In my first ‘Some Thoughts’ article I talked about the definition of religion. I came to the conclusion that religion is a structure for meaning-making in our lives; it is a structure for the search for meaning and values that is common to us all. I plan to return to religion’s relationship with this search in another post in the coming days, but for now I want to focus on the search for meaning and values itself.
In this post I will be focusing on the primary characteristic of this search: namely, that it is a search for Truth – with a capital T. By this I mean to say that it is a search, above all else, for absolute and objective truth.
A common position I see people taking in relation to the search for meaning for values is what I would call ‘strict relativism’. Strict relativism posits that there is no objective truth; that truth is always subjective. I will try, in this post, to show that this position is simply not good enough. This theory is very commonly embodied in a statement like this:
“What’s true for you is true for you. What’s true for me is true for me.”
Now, this statement is obviously fine when it comes to subjective experiences and statements such as “cake is delicious”: the experience of finding cake delicious is subjective and therefore the truth of the statement is purely subjective as well; cake is delicious for me but it may not be delicious for you.
However, this statement is not good enough when it comes to the search for meaning and values, because that search is ultimately a search for Truth.
Consider this: is relativism true for everyone or just for you? It can’t be true for everyone because then it would be an absolute truth – a truth which is not relative at all! And if it is merely relative then that means that absolute truth could be true for me; and if it is true for me then it is true for everyone by virtue of being absolute – and relative truth is gone.
Therefore, strict relativism is inherently contradictory. And contradiction is generally considered to be a rather clear indicator of falsehood!
(This is not to say that relativism in general is completely false, just strict relativism. For example, appropriate dress will mean different things in different cultures. And the deliciousness of cake is, sadly, not objectively true.)
This means, therefore, that there are some truths that are absolute. For example, God either exists or He doesn’t. It might seem nice to say that Hindus, Christians, Muslims etc. are all right and that their religion is true for them – but nice, cuddly and lovey-dovey as this thought may be, it is, unfortunately, total rubbish.
It would be like being in a maths class where the teacher asks the students to solve the problem ‘2 + 2 = ?’. The answer is objectively and absolutely 4. Let’s say the students all come up with different answers: one gets 2; one gets 5; one gets 22. The teacher then turns around and says “You’re all right! Everybody wins!”…
I don’t think that anyone would hesitate in agreeing with me that such a maths class would be absolute garbage. (i.e. a class based on strict relativism.)
Such a class would be both insulting to the students and totally unfulfilling. Most importantly, however, it makes the students’ work – and even mathematics itself – completely meaningless. The same is true of religions (and each person’s search for meaning): if you say that each one is fully true for its believers then you are actually demeaning their beliefs: you have just made their beliefs meaningless. Jesus was the Son of God or he was not. Christians say that he was, Muslims say that he wasn’t; one group is wrong and one is right. They are not both right. (And deciding which group is right would take many more articles than I have time to write!)
(This raises the question of whether different religions can have any truth or value if they contradict each other. As I mentioned earlier, I will be writing another article going into more detail about religion and its relationship with the search for meaning, and how different religions relate to each other. I will attempt to answer this important question then.)
The search for meaning and values is a search for absolute truth, because absolute truth is the most meaningful form of truth. “Cake is delicious” is subjective; it’s not very meaningful or important. “God exists” is obviously a much more important and meaningful statement because it tries to say something about how the world really is, not just subjectively, but objectively. When we are searching for meaning and value we are searching for things that are truly meaningful – for things that are True. We are searching because we want to find out what really matters. Subjective truths are not totally excluded from this but neither are they the primary objective.
Some will say that the search for meaning and values is a search for truths that are purely relative and subjective. However, this is pretty much a euphemism for saying that the search for meaning and values is essentially meaningless. If you do not allow for the existence of any objective truths at all, it becomes very hard to justify why any specific set of beliefs actually matters and to refute the possibility that “anything goes”.
I would like to point out that I do in fact agree with the relativist position that truth etc. is dependent on certain “frameworks” and viewpoints. For example, morality is a human framework which animals, plants, rocks etc. are not party to. If a rock falls and hurts someone, the rock is not morally culpable. You might say that morality is a purely human phenomenon. However, as a Christian, I root these important frameworks in God; morality is not a human framework but a Divine framework. I believe humans are made in the image of God, and a consequence of being made in that image is that we partake in the framework for morality that is established by God. And, as God is Truth, those frameworks are True as well.
(I should probably write a separate post to try to explain that last paragraph more clearly! :D)
If you found this article interesting I would encourage you to look at the Wikipedia entry on relativism and its pros and cons. Admittedly, Wikipedia is generally a dreadful resource for reliable and accurate material, but this particular entry is written quite well. It is definitely worth having a look at because I have been focusing mostly on the criticisms here; this article is already long enough without going through the counter-arguments as well. You will find on Wikipedia a section on ‘responses to criticisms’ which, in the interest of fairness, you should probably read too. Also, if you want to continue this discussion, feel free to comment below. Don’t be afraid to disagree – but please keep it constructive! 😛