The key point here is that the relativism that the religious right accuses us of is a strawman. Most of us don’t believe in a “hard” relativism which means, at the very least, that everything is relative and that no one point of view should take priority over another. If we think we meet these criteria of “hard” relativism, we need only ask ourselves where Christianity ranks in our mind.
A Catholic Insider
The topic of relativism is usually not relevant until we hear from the religious right on absolute morality. I recall going through a Catholic interview to get married, and their attempt to bring me back to the faith came in the form of a pamphlet. This pamphlet was a pathetic two pages in length. The first thing in the pamphlet was an attack on relativism, which, for them, is a very bad word.
All things are relative.
If all things are relative, then this isn’t true. (i)
I was presented with a self-refuting statement. This of course was not a reason to accept Jesus but to accept their worldview. But to me, this seemed to be a quirk within our language and logic not a stake through soft relativism. What bothered me more was when the priest mistook me as an insider and said, “those atheists don’t believe in anything greater than themselves like we do”.
The contradiction “all things are relative” doesn’t diminish the value that relativism holds. The claim says that “all things” are relative, which means that we can’t rule it out as being absolute. But if it is an absolute claim, then it itself can’t be true since all things are relative. The reasoning we just went through is what apologists expect us to do. They don’t, however, tell us that this is a trap.
This contradiction is disingenuous and non-existent (i). First, by all things do we mean the statement itself, or do we mean what the statement is referring to? Things themselves just are and can’t be true or false. Second, in order to communicate that all things are relative, we must assert the claim that all things are relative. So by virtue of how language works, this will contradict itself.
This is an artifact of language, not a refutation! The fact that the Catholic church would use this strawman to put down a worldview that they perceive as evil, “those liberals”, speaks more to their contempt towards liberalism than it does as an earnest and valid criticism.
i) The insight of a “quirk of language” has been verified by Dr. Richard Carrier, who has formal training in philosophy and in the historical sciences. “What theologians are doing is “taking a colloquial phrase, “all things are relative”, that was never meant to be “self-referential”” to be as if it were in order to make it self-contradictory. This is known as Bertrand Russell’s equivocation fallacy.