Relativism refers to the point of view of having no absolute truth, and have only subjective or relative values based on our cultural, religious, social or political background. Sometimes, relativism fronts that all points of view are equally valid, and that there is no universal truth but there are many different truths. This point of view, according to Relativism, began with Protagoras, the first Greek sophist, who believed that nothing is absolutely good or bad when he asserts that, "man is the measure of all things". What he meant is that each man's opinion differs and what is true for one man is can be false for another, and therefore there is no general or objective truth. One of the arguments fronted by relativism is that our own cognitive bias is what prevents us from assessing things objectively using our senses.
The existence of many religions and believe systems in the world no doubt raises questions as to which one is true and which ones are not. Every religion has its doctrines all claiming to be true. Arinze in Meeting other believers (1997), refers religious relativism as an error. "This is the error of religious relativism, the mistake of those who say that all religions are roads o the same God, and that it doesn't matter which religion one chooses to belong, as long as the person has good will"(18). The responsibility of choosing which religion to embrace belongs to an individual and this process requires sincerity and objectivity since each one will ultimately give account to God for the religious choices.
He argues that one religion is not as good as another, that "the religions are not all saying the same thing on every point at issue" (p.18). It is expected that student and generally people in public institutions, should appreciate that people may belong to different religions or belief systems, some disagreeing with their own. In such an environment, tolerance, understanding and respect for other people's religions is imperative for the sake of religious harmony without bloodshed. In reference to Bouteneff(2006). There are many things that the religions have in common, relating to the human person and creation (p.54). From a view of enlightenment, and these points should be shared and appreciated. Other points are that are different and even probably oppositional. At this point, one should make clear enough what they believe in. People take their own beliefs as the truth while regarding those of others as mere beliefs.
The challenge that this treatment poses is the standard used by those whop assert their religion or position to be true when discrediting those of others. Arinze asserts that objective truth exists and that, "respect for everyone's religion even when one disagrees with some aspects of it, is a necessary requirement for safe and fruitful inter- religious dialogue" (p.18). It is an individual responsibility to determine sincerely and objectively which religion to belong. The reasons as to why someone chooses a particular religion for example will depend on the standards and religious needs of that person or society. According to Netland (2001) many people embrace the idea of many religious paths to one destiny while rejecting the imperialism, and Christian insistence of one correct religion. (p.248).
Though stepping out of one's belief system is not always easy, there are several cases in which people have changed their believe systems. Upon evaluation of the believe system that one has compared to other believe systems, an individual may change his/her believe if convinced that their believe system is wanting. This is usually the case if a believe system does not adequately answer certain questions that are considered to be solved by religion. The liberty in the laws of many countries to spread religion and those to whom it is spread to receive a new religion point to every day changes individuals make to their believe systems. People may be compelled to change their believe systems for example, because their present believe system is strict or even abusive and oppressive. Some people run away from such punitive belief systems to look for alternatives that are liberal and accommodative.
My belief system in a great way affects my study of religion, despite my concerted effort to approach my study of them without bias. As much as I try to focus and reason in the way the doctrines of other religions, there is always a tendency to believe other belief systems than mine are untrue. I always hold my belief system above them, and use the doctrinal basis of my belief system to criticize other systems. In addition, the notion of learning those belief systems just for the sake of my studies and not out of serious interest, tends to dominate my mind. Appreciating relativism will promote tolerance of other people's values and believe systems.
The academic study of religion requires that relativism be embraced as part of methodology in order to make students open up to learn and study belief systems that are different and even at times in conflict with their own. If the idea of relativism is not embraced, cross-cultural learning will be impaired to a large extent. The students may not tolerate other believe systems and may be tempted to portray their believe system as superior. Some may eve refuse to learn, claiming breach of the belief system.
The theory of relativism while applicable for academic reasons may not be used by individuals in deciding which belief system to belong. Other factors such as objectivity and sincerity play a central role. Indeed, the student of religion is expected to lead the way in the promotion of responsibility in respecting other people's religions and practices. This will lead to religious tolerance, which brings about social harmony. Finally, intolerance of any kind should not be tolerated. It is expected that all people will tolerate the believe systems of others. The absence of tolerance can cause conflict, and all people should strive to promote religious tolerance.