By Paul Copan
It’s all relative. . . .That’s true for you, but not for me. . . .That’s just your reality. . . .Who are you to impose your values on others?” You’ve heard statements like these before. They fit with the relativist belief system, which says truth functions more like opinion or perspective, and that truth depends upon your culture or context or even personal choices. Thus evil actions by Nazis or terrorists are explained away (We don’t like it, but they have their reasons”). Relativism, however, is seriously flawed.
Relativism cannot escape proclaiming that truth corresponds to reality. “The moon is made of cheese” is false because it does not match up with the way things are. As Christians, we claim the biblical story is true because it corresponds to the actualities of God’s existence and His dealings with human beings. Truth is a relationship-match-up with what a is real or actual. An idea is false when it does not. But what of those making such claims as “Reality is like a wet lump of clay – we can shape it any way we want” (a relativistic idea known as anti-realism)? We can rightly call such statements into questions. After all, these persons believe that their view corresponds to the way things are! If you disagree with t hem, they believe you are wrong! Notice, too, that they believe there is at least one thing that is not subject to human manipulation – namely, the unshakable reality that reality is like a wet lump of clay that we can shape any way we want to! So we can ask: “Is that lump-of-clay idea something you made up?” If it applies to everyone, then the statement is incoherent. If it doesn’t, then it’s nothing more than one’s perspective. Why take it seriously? And if there’s no objective truth or reality, how do we know that our beliefs are not delusional?
Relativism is self-contradictory. If someone claims to be a relativist, don’t believe it. A relativist will say that your belief is true for you, but his is true for him. He defends this by saying there is no objective truth that applies to all people. The only problem is that this is an objective truth that the relativist means to apply to all people! (Even when he says “That’s true for you, but not for me,” he believes his view applies to more than just one person!)To show the self-contradictory nature of relativism, we can simply preface relativistic assertions this way: “It’s objectively true that “that’s true for you but not for me” or It’s true that ‘there is no truth.” The bold contradiction becomes apparent. Or what of the line that sincere belief makes something – Buddhism, Marxism, Christianity – true? We respond by asking: Is this principle universal and absolute? Is it true even if I don’t sincerely believe it? – that is, what if I sincerely believe that sincere belief does not make something real? Both views obviously cannot be true.
The basis and conclusion of relativism are treated as objectively true. Ask the relativist why she adopts the relativist view, and she’ll probably says. “Because so many people believe so many different things.” The problem here is that she believes this to be universally true and beyond dispute. Furthermore, she believes that the logical conclusion to draw from the vast array of beliefs is that relativism must be the case. The relativist doesn’t believe these are a matter of personal preference. The basis for relativism (the variety of beliefs) and the conclusion that relativism obviously follows from it turn out to be treated as objectively true by the relativist. So even the relativist believes in the inescapability of logic.
Relativism is always selective. People usually aren’t relativists about the law of gravity, drug prescription labels, or the stock index. They’re usually relativists when it comes to God’s existence, sexual morality, or cheating on exams. But try cutting in line in front of a relativist, helping yourself to his property, or taking a sledgehammer to his car – and you find out that he believes his rights have been violated! Rights and relativism don’t mix! But if it’s all relative, why get mad at anyone?
Relativism is usually motivated by a personal agenda – the drive for self-control. Atheist philosopher John Searle uncovers what’s behind relativism: “It satisfies a basic urge to power. It just seems too disgusting, somehow, that we should have to be at the mercy of the ‘real world.” We want to be in charge! Now, pointing out one’s motivation is not an argument against relativism; still it’s a noteworthy consideration. Truth often takes a back seat to freedom. But clearly when a person shrugs off arguments for the inescapability of objective truth with “Whatever!”, he has another agenda in mind. Relativism makes no personal demands upon us – to love God, to be people of integrity, to help improve society.
Adapted from the Apologetics Study Bible, pages 1608-1609