Relativism is an Invisible, Deadly Gas

One of the differences today between parents and their children is their view on the nature of truth. Many moms and dads think truth is something you discover. Many kids think truth is something you create (especially in the area of morality) and this view is known as “relativism.” Moral relativism has infected most movies, music, television shows and magazines. It’s the “that may not be right for you, but it’s right for me” philosophy. So how do you combat this? First examine where your moral compass points to.  Where do you put your faith? Second, strive to live consistently. The best lessons kids learn are caught, not taught.  Third, have a conversation with your children that they do not create their own moral reality. They are uniquely created and thus have a loving, moral obligation to their Creator.

Below is an excerpt from the speech Michael Novak gave upon receiving The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994. 

Totalitarianism is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs. It is to make a mockery of those who endured agonies for truth at the hands of torturers.

Vulgar relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.

Freedom cannot grow-it cannot even survive-in every atmosphere or clime. In the wearying journey of human history, free societies have been astonishingly rare. The ecology of liberty is more fragile than the biosphere of Earth. Freedom needs clean and healthful habits, sound families, common decencies, and the unafraid respect of one human for another. Freedom needs entire rainforests of little acts of virtue, tangled loyalties, fierce loves, undying commitments. Freedom needs particular institutions and these, in turn, need peoples of particular habits of the heart.

There cannot be a free society among citizens who habitually lie, who malinger, who cheat, who do not meet their responsibilities, who cannot be counted on, who shirk difficulties, who flout the law-or who prefer to live as serfs or slaves, content in their dependency, so long as they are fed and entertained.

Freedom requires the exercise of conscience; it requires the practice of those virtues that, as Winston Churchill noted in his wartime speeches to the Commons, have long been practiced in these Isles: dutiful stout arms, ready hearts, courage, courtesy, ingenuity, respect for individual choice, a patient regard for hearing evidence on both sides of the story.

During the past hundred years, the question for those who loved liberty was whether, relying on the virtues of our peoples, we could survive powerful assaults from without (as, in the Battle of Britain, this city nobly did). During the next hundred years, the question for those who love liberty is whether we can survive the most insidious and duplicitous attacks from within, from those who undermine the virtues of our people, doing in advance the work of the Father of Lies. “There is no such thing as truth,” they teach even the little ones. “Truth is bondage. Believe what seems right to you. There are as many truths as there are individuals. Follow your feelings. Do as you please. Get in touch with yourself. Do what feels comfortable.” Those who speak in this way prepare the jails of the twenty-first century. They do the work of tyrants.

You are, no doubt, familiar with the objection to this warning. Its central argument goes like this: to accept the idea of moral truth is to accept authoritarian control. But between moral relativism and political control there is a third alternative, well known to the common sense of the English-speaking peoples. It is called self-control. We do not want a government that coerces the free consciences of individuals; on the contrary, we want self-governing individuals to restrain immoral government. We want self-government, self-command, self-control.

“The Revolution,” Charles Peguy once wrote, “is moral, or not at all.” This is also the law for the free society. It will deepen its moral culture-or it will die. As human lungs need air, so does liberty need virtue. The deepest and most vital struggles of the twenty-first century will be cultural arguments over the sorts of habits necessary to the preservation of liberty. What are the habits we must teach our young? Which are the habits we must encourage in ourselves, and which discourage? To allow liberty to survive-and, more than that, to make it worth all the blood and tears expended to achieve it-how do we need to live?

With the ample wealth produced by a free economy, with private liberties bestowed abundantly by free polities, are we not now ashamed of the culture we have wrought, its shocking crimes, its loss of virtue, its loss of courtesy, the decline of common decency? Can all the sufferings of our ancestors on behalf of liberty have been endured for this-that we might be as we now are?

We must learn again how to teach the virtues of the noble Greeks and Romans, the commandments God entrusted to the Hebrews, and the virtues that Jesus introduced into the world-even into secular consciences-such as gentleness, kindness, compassion, and the equality of all in our Father’s love. We must celebrate again the heroes, great and humble, who have for centuries exemplified the virtues proper to our individual peoples. We must learn again how to speak of virtue, character, and nobility of soul.

No one ever promised us that free societies will endure forever. Indeed, a cold view of history shows that submission to tyranny is the more frequent condition of the human race, and that free societies have been few in number and not often long-lived. Free societies such as our own, which have arisen rather late in the long evolution of the human race, may pass across the darkness of time like splendid little comets, burn into ashes, disappear.

Yet nothing in the entire universe, vast as it is, is as beautiful as the human person. The human person alone is shaped to the image of God. This God loves humans with a love most powerful. It is this God who draws us, erect and free, toward Himself, this God Who, in Dante’s words, is “the Love that moves the sun and all the stars.”


Where do right and wrong come from? Why?


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