Discussing ethics and morality with Atheists can prove to be frustrating, for everyone involved. Theists will argue that an atheistic worldview cannot properly ground morality given naturalism. And from that Atheists often hear ‘Atheists cannot behave morally unless they believe in God’. But I haven’t ever made that argument. We all know there are Atheists who are kind and charitable. Then there is the Atheist who attempts to argue that no transcendent standard is necessary for example, altruism and nurturing help groups and individuals survive. Therefore, behaving ‘morally’ is adequately explained on a naturalistic worldview. The problem seems to be the words good and bad, and how the skeptic employs them.
The way nearly every skeptic I’ve discussed this with use the words good and bad differently from the way a Theist is using those words. The Theist uses these terms employing an ontological rightness and wrongness. The Atheist seems to be using these words in a functional or utilitarian sense. The goodness or badness of something is dependent on the beneficial or disastrous result. If the act is helpful to someone, or makes them generally feel good or happy or survive is good. If the act hurts or harms, it’s bad.
This confuses the issue. The Atheist argues with a sense of moral language, yet the structure of their argument uses utilitarian language: what works best. This doesn’t work because the concept of morality is absent on the Naturalistic worldview.
In other words, good and bad are used equivocally. In one sense, the Atheist intends them to be understood with values of rightness and wrongness. But they are defended and used functionally. Like moves in a game, there are good moves and bad moves. The good moves (moral behavior) achieve the goal, capturing the opponent’s king (flourishing of the human species). But this isn’t morality. It’s utility couched in moral language.
This is made clear by asking the question: Why should someone do the morally good thing? If the answer employs culture or society, that is relativism, which isn’t morality, it’s preference. If the answer appeals to flourishing, that is a form of utilitarianism, again not morality. On an aside, I find Atheists become upset when I persist in asking why. I understand that behaving aids in flourishing, but why should I care beyond my own self and immediate progeny?
Without an unchanging standard that is outside the individual person — culture and society is nothing more than many individuals — only to preference and functionality can an appeal be made and neither is morality. Preference holds no real authority. It describes what most people want, but what is morally good is not determined by a vote. Sometimes what the majority of the people want is morally evil i.e., the enslavement of Africans in early America, or the Roman Gladiators fighting to the death for entertainment. Functionality only tells us what works, like driving directions. Directions are not morally good or bad, they are useful or unuseful.
Of course, not being able to explain moral goodness and badness doesn’t mean atheism is false. It merely exposes its inadequacy to account for the way the world is.