This argument is surprisingly popular with theists. I say “surprisingly” because it is (in my view) so obviously flawed that it is incomprehensible to me that so many of them hold it up as their absolute trump card, the undefeatable defeater to atheism. Here is the formulation of the argument used by William Lane Craig:
If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Therefore, God exists.
Where do we even start?
Let’s first of all raise the classic response based on Plato’s dialogue “Euthyphro” (The Euthyphro Dilemma”. This can be summarised as:
Is what we call “good” good because God commands it? Then there is nothing of inherent value in the action and murder rape and cruelty would also be good if commanded by God.
So does God command us to what what is good because it is good? If so, then it is good independent of God. God’s function is to some extent to recognise it and inform u s about it, perhaps to police it (by sending us to Hell if we don’t do it) but he has no impact on its objectivity.
The theist response to this is usually to say that goodness is that which is in accordance with God’s own holy nature. The dilemma, they claim, is a pseudo-dilemma easily resolved by this nostrum: “God orders these things not because they are good, but because he is good” (also WLC’s formulation). So with a single bound the theist is free! Not.
Firstly, the “solution” simply pushes the problem back a stage. Is God’s nature good because that sort of nature is good? Or is it good simply because it is God’s nature, in which case, if God’s nature had been hating, spiteful and unjust, all those qualities would be good.
Secondly, when WLC says of God “he is good”, the statement is, on this theory, just circular. God is what he is: aren’t we all? It’s kind of like saying “Led Zeppelin play the sort of music that people who like Led Zepplin music enjoy.” (Yes, I do realise I’m showing my age now). For the statement “God is good” to convey any information about God, it needs to refer outside itself to some independent standard by which God is judged.
Next month I’ll deal with the false dichotomy which lies at the heart of this argument.