Wednesday, April 20, 2005


With the election of a new Pontiff, another ism is topic A. That being, of course, relativism. This term is generally understood to mean a rejection of absolutes, usually in the interest of withholding judgment. The rise in popularity of relativism coincided with the decline of discrimination. There was a time, long ago, when value judgments and positive discrimination were admirable qualities. Sadly, no longer.

Benedict XVI speaks of relativism with laser precision. For him, ecumenicalism is anathema. As one might expect, the former occupier of the office of the Holy Inquisitor is rather adamant in the view that the Catholic tradition is the one true faith, while all others are illegitimate. Such should be no surprise.

Once again, I find myself at odds with the vast majority of thought. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not contrarian for its own sake. I just happen to have a skeptical streak that I try to nourish. As I see it, error is the only thing lost in a rigorous analysis. So, I simply can’t abide relativism, as it fails to draw a qualitative distinction between rival ideas. Note that this is not the same as tolerance. To tolerate is to passively allow, which is altogether different from sanction or approval.

My fear is that the new Pope may well embolden the intolerant right-wing in America. This is to say that the distinction between tolerance and acceptance might progress from blurry to nonexistent. I’m a proponent of sturdy principles, but I stand in opposition to any attempt to compel others to share my worldview. The real problem, as I see it, is the confusion of objective and subjective.

The subjective speaks of opinions and the like. In as much as all individuals are absolutely unique, a wide divergence of tastes and proclivities is to be expected. The same holds for religious traditions; the inclination to imagine various deities is as old as humanity. Therefore, the regulation of belief is not unlike containing a tornado.

Objective reality is that which is empirical and demonstrable. For practical purposes, all things mystical are regarded as non-empirical. Just because the evidence of a deity can’t be pier reviewed in a conventional sense doesn’t relegate it to fiction. However, this does mean that matters of faith must necessarily be personal and voluntary. While the truth of God may be convincing for the faithful, it is no more than superstition for the non-believer.

This communication breakdown between the two camps is the source of untold strife. Both could certainly use a heavy dose of actual tolerance, but without compromising their core principles. The fact that one refrains from interfering with the lifestyle of another in no way requires tacit agreement. It’s called liberty…try it, you just might like it.