Answering Two Kinds of Relativism about Religion: Modernity vs Postmodernity
This article clarifies the Christian view of truth and distinguishes it from two kinds of relativism about religion: modernism and postmodernism. It then argues that the Christian view is the correct view. Finally, it concludes by considering whether modernity or postmodernity best captures our current cultural climate, arguing that contrary to popular belief, our culture is in fact still characterized by modernity.
The Christian View of Truth
The Christian view of truth – and in all likelihood the commonsense view of truth – is that a particular statement is true if it corresponds with reality, and false if it does not. Take the statement “Jesus rose from the dead.” This statement is true if and only if it really is the case that Jesus rose from the dead. But if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, then the statement under consideration is false. So the truth value of any given statement depends on whether or not it accurately describes the world.
Notice that this view implies that truth is exclusive in the sense that anything that disagrees with it is false: if the statement “Jesus rose from the dead” is true, then anyone who disagrees with it holds a false belief.
Notice as well that this view holds that truth is non-discriminatory between religious statements and any other kinds of statements. Religious statements in principle have truth values just as scientific statements, ethical statements, historical statements, geographical statements, and so forth, have truth values.
Two Kinds of Relativism about Religion
Many religious pluralists, or those who adopt a relativism about religion, deny this Christian view of truth. Two ways of doing this are suggested by the philosophical consequences of modernity vs postmodernity. That is to say, these cultural perspectives carry with them two different ways of denying that there is religious truth. Let’s define these in turn.
Definition of Modernism and Postmodernism
Modernism. Modernism is the view that only empirical, verifiable statements can be true or false. In other words, the only statements that can be true or false are the ones that can be proven so by using our five senses. Statements that apparently meet this standard are scientific statements, geographical statements, many ordinary statements about current events, and other statements about the physical world.
By contrast, religious and ethical statements are neither true nor false, since they cannot be verified or falsified by the five senses. Modernism therefore denies the non-discriminatory feature of truth.
Postmodernism. The postmodern view of truth is articulated in statements like, “there is no objective truth” and “all truth is relative.” Postmodern agrees that truth does not discriminate between different kinds of statements, but redefines truth entirely so that it is no longer exclusive. This implies that religious statements (along with any other kind of statement) are not either true or false, end of story, but are merely true or false for me, or for you.
Thus, the truth value of a statement does not depend on whether it accurately describes the world, but rather depends on some more personal considerations. This generates the same implication as modernism for our purposes, which is that religious statements are neither true nor false according to the Christian view of truth.
Consider the statement of modernism, that “only empirical, verifiable statements can be true or false.”
Can this statement itself be true or false according to its own standards? It cannot: we do not have a way to use our five senses to prove whether this standard of truth is itself true or false. Hence, given that its primary claim cannot itself be empirically verified, modernism is self-defeating. To say that modernism is self-defeating is to say that the truth of modernism would itself imply that modernism is false, such that modernism cannot be true. Modernism is false by it’s own standards.
But suppose that the modernist gives up this primary claim, this overly demanding standard of truth. Suppose instead that she holds that religious knowledge is impossible, and attempts to back up this new claim with the infamous elephant analogy.
The elephant analogy goes roughly like this: About six blind men walk up to an elephant. The blind men represent the different world religions, and the elephant represents the truth about religion. One man finds the leg and says that elephants are like tree stumps, while another man finds the trunk and says that elephants are more like snakes. Thus, all the men are arguing about what an elephant is like, thinking they see the whole thing, when in fact no one knows more than a tiny bit of the truth because they are all blind.
The problem with this analogy, however, is that it is told from the point of view of someone who is not blind, namely, the modernist. She claims to see not only the whole elephant but also all the men and their blindness; she thinks that she is right and that they are wrong. The modernist herself thereby claims religious knowledge and contradicts herself again.
Consider now the postmodernist’s claims, that “there is no objective truth” and that “all truth is relative.”
These likewise are self-defeating. The postmodernist asserts that her statements are objectively true, that they are true claims about the nature of truth and not merely dependent on his own personal sentiments. But in doing this he asserts that there are some claims that are objectively, non-relatively true after all: namely, his own claims about the nature of truth.
This is of course to fall into self-defeat again; if postmodernism is true, then it follows that postmodernism is false, which is logically incoherent.
The elephant analogy could be defended by the postmodernist as well. In this case all kinds of statements would be captured by the elephant analogy, supporting the conclusion that no knowledge is possible. The analogy would fail, however, in light of the very same reasons explained in the previous section.
Our Culture Is Modern, Not Postmodern
We may conclude from the discussion thus far that the Christian and commonsense view of truth is the correct one, as it is intuitively clear and is in no way self-defeating.
It is here that another question relevant for Christian apologetics arises, which is whether our culture is characterized by modernism or postmodernism. Understanding the answer to this question is important, as it plays a large role in determining where we direct our efforts in defending the faith.
Youth pastors and popular speakers frequently tells us to believe that our culture is postmodern, and therefore, that logic and evidence will not have much of a positive effect on people anymore. The reason that logic and evidence would not positive effect people in a postmodern culture is simply because logic and evidence are only relevant for determining the truth. But if there is no truth, then we should instead focus on sharing our narrative about how Jesus has blessed our lives, and invite others to seek his blessing as well.
However, the idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth, and a destructive one at that.
Despite the prominence of postmodern-sounding claims, most people are not relativistic when it comes to reading medicine labels, planning a trip to Florida, taking a sociology exam, talking about global warming, or fixing their broken air-conditioning unit. They are relativistic about which religion should be followed, and about certain controversial moral issues. They are not relativistic about science, medicine, technology, geography, history, or ordinary matters. They are relativistic about religion, and about ethics. But that’s modernism, not postmodernism.
That this is the best analysis of culture should be evident simply by observing those around us. But it is also evident when we consider the profound impact that New Atheists like Richard Dawkins are having on people. Folks like this are modernist or close to it; they either believe that there is no religious truth, or that all religions are false. If our culture were truly post-modern, these sorts of books would not even cause a ripple. But as it stands people are being swayed by supposed scientific evidence that God does not exist, that Jesus wasn’t who he claimed to be, that prayer is pointless, and so forth.
The reason why its destructive to believe that our culture is postmodern is because if we do, then such anti-Christian arguments will go unanswered. If we believe that our culture is postmodern, then we will simply share our narrative, while letting atheists stake claims over science and reason. This is destructive because people do still care about science and reason, and Christians need to care about these things as well.
And we shouldn’t worry when talking about science and reason with people when talking about the Christian faith, because there is plenty of good evidence and reasons to believe that the Christianity is true.
So where do we go from here? We get clear with people about what is truth, and we be prepared to demonstrate the implausibility of the two kinds of relativism about religion. Then, we be prepared to offer people reasons to believe that Christianity is true, confident that God is guiding all of us along the way.
If you want to learn some of the reasons for believing that Christianity is true, or if you want to learn about how to talk about this with your non-Christian friends, take a look at some of our recommend Christian apologetics books.
What do you think about the different kinds of religious relativism? Do you agree or disagree that our culture is modern rather than postmodern? Leave any thoughts or questions you have in the comments section below!