Battle Between Religious Freedom and Post-Modern Moral Relativism

Commentary Tolerance in the classical understanding was based on the belief that competing religious views—even those considered to be false and absurd—should be endured as the free expression and debate of contesting ideas were central to the pursuit of truth. By contrast, contemporary assumptions based on postmodern theory hold that truth is relative and that truth claims are instruments of power and control. This may help us understand the present legal efforts to circumscribe religious freedom and associated freedoms of thought and expression to achieve political objectives such as diversity and tolerance. The Cambridge Dictionary defines tolerance as a “willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree or approve them.” This indicates that truth may be known, although the best way to find it is by embracing an attitude of dialogue and open-mindedness, freedom of speech being a mechanism by which falsehoods can be eliminated. That nobody can be regarded as a free person unless he/she can freely express an opinion is the essence of the classical defence of tolerance. But given the moral relativism of our time, this traditional view of tolerance is gradually being replaced by a postmodernist approach which denies any possibility of objective truth. The English philosopher, John Locke, was one of the first modern thinkers to deal with the problem of religious intolerance. It is indisputable that his celebrated defence of tolerance inspired the drafters of the U.S. Constitution to enshrine the free exercise of religion in its First Amendment. Locke framed his entire case for religious tolerance in unashamedly biblical terms. One of the major themes in his writings is the incompatibility of intolerance with the teachings of Jesus Christ. A police officer cycles past members of the church forming a procession leading the hearse carrying Cardinal George Pell outside St. Mary’s Cathedral on February 02, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images) If neither Christ nor the Apostles coerced anyone into the “Kingdom of Heaven,” Locke concluded that neither could any government force individuals to embrace the “true faith” and to be saved. This defence of tolerance, which goes in line with the thought of other outstanding philosophers in the classical liberal tradition, is certainly not grounded in any doubt of truth or sympathy for the beliefs that should be tolerated. In fact, Locke argued that we should even tolerate opinions that are “false and absurd.” Closing the Marketplace of Ideas In this classical view, tolerance rests on a conviction that competing views must be tolerated as the free exchange of contesting ideas that are central to the pursuit of truth. By contrast, contemporary western societies appear to have gradually moved away from the free exchange of ideas to the assumption that all ideas are equally valid. Once society slides to such a morally relativist postulation, society starts to morph itself into a censor of opinions and statements that contradict the assumption that all religions are equally valid. To question such an assumption is to commit a great “sin” and to be guilty of the ultimate act of intolerance. Consider, for instance, the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (RRTA), a law that was enacted two decades ago by the state of Victoria in Australia. In its goal of achieving a “multicultural democracy,” this legislation establishes that, in the process of identifying an alleged intolerance, “it is irrelevant whether or not the person who has made an assumption about the race or religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, was incorrect at the time that the contravention is alleged to have taken place.” In other words, a person may commit religious “intolerance” according to the legislation even when he/she had no intention to do so! This is hardly the sort of “tolerant society” in which most of us would like to live. And yet, as noted by Peter Kurti, a senior research fellow at Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies: “[Australians] are rapidly losing sight of the fundamental principles of tolerance by John Locke; tolerance has evolved to become a signifier of acceptance and affirmation. Those who fail to affirm are deemed intolerant, and those who express ‘intolerant’ opinions are condemned for engaging in ‘hate speech.’ Denunciation, condemnation, and public humiliation are the tactics used increasingly by the defenders of new orthodoxies.” Buddhist monks meditate at Mendut Temple on Vesak Day, commonly known as ‘Buddha’s birthday,’ at the Borobudur Mahayana Buddhist monument in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia, on May 9, 2009. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images) Why would any law such as the Victorian RRTA determine that the truth of a statement is irrelevant for the purposes of its application? The answer lies in the fact that such a law approaches truth

Battle Between Religious Freedom and Post-Modern Moral Relativism

Commentary

Tolerance in the classical understanding was based on the belief that competing religious views—even those considered to be false and absurd—should be endured as the free expression and debate of contesting ideas were central to the pursuit of truth.

By contrast, contemporary assumptions based on postmodern theory hold that truth is relative and that truth claims are instruments of power and control.

This may help us understand the present legal efforts to circumscribe religious freedom and associated freedoms of thought and expression to achieve political objectives such as diversity and tolerance.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines tolerance as a “willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree or approve them.” This indicates that truth may be known, although the best way to find it is by embracing an attitude of dialogue and open-mindedness, freedom of speech being a mechanism by which falsehoods can be eliminated.

That nobody can be regarded as a free person unless he/she can freely express an opinion is the essence of the classical defence of tolerance. But given the moral relativism of our time, this traditional view of tolerance is gradually being replaced by a postmodernist approach which denies any possibility of objective truth.

The English philosopher, John Locke, was one of the first modern thinkers to deal with the problem of religious intolerance. It is indisputable that his celebrated defence of tolerance inspired the drafters of the U.S. Constitution to enshrine the free exercise of religion in its First Amendment.

Locke framed his entire case for religious tolerance in unashamedly biblical terms. One of the major themes in his writings is the incompatibility of intolerance with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Epoch Times Photo
A police officer cycles past members of the church forming a procession leading the hearse carrying Cardinal George Pell outside St. Mary’s Cathedral on February 02, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

If neither Christ nor the Apostles coerced anyone into the “Kingdom of Heaven,” Locke concluded that neither could any government force individuals to embrace the “true faith” and to be saved.

This defence of tolerance, which goes in line with the thought of other outstanding philosophers in the classical liberal tradition, is certainly not grounded in any doubt of truth or sympathy for the beliefs that should be tolerated.

In fact, Locke argued that we should even tolerate opinions that are “false and absurd.”

Closing the Marketplace of Ideas

In this classical view, tolerance rests on a conviction that competing views must be tolerated as the free exchange of contesting ideas that are central to the pursuit of truth.

By contrast, contemporary western societies appear to have gradually moved away from the free exchange of ideas to the assumption that all ideas are equally valid.

Once society slides to such a morally relativist postulation, society starts to morph itself into a censor of opinions and statements that contradict the assumption that all religions are equally valid. To question such an assumption is to commit a great “sin” and to be guilty of the ultimate act of intolerance.

Consider, for instance, the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act (RRTA), a law that was enacted two decades ago by the state of Victoria in Australia.

In its goal of achieving a “multicultural democracy,” this legislation establishes that, in the process of identifying an alleged intolerance, “it is irrelevant whether or not the person who has made an assumption about the race or religious belief or activity of another person or class of persons, was incorrect at the time that the contravention is alleged to have taken place.”

In other words, a person may commit religious “intolerance” according to the legislation even when he/she had no intention to do so!

This is hardly the sort of “tolerant society” in which most of us would like to live. And yet, as noted by Peter Kurti, a senior research fellow at Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies:

“[Australians] are rapidly losing sight of the fundamental principles of tolerance by John Locke; tolerance has evolved to become a signifier of acceptance and affirmation. Those who fail to affirm are deemed intolerant, and those who express ‘intolerant’ opinions are condemned for engaging in ‘hate speech.’ Denunciation, condemnation, and public humiliation are the tactics used increasingly by the defenders of new orthodoxies.”

Epoch Times Photo
Buddhist monks meditate at Mendut Temple on Vesak Day, commonly known as ‘Buddha’s birthday,’ at the Borobudur Mahayana Buddhist monument in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia, on May 9, 2009. (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

Why would any law such as the Victorian RRTA determine that the truth of a statement is irrelevant for the purposes of its application?

The answer lies in the fact that such a law approaches truth claims from a morally relativistic perspective.

Instead of allowing for freedom of speech, a cardinal tenet of every tolerant society, this sort of postmodern legislation suppresses the free exchange of religious ideas on grounds of achieving certain political goals.

Agreeing to Disagree Nowhere to be Found

The “tolerance” aimed by such legislation becomes rather undemocratic once it is understood that religion is rarely simply a private matter. To the contrary, religious speech is, in its nature, often intertwined with political opinions, perspectives, philosophies, and practices.

According to Nicholas Aroney, an Australian law professor, “religious beliefs and religious practices (as well as irreligious beliefs) not infrequently inform, or are tied up with, political perspectives, philosophies and practices.”

However, certain anti-discrimination laws are connected to the core principles of postmodern philosophy. These laws are designed to suppress any speech that could be subjectively interpreted as having the capacity to incite hatred towards any protected class.

Epoch Times Photo
A woman stomps on a free speech sign at the University of California–Berkeley in Berkeley, Calif., on Sept. 24, 2017. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

As noted by Alexander Millard and John Steenhof, two Australian lawyers working for Human Rights Law Alliance, “these laws have proven themselves to be tyrannical tools that pay no heed to truth and the importance of open public debate for a healthy and flourishing democratic society.”

Naturally, it is not really difficult to support the speech of those who think and act as we do. The problem is when there is fervent disagreement. This is when one’s level of tolerance could be more effectively tested.

As important as the right to religious freedom is, it is also important to consider that protecting this freedom should not entail any form of a blasphemy law that removes another person’s right to criticise, deny, and even ridicule any religious belief or exercise, as long as it is done without the incitement to violence.

To conclude, tolerance in the classical sense has been violated by such postmodernist legislation.

Postmodern dogmas that hold that truth is always relative have clearly justified contemporary legal efforts to circumscribe religious freedom in the name of promoting alleged “diversity” and “tolerance.”

Arguably, such efforts to proscribe freedom of speech in the name of promoting the “new tolerance” of diversity, and which seek to protect the beliefs of certain groups from challenge by “offensive” opinions and counter-views, are nothing but a complete perversion of the authentic meaning of tolerance.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.