Lack of a moral compass is in my opinion the most devastating argument against atheism. I’ve seen the most highly acclaimed academics snarl and boil over with debilitating rage at the statement. They all mostly respond along the lines “… well, all these bad things were done and are advocated in the bible so YOU are immoral not us”. Others calmly use statistics to ‘prove’ Atheist don’t do as many bad things as theist but all this banter misses the point. What are morals and how do we get them? Why are they good?
Society differentiates between right and wrong by establishing and publicising commonly held and expected norms and values. These are then bunched under the often misused umbrella word, Morals. Historically, nations have converged on and fought over such locally held norms and values. Through theocratic, democratic, autocratic, plutocratic vehicles the officials in these societies have masqueraded as legitimate representatives of the larger population when debating and enacting laws and regulations that document and make enforceable these societal values. Whether such representation of the multitude by the few is practically possible continues to be explored by humanity in many forms.
When we say we value individuals with a good moral compass we are actually saying that it is abhorrent to behave in a way that is antagonistic to the views held and approved by the greater majority of society. The more offensive the behaviour to the greater proportion of society then the more criminal and punishable it usually is. This does not make it absolutely good or bad in the true philosophical definition of the words but just different from the majority. An example is cannibalism which has alternated between acceptable and abhorrent for disparate societies throughout history.
Before the the enlightenment 300 or so years ago, religion was the main source of norms and values for the greater majority of humanity. The priests, royal aristocracies and opportunistic plutocrats were our representatives in this respect. Today, well into the enlightenment and entering the Genomic age many of these long held norms and values are being confronted with ever more analytical criticism as wrongly held dogmas. The Gay issue, corporal and capital punishment, name it and its back on the table for re-evaluation within the complex of modern day societal norms and values.
Atheists, as a breed of philosophers are currently so few in proportion to the established theocracies that most of what they advocate comes across rightly as inherently devoid of common norms and values. They have few or no morals as a function of their minority in society which is wrongly labelled as a bad thing. If enough of society starts to think like them it will elect and employ similar minded officials whose majority in representative and legislative institutions can slowly change the definition of morality. As a tolerant, libertarian pluralist I find it ironic that only in the sad act of marginalising other beliefs can atheists ever become moral.