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Dictatorship of Relativism

Last month on the BBC there was an all-star discussion of Cardinal Ratzinger’s phrase “Dictatorship of Relativism.” Discussants included the philosophers Simon Blackburn and Stephen Wang, Archbishop Williams, and members of Parliament. Williams was even keel and noted how fundamentalism and relativism are flip sides of each other – both are absolute and close down discussion. Williams also noted how easily people move from fundamentalism to non-belief.

However, Leslie Green Professor of Philosophy of Law, Balliol College, Cambridge launched into a biting critique seeing that those who throw around the word skepticism are scapegoating ones anxieties. The Nazis blamed the Jews, the Pope blamed the relativists. This is important because many Rabbis use buzz words like relativist, following zeitgeist, or post-modern in the same way to designate whatever they don’t like. Green also denies that people are relativist or that they think anything goes. Finally, he asks how much should we tolerate the demands of religious groups that go against public welfare? He offers a note that religious groups are good at arguing from pseudo-sociological data.

On the blogs that I read this interview has been generating much discussion. I will give some of the conflicting reactions in a later post- along with more of my comments. But in the meantime, if you got a chance to enter the discussion- What would you say after Leslie Green?

In April 2005 Joseph Ratzinger, the most powerful
theologian in the Roman Catholic Church, delivered a homily to the cardinals preparing for the conclave that was to elect him Pope.

RATZINGER (Source: Vatican Radio): Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are
building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

WILLIAMS: To the extent I think that people are a bit threatened and a bit impatient about real engagement and argument, then the odd thing is that fundamentalism is the mirror image of a kind of
inflexible relativism. People want the arguments to be over. Just as the relativist or the junior official in the Foreign Office – we want the arguments to be over, let’s just you know treat everyone equally
– so the fundamentalist says I want the arguments to be over. And what one philosopher who matters quite a lot to me said about thelabour and the patience and the pain of real thinking just disappears.

GREEN: In the 1930s, in Germany, anything that was bad in the eyes of the German state – 32, 39 – was caused by who? The Jews. Why? They didn’t like the Jews. America – 1952, 55. Anything that
was bad in America was caused by well who? The Communists. Well why? Because they didn’t like the Communists. And so now here we are – 2005. Benedict I of course invents this concept of the dictatorship of relativism. There’s a bunch/clutch of bad things
happening and he doesn’t like them. Who’s it caused by? Caused by the relativists, you know.

GREEN: No-one in this country or in America or in Europe thinks that anything goes. So let’s take sexual morality. Sadly, to my way of thinking, since there’s so much that’s rich and important in Catholic moral theology, the Church has transformed itself into a
kind of fertility cult, so that what it really cares about now is making sure that you know men aren’t having sex with men and nobody’s having abortions and there are no condoms in the JCR around the corner here and that there aren’t any divorces. Well even in a fairly liberal, tolerant sexual morality, there’s nobody
that argues that anything goes. The people that Pope Benedict deplores don’t think that rape is okay, and they certainly don’tthink that the sexual abuse of children is okay. Everybody agrees
there is a bottom line minimum to which we all must conform. And the thing is of course that some folks disagree about where theminimums should be drawn. That’s democracy.

GREEN: So that if I can say well I’m a member of a church and the view in my church happens to be that all children have to participate in animal
sacrifice and so we’re not allowing children to be adopted out to families that don’t tolerate the sacrifice of rams on the full moon every month – we would say “No, this is preposterous” even although it’s only a sheep. Now people can disagree about this, and obviously many religious people disagree because they have very firm – dare I say – absolutist, fundamentalist and mostly uninformed views about the nature of human sexuality that are overlain on top of their religious views. They’re entitled to those.
But if you’re providing a service to the public – you’re not talking about your little congregation, you’re
talking about the fates of children, their welfare and their wellbeing – you have an obligation to respect the minimum.