That Most Pernicious of Absolutisms
I take it that to most people the above title seems simply outrageous. It is normally assumed that
it is the relativist who is open-minded, and the absolutist closed-minded. But as Alan Bloom has argued
in his brilliant critique of American education, The Closing of the American Mind, nothing could
be further from the truth.
Relativism and an open mind are placed together because relativism entails that your view is no better
than anyone else’s, and so other views will be worth listening to. But of course relativism also entails
that other peoples views are no better than my own. If this is so, then there really is no reason at all
to listen to other people’s views. Were relativism true, then my view couldn’t possibly become any better
by incorporating other people’s ideas into my own way of thinking. If my view could be so improved this
would imply that there was a standard, independent of my view, which measured this improvement. But the
existence of such a standard would imply the existence of an absolute, which is just what the relativist
wants to deny.
Chesterton compared an open mind to an open mouth. The point of both, he said, was to close upon
something solid. To be open-minded does not mean to think one can never come to conclusions with any
degree of certainty. Indeed the point of open-mindedness is to be able to rationally assess different
views and then be able to make an informed choice between them. Such a choice will always imply that
the chosen view is (thought to be) preferable to its alternatives. It should be noted that even the
relativist couldn’t avoid such choices, he has, after all, chosen against absolutism. It follows,
therefore, that the relativist should think either that his relativism is held without good reason or
that some positions can be rationally preferable to others. If he adopts the former he has no rational
grounds to criticize any who disagree with him, but if he adopts the later he has, in effect, abandoned
The relativist’s position is one of numerous paradoxes. Many cling to this position for fear of
telling others that they are in the wrong. How can those in one culture, they argue, criticize the views
of another culture? How can we say that we are right, and they are wrong? But the obvious truth is that
very few cultures have held to relativism, and by embracing it ourselves we still end up telling others
they are wrong in their absolutism. The relativist doesn’t think that relativism is only true ‘for him’,
or for those in his culture. He thinks it is true for everyone. In other words, if relativism is really
true, it is absolutely true. But if anything is absolutely true, not merely true ‘for me’ or true for a
particular culture, then relativism is false!
There are many other problems aside from these purely logical ones. As already noted relativism implies
that improvement is impossible. The inevitable result is that all moral reform is either wrong or pointless.
Furthermore, inter-cultural comparisons become impossible. Nazi Germany comes out as no worse than any
With such horrendous moral and intellectual consequences, the unavoidable conclusion then, is that
relativism, in its absolute denial of absolutes, is by far the most pernicious form of
Steve Lovell's personal note: Contrary to the
most people's expectations, I have found Christianity and Philosophy to be not only compatible, but even
mutually supporting... at least when both are bolstered by a healthy common sense.
To illustrate this we might briefly consider the most popular argument for atheism, which contends that
(1) an all-good God would want to prevent whatever evil he could, that
(2) an all-powerful God would be able to prevent any evil he wanted, and that since
(3) not all evils are prevented,
(4) no all-good, all-powerful God exists.
There are many questions that might be raised about this argument, but here I raise just one.
Premise (3) refers to certain events as "evil", but by what standard do we judge these
events to be less than ideal?
Does not the very idea of imperfection imply an idea of perfection?
And in a Godless world, from where did we get this idea?
If the atheist's argument is to work, the universe cannot merely fail to be as I would
like it to be, it must be genuinely unjust. But - in a Godless world - from where do we get this idea of
just and unjust? It seems, in fact, that the premise at the heart of the atheists argument
(that the world contains much evil), implicitly contradicts the atheists view that the world is fundamentally
Another form that the argument takes is that if God were good and all-powerful, He would intervene to
prevent calamities on a more regular basis. While I sympathize with this, I can't help but notice that if
I point out an occasion where God does seem to have intervened, the atheist will typically either say
that the event did not happen at all, or that the correct explanation has nothing whatever to do with
God. But it is surely inconsistent to complain at God for not intervening and then go on explaining away
all alleged interventions no matter how good the evidence for these events may be.
These typical atheistic strategies suggest to me that the atheist's problem with God is not that there
is conclusive evidence against His existence, and nor is it that there is no evidence for His existence.
The problem is more likely to be that it's that the evidence is not nearly so clear as they would like.
In other words God must be sought, and not only that: we must (at least sometimes and perhaps always)
trust Him and "lean not on our own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5).
A perspective from Steve Lovell.
Steven Lovell lives in Sheffield, England, with his wife. His doctoral studies in philosophy centers
upon the works of C.S. Lewis, and he aims to become a teacher of mathematics.
For more of his articles on philosophy, visit Philosophical Themes from C.S. Lewis.
A resource for learning how to read the Bible.