If taking your dog for a walk is
your idea of Sunday worship then Vermont’s Dog
Chapel is for you. It has stained glass windows dedicated to various dogs
as saints. Pilgrims can attach a photo to the walls of their deceased canine as
a memorial of happier times. Here is a place where anyone can wear a collar and
believe whatever they want just so long as they don’t believe it too strongly. The
vibe of the Chapel is captured on the sign outside: “Welcome all creeds, all
breeds, no dogmas allowed.”
Dog Chapel resonates with the warp and woof of
our times, even though scepticism greets the truth claims by any church,
whether it be Catholic, Protestant or Scientologist. Indeed, the mere attempt
to present objective values about life or death, rather than just stating mere
facts, is seen as religious fanaticism. It could be an attempt to take control of
my thoughts, freedom and wallet, people fear.
Rather than roll over and play dead
before authority our society prefers the relativist claim that “you have your
truth and I have mine”. Confrontation is avoided by watering down thought and
making it so mushy that no one would ever impose his beliefs. But when is a
relativist ever wrong? How would one know?
Think of the dolphin music in a
secular funeral parlour. It sounds meaningful but it doesn’t pin you down to
any specific life view or course of action. Think of Tina Turner’s Buddhism and
karma-lite without any of the down-sides of reincarnation (like blaming the
congenitally disabled for sins committed in a previous life). If that sounds
too mind-bending, you can always squelch me with “well, that’s your opinion”.
Some statements can open up interesting
discussions. “That’s your opinion” is not one of them. Anyway, no one really
believes in “that’s your opinion”. We all think that female genital mutilation
in the Sudan, racism in Arizona, the stoning of women in Iran, or child
molestation in Australia’s Northern Territory are wrong however acceptable they
may be in the local culture.
Here’s where the wheels really begin
to wobble on the cart of relativism. We live in a society in which we are free
to go whatever we want but we never find out where we should begin or where we
should end up. Our freedom is like a complicated toy without the instruction
manual. Pope Benedict XVI, the implacable foe of moral relativism, has often mused
that we cannot make the world better
unless we know what is good and what is not good for the world. Relativism leads
to intellectual complacency and social apathy.
“But that’s just your opinion.” Yes, it is and I’m happy to
debate it. The answer, I propose, to the problem of disagreement and differing
perspectives is not to weaken thought, not to retreat into indifference and
disengagement, but rather to do mental exercise and sharpen our critical
We should work towards fostering an environment and culture
where concern for truth precedes personal comfort. We should be humble about
our truth claims but humility means telling the truth. It means saying you are good at
something when indeed you are.
We can know the principles
of non-contradiction and causality, as well as the concept of the person as a
free and intelligent subject. If failures to arrive at the truth have been
caused through bias or sloppy thinking, that is no reason to abandon the search
for truth. It is reason to redouble our efforts to cultivate the intellectual
virtues of fairness and coherence.
Let’s encourage reflection and self-examination. What are my
reasons for belief? Do they stand up to rigorous analysis? Our truth claims need
to be made without swagger; we need to propose more than impose; but we should
not let relativists impose silence upon us. The truth hurts but it also heals.
Not to connect our perspectives with reality is to go delusional.
It would be symptomatic of a society that had gone to the dogs.
Richard Umbers teaches philosophy in Sydney