The question of whether atheism can be moral is hotly debated; however, I believe a more interesting question to ask is whether an atheist can be immoral. What holds an atheist to any moral code? Most beliefs have some type of holy writ that can be examined; where is the Eden of atheistic ethics? But why be so narrow, let’s broaden the question and ask from where any morality springs.
I think we can generalize and state that morality originates in three different ways:
An evolutionary morality says that our moral perception is evolving, and what was right a century or millennia ago may not be right now.
A cultural morality says that our moral perception is a product of the culture and society in which we live. What is right at this time may not have been right in our society a century ago, and may not be right in a current culture separate from our own.
A transcendent morality says that our morality must be derived from a something that transcends human existence. This something is often, but not always, a being we call god.
Most Christians would probably call both evolutionary and societal morality relative, and cleave to a transcendent view. And, while there is general agreement on the idea of moral absolutes, there is less agreement on where the lines of these absolutes are drawn.
Despite what we might first think, the voice of the New Atheist does not trend to the idea of an evolutionary moral arc; this seems to be the domain of the philosopher. Curiously, the atheist leans to the transcendent, with liberté, égalité, fraternité seemingly the clarion call. So, we can then achieve a more exacting insight by seeing it as an egalitarian transcendent; there is a projection of self upon society. And though, at first blush, we may think that this points toward adherence to a societal form of morality, the predicate of this society is a self-adjudicated perfect order, and the god of this transcendence is me. Even when the argument claims to hinge upon simians or science, the real hinge is the interpreter, who is me.
Interestingly enough, what all this transcendence says is that it is possible to be an immoral atheist. And because the well of this moral order is humanist, it may be a much stricter moral code than most religions espouse – from the point of view of a human. You will find diverse thinkers from Noam Chomsky to Donald Miller forwarding this inside out moral ordering, a let he who is without sin cast the first stone view of the world.
Christians appear to be drawn to actively debate atheists on morality. They are never going to win this debate, and for very good reason. This is what Elihu asks Job:
If you have sinned, what do you do to God? If you sin over and over, how does that affect him? Or, if you are righteous, what do you give him, what does he receive from your hand? Your wickedness and your righteousness only affect men like you.
We are told that our righteousness is like filthy rags. This doesn’t just mean worthless, but warns us that our own moral order will rise up and be evidence against us on the Day of Judgment. Paul says that adherence to a moral code is simply indulging the flesh; it is only a veneer of wisdom. What we desperately need to learn is that morality is not the cause of holiness, it is the symptom. Morality begs discipline, but holiness can only be achieved through metamorphosis, through a transformation. And to enter into that process is to take the me out of the equation.