I am not a moral relativist. But I am what I will call for lack of a better term an experiential relativist. I believe that everyone’s experiences, and thus what can be expected of them at any given moment, is different. I try to avoid any hint that I am somehow on a higher plane than anyone else (don’t we have enough ego problems as it is?)
There were two recent experiences I had watching debates on a site called Intelligence Squared that really hit this home for me. Both happened to be debates between a team of atheists and believers. In the first, the motion was “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world.” For the motion, a Catholic MP took the stance that the Catholic Church was a bastion against moral relativism in the world, and cited the Ten Commandments. But then when the opposition ever hinted at any historic crimes of the Catholic Church– the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, anti-Semitism– she would dodge with “those were different times, and you can’t judge what went on then by modern standards.” In a sharp retort, Stephen Fry asked, “Isn’t that the most obvious form of moral relativism?”
And here, I was in full agreement with Mr. Fry. If this form if historical relativism is allowed, which we religious folk sometimes like to dodge and only acknowledge when historic wrongs done by religion are brought up, then we should also acknowledge the differences between cultures, upbringings, and experiences. I personally believe that the path each individual takes to God will be different. I love the story of Tom Christofferson’s journey out of and back into the Church. He spent the majority of his adult life outside the Church married to a man. And he had family members that would try to guilt trip every family reunion, telling him he wasn’t living a life that pleased God. I don’t think these approaches are helpful at all.
The ancient Israelites are a great example where the Lord explicitly gives two different standards. Paul explains that the Israelites were given the Law of Moses, because they were not ready for a higher law. I think similarly today, we need to admit that even we ourselves are not ready to keep aspects of God’s higher law. One glaring example is the law of consecration, a law that we as Latter-Day Saints are still not ready to live fully.
I believe we are all at different stages in life. We each have our own personal relationship with God, and we can give others the same privilege of doing so. And I remind myself of Paul’s words that “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” That, I think, is perhaps the best antidote against moral relativism.
In the second example, another team of believers and non-believers were arguing over the motion “You don’t need to believe in God to find good in religion.” And interesting motion, to say the least. In this case, the atheists were actually highlighting all the good they found in religion. But one believer on the other side took this point very personally: he said, in effect, that by advocating for the positives in religion without a true believe in God was at best insincere and at worst, outright theft. If you want a secular utopia, have the gumption to do it without stealing ideas from religion.
Alaine de Boton, the atheist on the other side, really put this Catholic monk in his place I thought, when he retorted, that many in this world do not and can not believer in God, for whatever reason: they were not brought up in a religious household, etc. Are you really going to refuse to let them engage with religious ideas, because they don’t start out first with a belief in God?
This example brought back to mind a question that has bugged me since childhood: If I hadn’t grown up as a member of the Church, would I have still believed in God? The honest answer is, I don’t know. It is humbling when I think about it. And it makes me realize how truly different the ways each of us experiences the world really are.