Leading atheists fault religion—and specifically Christianity—for imposing stern morality on people and thus constraining their freedom. Typical is Christopher Hitchens, whocondemns Christianity as a “creepy movement to impose orthodoxy on a free and pluralist and secular republic.” At the same time Hitchens and other atheists insist they are not against morality. They assure us that they are as moral, if not more so, than religious people, and that morality is quite possible without the presumption of God or religion. Daniel Dennett observes that “there are many wise, engaged, morally committed atheists and agnostics” and that unbelievers don’t seem to act any better or worse than Christians. Richard Dawkins writes that it “requires quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no generosity, nothing that would deserve the name of goodness.” The atheist objection is not to morality but to absolute morality. Rather than deriving morality from an external code of divine commandments, atheists think of morality as manmade, something forged through individual and group experience.

I think there is a lot to what the atheists are saying here, but in the end I’m afraid they miss the point. For starters, I am not sure how to assess Dawkins’s argument for the morality of atheism, because a religious society suddenly deprived of God would presumably still retain many Christian ways of thinking and acting. Even so, I have known quite a few atheists, and I am happy to testify that they can be good and admirable people. Both Hume and Darwin were famous for their decency and moral rectitude, and I believe E. 0. Wilson when he writes that although he is not a Christian, he shares most of the Christian virtues. I have also known a few religious believers who could match any atheist in breaking the commandments. Novelist Evelyn Waugh once responded to the question, “How can a Catholic like you be so debauched and spiteful?” with the classic rejoinder, “Think how much worse I would be if I were not a Catholic!”