Is Religion Relative?

In a recent homily, Pope Benedict described the current intellectual climate in the world as a ‘dictatorship of relativism.‘ While the phrase was welcomed in many corners (like mine), it was challenged as disingenuous and incoherent at The Corner by John Derbyshire, one of the Corner’s resident atheists.

Of course religious belief is relativistic. Religious people say it is! Suppose I line up a Christian, a Moslem, and a Hindu, and ask: “You guys all promote a different set of ‘fundamental truths.’ How can I figure out who’s right and who’s wrong? What external test can I apply? What can any of you point to in the beliefs of the others that doesn’t square with observable facts about the world, or about human life?” What will they say? After a lot of babbling and pointing, it will boil down to: “You gotta have faith. You have to feel the truth within yourself.” In other words, it’s an interior, subjective experience. What’s more relative than that? There is no objective test one can apply to confirm or falsify statements like “Jesus was the Son of God,” or “Mohammed was the Messenger of God,” or “Vishnu has four arms.” You just gotta believe. How is that not relative?

Derbyshire is a smart guy, but he commits three errors here. One, he presumes that for a thing to be true, there must be some “objective test” that can “confirm or falsify his statements.” This smacks of logical positivism in its least sophisticated version. To the extent that Derbyshire’s approach is positivistic (and it seems it is), it suffers from the traditional weaknesses of the theory. For instance, it’s not clear whether Derbyshire’s claims measure up to his own standard of ‘testability.’

Second, Derbyshire clearly thinks that special revelation is a private, subjective experience. That is a hard claim to make given the manifestly overt and public nature of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Perhaps if he had limited himself to private, subjective revelations he may have saved himself the trouble of dying on a cross. Alas, he did not. It is fair to claim that Jesus was in fact not the Son of God. It is, however, an odd claim to make that he revealed himself as such in public fashion. The question of the veracity of his claims is a question for theologians and historians to answer–and answer according to the standards of their own respective disciplines.

What’s more, Derbyshire has committed a basic philosophical category error: he has conflated his epistemology with his ontology. Even granting him that there is no “test” that would demonstrate the truth of religious propositions, it is not at all the case that such propositions are in fact relative–i.e. subjective, personal, and true for some people but not others. Rather, it simply means that the access to those truths is limited to those to whom access is granted. But this in no way makes them true for only those to whom they have been granted.Derbyshire makes a great political commentor, but a terrible philosopher. For his own sake (and ours), let’s hope he sticks to the former.

(HT: John Schroeder)

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  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Keith Buhler (Enthusiasmos)

    Insightful comment, Matt. His poor point doesn’t really hold up.