Dinesh D’Souza’s screed on how the VA Tech tragedy illustrates the deficiency of atheism is a steaming pile of offensive crap. Julian and Radley both give D’Souza a sound thrashing, but this response from an atheist VA Tech professor really nails it.
One of the most frustrating things about being an atheist is the tendency of theists to assume that without God, you cannot be a moral person, nor can you have opinions about right and wrong, good and evil, etc. This is such a non sequitur than I’m often unsure how to respond, except to say, “Well, um, I’m an atheist, and I think it’s wrong to kill people and stuff. So there.”
But perhaps a better response is to ask why existence of a god would make it any easier to arrive at moral beliefs. I think there are only two ways to go here: either God decides what is moral, or God knows what is moral better than we do. Both routes are problematic.
Take the idea that God decides what is moral. Morality just is what God says it is. Then the case for morality reduces to a kind of argumentum ad baculum: the reason you should be act morally is that you’ll be punished by the Big Bully in the Sky if you don’t. Otherwise, why should I care what God thinks? Sure, he’s big and powerful and all that, but why should that make his arbitrary decision about what’s right take precedence over mine? He says morality is A, B, and C, but I say it’s X, Y, and Z. The only reason for me to do A, B, and C instead of X, Y, and Z is because I’ll suffer otherwise.
Unless, of course, God has some additional authority – he’s all-knowing and unbounded in his thinking capacity, and he’s thus in a better position to discern what proper moral behavior would be. But this leads us to the second possibility above: God doesn’t decide what’s right, he knows it. This position seems more respectable than the first, but it clearly implies that morality exists independently of God. There are moral conclusions “out there” to be reached on the basis of knowledge and good reasoning; God is relevant to morality only because he has superior knowledge and reasoning skills. And if that’s true, then we could remove God from the equation and still arrive at moral views, albeit without as much helpful guidance. (Given the ambiguity of the guidance provided in the multifarious holy texts, I think this leaves us in pretty much the same situation as with a God.)
So it seems to me that the theist must either admit that his morality is nothing more than the desire to avoid punishment, or admit that morality can exist in a world without God.