I recently ran across a letter to the editor, and upon reading the headline, I was prepared to disagree completely, with every fiber and cell of my body.
Here's what the letter "Atheism has no moral dimension" said:
Many have written letters to the editor making the usual atheist response when someone points out the crimes of atheist mass murders (“Wars aren’t waged on behalf of atheism,” Friday letter from Paul Nevai).
That is valid. It is also valid to say that people don’t kill in the name of geology. Does this mean that geology has a moral dimension?
Atheism has no moral dimension; it just has implications in the manner by which we determine morality. Atheism is not a worldview or a philosophy of how to live life. It doesn’t tell us what to do and what not to do, what is right or what is wrong. It is just the belief that there is no god, and therefore leaves the definition of morality up to the individual.
Atheists are free to adopt a philosophy of reason and common moral decency or one of oppression, greed, and cruelty.
History shows they have chosen the latter more than once.
An atheist can say that people don’t kill in the name of atheism, but by the same token, he cannot say that they do good things in the name of atheism either. Atheism is morally agnostic.
To claim moral superiority for atheism because people don’t kill in its name is akin to claiming moral superiority for geology because people don’t kill in its name. This is a nonsensical boast.
And I have to say...I think he's right.
Now, I'm going to be upfront and say I don't think this conflicts at all with the idea that movement atheism needs (and has) a moral cause, an idea I championed in this post last year. I am purposefully distinguishing between movement atheism (the activist aspect) and philosophical atheism (the disbelief in deities). I am one of those folks that thinks that just because you are a philosophical atheist doesn't mean you necessarily are a part of movement atheism. I know, David Silverman would probably put a hit on me. (I jest, Dave, I jest.)
On the whole, though, what the letter writer says is accurate. Atheism in and of itself does not have a moral dimension. It does not proscribe behavior. It does not explain right from wrong.
I have really explored this as an atheist parent, because honestly? It was a lot easier to explain morality as "Don't do it, God said not to" than to build a secular morality. It's taken a lot of reading and researching and exploring to come up with the reasons for my own values and morality, reasons that I can then pass on to my children--arguably one of the primary functions of parenthood.
This is a fantastic point, and I applaud the letter writer for making it. For me it was a timely reminder that it's my behavior, and not my beliefs, that determine whether I have the moral high ground.