The Dangers of Secularism and Relativism
Pope Benedict XVI has identified secularism and relativism as twin forces in society that represent a clear threat to the Christian faith and its practice. He was aware that the United Kingdom is a highly secularized environment with its own history of anti-Catholicism. Although on one level the secularism that at first appears tolerant of people’s freedom, an underpinning principle of modern democracy, is in practice intolerant of attitudes towards religious belief. Christianity in particular is marginalised, “exposed to an intolerable pressure that at first ridicules it as belonging to a perverse, false way of thinking – and then tries to deprive it of breathing space” to exist. The ‘relativist’ agenda, seeks to claim that no one is able to know the right way forward. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that religion is in fact a guarantor of true freedom, preserving the very notion of the dignity of the human being as being made in the image and likeness of God.
From His speeches
“The evangelization of culture is all the more important in our times, when a “dictatorship of relativism” threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good. There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatize it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty. Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister.” (Pope Benedict’s Homily at Bellahouston Park 5:15 pm Glasgow, Thursday, 16 September 2010)
“Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none.”(Pope Benedict’s address to Politicians, Diplomats, Academics and Business Leaders Westminster Hall, City of Westminster, Friday, 17 September 2010 7:10 pm)
“At the end of his life, Newman would describe his life’s work as a struggle against the growing tendency to view religion as a purely private and subjective matter, a question of personal opinion. Here is the first lesson we can learn from his life: in our day, when an intellectual and moral relativism threatens to sap the very foundations of our society, Newman reminds us that, as men and women made in the image and likeness of God, we were created to know the truth, to find in that truth our ultimate freedom and the fulfilment of our deepest human aspirations.” (The Holy Father’s Hyde Park Vigil Address 18/09/2010 8:30 pm)
And from His other Writings….
“The secular state arose for the first time in history, abandoning and excluding as mythological any divine guarantee or legitimation of the political element and declaring that God is a private question that does not belong to the public sphere or to the democratic formation of the public will. Public life came to be considered the domain of reason alone, which had no place for a seemingly unknowable God: from this perspective, religion and faith in God belonged to the domain of sentiment, not of reason. God and His will therefore ceased to be relevant to public life”. (Without Roots. The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam. P.62-63)
“In recent years I find myself noting how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance, thereby becoming a new dogmatism. Political correctness, whose constant pressures you have illuminated, seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past. It prescribes itself as the only way to think and speak – if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. Being faithful to traditional values and to the knowledge that upholds them is labelled intolerance, and relativism becomes the required norm. I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition of a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.” (Without Roots. The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, P.128)
“So in fact relativism has become the central problem for faith in our time. It by no means appears simply as resignation in the face of the unfathomable nature of truth, of course; rather, it defines itself positively on the basis of the concepts of tolerance, dialectical epistemology, and freedom, which would be limited by maintaining one truth as being valid for everyone. Relativism thus also appears as being the philosophical basis of democracy, which is said to be founded on no one’s being able to claim to know the right way forward; and it draws life from all the ways acknowledging each other as fragmentary attempts at improvement and trying to agree in common through dialogue.” (Truth and Tolerance. Christian Belief and World Religions, P.117)
“Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labelled today as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching’ (Ephesians 4:14) looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” (Homily of Joseph Ratzinger, Dean of the college of cardinals, at the opening of the conclave following the Death of Pope john Paul II, 19 April 2005).
Questions for reflection, discussion and further study:
- Pope Benedict has identified secularism as a force in society that seeks to eliminate the voice of religion and in particular that of Christianity: What instances are there to support this?
- How do you understand the term a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ and what are its implications for freedom of thought and expression?
- How is Christianity a guarantor of authentic liberty?
“The school of thought known as relativism: Various names have been given to this school today: post-enlightenment thinking, post-modernism, ‘weak thought’, deconstructionism. The labels have changed, but the target is always the same: to proclaim that there are no grounds for our values and no solid proof or argument establishing that any one thing is better or more valid than another.” (Marcello Pera . Quoted in: Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI) and Marcello Pera (2007 a), Without Roots. The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, Persus Books Group, New York, 11).
 Pope Benedict’s Address at Oscott College, Sunday, 19 September 2010 5:40pm.
 Benedict, Interview on Plane to Journalists September 16th 2010.
 Benedict XVI, 2010, 53.
 Ratzinger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI), (2004 b), Truth and Tolerance. Christian Belief and World Religions, Ignatius Press, San Francisco,117.
 Nichols, 2007, 223.