The holes in Relativism

What are some of the problems with relativism?

The catchphrase ‘Everything is relative’ is overused to the point of cliché today. While few of us really believe that everything is relative, religious relativism is widely gaining acceptance, with many believing that religious claims are not true in any external way, but only within the belief system of the individual. The relativist will claim, for instance, that while it is true for Christians that God became a man in Jesus Christ and died on a cross; it is also true for Muslims that Jesus did not die on a cross and was only a human being. No one is right or wrong in any ultimate sense, but both are right relative to their own religious framework. While popular, however, such a worldview is deeply flawed.

There is a great presumption in relativism, in that it claims to know the ultimate truth without explaining from where this knowledge comes. In effect, the relativist does not believe that everyone is right, but rather that everyone is wrong – that the Christian is wrong for believing that Jesus is truly God and the Muslim is wrong for believing that Jesus was truly only a man. From where do relativists gain this macro-truth that discounts all other beliefs? For whenever relativists say, ‘Each person has their own truth – it’s all relative’, they are presuming to know a greater truth yet to be discovered by the vast majority. And they never stop to tell us how they know this.

While the existence of diverse religious opinions has led many to adopt the philosophy of religious relativism, diversity of ideas does not logically imply the relativity of what’s being claimed. Indeed, often diversity of opinion precludes relativity – it cannot be relatively true (for Christians) that Jesus did die on a cross and also relatively true (for Muslims) that he did not. The event cannot have both happened and not happened in history. It is either true or false.

Another major problem with relativism is one that Plato identified when his contemporary Protagoras first introduced the philosophy of relativism. Plato showed that relativism of the strict kind proposed by Protagoras refuted itself. As soon as you believe relativism to be True you prove that it isn’t, for at least one truth (the relativist philosophy) would then be universal, not relative. Or, as the English journalist and poet Steve Turner puts it:

  We believe that that there is no absolute truth
Excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.

Despite the holes in the theory of relativism there is something very valuable that relativists have highlighted: our beliefs must depend upon a framework. They must have a reference point otherwise they are just random shots in the dark. Christians have reasons for thinking there is a God to whom we all belong. They have reasons for thinking God has revealed himself in the teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And they have reasons for thinking the Bible is God’s Word to humanity. Once persuaded of these things, Christians find comfort in the fact that their views are not determined by culture or psychological makeup. They live and think in accordance with the Absolute – an Absolute that has revealed himself on the human stage. This comfort is something relativism has no possibility of replicating.

John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

Kate Wilcox is a CPX Intern