One criticism of religion that is popular among atheists is that religion encourages much behavior that civilized people reject, from the concealment and protection of child-rapists to the piloting of commuter airplanes into skyscrapers. This kind of moral critique typically does not function as an argument for the truth of atheism, and usually is not offered as such,1 but atheists tend to be the most high-profile purveyors of said critique. For their troubles, they often are met with the following riposte: “If you are an atheist, why do you bother? If there is no god, then nothing is right or wrong, so why do you bother?” So ask many religious interlocutors, seemingly frustrated that Sam Harris is not Osama bin Laden, that Christopher Hitchens is not Bernard Law, and that mobs of atheists do not riot in the streets and murder people when someone draws an unflattering caricature of Richard Dawkins.
But why do atheists bother with moral critique? One way to respond to this challenge is to construct, present, and defend a secular foundation of ethics; many have been offered, to the extent that they are the standard in the modern academy. I won’t take that approach, though, because the question admits of a much simpler answer which requires no forays into metaethics. Let me speak directly to those of you who pose the question, and ask you to pause for a moment to reflect on what the question commits you to, if you take it seriously.
If you really do believe—as virtually no atheist does—that the nonexistence of god can leave one with no motivation at all to, for instance, oppose murder, then you are committed to saying that if you did not believe in a god, then you would not care whether anyone were murdered. I know that you likely have been coached to make precisely that claim, but think it through. I ask you: imagine there is no god. Now, visualize someone you love. Do you have a clear image? Good—now visualize someone eviscerating your beloved with a knife. Imagine the screams, the terror, the agony. Suppose you have a chance to interdict the thrusts of the knife. Do you step in front of your wife, your husband, your child, your friend, to take the blade into your own body (or at least curse yourself for being too afraid to do so)? Or do you just shrug your shoulders and watch dispassionately because, after all, there is no god? Situate the torturous murder of your beloved back into a world that contains your god. Asked to explain your own anguish, do you really name as the source your belief that the bloody deed is contrary to some god’s will—that, this aside, you don’t mind at all, and feel not the slightest impulse to intervene? Finally, are your answers much different if you substitute for your loved one a stranger—someone else’s wife, husband, child, or friend—who has never done anyone harm?
Be honest with yourself about the above, and you quickly will realize how silly and hypocritical it is to ask why atheists bother. Atheists bother for exactly the same reason you do—a reason which has absolutely nothing to do with belief in gods.
1 See, however, William Lobdell’s thoughtful Losing My Religion, in which Lobdell makes a compelling argument that the corrupt behavior of believers actually is evidence against the standard conception of God.