Some atheists, to be sure, are without morals. But many/most who have actually thought through their beliefs sufficiently to call themselves atheist have moved beyond the need for moral rules supplied by the church. Such people are principled and self-regulating and their morality comes from something deep inside themselves.
To such people, the rules of a Church, or even the Ten Commandments seem superficial and too black and white. For example “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” Well, there are cases where it might be better to break this commandment – like in the now famous “Heinz” case presented by Lawrence Kohlberg.
In this theoretical example, Heinz’s wife was dying from a special type of cancer. But there was one drug available that could save her. It had been discovered by a certain pharmacist who was selling it for ten times more than what it cost him to make the drug. Heinz did not have this much money but the pharmacist refused to lower the price. So the question was: in this case, which is more moral – for Heinz to break the “Thou Shalt Not Steal” commandment and steal the drug – or obey the commandment and let his wife die? This type of situation describes moral concerns that go beyond the type of morality that can be dictated by church “rules.” If those who simply follow church or society’s rules can be said to be at the “conventional” level, then this type of morality that allows for the need to sometimes make painful and difficult decisions that go beyond the rules can be called “post-conventional.”
Many atheists are at the post-conventional level and derive their sense of morality from being able to trust their own instincts and powers of reasoning more reliably than they can trust a bunch of black and white rules set out by a church. This is something that conventional (and pre-conventional) people often misunderstand about non-believers. Because the conventional people NEED the rules of a church to keep their behavior in line, they often preach vehemently against (or try desperately to convert) anyone who does not belong to their religion. They simply cannot understand that some people do not need these moral rules to be good.
How do we know that many atheists are at this post-conventional level? Well, if you put together Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning and the stages of many who have studied faith development, you find the stages line up pretty well. In Kohlberg’s moral stages one grows from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric. In the religious development stages, as outlined by Ken Wilber, James Fowler, M. Scott Peck and others, one grows from egocentric, to ethnocentric to worldcentric to universal. Same idea!
The egocentric person’s morals only center on whether he is likely to get caught. In religion, the egocentric person cares only about what will benefit him. (Granted – some atheists are found in this group, but most of those are not the ones who have actually studied what they believe in enough depth to call themselves atheist.)
The ethnocentric person’s morals center around following the rules of his group. In religion the ethnocentric person will adopt the beliefs of his group without much personal reflection because if he reflects too much on his beliefs, he might reason himself right out of his group, which he cannot afford to do.
In morality, the worldcentric person focuses on the effect it would have on others in the world. “Is it right or wrong in general, not just according to the rules of my particular group?” He is willing to sacrifice the approval of, or membership in his group if their rules don’t make sense in a particular situation. In religion, the worldcentric person or post-conventional person is willing to sacrifice membership in his group if he finds a reality or truth that takes him out of that group. He has perhaps been willing to subject his religious beliefs to careful scrutiny and may have found them wanting. This is the most common way people who call themselves atheist get that way. They have reached the post-conventional level – in morality and in religion.
This is not to say that atheists are more right or more moral than religious people, but only that they as a group are certainly not LESS moral or less right!