by Jesse Galef –
To religious individuals, do God’s actions define good, or does God follow an objective “goodness”? That’s the question raised by Socrates in Euthyphro, and it keeps popping up. For atheists, the question is meaningless – we don’t believe in God, so any practical definition of ‘good’ is secular.
Obviously, many people disagree. Commenter Nathan describes this worldview nicely:
It’s only demonstrably evil if you define “evil” and then demonstrate that Yahweh’s actions meet your definition.
Not the other way around.
It’s a bit like Nixon’s “it’s not illegal if you’re the president” – only it’s not actually illegal if you’re God.
First of all, I want to thank Nathan for his continued patience and politeness in comments. Yes, we disagree with him – vehemently on some issues – but I’m impressed that the comments have stayed mostly productive and substantive. In college I used to go to Christian clubs for this kind of debate and I appreciate how important it is to interact and try to understand others’ point of view.
I recently heard a saying that applies very well:
One person’s modus ponens is another person’s modus tollens.
In this case, we start with the expression, “If God is just and loving, then he would not kill innocent people.” We are then faced with the story of God ordering the killing of children. There are a couple ways to resolve this. The atheist uses modus tollens: “Those children were innocent, therefore God must not be just and loving.” Many theists go the other way and use modus ponens: “God is just and loving, therefore those children must not have been innocent.”
That’s the case Nathan seems to be making, and one I’ve heard before. Many religious individuals I’ve talked to have told me that so much of their worldview is tied to their understanding of God that they’re not going to toss that set of beliefs aside easily. When it comes into conflict with another belief – say, that babies are innocent – they feel the strong urge to retain their God beliefs. It’s a huge network of ideas that have deep-seated roots and a strong emotional investment. It can be emotionally and intellectually difficult to tear down that belief system. Of course, sometimes a belief system is inherently incorrect and does need to be wholly replaced… it’s just a tough process.
I certainly see where they’re coming from. It’s not easy to change an entire worldview. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind in these heated discussions.