Sunday, April 15, 2007

This is what the clash of civilisations is really about

Relativism has made liberal openness appear weak, empty and repugnant compared with the clarity of dogma

Julian Baggini
Saturday April 14, 2007
The Guardian

"I don't usually consider either the Ministry of Defence or the Vatican to be prescient founts of wisdom. But when two such different oracles issue remarkably similar warnings, you have to take notice. Earlier this week it was revealed in this newspaper how the MoD believes that "the trend towards moral relativism and increasingly pragmatic values" was causing more and more people to seek "more rigid belief systems, including religious orthodoxy and doctrinaire political ideologies, such as popularism and Marxism". Flash back to 2004 and you find Pope John Paul II encouraging the then Cardinal Ratzinger to challenge a world "marked by both a widespread relativism and the tendency to a facile pragmaticism" by boldly proclaiming the truth of the church. Ratzinger has been preaching about the dangers of relativism ever since.

Put the two together and you have a worrying prognosis. The clash of civilisations is happening not between Islam and the west, as we are often led to believe, but between pragmatic relativism and dogmatic certainty. On this analysis, it is easy to see liberal democracy not as the crowning achievement of civilisation but a manifestation of a laissez-faire, morally bankrupt modernity. "Relativism appears to be the philosophical foundation of democracy," said Ratzinger in 1996. "Democracy in fact is supposedly built on the basis that no one can presume to know the true way."

It is no surprise that both the MoD and the Pope believe that the beneficiaries of this polarisation will be those offering certitude, since belief in something is almost always preferable to belief in nothing. As Walter put it in the film The Big Lebowski: "Say what you like about the tenets of national socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos."

How did we get to this dismal Hobson's choice? The finger of blame has to be pointed largely at academics and intellectuals who have been so keen to debunk popular notions of truth that they have created a culture in which the middle ground between shoulder-shrugging relativism and dogmatic fundamentalism has been vacated......."

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