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28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An honest and loving call for dialogue, July 9, 2009
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This review is from: Morality Without God? (Philosophy in Action) (Hardcover)
First, let me say that I am a practicing Catholic, very committed to my faith. However, this book is very well written, fair, balanced, and honest. Never does Professor Sinnott-Armstrong use ad hominum attacks, make wild assertions, or neglect to show care and concern for theists. I felt nothing but love for his fellow theists while reading this book. This does not, however, mean that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong compromises his position.Of course, there are still arguments that the author makes which I disagree with, but I think Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is a much needed addition (or voice, I suppose) to the growing body of intelligent, kind, and rational atheists (including John Lofton and David Ramsey Steele among others) not driven by malice, unlike the new atheists (yes, I have an axe to grind with the new atheism).

The goal of this book is basically to show that atheists can be and are moral. In fact, the last sentence of the preface states "[My main goal] is only to show that atheists need not be arbitrary, unreasonable, ignorant, inconsistent, irresponsible, disreputable, uncaring, or, especially, immoral." I completely agree with Professor Sinnott-Armstrong's thesis as he states it here. In fact, at the end of the first chapter, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong lists 5 main claims that he discusses in detail throughout the book. I agree with his beliefs about the truths of all 5 claims except the third one. I think the most accurate way to state my main disagreement with Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is to say that I believe that objective morality has no firm foundation without God. He does tries to show that the atheist does indeed have a firm foundation for morality apart from God in one of the chapters, which I will discuss a little bit below.

I appreciate much of what Professor Sinnott-Armstrong has to say in Chapter 2. This Chapter deals with the question of whether or not atheists are bad people. Unfortunately, many Christians do paint the picture that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong discusses in this chapter of atheists; that is, that they are immoral, indecent, and most oddly claimed to be that they suppress what they really know to be true. So the fact that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong addresses this topic is not unreasonable. I would say that a more historical and correct understanding of the question is that we are all sinners in need of God's grace and that any good that a theist or atheist does is a grace from God. I am not able to do good anymore than Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is able to do good; it all comes from the source of goodness, which is God. But that is really something more to argue with my fellow Christian brethren.

Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is also reasonable enough to point out the venomous attacks of the "new atheists" (of which Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is NOT a member of) and how they do more harm than good. I very much appreciated that, and it showed me that he has nothing to hide and believes his position to be correct based on reason rather than intimidation.

I also can not convey how much I appreciate the fact that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is fair and balanced when it comes to the horrible sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. He mentions that the problem is not as widespread as many new atheists make it out to be and even mentions that it is not limited just to the Catholic Church. While smaller numbers and other people doing it certainly does not excuse it, it is a breath of fresh air to read someone who does not use it to clobber us over the head and make the lovely non sequiter that therefore religion is pure evil. He is also very careful not to confuse correlation with causation (this mathematician thanks you!).

On the same page, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong discusses the possible biblical support that is given for wives being submissive to their husbands (Ephesians 5:25 ish). He then asks to what extent this means that they be submissive and asks whether things like abuse and marital rape qualify. However, I would consult Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii for a more proper understanding of what is actually a very beautiful teaching in the entire context of Ephesians 5. Again though, this is not something that even my non-Catholic Christian brethren are aware of and hence, I think that this "to what extent" question does need to be addressed because so many non-Catholic Christians don't understand it properly.

The chapter that I was most interested in reading (because I came into this book disagreeing with the premise) was how an atheist can ground objective moral values. The argument was built around a theory of harm; that is, what does harm to someone can be considered immoral. The author is careful to define harm and give many examples and predict possible objections. It was one of the longer chapters in the book, but the author made it clear that it was intended to be a brief overview of a possible theory of morality that an atheist could hold to and ground objectively. I don't think I quite buy the argument, but I will have to look at it more carefully and think about it a bit more. It was definitely an interesting theory, but it seems to me to be too reminiscent in some cases of situation ethics, where depending on the wants of a person, certain acts that may otherwise be immoral become not immoral. Sometimes it fell on the utilitarian side of things. Again, I need to think about it a lot more, but it's a good, well-thought out theory.

There was one thing in the chapter outlining the harm theory of ethics that shocked me. Now, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong said this somewhat in passing, so to be fair, I may have misunderstood. But what shocked me was not that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong admitted to supporting experimentation on human embryos, but that he claimed that there was NO non-religious argument for doing so! That claim blew me away. I don't know if Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is farmiliar with Embryo: A Defense of Human Life by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen ( ), but this book goes out if its way in the preface to let the reader know that no religious arguments will be given to defend their premise that the embryo is a human person with dignity and moral worth (and thus can not be used in scientific experimentation). While Professor Sinnott-Armstrong may disagree with the arguments of the book, he would actually have to argue that the book DOES rely solely on religious arguments. There are many others who argue against h-ESCR without punting to religion including Wesley J. Smith, Leon Kauss, and William May. Again, perhaps I misunderstood, but this seemed to be a very unusual thing to say.

Professor Sinnott-Armstrong gives critiques of the so-called divine command theory espoused by many Evangelicals. One thing I noticed when he was critiquing the position is that he interchange of the phrases "moral duties" and "moral values." Several times these phrases were substituted for each other. The author discusses how what makes something morally good in the Christian worldview (according to divine command theory) is that God commands it i.e. it is a moral duty, and because of the non-differentiation I mentioned above, it is also a moral value. Now, I am not well read on many evangelical divine command theories so I am sure that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is representing well those Evangelicals whom he has read, but the version of divine command I have in mind very much distinguishes between moral values and duties in the following sense; we define, or we say what is objectively good by that which is in accordance with God's unchanging nature. Goodness springs from God's nature. At this point, that says nothing about what our duties are, only the ontological question of where objective moral values are grounded. Then God's commands to us reflect that moral nature which he has. Since God can not act (and hence command) things contrary to his nature, what he commands is good. So I think this is a different take on the divine command theory (and I think a better one) than the one the author discusses. He does give a view similar to this about a paragraph in the chapter when discussing Euthyphro's dilemma, but I think there is more to it than that. However, there are many thought provoking and insightful comments the author makes in this chapter. This Chapter, too, has definitely got me thinking harder and deeper about why I believe what I believe and how I might answer some of the objections.

The chapter on why anyone be good gave good and convincing reasons to be moral. This was in contrast to some of the Fundamentalist doctrines about you should be good because you go to heaven, and badness is punished by hell. Ultimately, the author shows that this view of being good is really lacking in any sort of substance. I would argue that there are deeper theological understandings to answer that question from a Christian perspective, but this sort of pop shallow theology that we sometimes hear does need to be addressed. One thing I would have liked to have seen the author address in this chapter is whether or not he believes we actually have a moral duty or obligation to be good and if so, where that comes from. He gave reasons that one would WANT to be good, but is there a moral duty? I would especially be interested in hearing what he would have to say in response to Sartre's "existence precedes essence" argument which implies that we have no human nature and hence, no moral duties. Again, I think it's important to differentiate between moral duties and moral values.

All in all, this book is very easy to read and argued well. The train of thought is clear and easy to follow. The book is an attempt to dialogue with Christians, which is something I've never seen so well done and in such a gracious manner by an atheist. The author goes out of his way to point out the good in religions, how atheists and agnostics should embrace many aspects of religion that are good, and even get some good out of the bible. This is definitely a man who is serious about dialogue and serious about painting the other side with the correct brush.

One final thing I would like to point out is the common misconception about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This was mentioned a couple times in the book. St. Augustine understood (I would argue correctly) blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the sin of final impenitence. In other words, the only unforgivable sin is the one that you refuse to ask forgiveness for. Because Professor Sinnott-Armstrong was once a believing Evangelical, he believes that even if Christianity was true and if he were to repent, he (as well as many others in a similar situation) would be damned. This is based on the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit passage as well as a passage in Hebrews which the author points out. I would just like to say that whatever these passages do mean, they do NOT mean that anyone is guaranteed hell without any chance of repentance on this earth. No matter WHAT you do, if you repent while alive, you can still be saved. This is the constant and historical teaching of the Catholic Church. So if there is anything that I may be so bold as to correct the good Professor about in the book, it is that he is NOT damned to hell no matter what he does for the rest of his life. God ALWAYS forgives. As long as one is still breathing, they are not necessarily damned. There is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS the possibility of repentance in this life, and ultimately salvation in the next.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 13, 2010 9:11:02 PM PST
There is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS the possibility of repentance in this life, and ultimately salvation in the next.

That's not a good thing. I can do anything I wish, "repent" (even sincerely) and get into eternal "bliss" (heaven seems like it would be hell to me, eternal boredom...I'm glad for death myself) anyway. An easy out for any moral monster, no wonder the least moral among us have always been religious of some sort (including the leaders of the secular religions/cults of the 20th century...they may not have believed in a transcendent heaven, but did think they were choosen, righteous, and would achieve a sort of heaven on earth...those that weren't actually religious that is, like Hitler).

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 14, 2010 5:25:10 AM PST
Hi Armchair Existentialist.

"That's not a good thing."

Is there such a thing as "the good" in teh existentialist worldview?

"I can do anything I wish, "repent" (even sincerely) and get into eternal "bliss" "

There are many important caveats that you are missing here. As you somewhat hinted at, repentance must mean a real and sincere change of heart and sorrow for past sins. No one can "plan" to repent and have it really be sincere. In fact, the truth is that if one has led a life of sin and depravity, it makes it all teh more difficult to repent in teh last moments of life because tehir heart is hardened against God. This isn't just something anyone can easily do willy-nilly. More to teh point, it is always POSSIBLE to repent at the last moment. There is never a time when you are alive on earth and it is "too late." But again, if you have lived a life away from God, you are much less likely to be able and willing to want to repent in those last moments. So this simply does not provide an "easy out" for mass murders and other evil people simply by saying "oh gee, sorry!" if they do not sincerely despise their previous life. So no, it is not an easy out for any moral monster.

Now, suppose that someone like Hitler had made a sincere repentance (again, as I stated above there was nothing at all about him that prepared himself for such a repentance, so it is highly unlikely though possible) in teh last moments before he did. Is it "wrong" that he would be experiencing the Beatific Vision in heaven? Was what he did so bad that he could never be forgiven but the things we do aren't bad enough that we can't be forgiven? What is it that makes what someone does so bad that they can't be forgiven?

"heaven seems like it would be hell to me, eternal boredom"

Again, all this statement shows is that you haven't really studied any kind of doctrine or made any serious attempt to understand what heaven is. A very popular view sees heaven as "angels dressed in white sitting round all day playing harps" but this is completely antithetical to what is actually taught about heaven. If you really are interested in learning what those who believe in heaven actually think about heaven, may I suggest Peter Krefft's "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven, but Never Dreamed of Asking."

"I'm glad for death myself"

Yes, typical existentialist :)

"An easy out for any moral monster"

Now I already addressed above that this is at all not the case, but what I am wondering is that how you as an existentialist can talk about a "moral monster"? If indeed existence precedes essence, then we have no human nature and consequently are not bound by any sort of moral law that may exist (wherever THAT may come from!). How can anyone be a moral monster in your worldview?

"no wonder the least moral among us have always been religious of some sort (including the leaders of the secular religions/cults of the 20th century"

Conceding that this is the case, I'm just not at all sure what this is supposed to prove. If someone is a moral monster and he is part of a religion, then that religion is wrong? How do individual behaviors of individuals who are acting AGAINST what tehir religion teaches prove a certain religion false?

Posted on Feb 27, 2013 5:47:26 PM PST
Why is repentance after death impossible? I can imagine a newly-deceased person being shown heaven and hell, and having an opportunity to choose. And even if they choose hell, is that necessarily irrevocable? If God is not deliberately trying to trick people, he would have to allow post-mortem salvation.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 27, 2013 5:57:08 PM PST
Hi Leopold. The idea is as follows: after death, the soul is separated from the body, and in a state of existence that is outside of time. It is being inside of time, intimately connected to physical reality, that allows us to change our minds, make decisions, and ultimately go through the process of change. But once we die, we can no longer go through any change and in particular, cannot learn anything new that would allow us to change our minds. Thus, the moment we die, our will is fixed, either for or against God. Another important thing to keep in mind is that once we each undergo the particular judgement, we will know that our eternal destination is just. We will not make any appeal or rebuttal, but see that justice is perfectly and rightly served.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 27, 2013 7:21:31 PM PST
If the state of existence is outside time, precluding decisions, it would also preclude perception as well. Both require sequence and progression. If the disembodied soul exists in an eternal moment, with no before and after, or cause and effect, it would not be able to process information, which requires time. If you assert that it would still be able to take in information from its environment (whether internal or external) and gain awareness of it, it would have to be able to make decisions as well. The two are inextricably linked - it's either both or neither.

The observation that would seem to preclude any life after death in general is our inability to recall any life before birth (discounting claims of reincarnation, which are rare and probably delusional). We come from total oblivion; the logical conclusion is that we go into total oblivion.

Rather than arguing over which belief is "true," I find it more enlightening to speculate on why people believe as they do. The idea of allowing people to decide on their fate after death, when they presumably would be presented with all the facts, undermines the validity of religious traditions that promote an exclusive, "us vs. them" mentality of the saved and unsaved, the "in" and "out" groups. These beliefs say more about those that adhere to them, than any potential reality they may describe.
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