An Example of Relativism?

Here’s an interesting question I received from Jeremiah in Ohio:

My question is about relativism. I once heard an atheist say, “There is a type of truth that is relative. For example, my hair color is black and yours is brown. Therefore, that my hair is black is true for me but not true for you.” As a Christian new to apologetics, how do I respond to this? I already know that his statement is not a preference claim such as an ice cream flavor and also not moral claim. Please help me if you can.

The truth of a subjective claim (a claim of preference, such as, “Rocky Road is the most delicious ice cream”) is relative to the person—the subject—making the claim, so a preference claim can be “true for me but not for you.” But Jeremiah is right that the atheist’s example above is not a preference claim. The claim is an objective one. When the atheist says, “My hair is black,” the “my” is referring to himself; and the claim that his hair is black is either true or false for everyone. In other words, it’s true for him—let’s call him John—that John’s hair is black, and it’s true for everyone else that John’s hair is black. 

Here’s where the confusion comes in: When you apply that same claim (“My hair is black”) to another person and say that exact same claim is now false (and therefore, an example of relativism), you are simply equivocating on the word “my.” By that, I mean you’re smuggling in two different definitions for the word “my” (i.e., you’re using it to mean both “John’s” and “Bill’s”). But changing the definition of that word changes the claim itself. It’s the fact that “my” is referring to John’s hair that makes the statement true, but if, now, you’re talking about Bill’s hair, you’re not applying the exact same claim to Bill; you’re simply making a different claim altogether!

When you clear up the equivocation by defining what is meant by “my,” this all becomes clear. Let’s replace “my” with what the word is actually referring to:

John’s hair is black, and Bill’s is brown.

“John’s hair is black” is true for John, and it’s true for Bill.

“Bill’s hair is black” is false for John, and it’s false for Bill.

“John’s hair is black” and “Bill’s hair is black” are two different objective claims. The atheist was obscuring the fact that these are two different claims by using the same word (“my”) to refer to both John and Bill, and you can see this clearly when you define the ambiguous term “my” in each instance. Defining it clears up the confusion.

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Amy K. Hall