Repeatedly I hear someone being interviewed on radio or television answer the interviewer’s question with the exclamation, “Absolutely!” I find that quite amazing at a time when so many claim there is no absolute truth—only opinions about what is true, relative to one’s point of view. It’s a misconception called relativism. Can relativism be true? Many might shout, “Absolutely!” I would like to answer instead, “Absolutely not!”
Why is that? Well, first of all, claiming that there is no objective truth means you are insisting in your claim that what you say is objectively true—which cannot be true by its own verdict. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain said it rightly, “The sole philosophy open to those who doubt the possibility of truth is absolute silence— even mental.”
Second, if it’s true that the world is round, someone’s opposing opinion will not make it flat. Truth is truth, even if you do not accept it; and untruth is untruth, even if you claim it. If relativism were true, then there would no longer be any facts. And yet, almost everyone swears by the facts. Policy makers want facts, police reports are based on facts, courts require facts, science is in search of facts.
To cross a river, for instance, we need a bridge built by engineers with the right knowledge, not with mere beliefs, opinions, or convictions; and to get into heaven, we need faith based on the right knowledge, not on mere sentiments. G. K. Chesterton once firmly asserted “that truth exists whether we like it or not, and that it is for us to accommodate ourselves to it.”
Taken to its extreme, relativism would entail that something like gravity may be true for you, but not for me. Relativism promotes a sort of democratic ideal in matters of truth and knowledge. This viewpoint is certainly not new. Pontius Pilate expressed it with his legendary question, “What is truth?”
Yet, in the past, relativism was never really popular, but nowadays it is receiving lots of traction. One of the reasons for this is the misconception that the human mind is presumably nothing more than a machinery of neurons. Therefore, we have no way of really knowing what we think we know. There is no way anymore to distinguish fact from fiction, realities from illusions, opinions from truths, and beliefs from make-beliefs.
Relativism has managed to infiltrate many areas of our lives. It even has penetrated the domain of religion. The modern conception is that religion is a highly private issue. Some go as far as wondering if religion has anything to do with truth. Of course it does. Even in religion, we deal with facts and truth issues. Jesus’ resurrection is either true or false. Jesus coming again to judge the living and the dead is either true or false. More in general, the existence of God is a factual matter — God either exists or not. Believing that God does not exist doesn’t make Him disappear, as little as believing that the earth is flat would make the earth flat. God’s existence is not dependent on our belief in Him.
How do we learn truths like these? Just like we do in science by reading or listening to what others have discovered before us, so we do in religion by reading or listening to what the Bible and the Church reveal to us. Obviously that calls for good instruction about the truth—in the family, in our schools, and from the pulpit. The term for this is evangelization. It begins at home, but cannot and should not end there.
GERARD M. VERSCHUUREN is a human geneticist who writes on faith and reason, science and religion. His most recent book is Forty Anti-Catholic Lies: A Myth-Busting Apologist Sets the Record Straight (Sophia Institute Press).