Is there such a thing as a moral Atheist? The short answer is no, there truly isn’t nor can there be a truly moral Atheist. The phrase “Moral Atheist” is inherently wrong and impossible at its core.
The term is incorrect, but – despite the rantings of some theist “hardliners” – it is not an oxymoron. It is not an inherently self-contradictory term.
“Moral Atheist” is not linguistically similar to “Jumbo Shrimp,” “Unbiased Opinion,” “Idiot Savant,” or “Civil War.” It would require that Atheists be inherently immoral – a direct contradiction – for the phrase “Moral Atheist” to be an oxymoron. Such is not categorically the case with Atheists.
Atheists can be quite ethical; their behaviors may even fall into line with those set forth by moral codes. But such things do not make the Atheist a moral individual. Ethics stem from within the individual and, lacking any religion or belief in a higher authority than Man, Atheists lack the capacity for morality though at times their actions and beliefs can, and very often do, coincide with those of moral people. Any intersection between Atheists’ ethics and morality is largely either coincidental or based upon purely pragmatic concerns.
Please note that the above statement does not hold true for Buddhists. They have faith in a divine cosmos with Right and Wrong, but do not believe in a manifest Divine Presence.
Aside from the Buddhists though, if you show me an Atheist is believes in Right & Wrong beyond personal preference or cultural dictates, I’ll show you a person who – in the stillness of the night with no sounds save the beating of their pulse into their pillow – is an Agnostic. 😉
Atheists can only derive sanction or prohibition for their actions from within themselves and/or from the dictates of the society and culture that they live within. That – despite the ranting of Atheist and Anti-Theist “hardliners” – is not morality, not in any true or absolute sense of the word.
Atheists are normally very quick to either argue this point or dismiss it depending on their relative levels of anger at- v. loathing for the opinions of theists. That doesn’t change the facts of the argument though, nor its validity.
That’s fair and understandable, since many theists are equal quick to argue or dismiss any valid but unpleasant accusations made by Atheists against religion and the faithful.
It still remains though that ethics come from inside each person and morality is imposed from the outside. In the absence of faith in of the Divine, Atheists are left with only societal and/or cultural pressures for the imposition of outside control upon their behaviors. That is hardly morality in any sense of the word beyond the utterly shifting and pragmatic sense. Adherence to cultural mores and fear of reprisal from one’s society is not morality.
What Atheists are left with is Moral Relativism, a philosophy that claims that there is no absolute standard for proper behavior of Man. Moral Relativism holds that moral or ethical questions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths – instead being defined by values relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances or standards.
Given the shifting and inconsistent nature of societies, any pseudo-morality imposed by them would be an imperfect and fleeting thing at best. At worst, these societal mores and customs, passed off as morality, lead to horrendous mass behaviors ala Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Five Year Plans, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.
No, there is truly no such thing as a Moral Atheist – an ethical Atheist, yes and quite often even a good Atheist. Yet this is because they were raised within societies that developed under moral principles, not because of their own morality.