Probably the most important element of morality is the question of how one is supposed to treat other people. Christianity has a very strong and, actually, kind of easy answer to the question. I've discussed the Christian answer to that question before, so today I want to deal with a common atheist's answer now.
Martin at the Atheist Experience has echoed other atheists I've talked to in claiming that his basis for morality is "empathy, altruism and reason". Let's check those in turn to see how they actually perform as far as giving us moral standards by which we know how we SHOULD, or OUGHT TO, treat others.
I'll grant this - Reason can tell us how we should act in order to reach a desired end.
For example, I don't want to go to jail in my lifetime. There is a set of laws defining what is non-meritorious-of-jail behavior. I employ reason so as to know what will not land me in jail.
But reason can only go so far - it cannot inform a decision about what is good and what is bad. It cannot tell me what SHOULD be. It can tell me what IS and how to achieve desired ends, but cannot tell me what I should desire.
Reason is helpful when a moral system is already in place. I personally employ reason in order to help me understand how to apply the ought that I already know from a moral system outside of myself (Christianity).
If I desire peace with my fellow man, reason can inform my behavior. If I desire war with my fellow man, or to rape a child and get away with it, it can inform my behavior just as well as in the former case. Stated differently, reason can tell me what IS, not what OUGHT TO BE.
Empathy and altruism:
This sounds good at first, true. Or, I should say, it sounds good to modern, Western ears. One could certainly make the argument (as others have done before) that such values as intrinsic human rights and empathy (based on the Golden Rule) are in place in the West largely b/c of the pervasive influence of Christianity. Many other societies thru time have not held to these moral principles, but that is not the main point here.
The major problem for the one who would claim this position is that moral questions almost always deal with the question of how to deal with other people, or how to judge between actions done by one person towards another. Thus the 'empathetimoralist atheist' (EMA) begs the question. Here's why.
Timothy McVeigh stops his Ryder truck in front of the Murrah building, starts the timer, and leaves the area. You are a cop who've been sniffing him out, you know what's in the truck, you see him fiddle with sthg in the cab and then duck into the getaway car (driven by Iraqi soldiers, by the way). You now have a choice - exercise empathy for the innocents and children inside the building and disarm the bomb and apprehend McVeigh, or exercise empathy for McVeigh rather than for the innocents and children inside the building?
The EMA may answer alternatively: "But it's obvious! We can't harm people, especially innocent children."
"Harming people is immoral."
"Would YOU want to be blown up undeservedly?"
But that is a SHOULD statement. The EMA is begging the very question at hand - with whom SHOULD we have empathy? The criminal or the victim? Why SHOULD we label "harming another person" as "bad"?
More than once, I've asked these questions and gotten the response: "If you think that it's not self-evident that harming innocent people is morally wrong, I can't help you." Interestingly, that's as deep as any atheist has ever yet gotten with my line of questioning, and he ended it by begging the question mercilessly (and then bludgeoning it with a shovel).
He didn't answer it, nor did he attempt to. Nor could he answer how we can know that we SHOULD be empathetic towards the inflictEE of harm rather than the inflictOR.
The EMA has taken it upon himself to act like God and to attempt to impose his morality on others. It is as if he were on the mountaintop and wrote on the stone tablets "Thou shalt usually have empathy on the victim."
Of course, if atheism is true, there is no Lawgiver, and I have equal authority to the EMA. His pronouncements have no binding power on me. He prefers to have empathy for the children in the bldg. Maybe I choose to have empathy for McVeigh. If I were McVeigh, I wouldn't want to be caught, imprisoned, and executed! I should let him get away!
Or we might hear: "This does not contribute to an ordered and peaceful society."
Here the EMA retreats to his provisional "IF ordered and peaceful society is that which is desired, then we should act this way", but that also begs the question. Perhaps I have empathy for McVeigh's vision of society.
Given the bare and solitary criterion of empathy, I have no way to choose what to do. I'm reduced to instinct, gut feeling, my personal preference. Where have we heard that before?
This is pretty counterintuitive stuff, since most everyone in the West holds to an almost identical set of basic moral codes, but I'm asking you to think a little more deeply about it.
Here's the key to why the EMA is stuck in this rut: he knows deep inside that harming innocents gratuitously is objectively, morally wrong, independently of whether anyone believes it or not. It is viscerally disconcerting to him to think of murdering a child, or bombing a building. So, though his worldview provides for no way to know whether
1) to be empathetic toward the bomber
2) to be empathetic toward the victim
3) to be empathetic at all
is the right way to go, he chooses the one that feels the best to him and gets him closer to his goal - a peaceful, ordered society - without telling us whether it is possible to know whether such SHOULD be our goal.
In reality Christianity is true, and God has put this desire in people's hearts. "He has bound eternity in the hearts of men" (Ecclesiastes); "they show that the requirements of the Law are written on their hearts, their consciences alternately accusing, now even defending them" (Romans 2). The EMA has no evidence that it is truly the case that his moral dogmas are right for anyone other than himself. But he acts like they are b/c he is borrowing from a theistic worldview, where a transcendent Lawgiver exists and has given commands for people to follow. He rejects the Lawgiver but wants the Laws (airbrushed to fit his own desires, of course). This is a common human theme - we reject the Giver but want the gifts. We want His power but not His face. We want His mercy but not to strive to be worthy of it.
So the EMA has only a few logical, consistent courses of action open to him:
1) Repent of his sin and trust Jesus Christ as Savior, thus taking on the true foundation for morals as his own. This is the best option.
2) Stop making moral claims or requirements on anyone else. Also, stop calling actions "despicable", "reprehensible", "evil", "horrible", etc.
Making long chains of question-begging assertions and bluster is not one of those.
For further illustration of this point, see the Douglas Wilson-Dan Barker debate. Wilson follows this line of questioning aggressively and gets about as far as I got, only his opponent is a professional debater and atheist activist.