The Reconquista Initiative
Atheism’s Euthyphro Dilemma & the Irrationality of Unbelief
Atheists, when arguing against theists, like to bring up the Euthyphro Dilemma. This dilemma, which focuses on the connection between God and morality, seeks to undermine both a divine command theory of ethics as well as robust forms of theism by offering the divine command theorist and/or the robust theist with two undesirable choices. On the one hand, the dilemma asks whether God loves that which is moral because it is already moral, thereby undermining the sovereignty and supremacy of God by showing that something exists independently of God to which even God answers; and, on the other hand, the dilemma asks whether that which is moral is simply what God commands, meaning that if God, for example, commanded rape, then rape would be moral, which seems absurd. And so, as stated, the force of the dilemma comes from the fact that it seeks to force the theist into choosing one of these two undesirable options, which is something that the theist obviously does not wish to do. Now the Euthyphro Dilemma is easily answered, both on its own terms—meaning that a person could simply embrace one of the horns of the dilemma and still easily remain a theist of some type—and also because the theist can avoid the dilemma by simply noting that God’s commands necessarily flow from His nature, which is essentially loving, and so nothing that would be considered as morally egregious in an ultimate sense would ever be commanded by God. So, while the theistic Euthyphro Dilemma is easily answered without having to fall into its trap, in this essay I wish to argue that while theists have to deal with the Euthyphro Dilemma, atheists and atheistic-naturalists actually have to deal with a much more difficult moral dilemma which is similar to the Euthyphro Dilemma, and which is potentially fatal to the rationality of atheism.
So what then is this so-called ‘Atheistic Euthyphro Dilemma’ which is so dangerous to the rationality of atheistic belief? Well, it is, quite simply, this: on the one hand, an atheist, to be a rational and consistent atheist, should deny, or at best be agnostic about, the existence of absolute moral rules and duties; but, on the other hand, it is absurd to deny, or even be agnostic about the existence of absolute moral rules and duties, and thus no rational or sane person would deny or be agnostic about them. And so, if the atheist embraces the existence of absolute moral rules and duties, but remains an atheist, then he is not being a rational or consistent atheist; yet if the atheist denies the existence of absolute moral rules and duties in order to be a rational atheist, then he is not being a rational human being. So, whatever option the atheist chooses, he has a serious problem.
Now, although a comprehensive and detailed defense of the two horns of this dilemma are beyond the scope of this essay, let me simply make a few points in support of each one. Concerning the first option—which states that, at best, an atheist, to be rational and consistent, should be agnostic about the existence of absolute moral rules and duties—note that this option stems from the fact that it is extremely difficult to see how absolute moral rules, and especially absolute moral duties, can exist on something like the worldview that atheism entails. Indeed, in a world of mere matter in motion, the idea of immaterial and omnipresent absolute moral rules and duties existing is not easy to picture. And a number of prominent atheists agree with this point. For example, in the first chapter of his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, atheistic-naturalist Alex Rosenberg immediately tells us that the reality of atheism means that there is no difference between right and wrong, and that, concerning the answers to moral questions, anything goes. That, Rosenberg contends, is the inevitable reality of atheism. And mirroring Rosenberg, atheist Joel Marks, writing in the 80th issue of the ‘Philosophy Now’ magazine, and authoring an article titled “An Amoral Manifesto: Part 1”, tells us the following:
For the last couple of years I have been reflecting on and experimenting with a new ethics, and as a result I have thrown over my previous commitment to Kantianism. In fact, I have given up morality altogether! This has certainly come as a shock to me…. I think the time has come, therefore, to reveal it to the world, and in particular to you, Dear Reader, who have patiently considered my defenses of a particular sort of moral theory for the last ten years. In a word, this philosopher has long been laboring under an unexamined assumption, namely, that there is such a thing as right and wrong. I now believe there isn’t.
…The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ (see Issue 78) are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.
Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves of imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; “and this all people call God,” as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make some kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could be made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof of the existence of a Commander, i.e., God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no Commands, i.e., morality. (https://philosophynow.org/issues/80/An_Amoral_Manifesto_Part_I)
So both Rosenberg and Marks believe that atheism entails amorality; and these are just two of the examples that could be brought forth arguing for this idea.
Thus, in light of the points above, and given the great disagreement that exists within atheistic ranks concerning the possibility of absolute moral rules and duties existing on atheism, then, as stated, a very strong case can be made that, to be consistent and rational within his atheistic worldview, an atheist should be, at best, agnostic about the existence of absolute moral rules and duties. In fact, it might even be noted that a popular claim often made by atheists, namely that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, might play a factor here as well, for, given what atheism entails, the idea that absolute moral rules and duties exist on atheism is an extraordinary claim; after all, absolute moral rules and duties are immaterial and omnipresent things, not physical ones, and so their existence on atheism and a materialistic worldview would indeed be something out of the ordinary. And yet, there is no physical, visible, empirical, or scientifically-testable evidence for their existence, which is precisely the type of “extraordinary” evidence that atheists routinely demand before they will accept the truth of an extraordinary claim. And so again, in light of this fact, at best, the atheist should be agnostic about the existence of absolute moral rules and duties given both the lack of so-called extraordinary evidence needed to substantiate a rational belief in their existence as well as given the various arguments that aim to show that absolute moral rules and duties cannot exist on atheism.
But now, note that if the atheist wishes to deny the existence of absolute moral rules and duties, then he is readily encouraged to do so, for his embrace of such a position makes atheism look entirely unreasonable and unpalatable. And indeed, the denial of the existence of absolute moral rules and duties is ridiculous, which is why the second horn of the atheist’s dilemma states that it is manifestly absurd to be even agnostic about the existence of moral rules and duties. After all, I know, with a certainty as great as that with which I know that other minds exist or that the world was not created five minutes ago with the appearance of age, that it is, for example, absolutely wrong for a human person to torture an infant for fun as well as that I have a moral duty to do whatever I can to prevent such an event from occurring. Indeed, I know, just as well as I know numerous other critical beliefs, that the aforementioned moral rule and duty—to pick just one example from many—is true and that I am both rational to believe that this is the case and that I would be irrational to deny it.
So, can the atheist overcome this dilemma? Perhaps, but doing so would be difficult. First, the atheist—as many atheists in the past have done—could simply embrace the absurdity of denying that any absolute moral rules and duties exist. But the problem here is that the knowledge that it is, for example, absolutely wrong for a human person to torture an infant for pleasure is more certain and secure than, for example, the knowledge that atheism is true; indeed, as stated earlier, it is a belief which is as certain and as rational to hold as the belief that other minds exist. Furthermore, if an atheist truly did deny the existence of moral rules and duties, this fact would actually serve as evidence not so much that absolute moral rules and duties did not exist, but rather that the person denying them was, in some way, cognitively and morally deficient, just as the existence of a deaf person does not disprove the existence of sound, but rather shows that there is a physical and/or cognitive problem with the deaf person, not everyone else. In fact, a person who would deny the absolute immorality of torturing an infant for fun would be morally monstrous, thereby providing us with a sound reason to disregard both his reasoning and his general understanding given that someone in error about such a basic matter would arguably have questionable judgement in other matters as well, such as his atheism.
Now, concerning the other horn of the dilemma, the atheist might claim that atheism is perfectly consistent with the existence of moral rules and duties and that it is rational to believe that such things exist given atheism; but again, given what atheism, or atheistic-naturalism, entails, then the existence of immaterial rules and duties that exist everywhere, always, and apply to every contingent being, and which deal with moral facts, and which have an obligatory force on human action, seems very far-fetched on any form of atheism or atheist-naturalism—the latter of which is arguably the most coherent form of atheism that there is. Furthermore, all our experience shows us that rules of a social or ethical nature require a rule-maker of some sort, and our experience also shows us that we have duties to and from people, not to inanimate things. So again, believing in the existence of absolute moral rules and duties on atheism is of questionable rationality given atheism’s lack of a moral rule-giver and its lack of an absolute individual to have a duty too. And this is why many atheists, like Joel Marks, reject the existence of such absolute moral rules and duties. So the reasons for denying the existence of absolute moral rules and duties on atheism are potent, and this is why the dilemma states that, at best, the atheist, to be rational and consistent, should be nothing more than agnostic about the existence of such things.
Finally, note as well that the Atheist’s Euthyphro Dilemma could be formulated in a way that not only attacks atheism, but which actually supports theism directly. For example, while the second horn of the dilemma could remain as being the point that the denial of absolute moral rules and duties is absurd, the first horn could be changed to point out the fact that God is the best, or even only, rational explanation for the existence of absolute moral rules and duties. Thus, in this formulation, the atheist is either absurd for denying the existence of absolute moral rules and duties or, if he affirms the existence of absolute moral rules and duties, then he is irrational for denying the necessary component—namely God—that is an unavoidable part of the best explanation of the existence of absolute moral rules and duties. Either way, the atheist is in trouble.
And so, the long and short of it is this: the Euthyphro Dilemma is a challenge for theists, but it is one that is easily answered; by contrast, a similar moral dilemma can be made against atheism which is even more dangerous for the rationality of atheism than the Euthyphro Dilemma is dangerous to theism, for the Atheist’s Euthyphro Dilemma shows that atheism’s attitude towards the existence of absolute moral values and duties is of such a nature that it makes any position that atheism can hold about the matter irrational. And so, the Atheist’s Euthyphro Dilemma is a challenge that atheists must address, and it is a challenge that is not easily dealt with.
Anno Domini 2016 11 20
Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam