"Most times than not, I just want to give up, say “fuck it” to the ideals I hold sacred, surrender to the harden of my heart, grow bitter and lose faith in humanity, but then I remember those same ideals. That honest enabling resiliency is strength and growth. That people and lovers will break your heart. That the world will throw stones of jagged and edge at you, that you must not fortify and throw them back but rather become river: let them skip, sink, weather for a while. For those stones will grow peaceful and smooth. Be stream, lay it at your slinger’s feet, show them that everything that toughens can be soft.
This is the challenge of being “human”. Never harden."
- Jorge Luis BritoMany people think that it is impossible for atheists to lead a moral life. There's an extent to which I might agree to this, but I know I am not conceding enough ground to satisfy those I speak of.
I always draw a distinction between an act that is moral and an act that is ethical. Acting morally requires that you align your actions with what is expected of you. The moral act is aligned with the accepted notions of right and wrong in your current society; it is contingent upon what is conventional. I take the shared etymological lineage of the words 'moral' and 'mores' to be indicative of this. Acting ethically, on the other hand, requires only that your action be in alignment with what is right by you.
The homosexual couple that gets married, for instance, may not be acting morally, since this type of marriage is frowned upon in most places, but I do believe they are acting ethically, since they probably feel that their love, and therefore their marriage, is justified. Though I don't believe they should need much justification, I like making the distinction between acting morally and acting ethically because it allows room for differentiating between actions that are socially approved and actions that are disapproved.
I think that atheists are a little too prone to forgetting to think of the moral implications of their actions. Sure, they justify most of them ethically, but they forget to take their social environment into consideration, and thus act in ways that ultimately offend their neighbors.
This is not to say that societies should never question their values. In fact, as a philosopher, I make a living out of questioning what my society takes for granted. What I mean to emphasize is that no human being is an island, and as such there will always be a neighbor to cast judgment.
For a religious person that believes in an omnipresent, omniscient deity, forgetting to relate yourself as an individual to your social environment is not so much a problem. Most likely, you are concerned with the way your actions will appear and be judged by your god. An atheist though, might easily forget to consider an objective perspective, especially one who is a product of a western society.
This is one way I think that atheists might fail to lead a moral life, though I would have to reiterate that the atheist is certainly leading an ethical life.
In the quote above, Brito's initial frustration could easily be the result of a conflict between his own personal ethics and his socially dictated morality. He has ideals that he holds sacred, but his commitment to them has lead to heartbreak and social stigma, which hurts like a rock.
But despite his frustration, Brito sees the value in "honest enabling resiliency." He recognizes that with patience, even "jagged edges" can grow "peaceful and smooth." Ultimately, by being a stream, one might "lay it at your slinger's feet"--teach the initial tormentor a lesson.
Yet, this exchange is hardly unilateral, for not only are the stones thrown into a stream made smooth by the current, but the stream is also added to by the sinking of the stones.
Atheists may not have a god to look to for moral guidance, but they certainly are not lacking social connections. So long as society is willing to throw the rocks of moral judgment, then there will be ripples in the atheists' ethical stream.