In beginning a survey of the small set of apologetic and counter-apologetic arguments which circle around the internet (seemingly without end), I thought I might begin with an argument which showcases one of my (and history’s) most beloved figures: Socrates.
I am speaking, of course, of the famous Euthyphro Dilemma. Those who are interested may read the text, but the modern extrapolation is much simpler. It is a variation on Socrates questioning whether the gods love something because it is good, or whether it is good because the gods love it. The former case would mean that goodness is unrelated to the gods (or, in our culture, God), whereas the latter would mean that the entire concept of goodness is arbitrary.
The first thing to notice, perhaps, is the connection between the use of this argument to oppose theistic ethics and moral relativism. Socrates himself does not actually use the argument in this way, but, by all accounts, seems genuinely interested in an answer. Claiming that the dilemma is truly unanswerable, however, commits one either to Platonism or to the abandonment of all objective morality.
The overwhelming majority of atheists I’ve encountered seem quick to adopt relativism, which strikes me as very odd, given the moral nature of many of their complaints with religion. That is to say, this argument reduces any moral outrage of we non-platonic modern people to a matter of opinion. My own moral outrage at certain religious groups gives me pause before blithely adopting that the matter is nothing more than a difference of opinion. Much more so, I should think, the fervent rage of many atheists at the corrupt religious practices they see around them.
Still, there are deeper problems with the position that this question is not answerable. Most fatally, it ignores the monotheist position altogether. Profound as Socrates question was in the context in which it was asked, applying it in this way to modern views of God is to commit the fallacy of false dichotomy.
That is, this argument does not address the possibility that the “thing” the gods love because it is good is, in fact, the one God himself.
In this case, God approves of something because it is good, but that ” something” is not beyond him. It is his good nature.
So, what is goodness? What is that standard by which all things should be measured? One is certainly free to claim that such a thing is inert. or that it simply does not exist. Euthyphro’s Dilemma, however, does nothing to support either of these positions until monotheism has already been abandoned.
This is why, I suspect, the argument is so appealing to non-theists, yet so uninteresting to monotheists. Far from disproving God, or God’s goodness, it lays bare the challenge facing the secular person:
Having rid ourselves of this third option, what view of goodness can hope to prove rational?