30 Oct 2016
Cultural norms are self-validating. Once an opinion or belief achieves widespread acceptance, there is no longer any need to defend it, let alone examine its validity through sound reasoning. Anyone who does not subscribe to it unreservedly can simply be dismissed and vilified as being obtuse, obsolete, or worse, obnoxious.
That has been true in every age and society, but it is interesting and alarming to observe the way modern societies insist on adherence to a core set of values that supposedly all progressive and enlightened people ought to hold to be self-evident. What are some of these values? One is autonomy: every single individual has the right to focus on himself as the centre of his existence, and should be allowed maximum freedom to be himself and do as he sees fit without external interference of any sort. Another is relativism: there is no objective truth; everyone is entitled to his version of truth and it is intolerably repugnant to impose your version on anyone else. A third value that is taken for granted is materialism; we assume unquestioningly that there is a direct correlation between how much stuff we accumulate with our true worth and happiness. Finally, there is radical equality which insists that no differentiation whatsoever should be made between peoples, especially with regard to race, sex and gender; race should never be mentioned in polite conversation, all sexual orientations are valid personal preferences and gender differences are myths perpetrated by a bygone era that exploits women.
Few of the people who increasingly embrace these values stop to analyse the underlying premises. All these ideas flow out of the assumption that the universe popped into existence by chance out of nothing, that life was made possible due purely to the undirected collocation of random molecules over inconceivably long periods of time, and we are here only because of the blind forces of mutation and natural selection.
The irony is that every one of these assumptions is a faith assumption; they cannot be proven scientifically. The problem is not science; the problem is scientifism: the view that empirical observation constitutes the only authoritative worldview to the exclusion of other viewpoints. Scientifism asserts that whatever is not demonstrable by scientific methods simply doesn’t exist or has no validity. It may not be immediately obvious, but to accept that position requires the same kind of blind and unscientific belief that most religions expect of their followers.
What is truly remarkable, however, about these new cultural norms is not that people don’t examine their validity—as I have said, that tends to be true of all cultural norms—but the fact that their proponents stridently disparage and denounce those who disagree. Schools that dare to teach creation are relentlessly sued and bankrupted. People who teach that homosexuality is a sin are branded intolerant, evil and bigoted. Anyone who persists in upholding the idea of gender differences is irresponsibly promoting a rape culture.
Such moralistic reactions are hypocritical. If the naturalistic worldview that undergirds such values holds true, then it must follow that life is ultimately meaningless. We came out of nothing, we are here for no reason, and we are going nowhere. Life has no intrinsic worth, meaning or purpose. Everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs. But why should people who believe in relativism impose their version of the truth on others? Why browbeat people for disagreeing with you if you don’t believe in absolute truth? Why try to shape society in a certain way if there is no ultimate meaning to life?
Perhaps there is more than meets the eyes, if only we are not so blinded by our eagerness to do whatever is right in our own eyes.