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Is moral truth absolute or relative?

A brief note on conclusions

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Conclusions (for those who don't want to read this whole section on moral truth and other forms of truth):

In some areas of knowledge, absolute truths do exist. However, we might not be able to determine what the truth is. Consider:

  • Mathematics: Some math statements are absolutely true because we define them as true. For example:
    • "1 + 1 = 2" is absolutely true in normal (base-10) arithmetic.

However the following are also true statements:

  • 1 + 1 = 10 in binary (base 2) arithmetic,

  • 7 + 1 = 10 in octal (base 8) arithmetic, and

  • 9 + 1 = A, and F + 1 = 10 in hexadecimal (base 16) arithmetic.
  • Geology: Many statements are absolutely true because they conform to reality, or false because they conflict with reality. One example is:

    "The earth existed 11,000 years ago in more or less its present shape."

Fewer than 1% of geologists and biologists (those who believe in conservative Christian-based 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 11,000 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 of what is truth about the Earth's history.

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  • Theology and philosophy: Here, there are many statements which are either true or false.
    • Muslims, religious Jews, and Sikhs will accept as true, the statement:

      "There is only one deity, and that God is an indivisible unity without a partner or child."

    • Just about everyone else, from Atheists, Agnostics, most Buddhists, Christians, Wiccans, and Zoroastrians would say that the statement is false:
      • Strong Atheists believe that no deity or pantheon of deities exists.

      • Agnostics believe that we cannot know whether the statement is true or not, because no convincing proof exist that God exists or doesn't exist.

      • Most Atheists and Buddhists simply have no belief in the existence of a deity.

      • Most Christians believe in a Trinity: one eternal deity consisting of three persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

      • A small minority of Christians believe that God has existed as all three persons, but only one at a time.

      • Most Wiccans are bitheists; they believe in a dual deity: one female and the other male.

      • Zoroastrians are ditheists. They also believe in a dual deity, but where one is all good, and one is all evil.

However, 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. Most faith groups teach that 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. That is very unlikely to happen any time soon, unless a deity or deities exist, and decide(s) to let her/his/their/its presence known to humanity.

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

Since there are many conflicting sets of theological beliefs and world views 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, same-gender sexual behavior or minority sexual orientation, physician assisted suicide. Even within one wing of Christianity -- the conservative denominations -- teachings differ greatly on topics such as divorce, 1the existence and nature of hell, corporal punishment as a method of child discipline, the millennium, rapture, criteria for salvation, the proper interpretation of the Book of Revelation, creation/evolution etc. 2 If one includes the beliefs of other nations, other cultures, 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. There are, for example, over 20,000 different Christian denominations, sects, etc. that teach different beliefs as true. 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. 

And so, there never has been a consensus on many moral questions. We seem destined to always have active ethical disagreements in the world. Even if absolute truths exist in the religious sphere, we may never be able to determine what they are.

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References used:

  1. book cover image H.W. House, Ed., "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian views," InterVarsity Press, (1990). Read reviews or order this book safely from online bookstore. Available in paperback format only at $16.97 plus postage.
  2. Zondervan has published a series of books on fundamental Christian beliefs. In each book, leading Evangelical Christians argue opposing viewpoints, each derived from a different interpretation of Bible passages.

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Copyright © 1999 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-NOV-29
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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