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RA DIO 4 CURRENT AFFAIRS ANALYSIS A DICTATORSHIP OF RELATIVISM TRANSCRIPT OF A RECORDED DOCUMENTARY Presenter: Ed Stourton Producer: Helen Grady Editor: Innes Bowen BBC White City 201 Wood Lane London W12 7TS 020 8752 7279

Broadcast Date: 28.06.10 Repeat Date: 04.06.10 CD Number: Duration: 27.44

2030-2100 2130-2200

Taking part in order of appearance: Leslie Green Professor of Philosophy of Law, Balliol College, Cambridge Stephen Wang Teacher of Philosophy, Allen Hall Rowan Williams Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Blackburn Professor of Philosophy, Cambridge

Marcello Pera Philosopher Shayk Ruzwan Mohammed Sunni Theologian Ann Widdecombe Former Conservative MP

MUSIC STOURTON: In April 2005 Joseph Ratzinger, the most powerful theologian in the Roman Catholic Church, delivered a homily to the cardinals preparing for the conclave that was to elect him Pope. His reputation as a conservative thinker was already well-established - as was his reputation as a minter of memorable phrases. He did not disappoint on either count. RATZINGER (Source: Vatican Radio): Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labelled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires. STOURTON: The concept of a dictatorship of relativism came to be a kind of catchphrase - a challenge to the direction of 21st century politics. Parliaments have rejected Catholic teaching in countries like Spain, Portugal and even Italy with new laws on things like abortion and gay marriage. Here in Britain, which he ll visit in September, his church has clashed repeatedly with the government over bioethics and antidiscrimination measures, and his claim provoked real scorn in some quarters.

GREEN: Dictatorship of relativism. Well that s just about as far wrong as we can get. What we re living in, unfortunately, is the growth of dogmatic absolutisms. STOURTON: And then we learnt a little more about the way our government had been preparing for this first ever state visit by a pope to our country - a memo recording the blue skies thinking of some foreign office officials was leaked to the Sunday Telegraph. Here, based on the record of the memo, is our interpretation of the way the meeting might have gone. FOREIGN OFFICE MEMO: MALE: Okay, everyone, we re asking what would happen on our ideal papal visit. Let s go round the table and get your thoughts. FEMALE: Well on development, we thought the Pope could launch a Catholic poverty tax and launch a Miss Developing World Competition, and apologise for the Armada. MALE: On the social issues, we were thinking he could launch a Benedict brand of condoms, bless a civil partnership, open an abortion ward, and spend a night in a council flat in Bradford. (laughter) STOURTON: Yes, all those ideas really did appear on the list that went to Number 10. Might this kind of thinking reflect the secular arrogance and political intolerance the Pope apparently had in mind when he talked about a dictatorship of relativism? Even in this most secular of countries, people began to wonder whether Pope Benedict might have a point after all; that is the proposition I ll be examining in this programme. Fr. Stephen Wang teaches philosophy at Allen Hall, a Catholic seminary in London. I asked him to open up some of the intellectual files packed into Benedict s challenging phrase. WANG: He s got a philosophical and a political point. The philosophical point is that in our post-modern culture, there is a great suspicion of truth and certainty. There is a relativism in the air philosophically. But politically he makes a slightly different point. He says democracy is founded on the idea of freedom, and that s a good thing. His point then though is that when you suck all content out of freedom and you re just left with competing freedoms, then you don t have any moral foundation for the goods that your society is trying to strive towards. You don t even have anything to found the notion of the value of freedom. STOURTON: So too much freedom becomes, paradoxically, a threat to freedom itself - so at least the argument runs. Among philosophers the Pope will have at least one heavy-hitting ally when he comes in September; the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is, like Benedict, very much an intellectual. I asked what he made of the phrase a dictatorship of relativism . WILLIAMS: What I understand the phrase to mean is that he clearly believes that the dominant intellectual culture in Europe at the moment is one in which people say there are no absolute principles, especially moral or philosophical. I work out what suits

me and follow that, and that s the truth that matters. I think there s something in that because what it s reflecting is a pervasive sense that the meaning of my life is something I decide on. STOURTON: There are two bits to the phrase, of course. Relativism is what you ve just described. The word dictatorship implies that there is something aggressive about that way of thinking. Do you think that s true? WILLIAMS: I think it s patchy across Europe, to be honest. I think there are certainly contexts where anything that looks like a claim to be able to say in public that somebody else is wrong is so frowned on that you can barely get away with it. And in that sense, yes something of a dictatorship - the sense that it s an open market in ideas, values, lifestyles, and that is all that can ever be said in the public sphere. STOURTON: But secular philosophers challenge Benedict s argument on two counts; that he s using language loosely - that he doesn t understand what the word relativism means or perhaps that he is deliberately misusing it - and that he s misreading the way we 21st century human beings really work. Simon Blackburn is the Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge . BLACKBURN: People might say, Oh I m a relativist , but then you know when they go out on the street and see something bad happening, suddenly their moral indignation may kick in; their sense that something has to be done about it. So people have moral convictions even at the same time as they re doubtful about authority. STOURTON: Give me an illustration of what extreme, absolute relativism if you like, would mean? BLACKBURN: Well an example of a kind of apathy inaction. Let s think of a scene where you come across something very nasty happening, so you see some boys setting fire to a cat. Now most of us would find that deeply shocking and would be motivated to intervene. The apathetic person presumably just walks on. I mean it s nothing to him. And I think that there may be an element of that in modern city living - people do learn to be insensitive to things that go on around them. But I don t think anybody s ever entirely apathetic, and in fact I think, if anything, our sentiments are quite easily engaged these days. STOURTON: So in your view the concept of relativism is a bad one, but you don t think we really suffer from it? BLACKBURN: Exactly. It would be bad if it was implemented, but in practice I don t think it is. STOURTON: But the Pope is sending his intellectual tanks against a bigger target than you and me and the way we live our daily lives. His gripe is also against the way Europe s institutions function. The European Union provided a focus for his unease about the direction in which history is taking us when its leaders refused to include a reference to Christianity in the draft for a European Constitution. In 2004, before his election as pope, he collaborated in a book on the

subject with Marcello Pera, a radical conservative philosopher who has also served as President of the Italian Senate. PERA: The main concern was the idea that if relativism is right that means that any conception of the good or any culture or any civilisation is as good as any other and we don t have any special right to impose or to instruct or to convince other people to our own way of life - that brings about a sort of indifference from the part of the state. And it s a sort of moral indifference because if there is nothing which is better than anything else, that means that there is nothing that we can be proud of or we have to defend. We become weaker and weaker if we accept that relativistic view. STOURTON: You talk in your book about Europe suffering from a lack of nerve . You talk about self-hatred in Europe. What did you mean by that sort of very strong, very vivid language? PERA: How can I explain the fact that these heads of state and government want to omit any reference to Christianity, which is like ignoring and forgetting the European history? I see here a sort of hatred in the sense that we want to forget. We do no longer appreciate what we have been, our roots. On the other hand, I also believe there is a sort of fear of Islam. We don t like to confront with Islam - not because we are afraid of Islam, but we don t feel strong enough, confident enough on our own values. So that s why I believe that Europe is affected by sort of a self-hatred. It doesn t like itself. STOURTON: Marcello Pera is not himself a Catholic - and in 2005 was censured by one of the Vatican s most senior cardinals after he told a meeting of young Catholics that immigration was turning Italians into a mixed race . Benedict himself has faced accusations of Islamaphobia in the past - he famously quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who suggested that Islam was irrational and violent. That background means Benedict s position on relativism represents a challenge to thoughtful Muslims. The way he champions the role of religion in public life has an obvious attraction to any religious leader, but his past comments have left a legacy of suspicion about his motives. Shaykh Ruzwan Mohammed is a Sunni theologian based in Glasgow. MOHAMMED: The history of Europe shows that it needed somebody to define itself in contradistinction to, and that other was always Islam. And what s happened now is that Islam is here, it s in Europe. It s the taxi man; it s the doctor that s treating your daughter in hospital. And people see them and they see that this is not an other - we share their clothes, we share their food, we share sometimes their ideas. And I think what s worrying for the Catholic hierarchy is the fact that people are able to look into other ideas and then maybe even convert, or at least see those ideas for what they are and see the good that they have in them. STOURTON: So even from someone sympathetic to Benedict s cause, there s a suspicion that his words can be exploited for dangerous ends. (Balliol College Atmos) That notorious memo about the papal visit was written by two young Foreign Office mandarins, both of whom were educated at this place - Balliol College Oxford. And there was a certain amount of comment in the press about the Balliol culture when the

memo became public. The college is famous for two traditions: producing public servants; and clever left-wing thinking. Leslie Green is Professor of the Philosophy of Law here. GREEN: It s hard to imagine a brief comment that couldn t be more wrong; I mean more mistaken. STOURTON: Leslie Green s rejection of Benedict s analysis of modern society is brutal; he thinks the Pope is throwing an intellectual hissy fit . GREEN: In the 1930s, in Germany, anything that was bad in the eyes of the German state - 32, 39 - was caused by who? The Jews. Why? They didn t like the Jews. America - 1952, 55. Anything that was bad in America was caused by well who? The Communists. Well why? Because they didn t like the Communists. And so now here we are - 2005. Benedict I of course invents this concept of the dictatorship of relativism. There s a bunch/clutch of bad things happening and he doesn t like them. Who s it caused by? Caused by the relativists, you know. STOURTON: Let me put to you another idea, which is that if public discourse is conducted so much on the basis that anything goes and everything is of equal value, you wind up sucking the moral value out of public discourse. The sense that the issues that we debate, difficult issues, actually matter morally disappears. GREEN: No-one in this country or in America or in Europe thinks that anything goes. So let s take sexual morality. Sadly, to my way of thinking, since there s so much that s rich and important in Catholic moral theology, the Church has transformed itself into a kind of fertility cult, so that what it really cares about now is making sure that you know men aren t having sex with men and nobody s having abortions and there are no condoms in the JCR around the corner here and that there aren t any divorces. Well even in a fairly liberal, tolerant sexual morality, there s nobody that argues that anything goes. The people that Pope Benedict deplores don t think that rape is okay, and they certainly don t think that the sexual abuse of children is okay. Everybody agrees there is a bottom line minimum to which we all must conform. And the thing is of course that some folks disagree about where the minimums should be drawn. That s democracy. STOURTON: That counterblast from Leslie Green takes the argument beyond abstract philosophy and into the realm of practical politics. For those in Britain who support the papal indictment of our politics, Exhibit A is the last government s equality legislation - specifically its determination that adoption agencies run by the Catholic Church should be compelled to offer children for adoption to gay couples. Ann Widdecombe served for twenty three years as a Conservative MP, and was a prominent minister in the last Conservative government. WIDDECOMBE: I believe that this is a phenomenon that has grown. It s been evident in legislation, for example - that Catholic adoption agencies were simply faced with a legal choice between placing babies with homosexual couples or closing down. And this sort of legislation has grown over the years. It simply wasn t there when I was in government to anything like the same extent. Indeed I can remember in ministerial meetings every so often, if you said

something like, oh I don t know, Arise, take up thy mat and fly , people would laugh. They understood what you were referring to. Now I actually think you could recite The Creed and nobody would recognise it. STOURTON: The row over gay adoption was a low point in relations between the Catholic Church and the last government, and the Church was left feeling badly bruised by the encounter. Its leaders argued that the government could have made a pragmatic exemption which would have allowed its agencies to continue working, but chose instead to make a point of principle. Fr. Stephen Wang. WANG: Given in our pluralistic society there are going to be different understandings of family life, Catholic adoption agencies were saying let us keep the freedom to propose this vision of family life for the children that are coming to us. And that freedom was taken away from those Catholic adoption agencies. That s the sadness in this for me. It was an example, I think - and I m not it s not special pleading this as a Catholic - I think it was an example of social intolerance. In other words, before this legislation we had different adoption agencies doing different things on the basis of what they believed. We had a true pluralism. And now you have a Catholic adoption agency that cannot do what it thinks is best for the child, which is to try and give a mother and father to a child. We ve actually narrowed the possibility of freedom and pluralism. SEGUE: MOHAMMED: It does seem to be that the state is being very heavy-handed in terms of restricting Catholics right to decide as an internal organisation what type of processes and procedures they have in place specifically to do with adoption. I think it s not the role of the state. It s specifically where there s no prejudicial outcome in terms of the child s welfare that the state should seek to interfere in that. I think I would agree with that wholeheartedly. And there s a lot of things that religious minorities and other religious groups like the Anglicans and Muslims would agree with, when he says that there is a dictatorship of relativism. STOURTON: And even secular philosophers like Leslie Green concede that the gay adoption row involved competing rights - the right of gay people to be free of discrimination, and the Church s right to act in accordance with its beliefs. GREEN: This a serious question and what we re talking about now is that minimum to which we all have to conform, below which we are allowed to disagree and dispute. In all sophisticated democratic countries, there are wide exceptions, very wide exceptions for religious organisations. Are they complete exemptions? So that if I can say well I m a member of a church and the view in my church happens to be that all children have to participate in animal sacrifice and so we re not allowing children to be adopted out to families that don t tolerate the sacrifice of rams on the full moon every month - we would say No, this is preposterous even although it s only a sheep. Now people can disagree about this, and obviously many religious people disagree because they have very firm - dare I say - absolutist, fundamentalist and mostly uninformed views about the nature of human sexuality that are overlain on top of their religious views. They re entitled to those.

They re entitled to those. But if you re providing a service to the public - you re not talking about your little congregation, you re talking about the fates of children, their welfare and their wellbeing - you have an obligation to respect the minimum. It s the law in every civilised country. Britain has simply simplified this in the Equalities Act and levelled up in terms of protection, so that there weren t some people who were left off the table. STOURTON: Well arguing that a child should be brought up ideally in a heterosexual marriage or family based on that is not really the same as arguing for ram sacrifice as obligatory, is it? GREEN: Right, but what do we think about a case like this. There is much better evidence, psychologically and sociologically and in the law, that children who grow up in broken families, as we used to say, do badly. There s much better evidence for that than that children growing up in a gay or lesbian household do badly. None of us think, I hope - although I don t know what Pope Benedict thinks - none of us think that this is a reason not to allow children to be adopted out into families that were reconstituted after a divorce, people who have been divorced, people who might divorce, and that the evidence there is conclusive. STOURTON: In February this year Pope Benedict intervened directly in British politics. There was a new row over the government s equality legislation, this time about employment rights - Catholic and Anglican leaders feared they would be forced to employ sexually active gay people in jobs which would involve being advocates for church teaching. Benedict told the bishops of England and Wales to fight the Equality Bill then going through Parliament with missionary zeal . The comments provoked uproar from gay rights organisations and - this perhaps an echo of the old British fears about Roman meddling - from MPs who held that the pope had no business lecturing the British Parliament. That s a view Ann Widdecombe robustly rejects. WIDDECOMBE: Well I think it s an essential thing for the Pope to do. He does, after all, speak for billions of Catholics worldwide. If he s not going to do it, I don t know who is. STOURTON: Even though he s coming to this country as both a religious leader and indeed a head of state later this year? WIDDECOMBE: Oh I think a lot of people would actually ask the question you ve just asked very seriously and say well the Pope has no right to say these things. Of course the Pope has a right to say these things. That is the whole point about religious debate - that there is a view that may go against prevailing state orthodoxy but which is religious orthodoxy. STOURTON: Pope Benedict s comments raised a point of principle of real significance; he claimed that the measures in the Equality Bill would impose unjust limitations on the freedoms of religious communities. Rowan Williams says what is at stake goes beyond the churches freedom to run their own affairs in accordance with their beliefs - he argues that the principle of freedom of speech is at issue too. WILLIAMS: I think that the world out of which the equality legislation comes rather muddles two different kinds of question.

The first sort of question is am I entitled to be respected for the decisions I make? Am I legally entitled to make certain sorts of decisions? And I think the answer to that ought to be perfectly clear. Then there is the question is somebody else entitled to challenge me about that, or to say well I think that s destructive or that s wrong? And I think the difficulty comes when people attempt to suppress that second freedom in the name of the first. STOURTON: What about the argument that in a democracy we make up our minds in a particular way, and those groups who may find that their freedoms are somewhat restricted by that just have to accept it? Again the equality legislation s a good example. Democratically elected parliament did it and you know that s an end to the matter. WILLIAMS: Absolutely, and I think that relates precisely to the first kind of issue that I was touching on. No problem about that whatsoever. That is the democratic style, the democratic philosophy. But if you say and that shuts down debate, then I think you re in the rather dangerous territory of supposing that the decisions of the majority actually silence people. SEGUE: BLACKBURN: I m not sure that that s true. I think lots of wouldbe religious leaders express lots of opinions - some of them quite illiberal. STOURTON: Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. BLACKBURN: I mean a cause near to my heart - perhaps because of my age - is assisted dying. And when that came up in the House of Lords, for example, Lord Joffe s bill, the churches made a huge squawk. They don t want people to be allowed to choose the nature of their own end. They think that that s blasphemous or playing God or something. And that s an illiberal opinion, which they had no shyness at all about putting forward and shouting; and eventually a great phalanx of bishops helped to mow it down in the House of Lords, which I think was a terrible shame. So it seems to me illiberalism is perfectly with us, as much as it ever was. STOURTON: Religious groups can of course claim some victories; the Catholic Church, for example, successfully fought off a government attempt to push up the number of non-Catholics it accepts into its schools, and the Church of England is, let us not forget, still privileged as the Established Church. The Balliol philosopher Leslie Green argues the root of most modern problems is not too much relativism, it s too much of the opposite many religious leaders, he says, are the real dictators. GREEN: What we find now, whether we think religiously or in terms of politics or economics, is a growth of fundamentalist absolutisms. The rise of theocracies in the Middle East, whether it s an overt theocracy - Saudi Arabia or Iran - or a democratic state that has theocratic tinges - Israel; a Jewish and democratic state these things are causing enormous violence, distress, human misery. These are people who are relativist about their views. Let me just mention a third. Many people are concerned about the epidemic of child abuse in certain churches.

STOURTON: The Catholic Church you re talking about? Let s not mince words. GREEN: It s not the only church, but admittedly it s not the Presbyterians, the URC or the Quakers we re worried out. It s hierarchical churches. Now what features do they have? These are not churches that espouse relativism or many truths, right? These are churches that espouse, again, the belief in one fundamental absolute truth. So put those things together: the rise of intolerant theocracies in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the epidemic of abuse of those who are powerless - and we say are these caused by a dictatorship of relativism? Nothing could be further from the truth. They re caused by the opposite. STOURTON: There is an edge to the language of people on both sides of this debate which suggests it is something much more than an abstract argument among intellectuals in Oxbridge Colleges and bishops palaces - there is bound to be more legislation which throws up the kind of issues raised by the Equality Acts, especially in the field of bioethics, and both sides seem to be squaring up to do battle in earnest. That is perhaps why that Foreign Office memo about the papal visit touched such a raw nerve. Fr. Stephen Wang. WANG: I think it probably does betray a tone deafness to the place of religion in many, many people s lives - to the fact that spiritual questions, questions about the transcendent, are a huge part of most people s lives in this country. And I think there is a sort of arrogance in the mentality behind that memo that went out. I think it betrayed a culture of intolerance. There is a kind of hard secularism, I think, where the idea that you are religious almost excludes you from civil discourse and polite society. SEGUE: GREEN: It was insensitive. It was silly. It was a bit funny. STOURTON: Leslie Green argues that the memo can actually be interpreted as evidence of our culture s robust good health. GREEN: Here s one thing the joke reflected. It reflected the fact that people felt comfortable making such slightly silly jokes because the background morality in this country is a tolerant, open, liberal, live and let live morality. People thought in this background we can make such jokes. Here s how jokes work: jokes make light of - in a kind of upside down way - what we all sort of know to be true in our hearts but are afraid to say. Here were a couple of Balliol lads, god bless em, who said something terribly silly, completely inappropriate for a head of state, but in a context that articulated something we all know - that a certain kind of religious fervour in this country has been on the losing side not just since Vatican II; probably since the 17th century. STOURTON: It is perhaps worth noting the role in the papal visit that two other Balliol lads are planning; the college is the intellectual home of the scientist Richard Dawkins and the writer Christopher Hitchens, and they hope to arrest Pope Benedict while he is in Britain.

The Archbishop of Canterbury s verdict on the memo is, unsurprisingly, rather different. WILLIAMS: I m not sure that it reflects much of any kind of culture, to be perfectly honest. It struck me as something revealing such a level of crassness that I just didn t know how to take it seriously. But I suppose it does come out of an environment in which it s quite incomprehensible that certain things are profoundly offensive, seriously philosophically unacceptable. STOURTON: And an environment that doesn t take religion remotely seriously? WILLIAMS: No, which is prepared I think to see religion as operating as a bit of picturesque decoration on the margin from time to time in a plural culture, but not as something which might actually challenge anything. STOURTON: Do you think the growth in fundamentalist beliefs that we ve seen in some parts of society reflects the culture of relativism at all? WILLIAMS: To the extent I think that people are a bit threatened and a bit impatient about real engagement and argument, then the odd thing is that fundamentalism is the mirror image of a kind of inflexible relativism. People want the arguments to be over. Just as the relativist or the junior official in the Foreign Office - we want the arguments to be over, let s just you know treat everyone equally - so the fundamentalist says I want the arguments to be over. And what one philosopher who matters quite a lot to me said about the labour and the patience and the pain of real thinking just disappears. STOURTON: The argument over what values should underpin a 21st century society and how we balance competing freedoms most certainly isn t over - and it s likely reach a new pitch of intensity as the papal visit approaches. This is a full-blown culture war, and neither side is giving a relativistic shrug about the outcome.