Politicized religion seems to have a new enemy: Moral relativism is denounced by believers of all stripes as a threat for contemporary societies, and, in particular, for contemporary democracies. A recent poll conducted among evangelical pastors in the United States found that after “abortion,” “moral relativism” was indicated by most respondents as “the most pressing issue faced by America today.” For anybody familiar with the language used in contemporary evangelical churches in the United States, this is unlikely to come as a surprise. In the sermons preached in many of these churches, relativism is routinely treated—along with liberalism and secularism—as part of a sort of “unholy trinity” that is supposed to be corroding the moral foundations of contemporary societies.
Consider, for instance, the remarks of John Piper, former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the National Ligonier conference in 2007, citing a previous speech by Michael Novak delivered in 1994 upon receiving the Templeton Prize:
Relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.
This discourse cuts across denominational distinctions. In the first speech he gave before the diplomatic corps represented at the Vatican, Pope Francis I referred to what his predecessor had called a “dictatorship of relativism” in explaining his choice of name: “This brings me,” he stated, “to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should build peace. But there is no peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others.”
The political overtones implicit in the notion of a “dictatorship of relativism,” as well as in the idea that “relativism is a threat to free society,” are by no means coincidental. The claim being advanced is not simply that relativism is a problem for the spiritual lives of contemporary individuals, but also that it is a threat for the survival of democratic regimes. Without “absolute” values, we are being told, collective self-government may be at risk, since there is nothing to guarantee that the people will not be led astray and elect someone who might overthrow—or at least undermine—the democratic form of government itself.
Relativism and Religion: Why Democratic Societies Do No Need Moral Absolutes (Columbia University Press, 2015) takes stock of this contemporary religious discourse of antirelativism and attempts to respond to it from the point of view of political theory. The underlying premise is that a lot of academic effort has recently been put into defining the conditions for a form of democratic deliberation between “religious” and “secular” viewpoints, but few people have actually engaged in such an exchange. What I propose to do is to take seriously one of the key claims advanced by religious voices in the contemporary public sphere and assess its merits from the point of view of “secular” political theory.
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The first part of the book traces the history of the religious discourse of antirelativism, in order to bring out its intellectual foundations and clarify its overarching political purpose. Here, I show that this discourse originates within the framework of nineteenth century Catholic social doctrine, at a time when the Church was vigorously opposed to everything it associated with modernity, liberalism, and democracy.
The first mention of the term “relativism” to refer to a social and political problem (rather than merely an abstract philosophical position) occurs in a papal encyclical of 1884, written by Pope Leo XIII to denounce what he referred to as the “moral and philosophical relativism of the freemasonry.” The key argument moved against relativism here is that, by depriving human beings of any “absolute” point of reference, relativism “destroys the chief foundations of justice and honesty” and therefore lays the conditions for “the dangers which threaten both domestic and civil society”—of which the French Revolution and the national independence struggles that shook European politics in the middle part of the nineteenth century are taken to be paradigmatic examples.
For several decades, between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, such a critique of relativism constituted the backbone of the Catholic Church’s critique of modernity and its most salient political forms: liberalism and democracy. After the October Revolution, however, this discourse was progressively overshadowed by the focalization on another grave “error,” which was perceived as more imminently threatening: atheistic communism, which the Church did its best to combat, intellectually and politically, throughout the duration of what Eric Hobsbawm has called the “short” twentieth century.
It was therefore only really after the end of the Cold War that the discourse of antirelativism could recover the prominent place it had within the framework of Catholic social doctrine at the turn of the nineteenth century, and which it still occupies today. The encyclical Veritatis Splendor promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1993 was instrumental in this recovery. But it was Benedict XVI who really made the critique of relativism into the core of his pontifical message, inscribing it at the core of the Church’s social doctrine in a way that Francis I has not dared to challenge, but has rather reinforced.
And it is from this source that the concern with relativism has progressively seeped into the social and political discourse of other Christian (but also non-Christian) religious organizations—testifying to a development that has already been pointed out by several contemporary observers of interreligious dynamics: the old antagonism between Catholic and Protestant denominations is increasingly giving way to a new religious front in the of the so-called culture wars, within which Catholics do the high-brown intellectual work, whereas Protestants, and especially evangelical organizations, take care of the grassroots mobilization.
The result is that attacks against relativism moved by many contemporary religious (and non-religious) organizations can be seen as an updated version of the Catholic Church’s nineteenth century arguments against modernity and, by implication, liberalism and democracy. The only difference is that the connection between relativism and social catastrophe is not posited as an objection against liberal-democracy itself, but rather as a ground for contending that without a solid foundation in a set of absolute (i.e. ultimately religious) moral values, liberal-democratic regimes are bound to be unsustainable.
The contemporary religious discourse of antirelativism therefore amounts to a new form of political theology which does not oppose the authority of religion to the modern principles of liberalism and democracy, but rather claims that the latter need the former in order to be sustainable on their own terms.
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The second part of the book considers what advocates of a secular (i.e. not necessarily or intrinsically religious) conception of democracy might respond to this set of claims. I first examine what I take to be the dominant approach within the field of contemporary democratic theory. This amounts to a form of neo-Kantian rationalism, which agrees with the religious discourse of antirelativism that, without a solid foundation in a set of absolute moral values, liberal-democracy would be unsustainable, but contends that these kinds of regimes don’t necessarily have to draw their values from religion, because they can succeed in founding them autonomously on the basis of the necessary presuppositions of reason.
The argument I advance in this respect is that such a form of neo-Kantian rationalism is not capable of sustaining its desired middle course between relativism and religion, because reason alone only specifies a purely formal set of rules concerning the relations among propositions, and it is impossible to deduce anything substantive from something merely formal. Through a sustained engagement with some of the most prominent contemporary exponents of this school of thought I therefore show that neo-Kantian rationalism falls back either on a disavowed form of political theology (Jürgen Habermas) or on an equally disavowed form of cultural relativism (John Rawls).
The book then goes on to consider what I take to be a more radical—and persuasive—response to the religious discourse of antirelativism. Instead of attempting to substitute the religious conception of absolute truth with an alternative set of values supposedly derived from reason itself, this response challenges the assumption that a conception of democracy predicated on a form of philosophical relativism must necessarily be self-defeating. On the contrary, it contends that relativism can function as the philosophical foundation for a stable and normatively appealing conception of democracy, which is not vulnerable to the objections moved against it by relativism’s critics.
The argument begins by dispelling some important misconceptions which still surround the use of the term relativism. First of all, I contend, relativism ought to be distinguished from a form of moral nihilism, since, as the word itself indicates, relativism is predicated on a relativization of the sphere of validity of moral value, not their negation. I therefore propose to define relativism as a second-order (i.e. meta-ethical) proposition, according to which the truth-value of all first-order moral judgments depends on prior premises whose own truth-value cannot be redeemed absolutely.
Secondly, I also note that this conception of relativism ought to be distinguished from a form of moral absolutism. For, the basic intuition that all moral judgments depend on prior premises whose own truth value cannot be redeemed absolutely can also be applied reflexively to itself. It must therefore be possible (and perhaps also necessary) to be a relativist about one’s own relativism—i.e. to adopt a third-order standpoint recognizing the relativity of one’s second-order, meta-ethical views. Far from contradicting the substance of the relativist claim, this possibility merely underscores it.
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Relying on these conceptual clarifications, I put forward an argument to show that such a conception of relativism can function as a sufficient intellectual foundation for a stable theory of democracy that is not vulnerable to the objections moved against it by relativism’s critics. This argument draws from an insight already contained in Hans Kelsen’s interwar writings on democracy: That the unavailability of any absolute justification for one’s normative standpoint must necessarily imply a commitment to the principle of respect or toleration for other people’s views.
If I have no ground for believing that my idea of what is right and true is absolutely superior to yours, then I can have no normatively valid ground for imposing it upon you, which is another way of saying that I must respect whatever you hold to be true for what concerns you. To the extent that democracy can be understood as a political regime based on the generalization and institutionalization of this form of toleration, it follows that relativism is an adequate philosophical foundation for a normative commitment to democracy.
To be sure, during the post-war era, such a justification of democracy went out of fashion, because it was widely seen as complicit with—or at least incapable of preventing—precisely the kind of collapse of democracy into “totalitarianism,” which critics of relativism had already been warning against for several decades.
What I show, however, is that this is another gross misconception: Those who actually stood against democratic regimes, and actively collaborated in their collapse during the interwar years, were far from being relativists. On the contrary, as most contemporary accounts of the conditions for the rise of totalitarianism have shown, such kinds of regimes emerged precisely out of the attempt to reintroduce a reference to a notion of absolute truth (whether in the form of a scientific theory of the “race” for National Socialism or “history” for Communism) in a situation in which prior certainties had been undermined.
This suggests there is no reason for believing that a conception of democracy founded on a form of philosophical relativism should be more vulnerable to the threat of being undermined from within than one founded on a commitment to a set of absolute moral values.
Ultimately, that is a question that depends on the relative balance of power between the friends and the enemies of democracy, and not on the intellectual grounds for such positions. But the key point is that relativism militates on the side of democracy in this battle, since—as Kelsen noted—the recognition of the relative validity of one’s convictions must necessarily imply a commitment to the principle respect or tolerance for other people’s views, which is the animating ethos of democracy. It is rather the call for a reassertion of an absolute criterion of truth which, from this point of view, appears ambivalent and therefore potentially threatening for democracy.
The conclusion reached is therefore that democratic regimes do not need to refer to a set of “absolute” moral values in order to be sustainable, as the contemporary critics of relativism contend. Democracy is compatible both with moral relativism and with a religious commitment to certain basic moral truths, but what it requires of its citizens is the capacity of relating reflexively to their own first-order convictions, and therefore respect and come to terms with the views of others.