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spacermoral relativism, ethics, ethical, objective, scientific relativism, historical, culturalRelativism

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A theory of ethics or knowledge which maintains that the basis of judgment is relative, differing according to the situation, person or events one is dealing with.

Different Manifestations of Relativism

Relativism is everywhere. Although the list is certainly long, we'll select some of the main manifestations of relativism within our society.
  • Objective relativism  is the view that the beliefs of a person or group of persons are ''true'' for them, but not necessarily for others. Ultimately, says this brand of relativism, no truth is universally, objectively true or false. One person's ''truth,'' which really amounts to opinion, can conflict with another's ''truth'' and still be valid. Objective relativism (also known as ''epistimological relativism'') challenges the very existence of how we know what we know, our underlying assumptions, and the validity of our knowledge.)
  • Religious relativism  maintains that one religion can be true for one person or culture but not for another. No religion, therefore, is universally or exclusively true. Religious beliefs are simply an accident of birth: If a person grows up in America, chances are good that he might become a Christian; if in India, that he will be a Hindu; if in Saudi Arabia, that he will be a Muslim. If what one believes is the product of historical happenstance, the argument goes, no single religious belief can be universally or objectively true.
  • Moral relativism  maintains that there are no moral absolutes, no objective ethical right and wrong. Moral values are true - or ''genuine'' - for some, but not for others. Since there are differing opinions of morality in the world, there is no reason to think that one is any more true and objectively binding than another. The implication is that statements of value (for example, ''adultery is morally wrong'') can be true for some but false for others. Something is wrong - sleeping with the boss, stealing paper clips, or leaving work early - only if you think or feel it is wrong.
  • Cultural relativism  says that what is immoral in our culture is not necessarily immoral in another country. No one, therefore, can judge another's moral values. Philosopher of science Michael Ruse illustrates this view well. Ruse refers to the once widespread Indian practice of suttee,  the burning of a widow on her husband's funeral pyre, which was later outlawed by the British: ''Obviously, such a practice is totally alien to Western customs and morality. In fact, we think that widow sacrifice is totally immoral.'' That may be what Westeners think, yet Ruse says it is wrong to judge suttee  as a bad thing. Obviously, the same principle means we shouldn't condemn slavery in America, genocide in Africa, or female infanticide in China.
''True For You, But Not For Me,'' by Paul Copan, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN. 1998. P. 19.

Copan also lists historical, scientific,  and aesthetic  relativism.

The (secular) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:

Although there are many different kinds of relativism, they all have two features in common.
  1. They all assert that one thing (e.g. moral values, beauty, knowledge, taste, or meaning) is relative to some particular framework or standpoint (e.g. the individual subject, a culture, an era, a language, or a conceptual scheme).
  2. They all deny that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.
Relativism, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Implications of Relativism

Given the pervasiveness of relativism in our society, we ought to briefly consider its implications. 

One implication - at least on the religious front - is that persuasion is prohibited.  On many university campuses, evangelism - the taboo word is ''proselytizing'' - is viewed as ''cramming your religion down someone's throat.'' Obviously, trying to persuade or evangelize another implies you have truth to proclaim - and that you think your listeners may well be wrong.

This brings us to the second implication: To be exclusivistic is to be arrogant.  Given the number of different religious beliefs in the world, to claim to know something that others are ignorant of therefore must  be wrongheaded and erroneous! Moreover, exclusive claims - especially about the uniqueness of Christ for salvation - are often confused with Western colonialism and imperialism - nothing more than bigoty and narrow-mindedness, a Western imposition of ideas upon unknowing or unwilling hearers. (To be sure, non-Christians have in some cases good reason to be chritical of us. Christians invite hostility when they shout that Christianity is true and exclusive - and equally loudly proclaim that other views contain no  truth at all. Christians can indeed appreciate much of what is true within other faiths. Since all truth is God's trust, moral truths, for instance, can be found outside the Bible - just as truths from mathematics, history, and science can be. Exactly what  or even whether  the Christian should seek  to learn from or imitate ethical non-Christian religions, however, is another, more complicated, matter.

A third implication is that tolerance is the cardinal virtue.  To imply that someone is wrong is terribly intolerant, especially when tolerance is popularly but erroneously defined as being open to and accepting of all ideas. What homosexual activists call tolerance, for example, is unconditional acceptance of their lifestyle as legitimate and right. As we will see later this attitude of openmindedness actually turns out to be empty-headedness. It lacks discrimination and any criterian for acceptability. In the words of Alan Bloom, ''Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason's power.''
''True For You, But Not For Me,'' by Paul Copan, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN. 1998. P. 21-22.
Until recently, Christianity was under fire at most universities because it was thought to be unscientific, and consequently, untrue. Today, Christianity is widely rejected merely because it claims to be true! Increasingly, academics regard anyone claiming to know any objective or universal truth as intolerant and arrogant.

Refuting a Common Case for Religious Relativism

Many religious relativists like to recite a poem, ''The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Hindoo Fable,'' by John Godfrey Saxe. The poem describes how six blind men all approached an elephant from different sides. Each one touched a part of the elephant -- its side, its tusk, its trunk, its leg, its ear, and its tail. Then each one described the elephant by what their limited senses told them: a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, and a rope. The poem notes, ''Though each was partly in the right...all were in the wrong.'' Saxe concludes:
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

-- John Godfrey Saxe, ''The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Hindoo Fable,'' The Best Loved Poems of the American People, selected by Hazel Felleman (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1936), p. 522.
What relativists fail to realize is that there is one person involved with the story who claims to know the truth: the storyteller! The storyteller claims to truly understand reality, what the elephant (or theological truth) is really like. The story merely reaffirms the need to get our understanding of theology and God right. It certainly does not mean that we should embrace religious relativism.


Liberal Tolerance is perhaps the primary challenge to the Christian worldview current in North American popular culture. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that it is intolerant and inconsistent with the principles of a free and open society for Christians (and others) to claim that their moral and religious perspective is correct and ought to be embraced by all citizens. Liberal tolerance is not what it appears to be, however. It is a partisan philosophical perspective with its own set of dogmas. It assumes, for instance, a relativistic view of moral and religious knowledge. This assumption has shaped the way many people think about issues such as homosexuality, abortion rights, and religious truth claims, leading them to believe that a liberally tolerant posture concerning these issues is the correct one and that it ought to be reflected in our laws and customs. But this posture is dogmatic, intolerant, and coercive, for it asserts that there is only one correct view on these issues, and if one does not comply with it, one will face public ridicule, demagogic tactics, and perhaps legal reprisals. Liberal Tolerance is neither liberal nor tolerant.

''Openness'' (without the restraint of reason) and ''tolerance'' that rejects all moral absolutes are the mandates of postmodern ideology. This thinking has dominated America's ''politically correct'' universities for over a decade. Moreover, postmodernism is gaining a clear and growing consensus in popular culture. Consequently, Christians today face unique challenges as we seek to communicate the gospel in a compelling way. In order to speak to the ''it's true for me because I believe it'' mentality, Christian communicators must understand and critique the foundations of postmodern relativism. We must also develop new and creative pre-evangelistic approaches to establish common ground with our secular culture.

Christian The Spirit of the Age: How Relativism Challenges Universal Truth A sermon outline provided by Focus on the Family
Christian ''That's True For You, But Not For Me'' A chapter from Paul Copan's book, ''True For You, But Not For Me''
Christian Truth or Tolerance? ''There are terrible implications if truth is relative instead of absolute. Tolerance has become the ultimate virtue, especially on university campuses. A Christian response to this alarming trend.'' by Scott Scruggs.
Christian ''What Do I Say Now?'' : Responding to the Slogans of Critics by Rick Wade
Sometimes these objections are well thought out, but often they sound more like slogans, catch-phrases the non-believer has heard but to which he or she probably hasn't given much thought.

If objections such as these have brought an abrupt end to any of your conversations because you weren't sure how to respond, a book published last year might be just what you need. The title is ''True For You, But Not For Me'': Deflating the Slogans That Leave Christians Speechless, and it was written by Paul Copan, an associate with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Copan's goal in this book is to provide responses for Christians who find themselves stumped by the objections of critics. To that end he deals with objections in such areas as knowledge of truth, morality, the uniqueness of Christ, and the hope of those who've never heard the Gospel.

In this article, I'll pull out a few of these objections and give brief answers, some from Copan, and some of my own.

Before doing that, however, I need to make an important point. If non-believers are doing nothing more than sloganeering by hurling objections that they really don't understand, rattling off memorized answers that we don't understand, Christians can be guilty of the same behavior of our opponents. Even though the objections might sound recorded, our answers needn't. Thus, I strongly suggest that you get a copy of Copan's book or obtain some other books on apologetics which will fill in the gaps left by our discussion.

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- Books -
Christian The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. Addresses moral relativism.
Christian Is Everything Really Relative? booklet by Paul Copan. Part of the RZIM Critical Questions series, published by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
Christian God in the Wasteland : The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams by Dennis F. Wells. Sequel to ''No Place for Truth'' (below). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. July, 1994.
Christian No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? By David F. Wells. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Dec. 1993.
Christian A Passion for Truth : The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism by Alister E. McGrath. InterVarsity Press, Aug. 1999.
Christian Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air By Dr. Francis J. Beckwith and Greg Koukl. Baker Book House, Sep. 1998
Many people are concerned about the tide of moral relativism that is rising steadily in our country. And rightly so: Relativism affects our education system, the legal system, and how people think about everyday issues. Yet little has been written on the topic outside academic circles.

This void is filled by Beckwith and Koukl, who analyze relativism and present strategies to defend the belief in moral absolutes. Using a commonsense approach, Koukl defines relativism, traces its growth over the past few decades, and critiques the logical inconsistencies to which its supporters are led. He then presents a case for moral objectivism. Beckwith, building on Koukl's foundation, evaluates the influence of relativism on issues including abortion, homosexuality, political correctness, multiculturalism, and tolerance. In each of these areas, Beckwith provides compelling arguments for thinking people.

Following in the tradition of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, RELATIVISM is an important guide for those who are concerned about intellectual issues that challenge classical theism.
Baker Book House, as posted at Amazon.com

In our relativistic society, Christians more than ever are bombarded by tough questions about their faith. Author Paul Copan has observed that many of these questions emerge as ''anti-truth claims'' that are part of today's skeptical mind-set. Christians defending their faith often hear slogans and questions such as: - It's all relative - Everything is one with the Divine; all else is illusion - The Gospels contradict each other - Why would a good God create hell?

This book provides incisive answers to slogans related to truth and reality; theism, pantheism/Eastern religion, and naturalism; and doctrinal issues such as the incarnation and truth of Scripture. Each of the twenty-two chapters provides succinct answers and summary points for countering the arguments. Copan's book is accessible for all Christians who want to defend the plausibility of Christianity in the marketplace of ideas. It also includes helpful summary sections, additional resources, and additional documentation in the endnotes for review and discussion.
Book Description, Amazon.com

See Also


Secular Ethics Updates ''designed primarily to be used by ethics instructors and their students. It is intended to provide updates on current literature, both popular and professional, that relates to ethics.''

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First posted: Sep. 19, 1998
Last Updated: Oct. 27, 2001
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