“That’s Just What You Think”: Responding to Relativism

The other night, while I was at an outdoor cookout, I got into a very interesting conversation with a friend of a friend. Her outlook on life was quite different from my own, which led me to ask a number of questions to better understand where she was coming from, how she saw life, and what was important to her.

Overall, we were having an engaging, lively conversation about a wide array of topics.

I then tried to open the conversation up for more of a two-way dialogue. I said, “One of the intriguing comments you’ve made is that the study of science has led you towards atheism. I found that particularly interesting because my study of science has led me towards Christianity.”

She invited me to explain myself, so I went on, “It seems to me that science has revealed to us a spectacularly well-ordered and beautiful universe, which is suggestive in many ways of design, and that potentially implies the existence of a designer. Furthermore, the human capacity to understand the universe, from the Big Bang to quarks, from galaxies billions of light years away to the structure of DNA, is incredible. I think there’s something about our remarkable capacity to reason that also points towards theism.”

Certainly these points are debatable, but they are at least the building blocks of an intelligent disagreement. So I was caught off-guard by her response, which curtly ended the conversation:

“That’s just what you think.”

Though I didn’t have much of an opportunity to think through this statement with her, I think this little phrase is common enough to warrant further examination. Let’s put aside the lack of courtesy and respect for a moment and look deeper.

My goal is two-fold: first, I’d like to encourage you to never use this statement, whatever you believe; second, I’d like you to be well-prepared to respond if and when someone says it to you.

“That’s Just What You Think” Avoids the Conversation

First, we need to recognize that the statement is a conversational dodge, a way to avoid thinking about and dealing with a different perspective from one’s own preconceived notions.

This suggests two primary kinds of responses: pray and be a good friend.

Prayer has a way of softening our hearts, deepening our desire for the best interests of another person, and giving us insights into how to love well. We also hope that God will be at work in the other person’s life, preparing them to know and understand that God loves them. Importantly, prayer places us in a position of humility and dependence before God. Our hope is in him, not in our wisdom and strength.

Friendship is equally crucial in this situation. Clearly, I’m not a trusted dialogue partner, for whatever reason, with this person. Who knows what may be going on in her life or what negative experiences I may have brought to mind? Perhaps I need to work on how I engage in conversation, by, for instance, becoming a better listener. In any case, if I wish to have honest conversations with her about what is true and reasonable to believe, I will likely first need to build a genuine friendship with her.

“That’s Just What You Think” Is Redundant

This phrase doesn’t really advance the conversation. Imagine using it in other contexts:

“I believe the best way home is Route 3.”
“That’s just what you think!”

“Our study shows that vegetables are good for you.”
“That’s just what you think!”

Well, of course our verbalized statements reflect what we think.

Saying “that’s just what you think” doesn’t add anything to the conversation.

“That’s Just What You Think” Leads to an Endless, Pointless Circle

Imagine if we just kept saying this phrase back and forth to each other, using it as a blunt tool to shut down the other person’s perspective:

A: “I think there are many reasons to believe in God.”

B: “That’s just what you think.”

A: “That’s just what you think.”

B: “Well, that’s just what you think.”

A: “Yea, but that is just what you think.”

This is little better than two children squabbling over who crossed the line in the back seat. “You crossed the line!” “Well, you did it first!”

When a statement leads to such a conversational dead end, it is best to just avoid it entirely.

“That’s Just What You Think” Is Self-Refuting

Let’s be as charitable as possible and rework this statement into something approaching an argument. Perhaps the point is something like this: ‘what’s true for you isn’t true for me, because truth is relative. You see things one way, I see things another way, and that’s all there is to it.’

What’s essential to notice is that this approach contradicts itself. The point being made is that no one can speak definitively about how things are, yet the speaker of this statement is pronouncing a definitive conclusion about what is true – for you, for others, for everyone.

In other words, the relativist is imposing her views on others. If you are a relativist, to insist that other people should be a relativist, or that relativism is true for them even if they disagree, is to contradict your own point of view. A consistent relativist would never try to make someone else a relativist; after all, the point of relativism is ‘to each his own.’

Relativism is therefore self-contradictory and, consequently, practicing it leads its adherents to live by a double-standard: relativism for me, but my views for you.

A Gracious Response

One of the simplest and easiest ways to respond to a statement like this is to reflect it back, but with a warm, gentle, and sincere desire to continue the conversation. Though the words may be identical, our response must carry a strikingly different tone, and therefore, a radically different meaning. Instead of winding the conversation down, we use the same phrase to open it up.

To quote from a comment on the Reasons for God Facebook page, “When someone says, ‘That’s what you think.’ Say to them, ‘Yes, and what do you think?'”

If we respond with humility, we can offer a genuine opportunity for further and deeper conversation.

Questions for Reflection:

What other phrases are indicative of a relativistic approach towards truth?

How would you have responded to this woman? What responses would indicate an honest, authentic, and caring approach towards her?