True For You, But Not For Me

I hate relativism.  I hate relativism more than I hate anything else.  I think that relativism is very probably false.          Steven Pinker

The title is a book from the Christian apologist Paul Copan on relativism.  It is a well-written book which will make some take it at face value.  But it is a piece of Christian apologetics and uses the brute force of Western logic to pull the wool over our eyes.

Steven Pinker presents relativism as irresponsible as Copan does though.  Pinker’s popular books exist primarily to combat relativism within the social sciences but that doesn’t excuse it.  Because someone then has to clean up the mess that is left behind.

Relativism is important because the religious right claims that we are immoral.  We are immoral because we believe in relativism.  They use a caricature of relativism—”true for you, but not for me”—in order to poke fun and have us dismiss it.

Relativism As Threat

In the case of Copan, who has written much on the subject, relativism is a threat to his beliefs.  When things are a threat to our beliefs, then we feel hate and if we feel it is inferior to us, then we feel contempt.  His obsession with relativism reveals it is both.

It makes talking about your faith wrong.

  • Claim: You can’t tell me about your faith as “it’s cramming your religion down my throat”.
  • Response: This is a good thing in the case of Christianity as well as other belief systems that make claims that have no basis in reality.  To make the sharing of misbeliefs wrong is a moral act.

It makes being exclusive to be arrogant.

  • Claim: Being a part of “the club” and to know things that others don’t is arrogant.
  • Response: To be exclusivistic does come across as rejecting and being proud when we claim we know something that others don’t is arrogant.  That is a function of humans being social creatures and not of relativism.

It makes tolerance the cardinal virtue.

  • Claim: Telling someone they are wrong is intolerant since only tolerance is tolerated.
  • Response: Tolerance should be a virtue as long as what we are tolerating doesn’t affect the well-being of others.

Christianity and Tolerance

Though relativism claims ownership of “tolerance,” it is incoherent and self-contradictory (i).  Ironically, it’s more dogmatic than the Christian faith it criticizes—a faith that actually serves as the basis for tolerance, respect, and compassion. [1]

The first claim can be dismissed (i).  The second claim has some truth to it but is framed in a way that makes Christians the owners of the fair treatment of others.  Christianity is what you want to make of it.  The teachings from the Bible were most certainly not always cherry-picked for compassion.  Although the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew are the epitome of compassion, there are an equal amount of teachings that are not.  I have not seen any formalized doctrine on compassion as the focus is on worship.

Copan defines tolerance as being the amount of “error” we are willing to “put up with”.  He is correct that to tolerate does not mean to accept an individual or their beliefs.  To accept a person means that they are “adequate” for our needs.  But we vary in our preferences and abilities to want and obtain the acceptance of others.  We don’t or can’t accept everyone.  The same thing goes for beliefs as we may tolerate them but find them inadequate.  But I don’t think this is what liberals mean when they speak of tolerance.

Liberals most likely mean to tolerate others in a way that is free of bigotry.  Bigotry is to have prejudice towards a class of people (typically race and sex), and prejudice means to have hate and hostility.  So we don’t want others to show bigotry to others or to us.  If we broaden the meaning of bigotry to all classes, then liberals are inconsistent on this since we show bigotry towards Christians and conservatives.  I have brought this up many times, but it may be important to sacrifice principles in favor of pragmatism.

I have offered an alternative to tolerance because I believe it is superficial and can be disingenuous.  True acceptance of others is identifying with their humanity, which requires empathy.  Empathy requires us to feel as others do or to experience as others do.  I didn’t “get” this until I experienced the plight of others myself.  Copan offers the idea of coercion and says that Christians “must show respect for the image-of-God-bearing persons who happen to hold those perspectives”, which is nonsense and doesn’t work.

The most beautiful people I have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths.  These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern.  Elizabeth Kugler-Ross

Atheism and Tolerance 

And what about secular ideologies that pose an incalculable threat to tolerance? Atheistic communism alone resulted in the estimated killings of sixty million under Mao Zedong in China, twenty five million under Bolshevist and Stalinist Russia, two million under Pol Pot in Cambodia, and millions more throughout the rest of the world. [1]

This is not easy to explain away and is shameful.  I don’t know if it would be honest of me if I resorted to the correlation fallacy.  For those that haven’t heard of this fallacy, it basically says that just because a relationship has been established—that is, as atheism goes up, then genocide does too—it doesn’t mean that atheism was the cause.  Finding causes in the social sciences isn’t easy.

I believe, however, that fear of eternal damnation may serve as a deterrent.  It may be the case that with the right personality and situational factors—those that score high for the traits of narcissism and psychopathy and combined with no fear of eternal damnation—that narcissistic, atheistic bullies may be at higher risk to commit genocide.  But there has to be a culture that allows it.

I don’t know enough about the circumstances within these countries during those time periods, but obviously, it was “ripe” enough to allow for authoritarian rogues to come into power.  But I can’t imagine this happening in the United States or within other stable democratic countries.  But we can’t rule it out as a possibility since the consequences of it happening just once are grave.

That said, this isn’t a fair criticism and is a salient exemplar because it takes a few memorable cases and generalizes it to be what is typical of any atheist.  It isn’t typical though.  Since most atheists devote a lot of time and effort to educate themselves in politics and science, they, therefore, have a heightened awareness of the possibility and are likely to become politically active as a result. 

Case in point, Donald Trump meets the criteria for the trait of narcissism and behaved in ways that were characteristic of authoritarian rulers [3].  But conservatives didn’t seem to mind.  Did conservatives look the other way because he was to “make-do” or because they too have authoritarian-like traits?  Liberals were keen to point this out and took action in many different forms.


i) Relativism isn’t self-contradictory but even if it were that wouldn’t diminish its value.  Theologians use logic as the end all be all of settling disputes.  If they can claim incoherence, then they win the game.  There is no universal logic though.  But we can still play their game and see that it is fallacious by their rules.  They claim that we say “all things are relative”, which is a contradiction if we assume the statement itself needs to be relative to be true.  But the statement was never meant to be used as a reference to itself.


[1] Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Copan, Paul. True For You, But Not For Me.  Kindle Edition.

[3] Wathey, John C. Trump’s Narcissism Is a Feature, Not a Bug. HuffPost

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