What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life.

Author:Garrison, Becky

What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life


Counterpoint Press, 2019

400 pp.; $28.00

In his new book, What it Means to Be Moral: Why Religion is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, Phil Zuckerman, who is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, moves beyond the hordes of books deriding the claims made by the religious that one cannot be good without God. What he chooses to debunk is not religion per se but theism, the belief in the existence of a god who intervenes in human affairs.

Still, as advertised in the book's title, Zuckerman offers an approach to morality that does not require one to turn to an external source for ethical guidance. Those ardent atheists who view religion through a black-and-white lens may take him to task for acknowledging that one can be religious and still be a moral and ethical being, and that God is not the sole source of morality for many religious people.

But this is not a book designed for those looking to smash religion to smithereens. Rather, Zuckerman offers a blueprint for how one can look inside one's own reason and conscience and see how they have been informed by humanity's evolutionary past.

Throughout his analysis of the basis for human morality, Zuckerman states repeatedly that secularism in and of itself is not a global panacea. As he recounts the countless atrocities committed in order to appease a given culture's god or gods, he also cites heinous acts sanctioned by godless butchers like Pol Pot and Joseph Stalin. But Zuckerman observes how combating such immorality on a massive scale cannot be achieved by offering prayers and awaiting divine intervention. "In reality, there's nothing divine or otherworldly about genocide," he writes. "It is, rather, an unfortunate result of our own natural predilections."

In this clear, compassionate, and concise guide, Zuckerman examines how humanity's penchant to do harm to others and to the planet can be addressed through the framework of secular morality. Here Zuckerman identifies seven secular virtues: freethinking, living in reality, here-and-now-ness, acceptance of existential mystery, scientific empiricism, cosmopolitanism, and empathy/compassion. These virtues can be applied to all people but have a particular value for those looking to live a moral secular life.

Underlining What It Means to Be Moral is Zuckerman's belief that humanism is what makes agnosticism and...

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