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A Sympathetic Critique of a Socratic Argument for Atheism


The ancient and eminent Greek philosopher Socrates was no atheist, and may even have been a polytheist. However, one of his most famous contributions to philosophy lends itself to an interesting potential argument for atheism, an argument that targets the traditional monotheistic conception of God as a Supreme Being (and can be readily applied to polytheism). I think that the argument itself does not quite succeed, but it has other virtues that make it worthy of examination.

Socrates’ ideas come to us, of course, through the dialogues of Plato. Let us set aside issues concerning the historical accuracy of Plato’s depiction of his teacher’s life and thought. Instead, I want to focus on the Socrates portrayed in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. There Socrates interrogates a young man named Euthyphro who is defending the view that piety depends on what the gods love. Socrates poses his now classic question: Do the gods love what is pious because it is pious, or is it pious because they love it? Each option is supposed to land the respondent in trouble, rendering the question a dilemma. The precise nature of the trouble is a matter of scholarly dispute, for Plato does not make it very clear. But that needn’t concern us much in what follows.

Quite a few modern philosophers (such as Bertrand Russell) have been quick to transpose Socrates’ dilemma about piety and what the gods love into one concerning morality and God’s will. The new dilemma becomes: Does God command what is morally right because it is right, or is it right because God commands it? These philosophers make it clearer than Plato did why this is supposed to be a dilemma.

Suppose we affirm the first half of the question: God commands what is right because it is right. Then rightness appears to be determined by moral standards that are distinct from (and independent of) God’s commands, and that God himself is morally required to obey. This seems to call into question his status as Supreme Being. Suppose we affirm instead the second half of the question: what is right is right because God commands it. (This view is known as the divine command theory of morality.) Then there are no moral constraints on what God commands, rendering morality completely arbitrary: anything could turn out to be right, including horrific actions such as torturing and killing small children for fun and profit—actions that virtually all of us regard as deeply immoral.

There is a vast literature in moral philosophy on this modernized Euthyphro dilemma. (It is one to which I have contributed several publications, and to which I hope to contribute more.) But what I want to articulate now, for a broader audience, is a Socratic argument for atheism that is derivable from the dilemma, whether or not Socrates would have endorsed the argument. It is directed against the existence of the God of traditional monotheism, a sovereign (or ‘perfect’ or ‘all-powerful) creator and ruler of the universe. The argument goes like this:

  1. If God exists as the Supreme Being, then either morality depends entirely on his will, or morality is at least partly independent of his will.
  2. Morality does not depend entirely on God’s will (otherwise God commanding horrific actions would make them morally right).
  3. Morality is not at least partly independent of God’s will (since if it were, then he would not the Supreme Being).
  4. So, it is not the case that either morality depends on God’s will, or is at least partly independent of his will.
  5. So, it is not the case that God exists as the Supreme Being.

The reasoning appears to be valid: if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. But to be sound the argument must have only true premises, and to be cogent it must have only reasonable ones. Clearly the key premises are steps (2) and (3), both of which are based on the Euthyphro dilemma. Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.

Premise (2) will seem reasonable to anyone, theist or nontheist, who believes (as I do) that torturing and killing small children for fun and profit would remain wrong even if God commanded it. It is irrelevant to reply that God wouldn’t command such things, for the grounds for (2) do not suppose that he would, but at most that he could. We can add that God’s supposed goodness offers no assurance that he wouldn’t command such things, since on the divine command theory that goodness consists merely in God following his own commands. At this point premise (2) might seem to be about as solid as any moral belief ever gets.

But it is not clear what we could say to convince thoroughgoing, bullet-biting defenders of the divine command theory who disagree with us on this hypothetical case of God commanding the torturing and killing of small children for fun and profit. It is not really surprising that such defenders exist given that many Christians confidently endorse the literal truth of biblical passages that depict God as (sometimes) authorizing slavery, genocide, baby killing, child sacrifice, and the execution of stubbornly disobedient sons, men who have sex with men, women or girls who turn out not be virgins on their wedding night, proselytizers for other gods, adulterers, and so on. We may find such true believers frightening, may tell them they have “drunk the Kool-Aid,” and may even resolve not to associate with them or let our children do so. But can we show that their rejection of (2) is mistaken or unwarranted without presupposing the nonexistence of God, or the unreasonableness of believing in God? I do not know if we can. And if we do make that presupposition, then the Socratic argument becomes circular, merely assuming what it is trying to prove.

Premise (3) also seems plausible to many people (theist and nontheist alike). How can God reign supreme if he is limited by independent moral standards? It would be as if the cosmic creator and ruler were subject to the laws of nature. This is a tricky question since it depends on how one cashes out the concept of divine supremacy and perhaps the closely related concepts of divine sovereignty, all-powerfulness, and perfection. As a result, theists do have some room to maneuver here.

For one thing, on the most common philosophical view of these concepts, they apply to God even if he cannot change the (uncreatable and necessary) laws of logic; so perhaps they also apply to him even if he cannot change the basic laws of morality. For another thing, maybe divine supremacy requires only that God be able to exercise control over all other “beings” in the relevant sense. This sense entails control over other persons, living things, objects, and (perhaps) forces, but not necessarily the laws of logic, morality, and (perhaps) nature. This is a high price to pay for most theists, but it is a price that some of them may well be willing to pay.

Consequently, the Socratic argument does not refute God’s existence as a Supreme Being. As an argument for atheism, then, the Socratic argument fails. But it nevertheless underscores a serious challenge to theists who argue that morality requires the truth of theism, forcing them to decide how to best to respond to premises (2) and (3). I hope that the Socratic argument will generate thoughtful reflection on and fruitful discussion of the relationship between morality and theism.

Copyright ©2017 by Stephen Sullivan. The electronic version is copyright ©2017 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Stephen Sullivan. All rights reserved.

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