The Moral Bankruptcy of Faith

(A Modern Example of Socratic Dialogue)

by Max Maxwell


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This dialogue is an example of the Socratic method applied to a modern topic. In this Socratic Dialogue, a Christian preacher states the often claimed idea that atheists cannot be moral because faith in God is the basis of morality. The Socratic Method is used to question this idea in a way that demonstrates it is not religious faith, but secular knowledge that is needed in order to carry out moral deeds and to interpret moral principles.

It is important to remember that this written dialogue is much more tidy and succinct than the real conversations. The written dialogue goes from one question to the next immediately, but in real life a 30 minute conversation may have been necessary to get to the next question. The written dialogue here merely illustrates the typical outcome, but not the exact path that might be taken in any particular live conversation to that outcome. Different conversations on this topic would have different questions. It all depends on the responses of the participant.

This dialogue uses the name of Socrates as the questioner. This is not intended to imply that the historical Socrates or Plato would have agreed with my writing. It is merely a self amusing historical convention that I used. However, I did make an attempt to portray the dialogical character of Socrates as I found him in my own reading of Plato.

This dialogue is not intended as an attack on faith, nor is it in any way an argument in favor of atheism. This dialogue is merely a plea for the use of common sense, and the sharing of common ground, when speaking about morality. With regard to the Socratic method, this dialogue demonstrates the ability to use the "scope of application" of a field of knowledge in a Socratic conversation. If we really know something, we should be accountable to explain how that knowledge is applied. It also demonstrates the usefulness of the "one example technique" to further a Socratic questioning process. The one example technique allows an idea or definition to stand or fall on the basis of finding one example that is able to stand up to further examination. This dialogue will be integrated into the essay, "The Fundamentals of Education: PART V". The commentary discussing how to use this type of dialogue for different subjects will be added at that time. The actual dialogue below will remain the same.

I have asked the questions in the dialogue below in real conversations. Although the verbal maneuvering of the respondents vary tremendously, the end result is the same as the dialogue you read below.  That end result is the inability of religious persons to give one example of faith being able to carry out moral deeds or interpret moral principles without the absolutely necessary assistance of ordinary, secular, human knowledge. The implications of this speak for themselves.

Preacher: An atheist cannot be a moral person. Without faith in God, no human being can be moral at all. You must first have faith in God in order to have any capacity for morality. Faith in God is the only true basis of morality.

Socrates: It sounds like being an atheist is an unfortunate state of being.

Preacher: The atheists are most unfortunate Socrates.

Socrates: Sadly, I am more unfortunate than the atheists. I do not even understand the nature of morality. Thus, I could not tell you whether or not you need to first believe in the gods in order to be moral. So I ask you to help me and teach me something important.

Preacher: Of course, Socrates. That is why I am here.

Socrates: Thank you my good friend. I would like you to answer a question. What is morality?

Preacher: Morality is the expression of human behavior that is based on the knowledge of right and wrong.

Socrates: And one must believe in the gods in order to know what is right and wrong?

Preacher: Exactly. It is the knowledge of God, which comes through faith that gives us the ability to know right and wrong. And Socrates, there are no gods. There is only the one almighty God who created all things and redeems us through his son Jesus Christ.

Socrates: I am afraid I have never been very good at understanding all the amazing stories about all the different gods. I must admit that I am very excited about the idea that knowing your God will also give me the knowledge of right and wrong. But there is just one thing I would like to understand, if you could instruct me.

Preacher: What is your question?

Socrates: You say that knowing God will give me the knowledge of right and wrong.

Preacher: Yes.

Socrates: In what area of life will the believer know right and wrong.

Preacher:The knowledge of God permeates our whole being in every aspect of our lives.

Socrates: By the gods, dear preacher! I declare that nothing could be more useful than to learn right and wrong from a deity who knows! Will the knowledge of God help me know right and wrong pertaining to the calculation of the sums of numbers?

Preacher: No.

Socrates: Will the knowledge of God give me the knowledge of right and wrong with regard to the practice of medicine?

Preacher: No.

Socrates: How about right and wrong regarding the architectural design of buildings?

Preacher: No. Morality is not about this kind of right and wrong.

Socrates: Then the knowledge of God does not give us the knowledge of all right and wrong. It just gives us the knowledge of a particular kind of right and wrong that you refer to as moral.

Preacher: That is correct.

Socrates: It seems that we have not defined morality yet and I need to ask my first question again. What is morality? Please have mercy on my stubborn ignorance and define it in a way that does not exceed the scope of its application.

Preacher: Morality is about right and wrong regarding the treatment of other human beings.

Socrates: And does this moral and right treatment serve to benefit a person or does it hurt them?

Preacher: Moral behavior always serves to the benefit of humanity.

Socrates: Then this moral knowledge from God is expressed in behavior that benefits people?

Preacher: Yes.

Socrates: Who would know more about the beneficial treatment of people who need a cure for their sickness? Is it the believer in God or a doctor?

Preacher: A doctor, although healing is sometimes possible through prayer.