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Contrary to popular belief: Relativism cannot enlighten; it can only darken the mind.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 26, 2016

We live in a culture in which people brag about their enlightenment. The logic for this self-delight is surprisingly thin. There is the fallacy of progress, of course, which leads us to assume that the latest developments in human thought and attitudes are invariably the best. And of course there is the sheer lack of any standard of reflection among cultural elites who subscribe to relativism, which is the hallmark ideology of our time.

It is paradoxical that our opinion-makers insist on two contrary points: that truth does not exist and that they are certainly right. Thus relativism is invoked only to disparage whatever ideas they wish to jettison, while progress is invoked to justify whatever ideas they wish, at any given moment, to use to shape our society. I say this is paradoxical not only because of the obvious disconnect between the two assertions, but because if everything were relative, the very concept of “progress” would be impossible.

Relativism provides no standard against which particular ideas about reality can be assessed, or by which progress can be measured. What remains is a self-congratulating culture of pure willfulness. Relativism offers no standard of excellence, and this alone is sufficient to make the reign of relativism the worst possible influence on the legitimate development of human thought, human institutions and human action.

A Telling Example

I’ve been thinking about this as I dip into Darío Fernández-Morera’s brilliant study, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. This myth is the overwhelming assertion in academia that the period of Muslim rule in medieval Spain was a culturally-rich experiment in freedom, peace and human progress engendered by an atmosphere of universal openness and tolerance. The myth portrays “Andalusia” as immensely enlightened compared with the classical and Christian culture which preceded it and the Catholic dominance which followed it.

This conception of Spanish history dominates in modern universities for no better reason than it fits our “high” culture’s dominant narrative, the narrative that the absolutes of Christianity must be replaced by an enlightened relativism to ensure human progress. Scholars feel compelled to read this prejudice back into history so that their studies buttress our contemporary mythology. They fall into the habit of seeing only what they want to see, and proving whatever they assume.

In reality, Islamic rule in medieval Spain was exactly what we would expect it to be by examining Islamic rule in the modern world—a narrow force, opposed to culture, which subjugated, tortured and killed those who did not embrace Islam; which demeaned women; which destroyed pre-existing cultural treasures; and which denied—except where “laxity” crept in—the very possibility of positive cultural developments (e.g., in music, art, and architecture). Islamic rule was guided by the Qu’ran, including a serious commitment to jihad and dhimmitude. Relying for governance purely on the religious judgments enshrined in Sharia Law, Muslims had no conception of a civil order at all, and therefore no conception of a civilization.

This point is proven beyond a shadow of doubt by Fernández-Morera’s book. It’s a thorough and entertaining study, as masterful as it is pointed. Yet in one sense it is not a difficult accomplishment for a true scholar, because in fact all the primary source evidence and all the archeological evidence (in other words, all the evidence which comes from the period in question) loudly and continuously gives the lie to the modern secondary narrative.

But what interests me most is what the myth of the Andalusian Paradise reveals about the intellectual characteristics of our dominant secular culture. What I mean is simply this: Reality does not matter. As a general rule, what determines the credibility of academic work, at least in the humanities, is whether its conclusions fit our current mythology. If not, publication is exceedingly rare and a negative career impact is all but guaranteed. (College presses would not publish Fernández-Morera; he had to go to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.)

The Achilles Heel of Relativism

Since our cultural elites regard religion as false and detrimental to human flourishing, our culture is supremely cognizant of the dangers of hitching the mind to religious conceptions. And of course, if the religious conceptions are false, they will indeed deflect our studies and reflections away from whatever good we might otherwise discover. As Pope Benedict XVI taught, not only must religion purify reason, but reason must purify religion. But our dominant culture makes two fatal mistakes in this regard.

First, it fails to recognize that all ideology carries with it the very same dangers. If there is anything obvious about the modern era, it is that the West—in its rejection of Christianity—has become a breeding ground of ideology! Second, it fails to recognize the inherent inability of relativism to enlighten in any case whatsoever. Relativism imposes no standard which can possibly stretch our perceptions beyond whatever is subconsciously generated by our own unexamined desires.

I cannot make this point too strongly. Relativism does not possess any principles whatever which call upon us to examine our own thoughts more closely, no standard which can make us wary of our own prejudices or sensitive to our tendencies toward error, no discipline which can check our innate willfulness in favor of a hard-won humility before the truth. The myth of relativism does not stretch the mind to conform with reality; it does quite the opposite. It enables us to assert whatever we like, and to rely not on intellectual care and mutual exchange to test our ideas, but on the approval of our cultural elites. It leaves us totally at the mercy of our own passions and prejudices.

At a minimum, religion holds out the possibility of providing helpful habits and principles, but relativism denies the possibility of helpful principles altogether. Denying the existence of truth is absurd, since truth is simply the mind’s conformity with reality. The whole point here is that this is not the same thing as the mind’s conformity with personal desire. Religion and philosophy can be wrong, of course, but at least they offer certain poles of comparison by which we can challenge and exercise our minds as we study our own natural interaction with the reality of which we are a part.

Our ironic trust in relativism combined with progress offers no poles of comparison with our own thoughts, no means by which we might stand outside of ourselves to see whether our own thoughts can stand up to criticism. This is why cultures given to relativism must invariably decline. This is why relativism holds no hope of personal or civilizational progress. And this is why, even if certain aspects of some religions could well darken the human mind, relativism will always darken the human mind. Where hope for genuine human progress is concerned, relativism will always be the worst possible choice. Even language is important here. It is very hard to combat self-deception when we insist on calling it “enlightenment”.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Perkiset - Feb. 29, 2016 8:41 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this article.

  • Posted by: Bernadette - Feb. 27, 2016 4:16 PM ET USA

    Excellent! What more can be said? A fixed standard is a must. Truth. And what is or Who is that? That is our quest, our mission, our reason for being. To search and discover truth/Truth. With relativism, the search cannot even begin. We are handcuffed, blindfolded, muffled, prisoners. There is no escape toward true enlightenment.