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Is truth absolute or relative?


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Conclusions (for those who don't want to read the whole essay):

bulletMathematics: Some math statements are absolutely true because we define them as true. e.g. "1 + 1 = 2" is absolutely true in normal (base-10) arithmetic.
bulletGeology: Many statements are absolutely true because they conform to reality, or false because they conflict with reality. "The earth existed 20,000 years ago in more or less its present shape" is one example. Fewer than 1% of geologists (those who believe in creation science) reject the statement; the overwhelming majority (those who believe in theistic or naturalistic evolution) regard it to be true. But there is an underlying reality; the statement is either true or false. If we had access to a time machine, we could go back 20,000 years and take a look. However, we don't have access to such a device. Thus, it is impossible to get everyone to agree on a consensus.
bulletTheology and philosophy: Here, there are many statements which are either true or false. Muslims, Jews and Sikhs will accept as true, the statement: "There is only one deity, and that God is an indivisible unity." Just about everyone else, from Atheists, most Buddhists, and Christians to Wiccans and Zoroastrians would say that the statement is false. But as in the previous case, there is an underlying reality; the statement is either true or false. If we knew everything that there is to know about the universe, then we would know whether the sentence is true or false, absolutely.  A correct answer exists. Muslims and Jews believe the statement to be true; most followers of other religions say it is false. Again, a consensus is impossible, with our current level of knowledge. We simply have no way to prove the correct answer to everyone's satisfaction. If we could reach a consensus, everyone would share the same basic belief about God.
bulletEthics and morality: Here, there are many controversial questions. Three examples are:
bulletShould a woman in a particular situation have access to abortion or
bulletShould gays and lesbians in loving, committed relationships be allowed to marry in the U.S. and enjoy the 1,500 or so of benefits that marriage brings?
bulletShould physicians be allowed to help terminally ill patients in pain who want to die commit suicide?

Individuals work out their answers to these questions on the basis of their own core, foundational theological beliefs, which are linked to their worldview. (A worldview encompasses their basic beliefs concerning deity, humanity and the rest of the universe.)

Since there are many conflicting sets of theological beliefs and worldviews in existence, there will be different sets of moral "truths" that are passionately held in a religiously diverse society. Consider arguments between conservative and liberal Christians on the morality of  abortion, homosexuality, physician assisted suicide. Even with one wing of Christianity -- the conservative denominations -- teachings differ greatly on topics such as divorce, 1 hell, the millennium, rapture, salvation, the Book of Revelation, and creation/evolution. 2 If one includes the beliefs of other nations, and from other eras, the disagreements become even more pronounced. 

If one set of theological beliefs is absolutely, objectively, universally true, then its corresponding set of moral truths would also be absolute. But there is no way in which we can currently know which set, if any, is true. Various faith groups teach many different sets of theological beliefs; they differ from religion to religion. They even disagree within each religion. Until we can all reach a consensus on a common set of theological beliefs, we will never achieve agreement on moral questions. There has never been worldwide unanimity about religious beliefs. 

There never has been a consensus on major moral questions. We seem destined to always have active ethical disagreements in the world. Even if absolute truth exists in the religious sphere, we may never be able to determine what it is.

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References used:

  1. H.W. House, Ed., "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian views," InterVarsity Press, (1990). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online bookstore.
  2. Zondervan has published a series of books on fundamental Christian beliefs. In each book, leading Evangelical Christians argue opposing viewpoints, each derived from the Bible.

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Copyright � 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-JUL-29
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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