Relativism, Religious Pluralism, and Tolerance

I wrote this article in an email a few months ago and since then have had some lively discussions about it with the friends whom I shared it with. I edited it a little bit and added as many citations that I could although not in proper format I’m sure.

This email (an email I received that had the word “elephant” in it) about the elephant reminds me of the “relativistic” claim that is made regarding religion.  The eastern metaphor of blind men that each can feel part of an elephant in front of them (the elephant being the true religion).  The metaphor is meant to show that every religion has some truth but they do not know it all because they cannot see the entire elephant (I heard this metaphor on a podcast by Tim Keller).  The man who has the trunk of says that the elephant is like a snake and the man who has a leg says that an elephant is like a tree stump.  All are correct relative to their perspective but in reality all are wrong.  In relativism, no one is objectively correct.

The metaphor is self-refuting though because in order for it to work it requires that the person telling the story know exactly what an elephant looks like.  That person is the arbiter of the “only” objective truth: there is no true religion or objective truth.  However, by his own definition he undercuts his own viewpoint.  The person who sees the elephant and says there is no truth is saying that they see what others do not.

The actual truth is that relativism is a sham.

Further, the idea that nothing is true because there are competing claims of truth commits a logical fallacy called Non sequitur (the conclusion does not follow from the premises (Greg Koukl,  Let’s see what happens when we test this claim and let is play out to its logical conclusion (Reductio ad absurdum).  Let’s say joe and alex disagree.  Joe says that he has $100 in his bank account but Alex claims that joe only has $10 (because he thinks joe is bad with money).  In this case it does not follow logically that both are necessarily wrong just because there is not a consensus.  They could both be wrong or one could be right and the other wrong but it is not based upon whether or not they disagree.  The truth is based upon what the joe’s bank statement says (which he might be required to present).

Behind the relativist’s claims it must be assumed that there are hidden or implicit premises that are not explicitly claimed in their reasoning.  For example, they might be assuming that someone who claims to know a truth is arrogant for that claim and thus incorrect.  However, this is fallacious reasoning (argument ad hominem (Moreland & Craig, 2003)): attacking the character of the opponent instead of his argument.  An argument should stand or fall based upon its own merit and not upon anything else (Greg Koukl,  The skeptic of truth might also be assuming the following hidden premise: “the only reason you believe this is because you were born in _____. If you were born in Pakistan you would be a muslim or India you would be a Hindu.”   This argument, however, commits what is called the Genetic Fallacy: It attempts to refute an argument based upon a person’s origin of belief or how they came to believe it and ignores the merit of the argument completely (Moreland & Craig, 2003).   A counter argument for this that shows how silly it is goes like this: “the only reason you (skeptic) believe that all religions are equally false and there is no truth, is because you were born in western culture in the 20th century (William Lane Craig, Defenders podcast). If you (skeptic) had been born in pakistan or another century, you would have believed in objective truth and in religious particularism. Thus, by your own definition we cannot believe your claim that all religions are equally false because it is based upon where you were born.”  The genetic fallacy works both ways and is not sound.

It can also be pointed out that the skeptic is also VERY ethno-centric, in that, they believe that their “relativistic” view of all truth is only a small minority of belief compared to the overall belief systems of most of humans in the history of the world (Craig, Defenders podcast). Most humans have believed that their view is true.   Why is their claim any better?  (ad hominem)

I think truth gets muddled down because of a term used called tolerance.  I think of tolerance today has a different meaning than it has historically.  Today it means that you have to not only accept others beliefs but also endorse them.  However, no one is truly tolerant in the traditional sense because in order to tolerate something, you first need to disagree with it (Koukl,  How can you tolerate something you agree with?

Tolerance should not be totally accepting every viewpoint as equally praiseworthy.  For example, it would be inhumane to say that extermination of a minority, or bigotry, or hatred is just as acceptable as peace, care, and love.

Everyone has a viewpoint that they think is true. We should be tolerant of people but not of ideas.  In other words, how we treat people is important but it is imperative that we disagree with bad arguments and poisonous thinking.  When we are intolerant of bad ideas, we need to be able to make our case for our own beliefs by presenting evidence and reasonable assertions.  It is okay to disagree with someone!  In fact it is better for the world to disagree and to work out differences through argument and persuasion as opposed to shouting and name calling.  Everyone is going to be wrong from time to time and needs to be humble enough to admit that fact.  However, that does not mean that there is not truth out there to find.

In conclusion, relativism and the new definition of tolerance has skewed our ability to objectively and critically hold and defend ideas.  This in turn has made the world a worse place.

What do you think?


J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig (2003) Philosophical Foundations for a Christian
Worldview. Chapter 2. Argumentation and logic

Craig, Defenders podcast-

Koukl, str podcast-

Keller, podcast-


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