In recent times several religious and lay figures have spoken out against a “wave of moral relativism”, as if this were something new or something that the church is opposed to. Actually all morality is relative and that the only moral relativism the church opposes is that outside its control. In fact, Christianity itself is an excellent model of moral relativism.
We’re all aware of the darker periods of the church’s history – the inquisitions, the burning of “heretics”, the wars between Catholics and Protestants, the antisemitism and so on. Yet these were all things which were perceived to be good at the time. If morality were absolute we’d still believe they were good today, since an absolute morality does not change over time. It is because morality is relative that we form our own different opinions, while it is our arrogance that leads us to believe that whichever idea we have of morality is the only right one, and thus absolute. Today we perceive that these past events were evil. I have no doubt that future generations will look back at us today and determine that some of our current actions are evil too, even if we don’t see it that way right now.
Probably the best known opponents of moral absolutism is, of course, Jesus. Much of his story as reported in the gospels deals with his efforts to change some of the deeply-entrenched concepts of morality in his time and place, often clashing with other religious figures. The basic message of St.Paul was that we are no longer bound by the laws of Moses, but are saved through God’s grace. The very foundations of morality for the followers of the Bible were replaced overnight. Why is it that Christians freely eat pork or oysters today despite the strong prohibitions against them among the Bible’s 613 religious laws? Why are most Christians not even aware of these laws? Because morality changes. They used to be the very foundation of morality, believed to be established by God himself. Today they are barely of historical interest to Christians.
Even the personality of God changes completely in the course of the Bible story. From a cruel and vindictive god who thought nothing of slaughtering the entire human and animal population of the world except for the contents of one large boat, he turned into a loving and forgiving god who sacrificed his own life for the benefit of humanity. Today we are debating the precise instant in which a “person” is created in order to determine whether a fertilised egg has the same rights as a person. Quite a difference from the accounts of the slaughter of many different people or tribes (babies and children included) for no good reason at God’s behest.
Moral relativism is so real that it leads devout people to question and disagree with the actions of their god. In recounting the story of Exodus (in "The Ten Commandments"), filmmaker Cecil B.DeMille was so uncomfortable with the injustice of God hardening pharaoh’s heart repeatedly and punishing him and his people each time, that he invented a woman, “Nefertiri”, in order to let her take the blame for hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Many are the Christians who have a hard time accepting the story that their God killed every first-born of Egypt even though they were guilty of nothing, or that – acting on God’s orders – all Midianite men, women and boys were slaughtered, and all their girls taken for a lifetime of sexual slavery.
Morality is unavoidably relative because our concepts of good or bad are a product of our society, culture, education, and experiences – and those change. Maybe if God were to pop over in person and set the record straight, we’d have an absolute and unchanging code of morality. Unfortunately God stubbornly refuses to prove his existence or tell us his wishes, so all we are left with are a multitude of religions or churches each creating a different God in their own image, and insisting that theirs is the real one and that he wants everyone to obey the said church’s leaders.
Many Christians are familiar with one particular argument of moral relativism – that for something to be a sin, the person doing it must do it intentionally and knowingly. In other words, it depends on the circumstances. If morality were absolute, then a sin would remain a sin irrespective of circumstances. By comparison, the laws of a country are binding whether or not one knows about them, which is why one must not confuse what is illegal and what is immoral.
Moral relativism is in itself neither good nor bad – it just describes what morality is. Of course we have history to teach us that people who believe in an absolute source of morality are not necessarily good – hence we have people who get the idea that God (as an absolute source of morality) wants them to plant a bomb in front of such and such a clinic, or kill someone who looks Jewish, or to hijack a plane and fly it straight into a skyscraper.
Since there is no absolute standard by which to measure morality, such topics will remain subject to debate.