Closed-Minded Relativism
That Most Pernicious of Absolutisms
(S. Lovell)

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 his relativism.

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 other culture.

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 absolutism.

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 amoral.

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.

©2003 A resource for learning how to read the Bible.