Relativism has become a popular doctrine in our society today. According to the American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, relativism is “the doctrine that no ideas or beliefs are universally true but that all are, instead, ‘relative’ — that is, their validity depends on the circumstances in which they are applied.” We are told by society that we must be tolerant of other religious beliefs. And when they say “tolerant,” those who subscribe to the doctrine of relativism mean we must agree that the religious beliefs of others who believe differently than we do are equally true.
I am not one of those who subscribes to the doctrine of relativism. If two beliefs are directly contradictory, then they cannot both be true. If I believe a marble is white through and through, and you believe it is green through and through, only one of us can be right. If I believe the soul of a person lives one life here on earth, and then continues to exist in eternity either in Heaven (in the presence of God) or in Hell (without God); and you believe that the soul of a person is reincarnated into multiple new persons over many centuries until it finally reaches perfection; then we can’t both be right. I am willing to admit that I might be the one who is wrong, but I refuse to believe we can both be right.
In the search for Truth, I find the doctrine of relativism neither rational nor helpful. It negates the need to fully understand and explore one’s own beliefs because it doesn’t matter if they are really the Truth; it is enough that my beliefs are true for me.
I also don’t believe one must be a relativist to be tolerant. I once read an interesting take on tolerance that I will try to summarize here. According to the author, there are three levels of tolerance:
1. Legal tolerance is the idea that every person has a legal right to believe whatever they choose and to not be discriminated against because of what they believe.
2. Social tolerance is the idea that one is morally obligated in a free society to treat others with respect and dignity regardless of their beliefs.
3. Absolute tolerance is relativism and is the idea that to be tolerant I must agree that whatever anyone believes is equally as true as what I believe, or at least that it is true for them.
I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea of legal tolerance and believe it is the foundation of our great nation. I also completely agree that social tolerance is absolutely essential in any civil society and strive to put it into practice in my daily life. But absolute tolerance goes beyond what I can agree with. It is not necessary or helpful for a free, civil society to insist upon absolute tolerance. I also believe that absolute tolerance negates social tolerance, because to say that what I believe is the Truth is not really the Truth, but only one of many truths, does not treat me with respect or dignity.
You may agree with what I have stated in this blog as my beliefs, or you may disagree and believe something different. I will always uphold your right to believe as you choose and treat you with respect and dignity as a person regardless of whether we agree. I can gladly agree to disagree. But if what you believe directly contradicts what I believe, please don’t ask me to accept that we are both right.