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Stephen Sullivan

Stephen Sullivan

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Adams's Open-Question Argument Against Ethical Naturalism (2006)

In Finite and Infinite Goods, Robert Merrihew Adams offers an interesting variation on G. E. Moore's famous open-question argument against ethical naturalism. In giving causal-explanatory reasoning the last word in ethical inquiry, he says, ethical naturalists negate a critical stance that permits us to raise evaluative questions about any ethical judgment, no matter how well-supported empirically. But Adams's version of the open-question argument is deeply confused. First, modern science shows that the relevant critical stance is quite compatible with giving causal-explanatory reasoning the last word. Second, ethical naturalists need not treat any ethical judgments as immune to criticism. Finally, if Adams's argument were sound, it would undermine his own case for a divine-command theory of ethics.

Review of Finite and Infinite Goods (2006)

In Finite and Infinite Goods Adams gives his defense of a modified divine command theory its fullest elaboration, defending it against a number of standard objections. This material is essential reading for anyone interested in whether morality does or could depend on religion. Moreover, Adams thoughtfully argues for the need for several forms of moral faith, including faith that morality "is not a massive socially induced delusion." Along the way, he also offers a striking defense of liberty of conscience and church-state separation, with an emphasis on the value of critical thinking in both ethics and religion. Although Sullivan finds much to agree with here, he offers two particular criticisms of Adams's version of divine command theory. Nevertheless, Sullivan concludes that intelligent nonbelievers and believers can only benefit from carefully and critically working their way through this important book.

Review of God Bless America (2015)

Karen Stollznow's God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States teaches us quite a bit about fundamentalist Mormonism, Amish and Mennonite Protestantism, Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity, Afro-Caribbean religions, exorcism and Satanism, Scientology, New Age spirituality, and Quakerism. But it also has countless substantive, stylistic, and even grammatical flaws, and it is doubtful that she succeeds in providing her intended "sensitive but factual" and appropriately critical portrayal of the groups that she discusses. But despite these flaws, it is informative enough, interesting enough, and occasionally perceptive enough to be worth reading.

Review of Practicing Catholic (2012)

Former Catholic priest and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll's Practicing Catholic enlightens us about the evolution of Catholic teachings on salvation for non-Catholics, the growing support for progressive Catholic attitudes under Pope John XXIII, and the reactionary backsliding that has occurred under John Paul II and Benedictus XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). But Carroll barely defends his own pro-life stance on abortion and ignores altogether the moderate position that Catholic liberals have defended for decades. In theology, his view that God is unknowable conflicts with his claim that evidence-transcendent faith can count as knowledge, and he never explains (without begging the question) how faith that willfully goes beyond available evidence can be cognitively rational, let alone constitute knowledge. Nevertheless, though his faith is not cognitively rational because it is not well-grounded in evidence, it may well be practically rational to the extent that it plays an important role in his own overall well-being.

Review of Religion and Morality (2009)

In Religion and Morality, Christian philosopher William J. Wainwright provides a thorough, thoughtful, and generally rigorous and fair-minded discussion of the relationship between religion and morality. He considers moral arguments for God's existence, divine command theories of morality, and possible tensions between "human morality and religious requirements," among other things. In this review Stephen Sullivan focuses his remarks on several of Wainwright's debatable claims concerning the divine command theory of ethics and the Euthyphro question, offering a few additional criticisms about Wainwright's methodology.

A Sympathetic Critique of a Socratic Argument for Atheism (2017)

Does God command what is morally right because it is right, or is it right because God commands it? If God commands what is right because it is right, then rightness appears to be determined by moral standards that are independent of God's commands, and that God himself is morally required to obey, calling into question his status as Supreme Being. On the other hand, if what is right is right because God commands it, then there are no moral constraints on what God commands, rendering morality completely arbitrary: even horrific actions would be deemed right. This modernized Euthyphro dilemma can be converted into an argument against the existence of the God of traditional monotheism, a sovereign creator. Although this Socratic argument does not refute God's existence as a Supreme Being, it nevertheless underscores a serious challenge to theists who argue that morality requires the truth of theism.

Published on the Secular Web

Modern Library

Review of Practicing Catholic

(2012) Review: James Carroll. 2009. Practicing Catholic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 396 pp. Introduction Former Catholic priest James Carroll is a novelist, memoirist, Boston Globe columnist, and religious scholar whose work is always worth reading. His second latest book, Practicing Catholic, is one that he accurately describes as follows: “Though centered in one person’s experience, […]