Saturday, February 04, 2006

The values of secular liberalism

Believing in Doubt By AUSTIN DACEY The New York Times: February 3, 2006
Pope Benedict's worry is that individual autonomy has been elevated above moral absolutes...The pope has used the term "relativism" to describe not only non-absolute standards, but also uncertain ones. The alternative to certainty, however, is not nihilism but the recognition of fallibility, the idea that even a very reasonable belief is not beyond question. If that's all relativism means, then it is hardly the enemy of truth or morality.
Accepting that we are fallible doesn't keep us from thinking that we're right. It just keeps us from thinking that we couldn't possibly be wrong. And that's a good thing. The ability to revise beliefs in light of new information is part of what makes having a mind worthwhile. It worked for a young German theologian who (according to his biographer, John Allen) in the late 1960's began a transformation from Vatican II reformer to enforcer of the faith. Even the church itself has been known to self-correct every once in a while (see Galileo and Darwin).
What Pope Benedict calls relativism are actually the values of secular liberalism: individual autonomy, equal rights and freedom of conscience. But it is easy to conflate what liberals affirm with the way they affirm it. Liberalism tells us that our way of life is up to us (within limits), not that the truth of liberalism is up to us. It entails that we tolerate even claims that we doubt, not that we doubt even the claims of tolerance. Many liberals themselves are guilty of this confusion, which can manifest as all-values-are-equal relativism (especially common among freshmen in ethics classes, at least until the instructor informs them that because all grades are equally valid, everyone will be receiving a D for the course).
True, secular values can turn a civilization inside out. In post-Christian Europe, entire nations have been plunged into endemic health, skyrocketing education and hopelessly low rates of violent crime. Indeed, it's hard to build a decent society without secular values, and "Deus Caritas Est" acknowledges this: "A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church," where politics is "the sphere of the autonomous use of reason." The role of the church is to "bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good," not to "impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith."
Perhaps a future encyclical will concentrate on the truly harmful kind of relativism. This is the misguided multiculturalism that keeps Western liberals from criticizing the oppression of women, religious minorities and apostates in Islamic societies for fear of being accused of Islamophobia. In such cases we should not shrink from the ideals of autonomy and equality but affirm them openly for what they are: objectively defensible principles of conscience.
The important contrast is not between absolutism and relativism, as the pontiff would have it, but between secular values and their traditional religious alternatives. He can accuse secularists of believing in the wrong things. But that's not the same as believing in nothing. Austin Dacey is writing a book about the secular conscience in public life.

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