Tuesday, April 19, 2005

On Relativism and Fundamentalism

The new pope gave a homily before his election. It included this important statement:

The prelate said relativism "recognises nothing definitive and its final measure is no more than ego and desire".

"Every day new sects are born and what Saint Paul said about the deception of men, on cleverness that leads to mistakes, is becoming so.

"Having clear faith according to the credo of the church is often labelled fundamentalism, while relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried here and there by whatever wind of doctrine, seems like the only attitude with any currency today," said Ratzinger.

This is important because Ratz tells us why he is a fundamentalist and why he regards alternatives to Christian fundamentalism as incorrect. Notice how he uses false dualism here? There is his stance, strong and unwavering, and then there is chaos. There is fundamentalism, which for him is knowing all the answers and then there is fashion and picking a new way of thinking every Monday morning.

Not being a fundamentalist doesn't have to mean that one is a complete value relativist, but you would never get this from Ratzinger's statements. His arguments are simplistic, political and unexamined, by him, at least.

He says nothing about the scenarios people hold about values in general. I can think of at least three: Some (including old Ratz) believe that there is one single framework of values, given to everyone by some superhuman being (not Echidne, though). Others believe that every society has its own value frameworks and that those outside that society cannot evaluate them meaningfully. This would be the relativist viewpoint. Yet another theory argues that there are certain almost universally held values but their actual manifestations differ in different societies because of historical reasons and reasons of weighing the basic values differently. This one Ratzinger ignores in his homily, perhaps, because it requires thought to understand and apply. Obviously, it is the one I follow!

The fight between absolutes and relativities has been going on for thousands of years, probably, and the appeal of the absolutes is always here. If something is inherently so, by god's words, then all one needs to do is to follow that absolute and, presto, one has the visa for heaven or paradise or nirvana. Then what usually happens is that the horrible crimes following this sort of thinking (the Inquisition, for example, or the witch burnings) start upsetting some and the discussion shifts towards an attempt to rank values and to decide which ones are more basic and thus more important to maintain. If this shift lasts for a while we get something like the Enlightenment, but then usually another period of absolutism begins. Because people fear death and want simple answers. Also, we want to know that there is a god and we want to please that god.

Ratz is a fundamentalist. The problem with religious fundamentalism for me is twofold: First, I don't believe that divinities wrote the holy books in the first place. I believe that they were written by religious people of their time and place and that they largely reflect the values of those societies. So what Ratz tells me is to live my life according to the values that nomadic shepherds had two thousand years ago.

Second, fundamentalists have a lot of trouble ranking the messages in their holy books, and ranked they must be if they are to make sense in actual decision-making. Is the condemnation of usury more important than, say, the ban on wearing wool and linen at the same time? What about all the pro-poor statements in the Bible? Should they take precedence over the few statements which advocate killing the witches or subjugating the women or murdering the gays? Questions, questions...

In reality, all fundamentalists take the bits they like and magnify them while ignoring the other bits. This is value relativism, of course.

But what I most dislike about the religious fundamentalists is their penchanche to replace the letter of the law for its intention. Consider how the Taliban banned women's shoes that made noise! The reason for this has to do with the ankle bells that prostitutes wore during Mohammed's era, to advertise their profession. Thus, Mohammed told women not to make a noise when they walked, and the Taliban theologists complied!

What the Catholic church does is something very similar: Just make divorce illegal and all marriages will be as god intended! Fundamentalism does away with the need to dig into the causes of problems, to address the needs of each individual and to suggest real solutions. Instead of all this, just ban, ban away. Osama bin Laden would approve, too, though for him the letters of the law are different, naturally.