If an atheist talks to a well-read theist about morality for any length of time, one term is bound to come up: moral relativism. This is a belief that morality is “relative” to the individual, and theists relish in equating atheism and moral relativism.
Atheism does not assume moral relativism. On the contrary, plenty of atheists have a very strict sense of right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable. Of course, to the theist, this is moral relativism because the theist is convinced they have found the moral authority, and anyone who questions it is merely justifying their disobedience.
I am not a moral relativist, and in fact I believe many actions have no bearing on morality. What I eat is not a matter of morality, and Christians would side with me. Jews and Muslims might disagree. I believe Jews and Muslims are wrong, not because what one eats is unimportant, but because of the dogmatic nature and moral rectitude implied in their actions.
What a theist is really trying to say when they bring up “moral relativism” is that an atheist is left without any definitive authority on morality. This is fundamentality untrue, because each person is their own definitive authority on morality. Instead, what the theist should point out is: the moral authority of the atheist must be acknowledged as fallible.
This statement is true, and most atheists have no problem stating, “I could be wrong.” This instantly appears to play into the argument for “moral relativism,” because what the theist hears is, “We each have to make up our own interpretation of morality.” If this is the theist’s conclusion, they have misunderstood.
Let me be clear: I believe there is an eternal concept of right and wrong, but that does not mean it is hard-wired into the human brain or written on a stone tablet for all to know. Human beings make a valiant effort to spell out in black and white their interpretation of right and wrong, but it remains as muddled as any wakeful interpretation of a dream.
What of the Christian camp, and their moral certainty? Clearly if God has written a book for us to read, it says in clear, plain language what is expected of human beings. And yet… Christians bicker amongst themselves over the literal versus metaphorical meaning of this passage or that. People of all religions do.
Religion is supposed to provide certainty in a world of doubt, stable tradition in an ever-changing environment. Yet religious scholars hold diametrically opposing views within not only the same religion or sect, but even congregation, while theology evolves over time until it mutates into an unrecognizable amalgamation of secular philosophy.
People want to know for sure, and some tell us that we cannot know anything. I believe we can know some things… I exist (cogito ergo sum), for one thing. You are reading these words at this moment, whenever it is, though I have written them at some point in the past. There are many things we can know, and there is no use in throwing our hands in the air with despair over the things we cannot know. We ought to seek out what we do not know, while trying not to be discouraged by those who spread appealing lies in lieu of actual answers.
I believe most people learn what is right and what is wrong from experience, so sometimes it takes doing the wrong thing to learn. Mercy is such an important quality for individuals, and even more so for a society that is itself unsure of what is right and what is wrong. Society practices moral relativism, this is true, but is it the fault of a few atheists… or the Christians who can’t even decide what their book is saying?
There is nothing wrong with moral relativism. In fact, it is a very practical viewpoint, but when theists accuse me of it... I find it to be a case of the toilet calling the refrigerator black.