No Left Turns tips us to the meditations of Mr. David Velleman at Left 2 Right who offers a particularly lucid illustration of the existential problem which atheism poses to its votaries. He approaches the problem with this prelude:
Perhaps I wasn't tuned into the right news sources last Fall, but I don't remember anyone running for major office who indulged in "elaborately flaunted religiosity". Maybe Mr. Velleman considers it "elaborately flaunted religiosity" simply to acknowledge that one is a Christian because in the circles in which he travels, we may surmise, that's an admission which no one would dream of making, nor have occasion to.
It's a quirky thing about the times in which we live that complete strangers can tell us the most intimate details about their sexual preferences, they can inscribe their predilections across their t-shirts even, and we're supposed to take it all in stride like true sophisticates. But let someone happen to mention that he believes in God and is a Christian, and he's accused of elaborately flaunting his religiosity, a breach of manners so egregious that it causes the true sophisticates like Mr. Velleman to shake their heads in disgust and disapproval.
Mr. Velleman then zeroes in on the main point:
Mr. Velleman here puts his finger directly on the sore spot, presses hard, and even rubs it around a bit. His problem is that the project which engages his energies is quite an impossible task. Reason cannot provide a ground for moral values. Reason cannot even provide a ground for trusting our reason. Any argument which seeks to establish the trustworthiness of reason, after all, must presuppose the truth of the very thing it's trying to establish.
Mr. Velleman has been unsuccessful in arriving at a rational basis for his moral sentiments precisely because there is no purely rational basis for any morality except, perhaps, egoism. Reason can offer no answer to the question of why I shouldn't hurt others if doing so benefits me and if I can get away with it. Indeed, reason must actually condone such behavior. It inevitably leads to an ethic of might makes right. Any other outcome to his ethical inquiries can be attained only through one of Mr. Velleman's non-rational leaps of faith.
In other words, he denies the existence of God not because God's non-existence is something for which he has a great deal of evidence, but because he simply doesn't want the world to be the kind of place where a God might be lurking. His atheism, he would have us believe, is consonant with his high view of the value of persons. This claim must have an odd sound to the multitudes of victims of the sundry state atheisms which plagued the twentieth century, but never mind. The really odd thing about Mr. Velleman's last sentence is the complete arbitrariness of his decision to value human beings and the artificiality of the nexus by which he relates it to atheism.
If Mr. Velleman wishes to value persons that's fine, but if his atheism is correct, anyone who chose to treat persons cruelly instead of kindly would not be making a wrong choice, just a different one. There is simply no basis in atheism for his choice to treat people kindly. It's a decision he makes purely on the basis of his subjective inclinations and preferences which could as easily have been otherwise and which in other people are indeed otherwise.
Here's Mr. Velleman's predicament, indeed the predicament of most of his atheist colleagues: They want to hold on to morality while at the same time dispensing with the only thing which gives morality any meaning, the transcendent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator of the universe. If there is no such being then all of Mr. Velleman's moralizing is nothing more than emoting about his feelings. His talk of moral values may be interesting from a psychological point of view, but there's absolutely no reason why anyone should otherwise care about them. He can give his students no rational answer to the question of why he holds the values he does rather than some other.
One would think his reason would have shown him all this a long time ago.