Ritual, Relativism, and Absolutism

In the discussion between Absolutism and Relativism, it may prove to be particularly revealing to discuss the nature of religious ritual. Indeed, in my view an inappropriate understanding of ritual is very much at the heart of the Absolutism/Relativism conflict.

Let us suppose a religion for a people called the Boogees. In one of their many practices, the priest must wash his hands before handling the Sacred Bowl. It has been their practice for the past fifteen hundred years. Needless to say, they are not prepared to change it. However, the recent invention of hand-sanitizer (which we will assume is more effective than water alone) brings exactly this point up for debate. Although water has been used for hundreds of years, if it is a question of cleanliness, hand-sanitizer offers a more robust option. Although, since it is a religious ritual, the replacement of water with hand-sanitizer faces resistance, most especially from longer term members of the faith. Yet, eventually, the reformers prevail and the water is replaced with hand-sanitizer. What does this mean?

At this point, I agree with the relativist to a certain extent. Clearly, since the water was replaced, it was not sacred in itself. The ritual can still go on while using hand-sanitizer. The sacredness of the ritual does not change in spite of this difference. How can this be? Only if the sacredness of the ritual is dependent upon something other than just the elements themselves. What is this something? I put it to you that it is the piety of the individuals involved in the ritual. It is this spiritual devotion to a higher power that is important, not the nitty-gritty details of the ritual that expresses this devotion.

Does this hand the relativist victory?

No. Emphatically, no.

Although many different rituals exist across the spectrum of human religion, it is the piety that transcends and unifies them all. And it is piety that stands as the absolute value of most common concern when one is discussing ritual. Perhaps, one might object that since rituals allow for a nearly limitless spectrum of possible expressions of piety, any and all such expressions are equally valid. Hence, there is no discernible moral difference between religious rituals. Rituals are relativistic things, all of which equally express the concept of piety.

If that is true, then there is no discernible difference between the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice and the Catholic ritual of Communion.

In one sense, that is true: the Aztec priest and the Catholic priest both perform their rituals with (probably) equal levels of piety.

But the comparison is still ridiculous.

The reply to the relativist is that he is confusing morality with piety. Morality has a much larger scope, of which piety is but a small part. There are more virtues to the human person than mere piety: mercy, love, compassion, respect for life, etc…. And in my view, respect for life is of greater moral significance than piety. Piously killing people is a grave error.

Of final interest is what I call the ritual hard-liner. Basically, these are the people who will probably take comfort in the relativistic stance. They don’t want to change the water to hand-sanitizer. Indeed, they refuse. Because it is their sacred ritual that they have been performing the exact same way for the past fifteen hundred years. And no one else has the right to tell them to perform it any other way.

To them, in the case of the water/hand-sanitizer issue, I’d make my case once, then leave them alone. They aren’t hurting anyone.

But in the case of Aztec human sacrifice, a different response is required. Historically, the different response was war, and it resulted in the destruction of the entire Aztec culture. Perhaps such is regrettable; but given our current struggles with Isis and Islamic extremism, perhaps not. I do not mean to impugn or threaten all Muslims, just the idiots who think strapping on a suicide vest is a good thing.

Anyway, prior to war (which is too late now), morality insists that we try to argue with them. Yes, I know it is their beliefs and they have the right to decide what they believe and don’t believe; but if they endorse suicide bombing I will not choose to remain silent.

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