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Absolute Thinking in an Inabsolute World

by Frank L. Pasquale

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 20, Number 3.

At recent presentations, I have been told by some secular humanists

  • that all value, morality, and ethics are relative to, and determined by, political power;

  • that they see no signs of progress toward overcoming racism in the past 50 or 150 years; and

  • that all forms of religion and religiosity are uniform threats to human peace and well-being.

On the one hand, it is fairly clear to me that: 

  • to a very great and obvious degree, might continues to make right (or wrong) in human affairs;

  • there is much more to be achieved in overcoming destructive prejudice and judgmentalism in human relations than has been achieved thus far; and

  • much of what people call “religious” is inherently unstable, irrational, and threatening to peace, knowledge, and well-being.

But on the other hand, might does not always or absolutely make right. There are some signs of progress in overcoming brute racism and other forms of destructive judgmentalism among human beings. And “religion” encompasses a vast range of human ideas and behavior, some that are demonstrably more threatening to peace, knowledge, or well-being than others, and some that may be more salutary than threatening. The categorical right and wrong, black and white, good and evil, either/or, us/them assertions I’ve been presented with of late do not, to my mind, jibe with observation, human experience, available evidence, reason—or humanism.

All value is not completely relative to power. Assuredly, it remains so in much too great a measure. But it is not so in the absolute. The notion of fundamental human rights represents an endeavor on the part of human beings to establish global consensus on the quality of life or minimum treatment that all human beings deserve. It would be foolish to deny that such rights are widely being violated or that the powerful often reserve the right to violate them most. The current power of the U.S. government enables it to waive such rights with respect to suspected “enemy combatants” or “potential terrorists,” whether in violation of its own laws, United Nations charters, or Geneva conventions. But those much less powerful are able to appeal to standards from which to criticize such behavior as excessive and unjust. Such standards rest upon the recognition of certain enduring, though not absolute or eternal, attributes and aspirations of human beings. They rest upon commitments to protect the innocent and to incrementally improve the quality of human life regardless of personal characteristics, political advantage, or disadvantage.

There is some identifiable progress with respect to racism, prejudice, and group discrimination. At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, there is currently an exhibition (“Inventing Race”) of a genre of eighteenth-century art (casta, or caste painting) in which Spanish artists depicted countless named gradations of those of mixed African, Spanish, and indigenous “blood” in the Americas. Most of these names were quite derogatory, many drawn from terms for animals, such as mulatto (a reference to mules), lobo (wolf), barcino (associated with spotted horses and other animals), albarazado (white-spotted), cambujo (dark birds), zambaigo (knock-kneed), chamizo (half-burnt log), castizo, mestizo, morisco, and on and on. It is a small but valuable measure of progress that most who now view this art from a contemporary sensibility are aghast at the mindset that produced it (not that all such distinctions have by any means disappeared, whether among “people of color” or between “races”).

In this country, several classes of people who were denied suffrage only fifty or one hundred or two hundred years ago are no longer denied this right. African, Asian, and innumerable other “hyphenated” Americans have increasingly achieved great success, affluence, and widespread regard—something unthinkable a mere century or two ago. It would be foolish to deny that prejudice, “profiling,” or discrimination persists. Or to deny that we have farther to go than the distance we have come. Or to believe that whatever progress we make is irreversible. But to deny any and all progress is just as myopic.

With respect to religion and its dangers, this word covers a broad spectrum of human phenomena. One has little trouble detailing many phenomena associated with it that contribute to human excess and destructiveness, madness in crowds, patent irrationality, and the suppression of hard-won knowledge. But it is equally true that all “religious” behaviors or metaphysical beliefs are not equivalent nor equally dangerous or destructive.

While we should remain skeptical of any emotional, transcendental, cultural, political, or intellectual appeals powerful enough to overcome individuals’ “good” sense, ethical judgment, or personal responsibility, all forms of “spirituality” or “religiosity” are not the same in this regard. While monotheistic fundamentalism and triumphalism are clearly problematic, deism or pantheism or “ancestor worship” seem far less so. Buddhists who stress the ethical are far less threatening than Mormons who stress world conversion or Muslims who stress jihad. Indeed, some forms of moderate “spirituality” or liberal “religiosity” seem more salutary than threatening. It is such things as dogmatism, absolutism, extremism, patent irrationality, and irresponsible surrender that represent some of the greatest threats to human well-being—in whatever guise they appear, whether religious, ideological, political, or philosophical.

For my own part, I have grown weary of extremist thinking, whether purely right/wrong, black/white, good/evil, either/or, us/them, absolute, or absolutely relative. Western history and philosophy sometimes seem to me a succession of presumptuous pretensions to certainty. Such thinking has led to great achievements, but also untold destruction. It provided an impetus for great adventure and oppressive imperialism. It envisioned shining cities on a hill, and a purified “race” of superior humans (minus those deemed “unfit”).

To view ourselves as absolutely, unchangeably prejudiced, judgmental, selfish, oppressive, or evil is as dangerous and as empirically indefensible as to think ourselves perfect or capable of perfection. By doing so, we lapse back into an age-old habit of framing the world in dueling absolutes. (Remember Manichaeanism? How about Bushism?) But we are not absolutely good, nor absolutely evil; we are capable of both and generally interested in improving. We make small advances here and lapse back there. Our ethics and values are neither fixed and eternal nor absolutely relative but an approximate reflection of our nature (such as we dimly perceive it at this point in species evolution), our needs, and our shared aspiration to live lives worth living.

While it is essential that we remain skeptically aware of our many failings and foibles, we should not deny our incremental advancements, our ethical aspirations, or our potential for goodness and nobility, imperfect as these may be. At the very least, to deny such advancements is to negate the contributions of those whose lives were devoted to promoting a precious self-fulfilling prophecy of human decency and justice, regardless of power, class, culture, skin color, or metaphysical stance. At the worst, it is to frame a dismal world and a self-fulfilling prophecy where power alone is the greatest “good,” where we are forever consigned to an original sin of destructive judgmentalism without hope of improvement, and where all “religious” people and phenomena constitute a uniform evil that must be obliterated without a trace. I had thought that humanism represented a repudiation of such thinking, but perhaps I was mistaken. 

Frank L. Pasquale, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist engaged in research, writing, and lecturing on religion, church-state separation, morality/ethics, humanism, and the nonreligious in the United States.

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