Relativism and the reality of wrong ideas

By David Pool
Posted 2/20/20

Everyone wants to be known as tolerant. But what does that mean? The concept of “tolerance” has undergone a drastic shift in definition over the last several decades. It used to be that …

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Relativism and the reality of wrong ideas


Everyone wants to be known as tolerant. But what does that mean? The concept of “tolerance” has undergone a drastic shift in definition over the last several decades. It used to be that tolerance was to be directed toward people, meaning that people should be treated respectfully and with dignity even if they held opposing or different ideas.

But somewhere along the way, what we mean by “tolerance” has changed. It is now understood to refer to ideas instead of people. In other words, tolerance as it is commonly used today means that we must respect an array of ideas and treat them as valid (truthful), even if they contradict one another or lack objective support. That is why we so often hear people say things like, “Well, it is not true for me, but who am I to say what is true for someone else.”

On the surface, this position has a lot of appeal. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say that all ideas and customs are morally valid. While that might seem at first glance to be a good position to take, the truth is that some ideas and customs are just better than other ones. Reality is such that some ideas are more worthy of belief than others. And history shows the disastrous consequences to societies when untruthful ideas are tolerated. There are a number of reasons why we should tolerate people but not bad ideas.

First, believing everything just doesn’t work. This became clear to me when I flunked a calculus test in college. It mattered to the professor that I put down certain answers for each problem. The difficulty was that to arrive at those certain answers, I had to use particular formulas and equations, all in the right order. Just any formula or just any order of steps would not do. Yet this is evident in more areas than just math.

If I say that I am drinking from a cup that is red, I have, at the same time, made it clear that it is not black, white, green, or blue. That is because in all areas of life, including the spiritual area, truth is, by definition, narrow.

There is a second reason why regarding every idea a valid is impossible. The fact is that many ideas and beliefs are actually harmful to people. For example, on every pack of cigarettes is the statement saying that the surgeon general has determined that smoking is gravely unhealthy. I certainly have the right to believe that smoking is good for me, but I would be wrong. And the outcome for my health will still be devastating.

Or, take another example. Are we really to affirm that beliefs that justify activities such as human trafficking are valid? Are we really willing to hold that all beliefs are equally true, even those that support slavery? The fact is that many beliefs that are held by people today do lead to harm and do foster destructive outcomes.

Finally, believing any truth claim is impossible because different ideas make contradictory statements about the nature of reality. They cannot all be true at the same time. One clear example of this relates to what God is like. The Bible affirms that God exists as a trinity (there is only one God who is revealed in three distinct, simultaneously existing personalities of father, son and holy spirit). Islam, on the other hand, holds no such belief and teaches that Jesus was not divine, but merely human (a prophet). Eastern religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) teach that there exists no personal God at all and that ultimate reality is an impersonal force, like gravity. How can these all be true when their basic premises contradict each other?

Without question, everyone must freely decide for themselves what to believe about God, the meaning of life, and reality. But these beliefs need to be examined carefully, because there is no way that all ideas or beliefs can be equally true. It is my opinion that no view of life and spiritual reality stands up better to examination than Christianity, which is based on the person of Jesus Christ who claimed to be the way, the truth and the life for all people. It is both internally consistent and can actually be lived out in a way that causes all people and all cultures to flourish.


(David Pool is the senior pastor at Grace Point in Powell.)