Is it possible to be a moral person and not believe in god? Are there such things as objective moral values if god does not exist? In the eyes of many, such questions may seem rather silly. ‘Of course, you don’t need to believe in god to be good, nor does there need to be a god for some things to be really wrong or really right. Why would anyone think otherwise?’ Actually, a number of people think otherwise because they have met atheists who have done them wrong, because they’ve heard pastors and apologists argue that atheists can’t have objective morality, and because they have read passages like Psalms 14:1, which says of non-believers, “They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.” Particularly in America, atheists are so distrusted that nearly half of Americans report they would not vote for an atheist as president, even if the candidate is well-qualified and is a member of their own political party.1
Morality Without God? is an attempt to answer some of the most common challenges to the morality of atheists. Author Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is a philosophy professor at Duke University who has spent much of his career studying and writing on the subjects of ethics and morality. He has also participated in debates over these issues with prominent Christian opponents like William Lane Craig and Dinesh D’Souza (one of his debates with Craig has been reviewed and is available for listening here). His other books include Moral Skepticisms (2006) and God: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist (2003), co-authored with William Lane Craig. Morality Without God? is Sinnott-Armstrong’s most recent work, published in 2009, and it’s a short, accessible read at 157 pages.
I. Assessing the Big Picture
Like a true philosopher, Sinnott-Armstrong begins by laying out the problem under discussion, as well as his intentions with the book. His aim, he explains, is to show that god and belief in god are both unnecessary for morality. As one might imagine, this is no small feat with the numerous different conceptions of god down through history, to say nothing of the complicated treatises that have been written on morality. Bearing this in mind, Walter wisely decides to focus his critique on Evangelical Christian views about god and morality. Why these theists, and why this specific kind of Christianity? Three reasons are given for this choice. Evangelical Christianity is what the author is most familiar with, “having studied it and even believed in it at times”. This form of Christianity has also played, and continues to play, a significant role in US politics and has a growing number of adherents in third world countries. Finally, Sinnott-Armstrong recognizes that some of the points he wants to make against Evangelical views will equally apply to other kinds of Christianity and to other religions. Milder religious views, by contrast, “do not call for radical changes in our government, in our lives, or in our moral beliefs”. Indeed, there are plenty of Christians like Richard Swinburne, who would likely find no disagreement with the central aim of Morality Without God?, because they regard truly objective moral truths as necessarily existing independently of any god.
After some standard disclaimers about the difference between atheists and agnostics, and how the goal of the book is not to convert everyone to atheism, Walter covers examples of how moral claims have been used to marginalize atheists. He cites an older version of the poll already mentioned, hostile statements made towards atheists by political figures like former president George H.W. Bush, as well as Bible verses and the downright insulting remarks of certain religious apologists. One quote from Dinesh D’Souza is especially nauseating: “When an atheist gives elaborate justifications for why God does not exist and why traditional morality is an illusion, he is very likely thinking of his sex organs.”2 Considering the disproportionate emphasis many Christians place on sexual behavior, and considering D’Souza’s own marital scandal,3 one can’t help but feel poor Dinesh doth protest too much.
Speaking of poisoning the well, though, Sinnott-Armstrong commendably goes after similar rhetoric found among atheists too, like the declaration in the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’ book: Religion Poisons Everything. It really shouldn’t be surprising that such derisive language has fostered the emergence of opponents like Dinesh D’Souza, who merely respond in kind with their own brand of vacuous vitriol. As Walter asks, who wants to have a real discussion with people who insinuate that you are stupid, immoral, or delusional simply because you hold different views? Any hope we have for a productive dialogue about morality and religion must be tempered with civility, honesty, and respect, or else there is very little chance either side will see any reduction in the harmful misconceptions about them.
Setting the tone for the remainder of the book, Sinnott-Armstrong identifies five claims at the heart of the debate and devotes a chapter to evaluating each one.
ii. Secular societies are bound to become corrupt.
iii. Objective morality doesn’t exist apart from god.
iv. Atheists have no adequate reason to be moral.
v. Atheists cannot know right from wrong without some sort of reference to religion.
In the next two sections, I will briefly cover some highlights from chapters two through seven, which focus on these claims.
II. Down in the Trenches
The author dives directly into the thick of things, moving to address Psalms 14:1 in conjunction with Matthew 12:31. In the latter verse, Jesus warns against blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which is called the unpardonable sin. What is it about blasphemy that makes it so terrible that while a murderer or rapist can be forgiven for their sins, a blasphemer cannot? The authors and characters of the Bible seem to think that all men and women ought to worship and obey god, just as many Christians think today. But how is an atheist going to recognize these obligations when they don’t even see that god exists? This is why, as Sinnott-Armstrong explains, “theists need to show that atheists perform acts that are immoral on non-religious grounds, so that even atheists should recognize their immorality.” Aside from this, atheists can no more be held accountable for their ignorance of god’s existence than those remote aborigines who have never heard the gospel, or those children who take their last breath without ever hearing of Jesus.4
What about the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century, like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, as well as the moral decline in secular societies? Walter points out that the former commits the post hoc ergo propter hoc, or “after this, therefore because of this”, fallacy. Stalin was an atheist. Stalin committed mass murder. It does not logically follow from these statements that therefore atheism caused Stalin to commit mass murder. The same flawed argument could go a different way. Stalin had a mustache. Stalin committed mass murder. Did Stalin’s mustache inspire him to commit mass murder? Quite obviously, no. Well, then, what about the moral decline in secular societies? Here Walter cites several studies comparing and contrasting moral ills among secular and religious populations. I won’t go into details for this review, but the conclusions are no different from those drawn from similar research in my article Why Be a Good Person? When the proper controls are applied, and confounding variables are examined closely, secular populations appear no less moral than religious populations.
But hasn’t there been research showing that religious people are more charitable and compassionate towards the needy? D’Souza and some other apologists happily cite a book published by Arthur Brooks that allegedly shows just this, disingenuously titled Who Really Cares? Sinnott-Armstrong levels devastating criticisms against it that would make sociology professors proud. Brooks’ study has many problems, such as relying on self-report data, judging religiosity in terms of frequency of church attendance (bizarrely, “secularists” also include those who visit church twice a year or less), and failing to count support for government and social programs as charity. Additional factors, like how the priming of secular justice concepts creates a virtually identical effect to priming religious concepts when people are being charitable, also were not taken into account by Brooks. In short, there is no evidence of general moral superiority on either side.
Perhaps atheists aren’t all immoral, but how do they know what makes something really wrong? Morality matters, Walter says, because it separates us from lower animals, it enables us to get along with others, and it gives life meaning. He offers a harm-based account of morality, where harm is defined as involving death, pain, and disability, the last of which may also include false beliefs insofar as they prevent us from achieving our goals. In addition, risks of harm without benefit count as harm, just as we would discourage a loved one from playing Russian roulette even if they have not yet caused themselves physical injury or death. One of the advantages of secular harm-based morality is that it can explain why disloyalty and disrespect for legitimate authorities is normally immoral.
Sinnott-Armstrong considers this harm-based morality to be objective, because if what makes something wrong is the harm that it causes, then it will be wrong independently of our beliefs and desires about it, since it is a fact that rape and murder cause harm, for example. This certainly seems to satisfy even the demands of theists like William Lane Craig, who argues that to say something like the Holocaust is objectively wrong is to say it would be wrong “even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everybody who disagreed with them.”5 On the harm-based account, the Holocaust is wrong because it caused the deaths of millions of Jews, it caused horrible pain and suffering to untold numbers, and it left many men, women, and children disabled in too many ways to recount. Any particular beliefs about harm or desires to cause harm are irrelevant to the fact that an atrocity like the Holocaust did cause much harm.
What could an apologist say in response to this? It seems like their only resort would be to ask why we should care about what causes harm. The author addresses this mostly in chapter six, but his exploration of harm in chapter four gives one potential reason: harm seems to lie at the root of much of what we find objectionable about behaviors and actions we tend to see as immoral. At least in this case, the harm-based account is highly descriptive of our moral intuitions, it would appear, including our intuitions about disrespecting and being disloyal to legitimate authorities. A similar question can also be asked of theistic morality – why should we care what god commands? Walter turns to this subject in the next couple chapters.
III. On the Front Lines
Atheists don’t need to agree with Ivan Karamazov or with Nietzsche. Every time I listen to one of William Lane Craig’s debates, I feel the urge to shout this at the audio player. It’s never been denied by atheists that some of our own think morality must be subjective. Then again, there are plenty of theists who also think morality is subjective. Atheists are no more beholden to the opinions of certain atheists (even famous ones) than Christians are beholden to the opinions of certain Christians. What is needed to show that morality cannot be objective without god is a non-fallacious argument. Try as they might, apologists regularly commit fallacies attempting to argue that moral values can’t be meaningful on atheism. Craig repeatedly commits the modo hoc, or “just this”, fallacy, mistakenly assuming that because many atheists believe we are made of matter, with no immaterial soul, that we are therefore “just” matter and nothing else. We are, however, very unique arrangements of matter, distinguished from other, different arrangements in traits like consciousness, self-awareness, reasoning, bipedalism, and so forth. The evolutionary origins of morality will not serve to prove the theist’s point, either, since, as Sinnott-Armstrong notes, “What evolves are only moral beliefs and attitudes, not moral facts or truths”.
Divine Command Theory claims that what makes an act immoral for us is that god forbids it. It’s not that god forbids rape because it harms the victim. If that were the case, we’d already have a reason for seeing rape as immoral that is independent of god: it harms the victim. Rather, on Divine Command Theory, an act is wrong if god forbids it – period. Of course, there are some nuances to this view. Craig and others reject the well-known Euthyphro dilemma by claiming that something is good because god’s nature is the good, and god’s commands “flow” from his nature. Yet this only pushes the problem back a step or two. If god doesn’t determine his nature, then what makes god god? For all intents and purposes, it appears god’s nature is arbitrary. If he does determine it, though, then the Euthyphro dilemma applies again. Additionally, we must ask what is inconsistent with god’s nature. It will not do to say evil or immorality is inconsistent, because that’s the very question we’re striving to know. If there is nothing that would be wrong for god to permit, it looks quite incoherent and meaningless to say “god is good”. As Walter puts it, “this argument [that an all-good god could not command rape] assumes that rape is bad on independent grounds. We need those independent grounds in order to know that god would not command it.”
There may be problems with the Divine Command Theory, but does it give us better reasons for being moral than secular morality can? Our author begins chapter six by explaining why we should be moral, particularly why we should care about avoiding or preventing harm to others. Despite popular rumors, it’s normally in our interest to be moral, he says. Some people do get away with bad behavior, at least in the legal sense, but they may be hounded by guilt, fear of rivals, or fear of punishment. But what about those instances where it may be in our interest to cause harm?
Sinnott-Armstrong asks that we imagine him paying someone to cut into his abdomen with a knife, for no reason, knowing it will cause him pain. Most of us will easily recognize that act as being irrational. Now suppose that Walter is paying to have a diseased kidney removed. Suddenly the act becomes rational, because there is now a good reason for it, namely that Walter wants to avoid some other harm that may be more prolonged and could result in death. A fact that makes an otherwise irrational act into a rational one is a reason to act. Variations of the example are also discussed, such as transplanting a kidney to a spouse or stranger, and being the one in need of a transplant. What reason does Sinnott-Armstrong think we have for avoiding or preventing harm to others? The fact that something causes harm is a reason to avoid it, while the fact that something prevents harm is a reason to do it.
Frankly, I feel like this explanation is a bit too vague. I think Walter could have benefited from saying more about how it’s in our interests to avoid and prevent harm to others, how it plays into the meaning we find in life, and how it separates us from lower animals, all of which he kind of just briefly ran over in chapter four. I’ve elaborated somewhat on these myself in my article mentioned above, for those interested, but while Sinnott-Armstrong’s coverage of it leaves something to be desired, he does endeavor to expose the inadequate reasons theistic apologists often give for obeying the commands of their god. Reasons for acting that are based on force or threat need not bear any connection to the content of the command, he says in criticism of the idea that the threat of hell gives us reason to be good. The most we could learn from the threat of hell or the promise of heaven in relation to any action is that we get punished or rewarded for doing certain things. We would not really learn why those things are wrong, just like locking your son in the cellar for hitting his sister would not really tell him why it’s wrong to hit his sister.
The only other theistic reason for being moral that is discussed is the idea that temporary things pale in comparison to eternal things. Walter calls this “infiniphilia” and says that it robs us of any reason to be concerned about this finite world. Some other reasons I could foresee theists as putting forward would be that god created us, god is an authority figure, god is all-knowing, and god sent his son to die on the cross for us. Of course, none of these reasons really logically imply that we have any obligation to follow god’s rules. They may also be self-interested reasons with more basic motivations behind them, such as wanting to appease someone in a position of greater power, so they might reward you. It doesn’t look like any of these theistic reasons for being moral are actually good reasons to be moral.
In chapter seven, Sinnott-Armstrong challenges the claim that atheists can’t know right from wrong without reference to religion, and he does so by calling into question how theists think they know right from wrong. How does one distinguish the voice of god from the whisper of delusion, or the deception of demons? David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam serial killer, believed he was guided by a demon that had possessed his neighbor’s dog. Deanna Laney killed two of her children and severely injured another because she believed god had told her the end of the world was coming soon. The big problem is that even if god exists, Walter claims, we have no sound way to determine what god commands. We may consult the Bible, but the Bible shows that god has sanctioned everything from slavery (Ephesians 6:5) and genocide (1 Samuel 15:2-3) to child abuse (Deut. 21:18-21) and rape (Numbers 31:7-18). What else can one turn to? Religious leaders are just as fallible as we are, as are our friends and family, and there is no way at all reliable of separating the voice of our conscience from what many call the voice of the Spirit, or the voice of god.
Also in chapter seven, the author uses the example of how a consensus formed among hospital ethics committees about the need to inform patients of all available options, no matter what objections the physician might have to any specific option. This example, he argues, goes to show that there can be real progress in moral debates without appeals to religious faith.
IV. What Does It All Matter?
What difference would it really make if our world embraced secular rather than religious morality? At least in America, Sinnott-Armstrong states, there would be improvements in government policies, political views, and social perspectives. True as this is, it’s disappointing that it’s the only answer Walter comes up with. I think an emphasis on harm is more likely to foster happier and healthier societies than emphasis on commands recorded in ancient texts, irrational reactions of disgust mislabeled as divine condemnations, or cultural/political prejudices consecrated on the altars of faith and religious devotion. I think religious morality hinders progress because it preserves antiquated values rooted in a fear of out-groups and the unknown. Fortunately, most people who identify as religious do not adopt the kind of religious morality advocated by William Lane Craig, Dinesh D’Souza, and their ilk, where something is good simply because it comes from “god”. Most of us consider the consequences of our actions, rather than the bare fact of whether or not we think god has said it’s okay.
In concluding Morality Without God?, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong offers some advice on getting past the so-called culture wars, to have a fruitful discussion of the issues surrounding beliefs about god and morality.
ii. Theists need to fight excesses in the name of religion (their own, as well as others).
iii. Atheists need to fight excesses among their own, too.
iv. Atheists need to appreciate the good aspects of religion.
v. Non-theists need to admit what they can’t provide, while helping others to live with uncertainty.
vi. Atheists can learn from religion about how to help others.
vii. Atheists need to try and live as moral examples for others.
Interestingly, the bulk of this advice is directed at atheists, but I would concede that many of these points are worth observing. Atheists are no less capable than theists of venturing into uncivilized territory, of over-simplifying and dismissing things we get tired of hearing about, of making bolder claims than we can support, of thinking we are superior to others, and of forgetting to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. One critical review that I saw of this book called it “too soft on religion”, and though it does seem a bit like Walter bends over backwards sometimes to extend a hand to theists and appear as non-threatening as humanly possible, I feel like his choice to hit hard on the points of critique and be charitable and calm for the rest is one of the major appeals of the book. He argues like a philosopher, but speaks to his audience like a friend.
There are many things I could praise about Morality Without God?, such as the impressive accessibility of it that somehow manages not to sacrifice philosophical and intellectual depth, or the constant use of thoughtful analogies by the author, or the great use of sources in so short a book. Sinnott-Armstrong quotes extensively from his opponents, giving their views a fair and honest hearing before engaging them with sincerity. The only real downside, in my opinion, is that there are some areas where you wish for more elaboration. However, since this book is meant to spark dialogue and serve as an introduction to the debate, I can’t really fault it much for that. Whether you’re a theist or an atheist, I think there is plenty to enjoy and benefit from here. Morality Without God? is currently the first book I will recommend for those seeking an intelligent and inviting response to the moral criticisms leveled by religion against atheists.
1. Jeffrey M. Jones, Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias as Presidential Candidates, Gallup (June 21, 2012). Retrieved Sept. 19, 2013.
2. Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? (Regnery, 2007), p. 269.
3. Hemant Mehta, Dinesh D’Souza, Who Opposes Gay Marriage, is Divorcing His Wife for a Younger Woman, Friendly Atheist (Oct. 16, 2012).
4. Romans 1:20 may say “men are without excuse”, yet it is highly controversial and hotly debated in theological circles what makes one saved when they have never been exposed to the gospel.
5. William Lane Craig, The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality, Foundations 5 (1997): 9-12.