Many Christians like to claim that atheists have no basis for morality. (And I would like to make clear, for the record, that I realize not all Christians make this claim. But those who do are very vocal. It's those Christians I'm writing about here.) In fact, they say, the only thing that holds those evil atheists in line is the threat of legal punishment. If it weren't for that, why, they'd be murdering, stealing, and raping all over the place. After all, without God, they have no reason not to.
The argument is, of course, ridiculous. God isn't the only basis for morality; God isn't even a reasonable basis for morality. But I won't address all aspects of the argument in detail here; that's been done before by those far more capable than I. (Such as, for instance, Plato, about 2400 years ago.) Besides, I'm not really interested in debate; there are plenty of atheists around who enjoy debate--I don't--and who are much better at it than I am, and I'm content to let them handle that.
I do, however, want to bring up one aspect of the argument that I haven't really seen addressed much. See, as absurd as this argument is in one way, in another way, it's absolutely right. God is the only basis for morality...provided you use a particular definition of "morality".
Murder, theft, rape? All of those are clearly immoral with or without God. Christians have no monopoly on goodwill for one's fellowman; as much as they may like to lay claim to the Golden Rule, it's been around a lot longer than Jesus. The Golden Rule--not in the same words as appear in the New Testament, obviously, but the same idea--was preached by Confucius, by Seneca, by Socrates. It makes up a part of the teachings of virtually every religion, from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. It doesn't take the Christian God, or any God, to make people want to follow the Golden Rule--all it takes is empathy, and that's something that humans can have whether they believe in God or not. And murder, theft, rape...clearly those aren't in line with the Golden Rule. Those aren't treating other people as you'd want them to treat you. Those are all hurting other people. And those are clearly immoral, whether or not God tells you so.
But that's not what Christians mean by morality. At least, when they accuse atheists of being immoral, those aren't the charges they bring. It seems that almost inevitably, when a Christian accuses a non-believer of immorality, it's sexual immorality that's explicitly referred to. I've seen it on a certain messageboard (on a site not devoted to religious topics, though the post in question did appear in the anything-goes "General Discussion" forum), where a Christian poster made the usual claims that atheists had no basis for morality--and to make his case, presented a laundry list of immoral acts he wanted to know if his interlocutors considered wrong. Murder, theft, and rape appeared nowhere on this list...every single one of the immoral acts he named was sexual in nature. More recently, a particularly dunderheaded Christian troll on Rockstars' Ramblings accused Bronze Dog of having no "objective moral standard", and when he got to specifics accused him not of lying or theft or of having hurt other people, but of being a "fornicator" , and backed it up by asking if he had ever had sex outside of marriage.
By the standards of the Christian god, premarital sex is immoral. So, of course, is homosexuality. And so are a host of other like sins. Whether these are immoral from a secular standard, though, is much less clear. Do they hurt anybody? A case could be made that, say, premarital sex does pose possible harm, by carrying the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease--but it's not a particularly strong case, and certainly the potential harm is much less than that accompanying murder, theft, or rape. The case against other versions of "sexual immorality"--such as committed, monogamous homosexual relationships--is even weaker, if not nonexistent. I admit I'm not really comfortable with many of these concepts myself, but that's attributable to my not having entirely shaken off the effects of my upbringing; rationally, I know that there's no way to reasonably claim that these are immoral deeds nearly comparable with the aforementioned crimes.
So why is it that when the Christian tries to accuse an atheist of immorality, it's inevitably sexual immorality that he brings up? Even by a Christian standard, these aren't the worst of sins, but they're the ones that always get invoked when the accusations get to specifics. Why? One possible argument is that these sins of sexual immorality aren't illegal. The atheist only follows moral rules, remember, for fear of punishment; since premarital sex and homosexuality and the like aren't actually illegal, atheists can get away with them. But that doesn't really hold water. There are plenty of other things that are legal but immoral--things far more clearly immoral than these, things that do involve harm to other people--that never get brought up. Lying, for instance. Except in very specific circumstances, when it might get classed as fraud or libel, lying is not illegal. And lying can certainly be harmful to other people. So why don't Christians ever bring that up when they ask about someone's morality? What about taking advantage of people, or child abuse (illegal, but all too easy to get away with in moderation), or, heck, littering (illegal in many places, but not all, and even where it is the law's seldom enforced)? There are plenty of things that are much more harmful to other people than these sexually immoral acts, and that carry just as little risk of punishment. So why is it only these that get brought up?
There's one possible answer that presents itself. Maybe it's because those are the ones that the Christian knows he's most likely to catch the atheist on. It doesn't always work--Bronze Dog's answer to his heckler's question was "no"--but it's more likely for the atheist to have had premarital sex than it is for him to have lied about a coworker or hit a child. Maybe those are the acts the Christian asks about because--even if he's not totally conscious of his own motives--those are the ones he knows are most likely to hit home.
(It could also be, incidentally, that that's part of the reason why Christian sects are so keen on insisting these things are sins in the first place. Oh, of course there may have been other reason for that in the times the Bible was written, but there are plenty of other injunctions in the Bible that nowadays go unfollowed. Why hew so hard to these? Perhaps because that way, the Christian retains some point of "morality" on which he can be almost assured dominance over the non-Christian. Were Christianity only to consider immoral that which clearly hurt other people--well, the heathen is perfectly capable of considering such things immoral too, whatever the Christian may claim. But this way, there remains some point on which the Christian can still consider himself better. But anyway, that's all complete speculation, and not something I'm strongly convinced of...)
But that very fact completely belies the main argument in the first place. Because if the atheist is significantly more likely to participate in acts that aren't as harmful to other people than acts that carry equally low risk of punishment to himself but greater risk of harm to others, that demonstrates that fear of punishment isn't the factor keeping the atheist in line. It's the desire to not hurt others. It's empathy. It's the Golden Rule. It's the very thing that the Christian likes to claim (against all historical evidence) only God can give reason to follow.
By the standards of the Golden Rule, by the standards of not wishing harm to others, atheists are every bit as moral as Christians--certainly there are some immoral atheists, but then history has had its share of immoral Christians too. Certainly God has nothing to do with making people wish to avoid harming their fellowman. So, by that standard for morality, the argument that atheists have no reason for morality is complete nonsense.
Now, if you bring in the type of "sexual morality" Christians are fond of asking about, then things are different. Though I've seen no statistics of the fact, I suppose atheists probably are significantly more "immoral" than Christian believers, especially those of more fundamentalist sects--if one defines "morality" to mean adherence to these sexual mores: avoidance of premarital sex and homosexuality, etc.
The problem is, the Christian argument tries to have it both ways. They say that only the fear of punishment is keeping atheists "moral"--keeping them from murdering, stealing, and basically running rampant over society. But then, when they come to specific charges of immorality, they turn to the sex. The problem is, then they're not talking about the same thing. They're using two different definitions of morality. And they're making some odd choices as to which to consider more important.
You know, such a bait-and-switch argument seems almost like a form of lying. Which seems to be to be at least a bit immoral.