Relativism and the Decline of Religion in America 13

In 1996, Pope Benedict (then CDC prefect, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger) delivered an address to the Conference of Central American Bishops entitled, “Relativism: The Central Problem for the Faith Today” — a 10 page document I managed to summarize in 15 pages. I don’t intend another summary here.

The discourse’s title says it all: We’ve got a problem with the faith today, a central problem with a capital P — that doesn’t stand for Pool — and name of the problem is Relativism. To this effect, Ratzinger, while holding his finger on post-modern religion’s waning pulse, observed that:

“If we consider the present cultural situation, about which I have tried to give some indications, frankly it must seem to be a miracle that there is still Christian faith despite everything… Why, in brief, does the faith still have a chance?”

That’s the question the man who 10 years later would become Pope asked back in 1996. Before going on to consider his answer, let’s take a look at some of the findings in the Pew Research Center’s recent report on religion and public life: “The ‘Nones’ Are on the Rise.”

Decline of Protestant Christians vs. Rise of Unaffiliateds in the U.S.

According to this graph, the number of those who consider themselves to be Catholic has maintained a relative status quo, since the early 70s. The number of those claiming to be Protestant, indicated by the red line, starts to precipitate downward around the middle of the timeline — that corresponds roughly to the early to mid-90’s (let’s say, 1996-ish). At around the same time, the number of “Nones” or unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular”)  begins a dramatic climb. This chart represents the trends as of 2010.

Where do we stand today?

According to the report, the Protestant population in America has decreased to 48% in 2012. This marks the first time in our nation’s history that the percentage of Protestant Christians has dropped below 50%.

Meanwhile, the unaffiliateds have reached a new benchmark of 20% — that’s a 5% increase in just 5 years.

The implications of this religions restructuring of America become significant once we consider the attendant statistics:

The report indicates that “The religiously unaffiliated constitute a growing share of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters.” More than 60% of religiously unaffiliated voters are also registered Democrats. According to the poll, 72% say they support legal abortion; 73% percent say they are in favor of same-sex marriage.

Many will argue that the religiously unaffiliated can still be a moral person. I do not doubt that that is possible, but the question still needs to be asked, whose morality?

A religiously affiliated person should at least know what the moral expectations of his professed religion are. Whether that person agrees with or chooses to live by those expectations is another question.

The person who does not assent to a particular creed, on the other hand, is less likely to recognize any one moral code as given. He will likely say that it’s sufficient to obey the positive law of the state to the extent that the law in question happens to be reasonable. Beyond that, if my behavior does not harm anyone (besides me), it’s not anyone else’s business; it is a matter for me to decide; it boils down to what I think is reasonable.

Again, the question needs to be asked, whose reasonableness? Whose rationality?

You see, a pluralistic society like ours hinges on there being a diversity of opinions and points of view. All things being equal — including all religious beliefs and the lack thereof — each man must ultimately decide for himself, based on his criteria, his values, his rationality. The beauty of keeping religious affiliation at bay, for many people, is that while they are willing to let you practice your beliefs in private, you must leave them to practice theirs.

Ultimately, it is a security blanket for solipsism.

Solipsism: solus-ipse-ism, “just-the-self-ish-ness,” in Latin. Relativism ultimately reduces to a solipsistic state in which I permit myself to hold only what I can determine to be reasonable for myself. I cannot say what is good, right, or just for everyone (neither can you or anyone else for that matter); I won’t make claims or hold to any claims made in that regard; I therefore cannot accept for myself mandates issued from any authority that proceeds from anywhere beyond the strict confines of my own head. In order for this to hold, however, I need you to stay in your place, so that I can feel safe and comfortable in mine.

Religion, by its nature is immanently incompatible with the solipsistic worldview. For the solipsist, there can be no universal revelation, because the possibility that we can even know that there is one God, one set of beliefs to which we all should adhere, and a set of moral instructions (like the 10 commandments) that we all should uphold is nullified by the very essence of solipsism.

This insular world of the solipsist allows for two closed possibilities: naive, narcissistic self-love or pessimistic nihilism. If I am a solipsist, I must either be radically convinced of my ability to issue my own code of moral conduct, which makes me just, or else, I must just sadly accept the fact that there is no possibility of justice in this world, at least none that I can possibly fathom. For I cannot see beyond the walls of my solipsistic universe. What can you contribute to me and what can I contribute to you if that is the case? The best thing people can do is use one another.

In sum, relativism tries to come across as humble, benign, and open, whereas the opposite happens to be true. Since relativism naturally reduces to subjective solipsism, it kills not only the possibility of accepting authority, but even the possibility of love and healthy relationships. It rejects the very grounds of religion and morals. So it stands to reason that as our culture becomes more relativistic, it will become more areligious (and irreligious). That in turn means it will become more narcissistic and amoral (or immoral) in the best case scenario; pessimistic and disparing in the worst of all possible worlds. That is, the rationalistic, isolated, closed-off world of “me and my relativism,” or should we just say solipsism.

The remedy? How do we resist the onslaught of relativism in our society, in our family, in our churches, and in our lives?

The answer consists in being true to our nature, which is meant to be open to something beyond and far greater than itself. In his discourse on Relativism as the central problem for the faith today, Ratzinger concludes with a hopeful note:

In man there is an inextinguishable yearning for the infinite. None of the answers attempted are sufficient. Only the God himself who became finite in order to open our finiteness and lead us to the breadth of his infiniteness responds to the question of our being. For this reason, the Christian faith finds man today too. Our task is to serve the faith with a humble spirit and the whole strength of our heart and understanding.


  1. The unaffiliated often leave a faith because they find it “hypocritical” in being “greedy” yet “judgmental” of others. That tells me that an increasing number of people think that wealthy televangelists are typical of “organized religion,” and that the MSM-ed-system feel-good just-don’t-judge version of “morality” is the gold standard. Those are the issues to address.

    • Nicely said, Rainey View. Scandal, better said, people who cause scandal, is hugely to blame for the problem of religious decline in the culture. Some people, I believe, use the crutch of other people’s hypocrisy as an excuse to turn a blind eye on their own and to justify their own morality outside of what they see as a sort of “slave morality” imposed by lofty hypocrites. The MSM placates the wounded conscience with the possibility of an all accepting “I’m okay, you’re okay,” don’t judge, feel good ethos-of-diversity, where anything goes, basically. I don’t know that we can change Hollywood. We can perhaps make a difference by earnestly seeking Gods will, educating our own to do the same, and setting for them a proper example. Not a simple task today, but I don’t see another remedy. The problem lies within culture, not just flawed institutions affected by the culture.

  2. Great post. One item that stands out to me is that the undecideds who buy into government support of social issues such as abortion or same sex marriage do not as a majority believe in larger government. So it seems that instead of buying into a solipsistic philosophy they may be buying into a conformist philosophy that is more in-tune to their peers (most of them are young) and their beloved secularist teachers of higher learning. I doubt many even think in the terms of morality. None have been taught logic or critical thinking in their schools and few are very well educated in religious thought. And where the churches have failed these younger members of our society, I think their parents have failed even more by not taking up the slack in the teaching of morality and not being involved in what is being taught in school. Apathy from the parents (if they are lucky enough to have 2 of the opposite sex) coupled with a child’s conformity to his peers is a sure indicator of a declining society.

    • All good points that I have to agree with, Servus. As I see it, the conformist attitude accomodates well to relativism, and hence subsequently to solipsism, in an ironic sort of way.

      Since relativism entails its own contradiction, people who embrace it will allow and live comfortably with all sorts of inconsistencies in their lives. The fact that someone can consider themselves to be a supporter of social justice and still believe that it is okay for a mother to kill her unborn child is self-evident example of this.

      People will conform their views to “clusters of opinion,” that entail contradictions and insist that these view are compatible with one another, when they obviously are not, because once one inconsistency is justified, all inconsistencies are justified. If there can be no inconsistencies, then no one can fault them for believing in things or behaving in ways that run contrary to an established norm. There can be no established norm beyond what they and their peers agree to accept from one another. This modus vivendi allows for the ultimate freedom for everyone to be themselves and think for themselves without interference from the outside world.

      In a word, solipsism: The freedom to live and act according to the dictates of one’s own reason without it making a difference to the rest of society. As long as society gives this individual a pass on that, he can conform to anything. When it denies him this license, it violates his (own self-given) rights.

    • Very sad and very true. The sad thing, 8-Kids, is that in countries like Holland, where doctor assisted suicide is legal, at times the decision can be left to the doctor or family members as to whether a person’s “quality of life” is acceptable. If the patient cannot speak for himself or herself, as in the case of Terry Sciavo, the decision to alleviate their suffering through euthanasia could be left to the consent of other people who are not in a position to judge whether the patient in question thinks the suffering is too intolerable to live with. After all, they cannot experience the other person’s pain or thoughts first hand. So the questions is, whose suffering are they actually trying to alleviate? The patient’s or their own?

      • A medical resident that I know had to lead a seminar for first year medical students. The topic was euthanasia/assisted suicide. Every single medical student in the class agreed with it and gave “compassion” as the reason for ending someone’s life. That’s frightening.

  3. When a society attempts to redefine objective morality, it can not be a surprise when it eventually reflects behavior which can no longer be looked at as objectively moral.

    We’ve replaced being moral with “I believe myself to be a good person”.
    I believe I’m deadly beyond the 3-point arc, too, but that doesn’t make it so.

    I see this not only among secular society, but also with the Jewish population (which is largely secular), and among the Catholics, many of whom are only nominally Catholic.

    Excellent post, partner, and one which I’ll be chewing over for the remainder of the day…

    • Thanks, JTR. Here is something else to chew on.

      Earlier today, a friend commented on this post on Facebook. She wrote:

      “Difficult as this is to take; relativism is the prescribed method of developing your moral theology, according to Fr Peter Donnelly a lecturer with Mater Dei University in Dublin. (Used to teach Moral Theology at All Souls in Dublin and is now a parish priest) He proposed it as this; “the Bible is not a moral code. One gets one’s ideas from it and then qualifies them with one’s own experience of life.” It was shortly after this that the director of the course, who was getting ~$1500/head/year from the Diocese ordered us to stop asking questions of Fr Donnelly as we were upsetting the lecture.

      I wrote back, “That’s scary! Thank God he’s no longer teaching Moral Theology.” She replied:

      “He is still teaching by the back door. The adult education branch was given the task of providing Catholic education courses in our Diocese. They get £1500/head/year on each two year course and employ a select clique of their friends and like-minded people. Apparently, the Catholic Church has it all wrong. The Old Testament is a collection of legends, Women need to be ordained “like Phoebe,” those in second relationships outside the Church should not be denied the sacraments and Humanae Vitae was a product of Pope Paul’s “depression.” Oh yes, and they shouldn’t have changed the words of the mass. It was a difficult two years at the end of which I told them three times to stick their diploma as it was taught under false pretenses and at a poor standard. So they posted it.”

      The Church in Ireland used to be a bastion of Catholic fidelity, not so long ago. Now it has apparently gone the way of the rest of Europe in a very short time. Catholics in this country (and in Ireland) need to stick to their guns and fight to regain what has been lost — not that we have not also been through and are still reeling from some pretty turbulent times ourselves, as you pointed out.

  4. I am personally quite delighted to see the rising trend of secularism in the United States. It absolutely can’t happen fast enough. The world is far too complex and dangerous for us to continue to be allowed our illusions about reality any longer.
    “Whose morality?” you asked certainly we can do better than the god of Abraham. As a matter of fact we .consistently do better. This god whose morality has no condemnation of slavery, or misogyny? Is this to be the moral measure? The morality which drives the all loving creator of the universe to command that we not murder with one breath and then order genocide and rape of one group of it’s creations by another with the next? This is no morality at all. The Catholic church is as littered with crime, atrocity, willful ignorance and scandal as the “good” book itself. Perhaps the trend toward secularism is the measure of the fact that a growing segment of us on this benighted planet have finally had enough of blindly accepting the next new atrocity or ignorance. Perhaps we’ve finally learned enough to understand that there is no good and objective reason to suborn ourselves to baseless ideas which provide no unique benefits but are littered with unique dangers.

    I’m well aware that this comment will offend some. I apologize for that fact. Regardless of my opinion of the content the post was very well put together. Thank you.

  5. You make the implication that Relativism inevitably leads solipsism while simultaneously ignoring that humanity, in absence of religion, still has a social component and social pressures. If an action you take effects people around you negatively or positively it will incite a social reaction. Whose morality then? The morality of the majority. Which many Christian groups were perfectly happy with and probably are still happy with as Christianity still yet holds a majority. However, with evidence that their majority status is waning, shouldn’t we wonder why the reaction of organized religion is to try and stop this decline? Shouldn’t the Church ask why the *real* and measurable morality of society falls further out of alignment with the theoretical morality of Christianity? Realistically ask why. Not blame it on Satan, which is frankly, a cop-out. There are plenty of examples of Christianity letting go of concepts that no longer make sense in the context of the time, and I think the idea of “Satan” and the Rapture are two of those ideas. Morality is a personal struggle against ourselves, not some fictional bogey man.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jim. Of course the issue is more complex than merely boiling everything down to solipsism. To say I was ignoring anything is quite a stretch, since the point I wanted to bring out was the ultimate collapse of moral relativism into moral solipsism, an opinion that I’m sure many people disagree with, but it is not without it’s argument. My not mentioning every other possible evaluation of the issue does not mean that I’m not mindful that there are other factors I chose not to mention.

      I have nothing against pluralism, per se, and in fact, I think it is healthy for democracy (can’t envision democracy without it). Hence, I don’t disagree with your broader point.

      I honestly don’t see why we need to bring satan and the rapture — whatever exactly that is — into the picture or what any of this has to do with some spooky bogey man.

      We apparently have incommensurably different moral world views. No judgement on yours at this point, but you certainly don’t understand mine since you had to import these notions that I did not factor into my argumentation at all in this piece.

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