As America enters what has been called a “post-truth” age, when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” certain sectors of the populace — the liberals, the atheists, the youths — are being attacked for allegedly denying “absolute truth” in favor of “relativistic truth” (or “objective” for “subjective” truth).
Take for example an article from the conservative Federalist right after the election entitled “The Left Decries Our Post-Truth Society While Pushing the Ideas That Fuel It.” Naturally, no actual evidence is offered that the Left abandons facts for emotions more readily than the Right, but the sentiment is clear. The author asks the liberal media criticizing the witless Trump voters who believe most anything despite not a shred of evidence, from Obama being a secret Muslim to 3-5 million illegal votes being cast in the 2016 election:
Where have you been all these years as America has abandoned truth for relativism especially in higher learning (and now in all levels of education)? Haven’t you been paying attention as we have put emotion over facts in just about every sphere of society? Our nation has been abandoning objective truth for more than a century! What did you think would result?
This sudden outcry against post-truth reminds me of the vapors so many had when they heard the Trump “Grab her by the p—” tape. Suddenly, people who had been telling us there’s no right and wrong—no objective values or morality by which we can judge others—switched gears and became Puritans in a flash…
My response to those to those now worried about this “post-truth society” is “You reap what you sow.” This abandonment of objective facts for emotion is the inevitable result of our culture’s unrelenting commitment to moral relativism.
Likewise, one can’t help but notice no evidence is offered to support the notion that Americans of the modern era are more likely to accept emotion-based appeals over fact-based appeals compared to those of over a century ago. But more important to our purposes here is that the writer isn’t actually speaking of absolute truth (what is fact?), she is speaking of absolute morality (what is ethically right?).
The same conflation was made by the Christian satire site Babylon Bee, which ran the article “Culture in Which All Truth is Relative Suddenly Concerned About Fake News,” which featured a fictional interviewee:
American society, while typically rejecting concepts like absolute truth and objective moral standards, is suddenly showing grave concern for the rise of fabricated news stories…
One Oregon man, who rejects the idea that humanity can even be sure the universe exists in any meaningful sense, was nonetheless disturbed by the idea that websites could publish completely false information, for anyone in the world to read.
“It’s just absolutely wrong, in my opinion,” said the man who doesn’t believe in absolute ideals of right and wrong at all. “What if someone reads the information and gets like, deceived? That just seems totally wicked.”
“It just doesn’t seem right that they can publish stuff that’s just blatantly not true,” added the man, who also noted his firm belief that everyone has the right to define their own version of truth.
All this is one of the most poorly thought-out straw man arguments posited by the religious Right.
Most liberals and nonreligious persons believe in absolute truth (just another word for “reality”) just as most conservatives and religious people do. If we define relative truth in its most meaningful form — belief that reality is a matter of opinion — while putting aside other definitions — that we cannot know with certainty what reality is (are we in a computer simulation?), that different cultures in different ages have varying views on what reality is (where does the sun go at night?), and other ideas folks like Nietzsche mean when they say things like “There are no eternal facts as there are no absolute truths” — one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who takes the idea seriously.
As mortals, we try to understand the nature of reality, we believe different things concerning it, and we bicker among ourselves with enthusiasm on the subject. But very few human beings think different opinions equate to different literal realities. Liberals do not suppose that because they believe Obama is not Muslim and some conservatives do that both parties side with equal “truths.” Rather, one is correct and the other incorrect. Likewise, the notion that there both is no god and that there is a god is not something atheists suggest just because some disbelieve and some believe. They cannot both be true, and no one supposes they are. People are generally the same: they believe they know the absolute truth and others don’t. They don’t think reality is a matter of opinion.
However, when conservatives and religious fundamentalists speak of absolute truth this is usually and clearly code for something else entirely. As you see from the articles above, they often mean “absolute morality” or “objective morality.” Yet this is different from absolute truth (if we’re going to bother using definitions of any meaning).
Absolute morality is allegedly a fixed code of ethical behavior that did not originate with human beings. Rather, it was decreed by a god and we creatures are responsible for figuring out what it is — what is right and wrong — and living by it.
Naturally, no, nonreligious people of any political persuasion tend to not believe in absolute morality. They do not think there is any set right and wrong beyond what humans create for ourselves. They believe evolutionary biology and human interactions within unique societies change ideas of right and wrong over time, as evidenced by scientific and historical knowledge. With morality rooted in biological and societal influences, it is indeed purely relative, not absolute in any manner. We simply judge people’s actions as right or wrong on the basis that they do not align with our own, not because we have a guidebook from a deity. Morality is opinion-based. That is what I believe.
(And in doing so consider myself closer to the absolute truth on where morality comes from and how it functions than some! Do not think it clever to say, “Well, you don’t believe X is always wrong, so you don’t believe in absolute truth.” That is like saying, “You don’t believe winter to be the worst season, so you don’t believe in absolute truth.” Humans have different opinions, not different literal realities. Disbelieving in objective morality does not mean you disbelieve in objective truth. I think it is absolute truth that what’s right and wrong is not absolute: not objective, not set by God or independent of humanity.)
But one sees the muddle that conflating absolute truth and absolute morality creates in the articles quoted. A discourse on facts devolves for some bizarre reason into one on what’s ethical. So people believing ludicrously untrue things (“alternative facts”) is blamed on nonbelievers or more liberal people accepting that what’s ethical is subject to change and a matter of perspective. Do we see how absurd this is? How this is assigning a cause that is not necessarily true? Because I think what’s ethical is opinion-based I’m more vulnerable to thinking the precise size of the president’s inauguration crowd, whether the former president was born in Kenya, or whether God exists is opinion-based? Wouldn’t religious conservatives then be more immune to such rumors, rather than their main perpetrators? Might it be more sensible to suppose people believe ludicrously untrue things because they lack critical thinking skills, historical knowledge, or myriad other explanations?
At other times, however, “absolute truth” is simply used to mean God. “God is absolute truth, you don’t believe in God, therefore you don’t believe in absolute truth.” This is of course a definition that makes the term meaningless. “Reality” is really the only helpful definition of “absolute truth.” After all, anyone can simply make up a term for God and marvel that someone else doesn’t believe in it. “You don’t believe in absolute awesomeness? No wonder our society is falling apart.”