Arguing the powers of atheism and religion

By Rich Barlow
Globe Correspondent / August 19, 2009

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‘How can you be a Christian when you are such an [expletive]?’’ someone supposedly asked Evelyn Waugh after the British writer converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930. According to legend, Waugh answered, “Just think how much worse an [expletive] I would be if I were not a Christian.’’

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a professor of philosophy at Dartmouth, quotes the above exchange in “Morality Without God’’ to argue that religion can be a force for good, even for flawed believers, and to make the same case about the positive power of atheism. If we lived in a rational world, a reviewer could pan this book as a needless waste of ink. That atheists can be moral without resorting to belief in God, and that such belief is hardly insurance against sinfulness, is supported not only by many people’s everyday experience but by longstanding intellectual tradition. The American thinker and humanist Robert Ingersoll became one of the top orators of the Gilded Age with his reasoned defense of agnosticism.

Sadly, however, Sinnott-Armstrong’s book is necessary. Thankfully, it is well done.

Why necessary? “Atheism is the opiate of the morally corrupt,’’ conservative thinker Dinesh D’Souza wrote in a line Sinnott-Armstrong quotes. D’Souza could be written off as another cranky intellectual. But Sinnott-Armstrong also cites a 2007 USA Today/Gallup poll in which most respondents, 53 percent, said they would not vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who was atheist. By contrast, fewer people objected to a gay, Mormon, female, or thrice-married candidate. No wonder Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are grouchy.

Sinnott-Armstrong is a big improvement on those two atheist authors: Though he variously calls himself agnostic and atheist, he’s no grouch, and he’s actually versed in the thinking of religious believers, both as a philosopher and former evangelical Christian. “Morality Without God’’ is a short, clear, and occasionally witty refutation of the atheism-is-bad brief, and evangelical Christianity, with its emphasis on the Bible, is its main target. (Religions such as Roman Catholicism and liberal Protestantism, by contrast, stress not just the Bible but also church tradition and scholarship in constructing their theology and moral teachings.)

To evangelicals who say God’s Biblical commands and threat of judgment are the only basis for moral behavior, Sinnott-Armstrong offers “harm-based morality.’’ “Harmful acts can be immoral . . . even if God does not exist, simply because these harmful acts would still hurt other people even if God did not exist,’’ he writes. The fact that people disagree in some cases about what constitutes harm does not “hide the fact that we agree on a lot. Almost everyone agrees that death, pain and disability are bad,’’ and causing these things is immoral, God or no God.

Sinnott-Armstrong fleshes out this argument with observations that should discomfort Bible thumpers. One 2005 survey of 17 developed countries found the most religious among them to have the highest rates of homicides and other ills. And after all, the Bible contains verses that no Christian follows who isn’t outfitted in a straitjacket. Deuteronomy commands the killing of anyone, even family members, who “serves other Gods.’’ Matthew’s gospel says every penitent sinner will be forgiven - except blasphemers. By what moral yardstick do rapists and murderers deserve better treatment than blasphemers, Sinnott-Armstrong asks.

Unlike Dawkins and Hitchens, Sinnott-Armstrong doesn’t abhor religion. He faults atheist writers for their intemperate views of believers (the title of Dawkins’s last book, “The God Delusion, was hardly a compliment, he notes), and he pleads for mutual respect and civil dialogue between both sides. “Can’t we all just get along?’’ should be as unnecessary a request by now as respect for atheists. Alas, it, too, bears endless repeating.

Rich Barlow can be reached at

MORALITY WITHOUT GOD By Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Oxford University Press, 192 pp., $24.95

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