CPBD03: Luke on Euthyphro, Ignosticism, and More

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 11, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

This is a special bonus episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot. Today I do not interview a guest. Rather, I respond directly to the audio questions you submitted to me in response to Ask the Atheist… Audio Edition!

Be sure to send me your questions: call 413-723-0175 and leave me your message.

Because I know everything, obviously.

The questions I discuss today are:

  • How damning is the Euthyphro Dilemma for theistic ethics?
  • What about ignosticism, the position that the concept of God is incoherent?
  • You said earlier that many atheists reject God because they don’t want him to exist. Do you think people reject God because he is disgusting to us, or do we find God disgusting as a post-hoc rationalization of our nonbelief?

Download CPBD episode B03. Total time is 17:28.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob July 12, 2010 at 7:18 am

Hello Luke,

Near the end, as I recall, you assert something to the effect that theism (of the tri-omni Christian sort) is horrific and untrue (He doesn’t exist), and that it should be rejected on grounds of the latter, not the former. But isn’t this a false distinction since, in addition to the familiar Problem of Evil issues on which so much of the horror or revulsion is based, there is also a closely intertwined repugnance springing from a sense that the concept of such a god is spectacularly untrue?


JS Allen July 12, 2010 at 8:34 am

Great job! I liked the discussion about the psychology of unbelief, especially your point that this is an empirical matter.

We all talk about rationality, but the empirical data on these matters is so sparse. Neurology research and behavioral economics are like a breath of fresh air. But you kind of have to interpolate things from a patchwork mishmash of experiments, since it’s way too incendiary for people to directly study these things, and too many conflicts of interest in the religious and anti-religious communities.


lukeprog July 12, 2010 at 8:58 am


No, I don’t think our emotional reaction to a proposition should be confused with its epistemic probability.


Rob July 12, 2010 at 9:20 am

I guess I’m skeptical that there is such a thing as a mere “emotional reaction” against the tri-omni god that doesn’t involve considerations of epistemic probability. Believers of course have an interest in promoting such a notion, and I suppose even some sophisticated atheists who trade on deep engagement with philosophy of religion and philosophical theology, but it remains unclear to me why there’s anything insufficient or defective in the cruder, more nakedly “emotional” rejection of the less sophisticated mass of atheists who lack the wherewithal to engage in apologetics and theology. In fact, I often wonder if the hoi polloi atheists’ incapacity for such engagement is not a kind of virtue — since there will never be an end to the flow of ever more rarefied and sophisticated apologetics courting engagement from intellectual elites among atheists.


oarobin July 12, 2010 at 6:56 pm

a excellent assessment of how the euthyphro argument is not a dilemma is given by richard joyce in this online paper:



lukeprog July 12, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Richard Joyce! I am so reading that.


dgsinclair July 12, 2010 at 9:19 pm

re: euthypro, I’m sorry you didn’t mention how Craig splits the dilemma – I mean, you did sort of cover it, but I find Craig’s presentation compelling.

re: the sky dictator
I’m sorry that you have to portray the options as sky dictator vs. non. This is a bit of a straw man, representing the Christian view of God with only one pejoratively represented attribute

re: post-hoc justifications
I am disappointed that so many people disparage this method, and I’m glad that you at least admit that we all do it. I would restate this method in a more positive light – that is, using our intuition and experience as initial methods for interpreting and understanding reality. As long as such deductive methods (or is it inductive? for the life of me, I can’t keep them straight ;) are complemented with awareness of one’s bias. I mean, strictly speaking, I guess post-hoc reasoning, if done uncritically, is bad. But i see no problem in following one’s intuition as long as it is accompanied by healthy skepticism.

re: the awful morality of Christianity
Your assertion is playing to the atheist crowd, but leaves reasonableness behind. Your disdain for your concept of what Christianity creates fails to recognize the unsurpassed good that Christianity does and has done in history – certainly head and shoulders above your own ideology. Cock-sureness and derision is not attractive.

re: no good reason for belief
Sounds like this is a foregone conclusion for you, but as you know, this is the very subject of ongoing debate, and is only forgone to those of atheist ‘faith’ – because no logical argument really proves either case, as Oppy might affirm.


dgsinclair July 12, 2010 at 9:41 pm



Justfinethanks July 12, 2010 at 9:52 pm


, I’m sorry you didn’t mention how Craig splits the dilemma

As John D cogently pointed out, Craig’s attempted split merely leads to a new dilemma:

“If Craig is simply identifying the Good with a set of properties that God happens to possess, then God is not the source of morality. It is the properties he possesses that perform this function. And anyone who had these properties would be good irregardless of God’s existence.”

This is a bit of a straw man, representing the Christian view of God with only one pejoratively represented attribute

A strawman is attacking a position that an opponent doesn’t hold. Christians really do believe that God sits as the ultimate judge and ruler of the universe who forces everyone to be immortal whether they want to or not and punishes people for thought crime.

There’s no way a Christian could object to the facts of this description, only the perspective of it.

because no logical argument really proves either case, as Oppy might affirm.

This is a an odd thing to say, as Oppy’s beliefs about religious arguments are in harmony with what Luke was claiming. In other words, if Oppy is right and there are no successful atheistic or theistic arguments, then it follows that there is “no good reason for belief” in God.


lukeprog July 12, 2010 at 10:09 pm


I didn’t say sky dictator but instead ‘cosmic dictator.’ Which part of that do you deny? By cosmic dictator I just mean somebody who is in unquestioned control of the universe. That’s standard Christian doctrine, yo.

Re: post-hoc rationalizations. They come in deductive, inductive, and abductive forms. But the point is the ‘post’ part. We don’t reason our way to believes. We take up our beliefs and then make up justifications later. That’s no an ideal epistemic process, to say the least.

What unsurpassed good has Christianity done in history????

Daniel, did you forget that Oppy specifically explains he is an atheist for the same reason I gave: that there are no good reasons for belief?


dgsinclair July 12, 2010 at 11:19 pm

>> LUKE: Which part of that do you deny?
I deny the negative connotation that dictator carries. If you said “benevolent cosmic dictator” I would feel that you were more accurate in representing scripture ;)

>> JFT: If Craig is simply identifying the Good with a set of properties that God happens to possess, then God is not the source of morality.

I think John D is playing pure semantics. I think Craig solves the dilemma by essentially providing a ‘both and’ answer which is equally or superiorly cogent.

>> JFT: A strawman is attacking a position that an opponent doesn’t hold.

Perhaps I am using the wrong logical fallacy. If not a straw man, what do you call it when you take a small part of your opponent’s argument and portray it as the sum total of the argument?

>> JFT: and punishes people for thought crime

Interesting reading of Jesus’ call for inner purity rather than just outward obedience to rules.

>> JFT: There’s no way a Christian could object to the facts of this description, only the perspective of it.

Ahh, but facts to not, contrary to popular opinion, speak for themselves. The interpretation is even more critical, and so the “Christian” objection to the ‘inaccuracy’ of your portrayal is not as insignificant as you wish it to be. In fact, agreeing with the facts in no way means that your interpretation is at all true – it just means that you have the foundation to draw true conclusions. Yes?

So I would disagree with your presentation of the facts, and just because you have the correct facts does not make your perspective on them true.

>>JFT: Oppy is right and there are no successful atheistic or theistic arguments, then it follows that there is “no good reason for belief” in God.

Technically, I am forced to agree with your logic and syntax, but I don’t think that Oppy would agree. I would say that he might say:

- there are good reasons for believing
- there are good reasons for not believing
- there are not incontrovertible reasons for either position
- since Christians are making the affirmative claim the burden of proof lies with them

However, there are also those, like Craig, who would argue that the burden of proof lies with the atheist.

I am just objecting, however, to Luke’s claims that he is so sure that God is a fabrication. No good reason to believe? As sure as there is no good reason not to.

Personally, I think there ARE good reasons to believe or not. I do not mock the unbelieving opinion (to the best of my ability), and I expect the same respect in atheists. Luke does a fair job at rejecting the arrogance of the New Atheists, but sometimes, the sureness of his own beliefs and disdain for xianity seem to seep through.


dgsinclair July 12, 2010 at 11:21 pm

BTW, perhaps John D is not just playing semantics when attempting to debunk craig’s answer to euthypro, but I think he may be misunderstanding it.

My understanding is that God neither affirms nor defines what is good, but rather, he IS the good that he affirms and defines, and he merely does the latter to make it clear to us, not because his declarations make it so. It is so because he is so.


G'DIsraeli July 13, 2010 at 12:01 am

Didn’t meet a decent religious respond yet to Euthyphro’s problem. I think it’s a strong one that should be used more often.


G'DIsraeli July 13, 2010 at 12:03 am

“identifying the Good with a set of properties that God happens to possess”

Still a dilemma. Are they good because god holds them or is god good because of the properties? And they are out side of god.


lukeprog July 13, 2010 at 12:46 am

No. Oppy says there are no good reasons to affirm God’s existence, and no good reasons to affirm his nonexistence. He disbelieves for exactly the reason I gave: that there are no good reasons to believe. This is the same reason you disbelieve in fairies. There are no good reasons to believe in fairies, and no good reasons to affirm their non-existence. Rather, we simply lack any good reason to believe in them. So we don’t believe in them. Do Christians really not understand this? Or do they have a reason to disagree?

I disdain Christianity the same way you (hopefully) disdain Islam. Except I disdain Christianity for almost the exact same reasons I disdain Islam. (But yes, Islam is worse.)


John D July 13, 2010 at 9:24 am


Two things worth checking out.

First, William Alston’s approach to the Euthyphro which I cover in my series on Wes Morriston (linked by justfinethanks above). It’s slightly different from Craig’s.

Also, since you think playing semantics is suspect, it might be worth reading Steve Maitzen’s article “A Semantic Attack on Divine Command Metaethics”. Maitzen argues that God could be the definition and embodiment of the good (as suggested by Alston, Craig and others) but that this would result in a theologically vacuous concept of goodness. It’s interesting even if you disagree.




JS Allen July 13, 2010 at 8:34 pm

@oarobin – Thanks for the link; the Joyce paper was good.

@John D – FWIW, the link from @justfinethanks was to your post about Craig, not Alston. The Alston one is here. Alston sure has a weird use of supervenience.


Hermes July 13, 2010 at 9:30 pm

FWIW, while I can’t claim credit for ignostic it seems that the first reference I can find to apnostic is mine. (I suspect that I did not coin it, though I can’t find any evidence to support that suspicion.)

Reference: Search for “apnostic” from 7/1/1975-7/1/2008

Still, it’s a rarity (even the hits are often enough for misspellings) but seems to have a life of it’s own at this point.


Rob July 14, 2010 at 3:05 am

Joyce also has an essay in this recent volume. And, related.


other eric July 14, 2010 at 7:18 am

lukeprog: “But yes, Islam is worse.”

luke, i’m still a bit weirded out by your joining the “islam is the worst religion” bandwagon. i’m almost completely ignorant of the actual scripture of any of the monotheisms, but my cursory understanding leads me to see them as nearly completely equal in how they can be interpreted, and that islam currently (and only recently) has a very volatile population, driven by understandable socio-economic frustrations.

it seems that all the monotheisms have scriptural basis for many of those things people like us find deplorable (and that can be acted upon by humans), like:

-god’s commandment to slaughter nonbelievers
-god’s desire for an earth where only believers exist
-the 2nd class and unclean nature of women
-the evil of homosexuality
-god’s acceptance of plural marriage
-bacon is a no-no
and so on…

can you explain (perhaps in another post) what it is, in your view, that makes islam fundamentally worse than christianity or judaism? or do you agree that, if the tables were turned, the “god + guns” christian fundys could give the jihadists a run for their money in the evil department?


JS Allen July 14, 2010 at 9:41 am

@other eric – This is something I know a lot about, so maybe I can help a bit. I’ve read the Quran all the way through multiple times over the last 20 years, as well as most of the writings of the most influential modern Muslim thinkers — Hassan Al Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Abu Ala Maududi, etc. I have stacks of their writings, all copiously highlighted. Additionally, I’ve studied the history of the Muslim world pretty carefully and keep up on current events.

All the religions are “worst” in one thing or another, but they are definitely not the same. Islam’s unique problem is with violence and muddling together of church and state.

People make the claim that the Islamists are using an aberrant interpretation of Quran, but this is not correct. The Islamists arose during a period when many Muslims did not even read Quran, and were marginalized minorities living within colonial governments. From all of the evidence I have seen, the founders and leaders of the Islamist movement were very sincere about their desire to return to the true faith (i.e. they were not driven by greed, power, etc. — they were true reformers). And they applied honest interpretation to Quran. Conversely, the secular Muslims who they have largely displaced, *were* driven by more “worldly” motives. You cannot read anything these thinkers wrote without coming to the conclusion that their version of Islam is more “true” to the original intent. This explains why they are virtually unchallenged by Muslims today. The Muslim world has been deeply radicalized in the past 50 years, and even the most moderate countries (Turkey and Egypt) are much more conservative before. Muslims in these countries will cluck their tongues about “not all Muslims are terrorists” (which is true), but they still give massive financial support to the Islamist movements.

Today’s modern Muslim thinkers correctly saw that Quran calls for Muslims to live in governments ruled by Quran; as a theocracy, and a world-wide Ummah. Based on these principles, the followers of these Islamists assassinated many moderate world leaders and replaced the governments with more repressive governments. If you want to argue that the Taliban are an aberration, just look at the history of the most liberal Muslim country, Egypt. You can’t tell me that Egypt is a model of secular separation of church and state.

Now, you could argue that Christianity operated as a theocracy for hundreds of years, and that is true. But a Christian leader needs to ignore most of what Paul and Christ said in order to argue for theocracy. The Bible clearly argues against such things. For anyone who’s spent a lot of time studying both books, the Quran and the New Testament couldn’t be more opposite in this respect.

Likewise, with regards to violence, the NT is pretty obviously non-violent, while the Quran strongly endorses violence against Kafirs. It is certainly possible to interpret the Bible in ways which endorse violence, but it takes some mental gymnastics. Conversely, it takes mental gymnastics to read the Quran as anything but violent. There is no equivalence whatsoever; right from the start: Christ voluntarily accepted torture and death, while Mohammed miraculously slaughtered thousands of his foes. Again, the more you understand of both religions, the starker the contrast becomes.

Basically, the Islamist radicals are not aberrant kooks with a twisted interpretation of Islam. They are reformers in the truest sense of the word, and consequently have become mainstream among those who actually believe the Quran. Besides the ones I mentioned, you should check out the history of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Like the others, he was a true reformer, motivated purely by his belief, and willing to make great sacrifice.

All of the reformers I mention have toppled world governments and rewritten the map of the Muslim world, from the Philippines to Libya. If you can find Muslim “reformers” who have a pusillanimous interpretation of Quran and are attracting large followings, we can have the discussion about whether or not this is just a corruption of Islam.

As a side note, completely independent of the issues with violence and separation of church and state, Muslim theology shares a lot in common with Calvinism.


lukeprog July 14, 2010 at 10:50 am


Yeah, I’m a big fan of Richard Joyce. His SEP article and the first few chapters of ‘The Myth of Morality’ (the pre-fictionalism part) are superb.


lukeprog July 14, 2010 at 11:00 am

other eric,

I’m sure I’ll write more in the future, but for now all I’ll say is this:

A fundamental principle of the eastern religions is ahimsa: non-violence. You have to do an awful lot of distorting to turn them into violence campaigning evangelical religions, though of course it can be done. Christianity’s founding figure taught people to ‘turn the other cheek’ and avoid violence and so on, and for Christians this supercedes anything found in the ‘Old Testament’ of the Jews. As for Judaism, well, luckily history shows that Jews don’t take the most violent commands of their scriptures very seriously. Israel is one of the most evil nations on the planet, but it’s not because of what’s in Deuteronomy.

Islam, in contrast, was founded by a military general who spread his religion largely through violence, and thus violent conquest of infidels was in the ‘model human’ for the religion, and in the ‘holy scripture’ later compiled from his supposed sayings. Thus it is no surprise that Islam is the worst religion. It is fundamentally violent at its very core, and always has been.

It is a stretch to turn Jainism or Christianity into violent religions. To be a violent Muslim is to follow the example of Mohammed and the example of the Koran.

noen will now call me a racist, but the facts are right there in the life of Mohammed and the words of the Koran. (And of course, ‘Muslim’ is not a race. It is a set of ideas. And yes, I can criticize a set of ideas if they are worth criticizing.)


other eric July 14, 2010 at 11:31 am

@ lukeprog & JS Allen

thanks, those are pretty interesting points, especially about the promotion of a theocracy. and luke, i look forward to more writing on this, especially perhaps from the perspective of how dominant religions shape cultures and then how those cultures and religions change and where that change comes from. such as, why were christian theocracies abandoned in cultures that remained christian? or if anyone can recommend good reading on this, i might be interested.

i still have suspicions that different past events or imaginable future events could yield, or could have yielded, christian soldiers who would equal in evil and violence the jihadists, and that the notion of a new christian theocracy would have great appeal to many christians under certain circumstances. i suppose this sort of movement could be considered less true to christianity than it is to islam, but i wonder how much that factor of truth actually motivates these sorts of movements.

also, luke:
“Israel is one of the most evil nations on the planet…”

yikes! controversy. will we be seeing a follow-up post on this little bombshell?


lukeprog July 14, 2010 at 6:53 pm

other eric,

I try to hold back from putting too much politics here. If you want to know my reasons for calling the USA and Israel the leading terrorists in the world, my reasons are basically Chomskyan.


other eric July 15, 2010 at 6:08 am

why hold back? isn’t that against desirism? shouldn’t you be using your tools of condemnation against these evils?


lukeprog July 15, 2010 at 7:27 am


I don’t have time to become familiar enough with geopolitics to feel very confident in my political positions, and certainly not to argue for them in any depth.


JS Allen July 15, 2010 at 8:59 am

@other eric – Chomsky thinks it was a very bad idea to create a country specifically based upon one religion/ethnic group, where Arabs were second-class citizens. The British were keen to separate countries by race and religion back then, which is what gave us Pakistan as well.

Chomsky backed a “two state solution”, which would seem to compound the problem. But now it seems that many Palestinians don’t want a two state solution anymore. It’s absolutely fascinating.


lukeprog July 15, 2010 at 9:33 am


I don’t endorse Chomsky’s solutions most of the time, but his diagnosis is far more balanced than any media outlet. Glenn Greenwald is also pretty good.


Rob July 16, 2010 at 6:38 am

Joyce has a draft version of “Ethics after Darwin” here:


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