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

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

There is another issue that seems to me relevant to the whole discussion: modern atheists who appeal to Euthyphros dialogue are not being altogether accurate. For when we actually read Platos dialogue, Euthyphros Dilemma is significantly different from the kind of problem that Martin presents. In Platos dialogue, Socrates, surprised that Euthyphro has such assurance in his knowledge of good and right that he can accuse his own father of murdering a servant in what might be considered an ambiguous case, asks Euthyphro to teach him the true nature of piety. “Rare friend! I think that I cannot do better than be your disciple.”

Euthyphro explains to Socrates that “Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” Socrates is happy that Euthyphro has addressed the real issue, even though the answer requires more thought. “Very good, Euthyphro; you have now given me the sort of answer which I wanted. But whether what you say is true or not I cannot as yet tell, although I make no doubt that you will prove the truth of your words.”

The dialogue continues:

Socrates: Come, then, and let us examine what we are saying. That thing or person which is dear to the gods is pious, and that thing or person which is hateful to the gods is impious, these two being the extreme opposites of one another. Was not that said?

Euthyphro: It was.

Socrates: And well said?

Euthyphro: Yes, Socrates, I thought so; it was certainly said.

Socrates: And further, Euthyphro, the gods were admitted to have enmities and hatreds and differences?

(Note: Socrates first questions Euthyphros view of ethics on the grounds that the gods are not actually united in their view of what is right.)

Socrates: But what differences are there which cannot be thus decided, and which therefore make us angry and set us at enmity with one another? I dare say the answer does not occur to you at the moment, and therefore I will suggest that these enmities arise when the matters of difference are the just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable. Are not these the points about which men differ, and about which when we are unable satisfactorily to decide our differences, you and I and all of us quarrel, when we do quarrel?

Euthyphro: Yes, Socrates, the nature of the differences about which we quarrel is such as you describe.

Socrates: And the quarrels of the gods, noble Euthyphro, when they occur, are of a like nature?

Euthyphro: Certainly they are.

Socrates: They have differences of opinion, as you say, about good and evil, just and unjust, honorable and dishonorable: there would have been no quarrels among them, if there had been no such differences — would there now?

Euthyphro: You are quite right.

Socrates: Does not every man love that which he deems noble and just and good, and hate the opposite of them?

Euthyphro: Very true.

Socrates: But, as you say, people regard the same things, some as just and others as unjust, about these they dispute; and so there arise wars and fightings among them.

Euthyphro: Very true.

Socrates: Then the same things are hated by the gods and loved by the gods, and are both hateful and dear to them?

Euthyphro: True.

Socrates: And upon this view the same things, Euthyphro, will be pious and also impious?

Euthyphro: So I should suppose.

Socrates: Then, my friend, I remark with surprise that you have not answered the question which I asked. For I certainly did not ask you to tell me what action is both pious and impious: but now it would seem that what is loved by the gods is also hated by them. And therefore, Euthyphro, in thus chastising your father you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.

The portion of the dialogue quoted above clearly suggests that Euthyphros Dilemma in Plato is something very different from Euthyphros Dilemma as presented by the modern atheist. A plurality of gods with different opinions about what is good and evil is no doubt a hard problem for Euthyphro, but modern Christians do not believe in a multiplicity of gods with differing opinions. So, when Socrates makes statements like the following, we are not addressing a worldview analogous to the Christians.

“Well then, my dear friend Euthyphro, do tell me, for my better instruction and information, what proof have you that in the opinion of all the gods a servant who is guilty of murder, and is put in chains by the master of the dead man, and dies because he is put in chains before he who bound him can learn from the interpreters of the gods what he ought to do with him, dies unjustly; and that on behalf of such an one a son ought to proceed against his father and accuse him of murder. How would you show that all the gods absolutely agree in approving of his act? Prove to me that they do, and I will applaud your wisdom as long as I live.”

Now, it is true that the dialogue doesnt stop with the problem that the gods have different opinions, but this overwhelming fact is the basis on which the whole dialogue is built, even when, in the next step in the discussion, Socrates suggests to Euthyphro that he should amend his view of piety.

Socrates: “I will suppose, if you like, that all the gods condemn and abominate such an action. But I will amend the definition so far as to say that what all the gods hate is impious, and what they love pious or holy; and what some of them love and others hate is both or neither. Shall this be our definition of piety and impiety?”

Although we have now a definition of piety that requires that all of the gods agree, the gods who are in agreement here are penultimate beings. None of them is absolute; none is transcendent. It is, then, with regard to the sort of gods that ancient Greeks believed in that Socrates asks the question that modern atheists employ.

“The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”

We are not surprised that Euthyphro finds this question very difficult.

Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro: is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euthyphro: Yes.

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?

Euthyphro: Yes.

Socrates: And that which is dear to the gods is loved by them, and is in a state to be loved of them because it is loved of them?

Euthyphro: Certainly.

Socrates: Then that which is dear to the gods, Euthyphro, is not holy, nor is that which is holy loved of God, as you affirm; but they are two different things.

Euthyphro: How do you mean, Socrates?

Socrates: I mean to say that the holy has been acknowledged by us to be loved of God because it is holy, not to be holy because it is loved.

Euthyphro: Yes.

Socrates: But that which is dear to the gods is dear to them because it is loved by them, not loved by them because it is dear to them.

Euthyphro: True.

Socrates: But, friend Euthyphro, if that which is holy is the same with that which is dear to God, and is loved because it is holy, then that which is dear to God would have been loved as being dear to God; but if that which dear to God is dear to him because loved by him, then that which is holy would have been holy because loved by him. But now you see that the reverse is the case, and that they are quite different from one another. For one (theophiles) is of a kind to be loved because it is loved, and the other (osion) is loved because it is of a kind to be loved. Thus you appear to me, Euthyphro, when I ask you what is the essence of holiness, to offer an attribute only, and not the essence -- the attribute of being loved by all the gods. But you still refuse to explain to me the nature of holiness. And therefore, if you please, I will ask you not to hide your treasure, but to tell me once more what holiness or piety really is, whether dear to the gods or not (for that is a matter about which we will not quarrel) and what is impiety?

Euthyphro: I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us.

These gods that Socrates and Euthyphro are debating about cannot be the final court of appeal. Their opinions, their likes and dislikes, and their ethical commands are all open for rational question precisely because they are so utterly unlike the Christian God. The dilemma that Euthyphro faces, therefore, comes from the fact that the gods he wishes to recommend cannot be the answer to Socrates questions. If Euthyphro answers that the gods approve of what is good because it is good, he is back to the starting point, trying to answer questions about the essence of the good which the gods approve of. Without the Christian God, Euthyphro does indeed have a dilemma, but neither Socrates nor Euthyphro had any notion of an absolute, transcendent Creator. Even if such a God had been part of the discussion, Socrates would no doubt have had questions, but not the questions we know as Euthyphros Dilemma, for those questions do find an answer in the Christian God.

It is interesting to note, finally, that the atheists gods — the human race or some special group of humans — tend to disagree as frequently and violently as the gods of ancient Greece. An atheist seeking to establish an objective ethic is in a position quite analogous to that of Euthyphro. Atheists cannot agree among themselves either on the philosophical issues related to ethics or on the practical problems related to deciding ethical right and wrong in human society. Assertions about “rights” sound good, especially to people with a Christian hangover who want to have Christian-like ethics without being burdened with the Christian God. But all of these ethical ideas must be justified. The atheist with his multiple deities cannot find his way to an ethical standard for society. He must find some essence on which all the gods can agree. Thus, all the problems that Euthyphro faced seem especially to belong to the atheist with his penultimate pantheon.

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