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Answering Michael Martin's
"Atheism, Christian Theism, and Rape"

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Euthyphros Dilemma?

Martins argument about Euthyphros Dilemma is important. If, as Martin asserts, Christians cannot answer “Euthyphros Dilemma,” then his conclusion would follow: Christians have nothing more to offer than atheists in the way of an ultimate foundation for ethics. Though this may not prove Christianity to be false, it would demonstrate that Christian metaphysics offers no advantages in the philosophy of ethics — certainly contrary to what one would expect from a religion that teaches God is an absolute Person, the Creator and Lord of all things and a God who has revealed His righteous character in the ethical teaching that He gave to Israel and His Church.

What is called “Euthyphros Dilemma” comes up in dealing with the question, “Why is it [rape] wrong?” We can see the nature of the dilemma through this question. Martin first describes what he understands to be the options for Christians. A Christian may answer that rape is wrong because God condemns it. But that provokes the question, why does God condemn rape? The Christian might answer that God condemns rape because rape “violates the victims rights, it traumatizes the victim, it undermines the fabric of society, and so on.” However, according to Martin, all of these answers could be made by an atheist — though I have doubts, as I said above, about the atheists basis for claiming that matters like “rights” are important. At any rate, if it is just a matter of appealing to reasons of this sort, Martin contends, one does not need God to condemn rape. Anyone with ethical sensibility can see the harmful effects of rape and the reasons it should be condemned.

On the other hand, Christians may say that rape is wrong because God condemns it and that God has no reasons outside of Himself for this condemnation. In this case, it is Gods condemnation of rape that defines it as wrong. If God had not condemned it, it would not be wrong. The basis for condemnation is simply Gods will. But this, according to Martin, is not an objective ethical ground for condemning rape, for if God had recommended rape, it would be good. It is all a matter of Gods arbitrary will, not a matter of objective principles of good and evil. If that is what Christians believe, their ethical philosophy offers nothing attractive to the atheist, especially to the atheist who believes that he does have objective grounds for condemning rape.

In this discussion, Euthyphros Dilemma appears to be the dilemma faced by the man who claims that God is the ultimate source of ethics. When a believer makes such an assertion, he is either professing faith in a standard that one might know without knowing God, or professing faith in an arbitrary standard in God. Neither view advances the cause of faith.

Martin refers to John Frame and Greg Bahnsen, who claimed that Euthyphros Dilemma can be avoided. If ethics is grounded in Gods character rather than simply on His condemnation of certain acts, then we have both an objective ground for ethics in the character of God while at the same time ethics is based upon His revelation in Scripture. Goodness means being like God and we know what is like God because He Himself tells us in Holy Scripture.

But for Martin, this position is not clear. In his view, Bahnsen “suggests both that something is good because God approves of it and that God approves of it because it is good.” This is said to be contradictory, but the contradiction may not be immediately apparent. To clarify the problem, Martin restates the matter in terms of what “caused” rape to be morally wrong. If rape is wrong because God condemns it, then Gods condemnation of rape caused rape to be wrong. On the other hand, if God condemned rape because it is wrong, then God found something bad in rape that caused Him to disapprove of it. Which is it? Is rape wrong — caused to be wrong — because God condemned it, or did God condemn rape because rapes wrongness caused Him to condemn it? Christians may take either one of these two positions but not both at the same time.

Furthermore, according to Martin the problem may be restated in terms of Gods character. Is Gods character good because it conforms to some standard of goodness or is Gods character good simply because it is Gods character? If Gods character is good because it conforms to some standard of goodness, then goodness itself exists as an objective notion apart from God. There would then be no inconsistency for an atheist to deny the existence of God and still appeal to that standard of goodness as an objective ethical standard.

On the other hand, if Christians say that goodness is defined by Gods character, then whatever God is or does would be good by definition. If God were cruel and unjust, He would still be “good” because whatever He is and does is defined as good. This is certainly not what Christians want to say. They will affirm that God is necessarily good and not cruel or unjust. But, Martin points out, that seems to presuppose some idea of goodness exists outside of God, otherwise we could not know whether He is being good or cruel. We are brought back to objective standards of goodness outside of Gods character.

Though I have simplified his argument, I think I have acurately presented Martins point. He believes that with this argument he has demonstrated that Christians cannot escape Euthyphros Dilemma and that the Christians belief in an objective ethical standard actually argues for the possibility of an atheists affirming an objective ethical standard as well.

How, then, shall a Christian answer Euthyphros Dilemma? First, it seems to me that the atheist faces a similar dilemma, in a form that forces us to question the nature of the dilemma itself. After all, if the Christian God cannot be considered the ultimate source of ethics and must be judged either good or evil in terms of some standard outside of Himself, what shall we say about the atheists ultimate standard for ethics? Is it good because it conforms to some notion of goodness outside of itself, or is it good just because it is good? If Martins use of Euthyphros Dilemma applies to his own objectivist ethic as well, all we have here is an invitation for both theist and atheist alike to play the infinite regression game.

Second, that being the case, it seems to me that Euthyphros Dilemma, especially in the form presented by Martin, is actually not what it appears to be. In other words, Martins notion of Euthyphros Dilemma reduces to a verbal game. It is presented in the language of a question about ethical standards, but what it really does is offer a clever way of challenging the notion of an absolute standard of truth and righteousness in God. There are other questions similar to this, like the well-known, “If God can do anything, can He make a stone so big that He cannot pick it up?” What appears on the surface to be a question about power is really a question of whether or not God is the kind of being who can contradict Himself. The answer is no. Thus, Euthyphros Dilemma, as employed by modern atheists, seems to be about ethics, but it is really nothing more than a denial that God is absolute, like the question “If nothing comes from nothing, who created God?” These sorts of questions are nonsense in the context of the Christian worldview. God is ultimate and absolute. To ask who made Him or whether He learns right and wrong by looking at some standard outside of Himself is to ask a question that includes hidden presuppositions which deny the Christian notion of God.

As I pointed out above, if the atheist is going to have some sort of objective ethics, he can only offer an abstract standard which is subject to the same kind of questions that he poses to Christians. How do we know that this standard is true? Is it true because it conforms to some other standard of right, or is it true just because it is true? We are on the road to an infinite regress. If the atheist answers that we must, in the nature of the case, stop the questioning somewhere, and that the standard he is suggesting is an ultimate standard, beyond which there can be no appeal, it is clear that he is merely confessing faith in an impersonal ultimate other than God. There is nothing in this answer inherently more rational than the Christian answer. Moreover, an impersonal ultimate that is supposed to provide standards for what is inescapably a personal issue offers its own contradictions. At any rate, it is decidedly inferior to an ultimately personal solution.

If Martin claims that he is only appealing to the pragmatic realities of human living and the rights that all men ought to have, we would have ask him why people ought to have rights, why we have any moral obligation to live in a manner that promotes the welfare of man, and so forth. In other words, we have to find ethical justification for the ethical notions that appear in his reasoning about rape. And this leads eventually to the same sort of infinite regress that we pointed out above. But we will return to this problem later.

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