"It’s All Relative’’ and Other Such Absolute Statements
by Paul Copan
You have probably heard all kinds of relativistic statements: “That’s just true for you but not for me,” or “That’s just your reality,” or “Who are you to say that someone else is wrong?” Some might consider you arrogant or even dangerous for believing in “truth” or “moral standards.” Relativists even get angry with nonrelativists, which is strange if you think about it. Pope John Paul II called this phenomenon “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Here’s some scary news.1 In one survey, 83 percent of American teenagers claimed moral truth depends on circumstances; only 6 percent of teens said objective moral values exist; 75 percent of adults (18 to 35) claimed to embrace moral relativism. What’s even scarier is that statistic is more than 10 years old.
In this article, I address two major problems with relativism — it is self-refuting or self-contradictory and it is selective. In the second half of this article, I offer some practical responses to relativism.
PROBLEMS WITH RELATIVISM
1. Relativism Is Self-Refuting: Relativists Believe Their View Is True for Everyone
Before we can assess relativism, let’s get our terms straight. What do we mean by relativism and truth? While we are at it, look at two loaded and misunderstood terms — tolerance and judging.
a. Defining Relativism and Truth: Relativism is the view that a belief or philosophy of life can be true for one person but not for another. When it comes to morality, one person’s or culture’s moral beliefs may be “right” for them but not necessarily for another. Truth is relative — that is, dependent on my own feelings, preferences, time of history, or culture.
The opposite of relative is absolute or objective. Truth does not depend on what people believe or what period of history in which they are living. Even if everyone believed the earth is flat, it would still be round.
What then is truth? Truth is a match-up with reality. If a belief, story, idea, or statement does not match up with reality, with the way things really are, then it’s false. “The moon is made of cheese” is false because it does not match up with reality. Only reality confers truth or falsity. A true statement is faithful to reality.
b. Why Relativists Are Absolutists: Despite the relativist’s claims, the average relativist believes the following to be true for everyone — not just for him/her:
- You should not say that someone else is wrong.
- All views are equally acceptable.
- You should not impose morality on others.
- You ought to be “tolerant” and should not “judge.”
- You ought to be open-minded.
Consider some typical relativistic slogans and assertions, which turn out to be an exercise in self-refutation:
- Truth is just a matter of perspective: Is this true (“if you disagree with my perspective, you are wrong”), or is it just another trivial perspective?
- There are no facts, only interpretations: Is that just a fact, or is that just your interpretation?
- You can do whatever you want, just as long as you do not hurt anyone: Why is it wrong to hurt someone? Isn’t this a moral standard that we should not violate?
- You can do whatever you want, just as long as it is between two consenting adults: Why the absolute rule about consenting adults?
c. Relativism, Tolerance, and Judging: Have you ever been in a conversation where someone charged you with being “intolerant”? Or perhaps someone condescendingly asks: “Who are you to judge someone else?” Suggestion: Don’t immediately address the accusation, but ask for a definition. Find out what the relativist means by tolerance or judge. As it turns out, relativists use terms they cannot live up to themselves. They make themselves the exception to their own rules.
The classical understanding of tolerance is putting up with what one takes to be erroneous or false.2 We do not tolerate chocolate or ice cream. We enjoy them. Today, however, tolerance has come to mean “accepting all views as true or equally legitimate.” So, to disagree with another is arrogant. But think about it: How can you accept both Buddhism (which rejects God) and the Christian faith (which affirms God’s existence)? It’s a contradiction, plain and simple.
What about the term judging? Relativists like to cite Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” They say that means saying that someone else is wrong. But is this what Jesus meant? Not at all. First, it makes no sense: if someone accuses you of “judging,” isn’t that person judging you for judging someone else? Second, Jesus himself strongly disagrees with His religious opponents (see the “woes” of Matthew 23). Third, Jesus said: “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24).
Matthew 7’s context indicates a problem people need to address — a speck in someone’s eye. But believers should not go with a sense of moral superiority (“judging” or “being judgmental”); they should examine themselves first (taking the log out of their own eye) before confronting sin in another, but rather with a spirit of humility (cp. Galatians 6:1).
2. Relativism Is Selective: People Are Usually Relativists About God/Religion and Ethics.
a. Relativists are not relativists about trivial facts that do not challenge their personal autonomy: People are not relativistic about stop signs, about the roundness of the earth, about who won the Super Bowl, or about the stock market. People are not relativists about labels on prescription bottles (“that’s true for the pharmacist but not for me”). They do not claim that “Paris may be in France for some people but not for others.”
People are primarily relativists about God and morality. Clearly, the existence of God — the Cosmic Authority — is a game-changer. He has a claim on our lives. If the relativist’s motivation is personal autonomy or “freedom” rather than truth, then God is a perceived threat who constricts them. Now, bad motivations don’t disprove relativism. They remind us not to assume relativists just need basic logic lessons to “fix” them. No, they’ll just shrug their shoulders and say, “Whatever” — and walk away.
b. Relativists Become Moral Absolutists When It Comes to Their Rights and Their Property. When it comes to ethics, if people think that torturing babies for fun or raping is “right for some people but not others,” they have not reflected very deeply on the basis for morality. Such people do not need an argument; they need help.
Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland has written about an illuminating encounter with a student at the University of Vermont.3 Moreland was speaking in a dorm, and a relativistic student who lived there told him, “Whatever is true for you is true for you and whatever is true for me is true for me. If something works for you because you believe it, that’s great. But no one should force his or her views on other people since everything is relative.” As Moreland left, he unplugged the student’s stereo and started out the door with it.
The student protested: “Hey, what are you doing? … You can’t do that.”
Moreland replied, “You’re not going to force on me the belief that it is wrong to steal your stereo, are you?” He then went on to point out to the student that, when it’s convenient, people say they don’t care about sexual morality or cheating on exams. But they become moral absolutists in a hurry when someone steals their things or violates their rights. That is, they are selective moral relativists.
Interestingly, a few weeks later this student became a follower of Christ because he recognized the connection between God and human dignity and rights — that God made us in His image. I like to tell churches that this could be a great new evangelistic method called, “Stealing Stereos for Jesus.”
Speaking at an open forum in Oswego, New York, one wintry night, I addressed a young woman’s charge that I was “ethnocentric.” (Of course, she believed that it was morally wrong for anyone to be ethnocentric.) Why? Because I believed my morality should be imposed on everyone else.
I replied, “If you were walking down a dark alley where an attacker was waiting to rape you, but there was also a bystander who would be willing to help, would you want the bystander to impose his morality on your attacker?”
Noticeably shaking, she shot back, “You’re distorting what I’m saying.”
I said, “Not at all. My point is that it’s easy to be a relativist when evil is out there and not bothering me. But when someone violates my rights — when someone violates me — then I recognize this is wrong.”
At Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, my lecture topic was: “When Racism and Bigotry Are Okay.”4 The school newspaper did not want to advertise my “intolerant” talk. Thankfully, a Christian editor explained, “You can’t be a relativist and oppose racism and bigotry. If so, you are not really a relativist.
Let’s draw some strands together. First, relativism is a belief of convenience; it makes no intellectual or moral demands on us. Why struggle with intellectual or moral challenges? Relativism is really just lazy thinking.
Second,truth is inescapable. While in high school my daughter, Valerie, didn’t raise her hand when the teacher asked the class, “How many of you believe there’s no such thing as truth?” When her teacher asked why Valerie didn’t raise her hand, she said, “If you say there’s no truth, you’re basically saying that it’s true that there is no truth. To deny the truth is to affirm it.”
Third,knowledge is inescapable. People who say “you can’t know” apparently know that you can’t know. Even skeptics — who question whether you can know — still seem to know their minds should follow logical laws and that their minds are not systematically deceiving them.
Fourth,even if we are limited and biased, this does not mean we cannot know truly. Why think we have to know with 100 percent certainty? If people insist on this, how can they know — or show — that knowledge requires 100 percent certainty? They can’t.
Fifth,we find ourselves bumping up against reality all the time — traffic jams, cancer, AIDS in Africa. We have no control over these realities. These things are not just true for some people but not for others. If so, relativism becomes an easy way to get rid of the world’s leading problems: “AIDS or pollution may be a problem for some people but not for me.” No, relativism is simply out of touch with reality. What’s more, it’s soul-destroying. The Christian writer Dorothy Sayers writes of the relativist’s “tolerance”: “In the world it calls itself Tolerance; but in hell it is called Despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin which believes nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for.”5
How do we engage relativists? How do we help them, by God’s grace, move a step or two closer to embracing Christ?
a. Ask why the relativist holds the view she does. She will likely give you objective reasons for holding her view: “So many people hold so many differing beliefs” — a view she takes — which she takes to be undeniably true. But a lot of times relativism springs from the inability to trust and commit. This could be a good conversational starting point.
b. A Christian life well lived speaks more clearly to a relativist than logical answers: Relativists may shrug off contradictions we point out, but it’s hard to shake off a life of love and integrity: “By this all will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35). Begin by building relationships with relativists and modeling a life of integrity; this also will expose the hollowness and self-centeredness of their own existence.
c. Relativists think their belief system brings freedom, but it’s actually a life of bondage, enslavements, and addictions. Relativism turns people into mere shadows of humanity. Many unbelievers assume that God’s authority will undermine their well-being. Ironically, this is backward: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Jesus said “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32), and a few verses later He connects this freedom to himself, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Pastor Tim Keller advises Christians not to simply “scold” relativists for premarital sex or mushy views of truth. These are symptoms of something deeper: “Instead of telling them they are sinning because they are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, I tell them that they are sinning because they are looking to their romances to give their lives meaning, to justify and save them, to give them what they should be looking for from God. This idolatry leads to anxiety, obsessiveness, envy, and resentment. I have found that when you describe their lives in terms of idolatry, postmodern people do not give much resistance. Then Christ and His salvation can be presented not (at this point) so much as their only hope for forgiveness, but as their only hope for freedom.”6
d. Think relationally with relativists: Don Everts and Doug Schaupp work as campus ministers with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Their book, I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus, is full of stories of relativists or postmoderns who found their way to Christ.6 The first major step all of them took was moving from distrust to trust of dedicated, loving Christians. Many relativists will not consider Christ because they distrust people in general, and perhaps Christians in particular. Christians need to be a safe place for the relativist so, by God’s grace, she can move from complacence to curiosity, from resistance to openness, from meandering to intentionally seeking truth — and ultimately entering into God’s kingdom.
Many professing Christians actually operate with a relativistic mindset. Is it any wonder why onlookers don’t see anything attractive about them? We must ask ourselves: Do relativists see a changed life that demands a supernatural explanation? Or do they see an unchanged life that helps reinforce their relativism? As believers, we must go beyond pointing out the self-contradictory, selective nature of relativism to exposing the bland, hollow shell of relativism.