Atheists can be as moral as anyone else. When theists imply that atheism by itself entails that people will either likely or necessarily be less moral, they trade in oblivious, self-satisfied, prejudicial thinking which besmirches atheists unfairly.
But it is not mere prejudice for theists to demand atheists give an account of their metaethical positions. By this I mean that it is totally justifiable for theists to ask atheists to explain to them what morality is, where it comes from, and why anyone must obey its dictates. All of us, as rational, morally engaged human beings, whether theist or atheist should take these philosophical questions seriously and develop thoughtful responses to them. It is no more prejudicial or insulting to ask an atheist for a consistent, defensible, and persuasive account of her beliefs about morality than it is to ask a theist for a consistent, defensible, and persuasive account of his beliefs about God.
And just as many an atheist argues that theists should abandon their belief in God because it contradicts so much of what they must acknowledge is true from science, metaphysics, logic, epistemology, morality, etc., so similarly, if a given atheist’s views on morality or her moral practices are undermined by her views about science, metaphysics, logic, epistemology, and even some of her own moral intuitions, then it is appropriate for the theist to accuse the atheist of an inconsistency and even suggest that the atheist abandon the inconsistent moral views or practices. It is even fine for the theist to suggest that his God hypothesis solves philosophical problems that atheists are stuck with. If God were necessary for a coherent conception of morality, then atheists would indeed be faced with a tough choice: either posit the God hypothesis to make sense of morality or admit that their moral views are incoherent and lack any force of truth.
If atheists’ moral views cannot be grounded in truths, then their (or anyone’s) imposition of norms has no special authority that anyone is morally obliged to heed. Moral claims would be just posits of convention that anyone might respect or not with no moral responsibility in truth.
The same, of course, goes for theists. If they cannot coherently ground their claims about God-given morality in a satisfactory explanation of where God’s moral law derives its objectively binding character, then even despite their belief in God which is oft assumed to give them an upper hand in these debates, they too are stuck without true moral standing when imposing their norms.
Neither atheists nor theists can waive the problem of grounding moral norms just by appealing to examples of their own (or their group’s) moral behavior. And the grounds of moral normativity may be independent of the theism question altogether. In fact, I think they are. As far as I can tell, even were there a God, it would change how we determined what was moral at all for reasons. I explain why how morality can be determined in God-neutral ways in my posts, On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness and How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity. And I make the case that even for theists, it is unintelligible to try to determine the goodness or badness of actions by reference to God in my post On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant.
My own views on ethics are deeply influenced by a comparable mixture of Aristotelian perfectionism and deontological qualifications as the Roman Catholic Church’s are. The primary differences between my views and there primarily come from my strong incorporation of Nietzschean and evolutionary insights on the one hand and their overly strong commitment to Aristotelian metaphysics and to unjustified theological commitments. But when they reason about ethics as the great St. Thomas Aquinas, the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church, did they are working, at least in foundations from grounds which were so secularly accessible that they were originally non-Christian and Aristotelian. And I like to imagine that Aquinas was a forward thinking, innovative kind of philosopher whose thought if he lived today would be far closer to mine than to that of those who want to freeze ethical thinking with his own, thirteenth century, perspectives.
In short, just as being a good moral person does not by itself make one’s God true or belief in God a justified belief, so being a good moral person does not make either the theist or the atheist’s beliefs about morality intellectually justified or their moral practices truly good. Atheists and theists alike must come up with metaethical accounts that explain what makes norms binding in a moral way upon others.
It is a total cop out when atheists evade this serious philosophical problem when every time it is posed to them they interpret it as a bigoted accusation atheists are bad people. The psychological fact that moral inclinations are present in atheist hearts and deeds, proves nothing, by itself about whether our views are coherent.
This is an opening, background remark to my engagement with a blogosphere debate I’ve been asked to comment on, which broke out in the posts Atheism and sexual self-contradiction by Greg Bahnsen, Christianity and Child Rape: Non-Contradictory Because of Consent, says Greg-Peter by friend of Camels With Hammers George W., and Apologetics and Apoplexy by Stephanie Zvan.
I will get to their debate shortly.