Frans de Waal has a follow up at The Opinionator to his post last month titled Morals Without God about which we commented here. Apparently de Waal has received a lot of angry emails from atheists taking him to task for being insufficiently hostile to religion.
His response affords an occasion to emphasize more explicitly than I perhaps did in the earlier post what I think is an important distinction in the discussion of whether God is necessary for morality.
Atheists will often insist that they can be, and often are, just as morally good as anyone else and that God is not necessary for them to be so. What they mean by this, I take it, is that they can hold the same values as does any believer without the concomitant belief in God. An atheist can be just as kind, generous, peaceful, gentle, loving, etc. as anyone else.
My argument is that this is certainly true, but it's entirely beside the point. The debate is not over whether an atheist can hold a particular set of moral values, the debate is over whether an atheist is constrained by any moral obligation to abide by one set of values rather than another. In other words, if atheism is true can there be moral duty?
The answer to that, it seems to me, is no. If there is no transcendent moral authority to impose an obligation on us to, say, care for the poor, then there is no such obligation. It might be objected that the individual himself can impose the obligation, but a self-imposed obligation is an illusion. If someone sets himself up as his own moral authority and imposes an obligation upon himself then he surely has the authority to rescind the obligation whenever it suits him. An obligation that can be repudiated whenever the person who is under the obligation chooses to cast it off is no obligation at all.
An atheist can choose to be kind and generous, but if he's right about God his choice simply reflects an arbitrary preference. Had he chosen to be cruel and selfish he would not be wrong. His values could not be said to be morally inferior, they're just different values.
An irony in all this is that the atheist lives by a superstition. She believes that something called moral right exists when in fact, on atheism, it not only doesn't exist, it cannot exist. But this means that an atheist should logically be a nihilist and most atheists cannot live with that conclusion even though its where their reason leads them. Instead they deny what reason dictates and live instead by their feelings. In order to believe that moral values matter, that some values are better than others, they must leave reason behind and make an irrational leap based upon their own personal moral tastes.
A further irony is that certain of their number (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al.) then scoff at Christians and other theists for holding what they allege is an irrational belief in God. They claim that the Christian is irrational despite the fact that a Christian can live perfectly consistently within his basic assumptions about God, whereas most atheists cannot live at all consistently with theirs.
It'd be funny were it not so tragic.