernist society when he said, “There are no eternal facts, as there are no absolute truths.” Nietzsche’s second statement follows from his first. The death of God and his universal morality leaves room for the individual to be his own god and choose his own morality.
In our pluralistic society, characterized by its profuse diversity of thoughts and opinions, the rejection of absolutism seems inevitable. Among young people, especially, the sentiment is almost universal; each person must follow their own personal path to their own personal truth. And if there is no God but biology, who is to say what is right and what is wrong? Which is all very well, at least until someone follows their own personal path to a horrific or antisocial conclusion.
In reality, our modern world is very far from accepting the consequences of its secular relativism. After all, if we are not created by God, but rather a glorified mammalian type, why should we not follow the example of the rest of nature, “red in tooth and claw?” The relativist can of course offer practical justifications of self-interest, or the benefits of altruism, but these arguments are a far cry from the universal moral indignation that rightly censors racism or unjust persecution. Some acts are so clearly wrong that they are excoriated with a vigor that doesn’t fit with relativism. It’s impossible to deny that people still believe that some things are absolutely good, and some are absolutely evil.
Take this excerpt from the UC Davis Principles of Community: “We affirm the inherent dignity in all of us, and we strive to maintain a climate of justice marked by respect for each other.” By affirming the inherent dignity of each individual, the Principles of Community accept an absolute proposition: Every person deserves equal justice.
But why? In the natural world, and even in the vast majority of primitive human societies, equality is unheard of. Nature is a meritocracy where dignity is given to the strong, and death comes to the weak. Of course, a relativist may be able to justify the concept of inherent dignity to himself. But he cannot impose that view on others and he cannot affirm a universal principle of absolute human dignity that all society is bound to follow. And without the universal support of society, principles of community are meaningless.
In reality, the Principles of Community are firmly based on a religious foundation. While secular materialists can appeal to self-interest to persuade people to treat each other with dignity, religion universally decrees it to be so. Christianity, the predominant Western religious influence, establishes this truth through the creation story, in which all people are descended from Adam, and all are created in the image of God. It is not coincidental that heroes in the struggle for human rights such as William Wilberforce and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used the power of the Bible so centrally. Of course, it is not necessary to be religious to be a moral person. But religion is essential if you wish to hold humanity to a universal standard of morality.
With the eroding power of religion in our time we are faced with a dilemma: We must either reconsider our rejection of religion, or lose the powerful moral force of its universal absolutes. In a world that is always inches from barbarism, we must have a reason to value humanity over self-interest.
This column is a small space in which to explore the complete contributions of religion to modern beliefs about justice and humanity, but one thing is certain: Despite the veneer of moral relativism in modern thought, we still believe in absolute truths. Or to put it another way, absolutism is dead, long live absolutism.
SAM HOEL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.