Weaponized Relativism

Thinking critically about thinking about religion is fraught with misdirections. I’ve been reflecting on a post that Steven wrote last week highlighting the way that individuals are able to combine a ‘default cultural relativism’ with a ‘high level of dogmatism.’ He does an excellent job of outlining how a student has combined contradictory arguments:

(a) how you describe God is a matter of personal opinion and what you want God to be like; (b) Christians who did not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth were guilty of a totally illegitimate ‘pick and choose’ approach to their faith.

How to account for this contradictory logic and its bloody repetitions? And it is, to be sure, a repetition. Talal Asad has identified this logic at work in the doctrine of secularism–especially in the discourse on “Islamic terrorism” and its supposed existential threat to the West: (a) The Qur’an is posited to be absolutely binding upon Muslims. (b) Christians and Jews may come to various interpretations of the Bible. Asad states that “On the one hand, the religious text is held to be determinate, fixed in its sense, and having the power to bring about particular beliefs [and subsequently actions]–rendering readers passive. On the other hand, the religious reader is taken to be actively engaged in constructing the meaning of texts in accordance with changing social circumstances–so the texts are passive.” Perhaps Steven’s student has been watching too much Bill Maher. The six-day creationist is absolutely passive in his or her relation to the Bible, and yet, somehow, they seem to keep finding ways to apply the Bible to all these new scenarios. It seems that the brave atheist has found an enemy internal to the West against which to deploy the orientalist logic.

We should not be suprised that there are enemies both internal and external. The brave atheist will be disappointed to hear this, but at the end of the day they are just being a good Christian. However, what if the literal six-day creationist and the brave atheist come together in the same room? God knows they love a good debate that goes back and forth for hours. I remember countless youth group lessons devoted to training for these opportunities.

These debating sites are not just in college dorm rooms or online forums. They also include the U.S. Senate chamber, the Palace of Westminster, and CNN roundtables. In those rooms the debate over contradictions no longer matters. Relativism is fine–nay encouraged–as long as we are safely dealing with the internal thoughts and intentions of subjects of the Western political project. We can amicably disagree over matters of religion because we have isolated a secular plane upon which we translate our private motivations into common cause. ‘Separation of church and state!’ Believe anything you want privately, but in public you must believe in the secular. Nevertheless, when it comes to foreign policy, the mandate is clear: abandon our bold binary and present a unified front against the Axis of Evil. Those others have not attained to the height of human culture: privatized relativism. Better bomb them until they do.

One thought on “Weaponized Relativism

  1. I wonder if the problem you and Steven are addressing could be approached somewhat differently.

    My primary area of study is classical music. And the phrase “it’s all subjective” and it’s variants carry very little weight in my field. There are *some* things that fall within the realm of what one could call taste, or personal opinion. For instance. I can decide to play a fugue by Bach far faster or slower than anyone has ever played it before, resulting in its *orthodox* character being completely transformed. After the concert is over and I have impressed only a handful of people, I can shout out to the audience “it’s all subjective! and my subjective opinion is better than yours!” What I am trying to say is that the question of “taste” and “opinion” is dramatically transformed when the question of audience is taken into account. Sure, I can believe play it extremely fast but soon none of my colleagues and soon any audience will take me seriously as a musician and I will cease to have a job. Or, consider the singers on American Idol who believe that they are good but are very bad. Here, it’s fine to think that you are a great singer, but by whose standards?

    I think that there is a danger in posing questions of opinions in a context where there is no danger of failure. I think it may even fosters relativism. If a student says “it’s all subjective” then ask “for *whom*” is it subjective? This immediately points to a realm where different subjectivities agree and disagree and the importance of each.

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