“The world changes constantly and dramatically, but God, His commandments, and promised
blessings do not change. They are immutable and unchanging.”—Elder L. Tom Perry,
Most professions have words and terms in them that are quite common, but that most other people don’t understand. In government, my field of study, some of these common terms are paradigm and empiricism. These terms may sound complex; but most of us understand these concepts, just not the label used to describe them.
Since my best subjects are religion and politics, I want to explain two terms that are common in both government and religion. The terms are moral absolutism and moral relativism. Now, don’t tune me out, these terms are easy to understand.
Once you understand them, you will be astonished at how often they come up in life. You will also be able to understand more of what church leaders are trying to tell you that may have slipped by you in the past.
Church leaders use these terms a lot, especially in General Conference. They crop up in other areas too. There is an article in the February, 2014, Ensign, entitled, “The Book of Mormon and Modern Moral Relativism.”
Understanding what moral absolutism and moral relativism means will help you understand the gospel better and why our beliefs put us at odds with the rest of the world.
As Latter-day Saints and members of this church, we embrace moral absolutism. Much of the world embraces moral relativism. This is the core difference in many modern disputes and disagreements.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about Moral Absolutes
Moral absolutism means that we believe that there are unchangeable truths in the world. Truth doesn’t change. If something was true in the past, it is true today and it will remain true in the future. Truth does not change, ever. Truth is absolute.
Some of these absolute truths include beliefs like the following:
- Heavenly Father exists and we are His children.
- He speaks to prophets here on earth.
- Our scriptures contain absolute truths.
- Families are ordained of God.
- Right and wrong exist and are unchanging.
Sometimes moral absolutism is just called absolutism. Moral relativism is often just shortened to relativism.
As Latter-day Saints, We Reject Moral Relativism
Moral relativism holds that right and wrong don’t necessarily exist. Standards can change, depending on the person and the situation.
A moral relativist may believe that ideas of the past had nothing to do with right and wrong; they were just cultural influences or beliefs at the time.
Sexual immorality, for example, was considered bad in the past; but now we are more enlightened and it’s not right or wrong, it’s just different. Relativists maintain that society, people and cultures can change their minds about these things.
As a result of having no fixed beliefs or standards, moral relativists can accept anyone or anything – except moral absolutists.
They consider people who accept moral absolutes as being rigid, old-fashioned, hate mongers, politically incorrect and intolerant.
Moral relativists’ idea of tolerance is full acceptance. Moral relativists don’t need God or prophets, because they don’t believe in truth. They consider moral absolutism as outdated and moral relativism as progressive.
Moral relativists are generally found in the social sciences or what’s called the behavioral sciences. The natural, or hard sciences, do recognize that our physical world is governed by laws, laws that need to be discovered and followed. For example, there is the law of gravity.
Whether you personally believe in the law of gravity or not, you are still bound by it. Can you imagine someone deciding that it is up to individuals or societies to believe in the law of gravity if they want to? That it might be right for some people, but not others?
Can you imagine someone declaring that they are free of the law of gravity and then jumping off a cliff? The simple fact is that the law of gravity exists. We are bound by it whether we like it or not. We function best when we acknowledge it as a law of nature and adjust our behavior accordingly. That means no jumping off cliffs.
There are spiritual laws that are just as important and just as binding as the law of gravity. These spiritual laws are absolute truths. We study scripture, listen to prophets and do our best to follow them, because we know they are true.
Moral relativists can say that they don’t believe them, won’t follow them and don’t need them; but they will suffer spiritual consequences from not abiding by the spiritual laws that exist, whether they ever admit it or not.
No one should jump off of spiritual cliffs or physical ones.
Trying to convert moral relativists to the gospel is difficult:
In a July, 2011,Ensign article written by Joshua J. Perkey, a convert, said:
Because of those underlying tenets of moral relativism, I had a difficult time believing what the Mormon missionaries taught me about the need for the Atonement, priesthood authority, and prophets. Indeed, my journey to conversion took me six long years of constantly challenging and questioning who I was, what I believed, and whether there could, in fact, be a God who had established eternal principles of truth and error, sin and consequence.
The term, moral relativism, may be a modern term, but moral relativism has existed in the past.
Moral Relativism Even Crops Up in the Book of Mormon
In the Book of Mormon, it is the Anti-Christ, Korihori that teaches it. Elder Dallin H. Oaks remarked on this saying:
also declared “that there could be
no atonement made for the sins of men.” His description of the consequence of
his rejection of the idea of sin and a Savior is strikingly similar to the
belief of many in our time: “Every man fared in this life according to the
management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his
genius, and … every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a
man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17; emphasis added).
Elder Oak’s continues:
Today we call Korihor’s philosophy moral relativism….This is the belief applied by many in the popular media and in response to peer pressure…..Behind such ideas is the assumption that there is no God or, if there is, He has given no commandments that apply to us today. (Stand as Witnesses of God, by Dallin H. Oaks in Ensign, March, 205.)
Prophets and Church Leaders Have Always Condemned Relativism and Taught Absolutism
In 1971, Ezra Taft Benson taught:
Our religion is one of absolutes and cannot be rationalized into a relativistic philosophy. Satan’s Thrust—Youth, Ezra Taft Benson, October1971.
In 2011, Elder Dallin H. Oaks did not equivocate when he said:
Like other believers, we proclaim the existence of the ultimate lawgiver, God our Eternal Father, and the existence of moral absolutes. We reject the moral relativism that is becoming the unofficial creed of much of modern culture. Fundamental to Our Faith By Elder Dallin H.Oaks, January, 2011.
In 2014, Elder David A. Bednar confirmed all of this when he remarked that:
Absolute truth exists in a world that increasingly disdains and dismisses absolutes. Come and See by David A. Bednar, October, 2014.
In 1975, Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught:
If men are not steering by absolute truth, they will drift in the rolling sea of relativism. Why a University in the Kingdom? By Elder Neal A. Maxwell, October, 1975.
We should never hesitate to proclaim our moral absolutism and defend it. In 2006, Elder Larry W. Gibbons of the Seventy taught:
In this day of moral relativism we must be prepared to take a stand and say, “This is right, and this is wrong.” We cannot follow the crowd! Wherefore, SettleThis in Your Hearts by Larry W. Gibbons, October, 2006.
Coming from a legal background, Elder Dallin H. Oaks is one of our top leaders who constantly addresses these topics:
We live in a world where more and more persons of influence are teaching and acting out a belief that there is no absolute right and wrong, that all authority and all rules of behavior are man-made choices that can prevail over the commandments of God. Many even question whether there is a God.
The philosophy of moral relativism, which holds that each person is free to choose for himself what is right and wrong, is becoming the unofficial creed for many in America and other Western nations. At the extreme level, evil acts that used to be localized and covered up like a boil are now legalized and paraded like a banner. Truth and Tolerance by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, CES Devotional for Young Adults, September 11, 2011, Brigham Young University.
In 2014, Elder D. Todd Christofferson remarked:
Relativism means each person is his or her own highest authority. Of course, it is not just those who deny God that subscribe to this philosophy. Some who believe in God still believe that they themselves, individually, decide what is right and wrong. Free Forever, to Act for Themselves by D. Todd Christofferson, October, 2014.
Giving in to the world and its influence is not an option. In 2013, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said:
The unacceptable alternative is to surrender to postmodern moral relativism, which, pushed far enough, declares that ultimately nothing is eternally true or especially sacred and, therefore, no one position on any given issue matters more than any other. And in the gospel of Jesus Christ that simply is not true. Conviction with Compassion by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, New Era, July, 2013.
In a 2006 address, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught that absolute truth is an anchor for us:
In a time when many perceive truth as relative, a declaration of absolute truth is not very popular, nor does it seem politically correct or opportune. Testimonies of things how “they really are” (Jacob 4:13) are bold, true, and vital because they have eternal consequences for mankind. Satan wouldn’t mind if we declared the message of our faith and gospel doctrine as negotiable according to circumstances. Our firm conviction of gospel truth is an anchor in our lives; The Power of a Personal Testimony by Dieter F. Uchtdorf, October 2006.
In 2009, Elder D. Todd Christofferson urged us to defend truth and moral absolutists when he said:
We need strong Christians who can make important things happen by their faith and who can defend the truth of Jesus Christ against moral relativism and militant atheism. The Power of Covenants by D. Todd Christofferson, April, 2009.
Moral relativism erodes religious freedom and we are seeing this in the world right now. In 2011, Elder Oaks taught:
“More and more of our citizens support the idea that all authority and all rules of behavior are man-made and can be accepted or rejected as one chooses. Each person is free to decide for himself or herself what is right and wrong. Our children face the challenge of living in an increasingly godless and amoral society.” People of Faith Should Defend Freedom of Religion, Elder Oaks Says
People resent those who believe in moral absolutes because they feel like they are being judged, and judged harshly. This anger can be strong and get violent.
They also resent having to feel guilt. Guilt only comes from moral absolutes. There is no guilt in moral relativism. If you do what you want and let everybody else do the same and you think this is okay, then you never have to feel guilt.
Moral relativists feel under attack by those who assert moral absolutes.
In 1976, Elder Neal A. Maxwell suggested:
If all things are a matter of preference and nothing is a matter of principle, why not put Dracula in charge of the blood bank? Some Thoughts on the Gospel and the Behavioral Sciences By Elder Neal A. Maxwell, July 1976.
In 2014, Elder Christofferson taught:
A world without God, the living God who establishes moral laws to govern and perfect His children, is also a world without ultimate truth or justice. It is a world where moral relativism reigns supreme. Free Forever, to Act for Themselves by D. Todd Christofferson, October, 2014.
If you’ve ever puzzled over 2 Nephi 2:13 in the Book of Mormon, it should now be clear to you. It states:
And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away.
Satan’s false teachings are diabolical in their simplicity.
If there is no God, there is no right and wrong. If there is no right or wrong there is no sin. If there is no sin, we don’t need the Atonement. We don’t even need Jesus Christ or Heavenly Father.
But there is sin. Right and wrong exist. We need the Atonement. We need Jesus Christ. We need our Heavenly Father. We need to exercise our agency here on earth because this earth life does have a purpose.
Our belief in the moral absolutes of the gospel of Jesus Christ equips us for the journey through life by providing detailed maps, directions, landmarks, goals and a final destination with GPS precision. The destination is attainable and the journey can bring joy.
Moral relativists have no directions, no maps, no landmarks, no goals and no final destination. They attempt to drive into lakes, pedal through snow and swim through sand. They have no tools and no assistance. Whatever they think their destination is to be is unattainable and the journey is miserable.
Occasionally in my secular teaching, I was able to teach secular beliefs that coincided with gospel truths. I could tell that the spirit was testifying to my students that what I was teaching them was true, even in college where moral relativism reigns supreme and unchallenged. Their understanding was always more profound when this happened.