June 9, 2009

Another Problem with Rooting Morality in God

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in ph...
Bust carved by by Victor Wager from a model by Paul Montford, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Regardless of their favored argument for believing in their particular god, many Christians seem particularly fond of criticizing atheists on moral grounds. Such Christians often believe that all atheists seek the complete eradication of their religion and are likely to oppose this primarily on moral grounds. Specifically, such Christians claim that moral order is somehow dependent upon their god, or at least upon continued belief in their god. Of course, making such a claim requires them to dismiss or simply ignore evidence that predominately secular societies are not necessarily dysfunctional, but we can set that aside for now to examine an often neglected counterargument. As we will see, insisting that morality comes from their god creates an important philosophical problem for Christians.

Most of you are at least somewhat familiar with Plato and Socrates, even if only by name. Students of Western philosophy may even recall Euthyphro's dilemma from Plato's dialog Euthyphro. Plato presents the following dialog between Socrates and Euthyphro where Socrates is trying to understand a critical implication of that has become a central plank in the contemporary Christian worldview:
Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro? Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euthyphro: Certainly.

Socrates: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

Euthyphro: No, that is the reason.

Socrates: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?
In essence, Euthyphro's dilemma is this: Is something good simply because god(s) say so, or does god(s) say something is good because of some other quality?

Using Euthyphro's dilemma as a starting point, Bertrand Russell presents us with the following in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects:

If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: Is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God Himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God's fiat, because God's fiats are good and not good independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.
Add this to the many difficulties involved in the common Christian claim that human morality is somehow rooted in their particular god.

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