Book Review

Morality Without God? by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009; 172 pages, ISBN 978-0-19-533763-1, hardback, $24.95.

By the title's unusual typography, the author wants to stress that morality is most definitely not dependent on God or belief in God.  An atheist who has been subject to ad hominem arguments, such as being attacked in public debates by theists as immoral, he argues effectively that atheists aren't inherently immoral, focusing on debunking the oft-quoted statement in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov that "If God is dead, everything is permitted." Other views he successfully argues against include that societies will sink into moral chaos if they are too secular, that people have no reason to be moral except fear of divine retribution, and that without religion people can't know right from wrong. He presents a harm-based morality as a workable, more consistent alternative to religious moral codes, while pointing out the many logical flaws in tying ethics to the existence of God or revelation.

The book's tone is very conciliatory. Sinnott-Armstrong, a professor of philosophy and legal studies, bends over backwards to be fair minded and to criticize more aggressive presentations of atheism that he feels alienate non-atheists. His objective is to decrease hostility toward atheists in his target audience, Evangelical Christians, by reassuring them that atheists aren't scary, threatening, immoral, untrustworthy people. Ultimately he would like it to be socially acceptable and respectable to be an atheist publicly, which is not now the case in the United States. Given that many theists do indeed believe that there can be no meaningful or robust morality unless it rests on Divine revelation and that atheists are by definition bad people, this is a worthwhile project. – Sally Dougherty (December 2009)   

Book Reviews