Atheism is defined by a lack of belief in deities and not by some world view or set of common values. For that reason, it is often criticized by religious people for lack of an obvious set of common ethical and moral values. Sometimes, this lack of visibility, this lack of coherent common world view is taken to be synonymous with an absence of morals and ethical principles. But this is simply wrong.
Our ethical principles and moral values come from very many sources, but especially from our parents and family, our peers and those with whom we interact socially. We learn patterns of responses from our parents when we are young and when we trust them. As well as following their instructions and advice, we absorb their values and principles at the same time.
Of course, during adolescence and beyond, we question the values and judgments of our parents and during the process, establish our own personalities and personal values. We are influenced by the values of others, the values promoted in the dominant culture in which we live, as well as through institutions of education, religion, state, law, and community. So there are very many sources of our moral and ethical principles and religion is just one of them, and nowhere near the most significant although the influence of religion on other institutions varies widely.
If religion as an influence was missing, there is no reason at all why we would not also develop ethical and moral principles consistent with our being influenced by all the other sources. Typically different sources will promote different values. A school may stress mutual support and community, generosity and sharing, trust and friendship. On the other hand, an army would support individual responsibility, duty, obedience, following orders. It is the interplay of these different sources that give us our own unique take on morality and ethics.
Atheists simply do not believe in deities but that does not in any sense mean that they have no morals or ethical principles. Indeed, there is a strong case that when atheists and agnostics consider ethical issues, they are able to make more progress and have deeper insights than those with religious beliefs.
Interpretations of Moral
Anyone interpreting moral questions in terms of religious dogma or principles promoted by a religious authority is necessarily narrowing the range of ethical options before the discussion begins. A sharp example illustrates the difficulty for religious people considering major ethical questions.
When the Pope argued that the use of condoms should be banned in the fight against AIDS in Africa, he was following the dictates of religious dogma, in the certain knowledge that it could cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. A more moral position would have excluded his religious dogma, and looked at how we could prevent AIDS deaths most effectively.
So a religious position is not automatically a morally justifiable position although many religious people see it as self-evidently the case. Religious people are simply adding in a large measure of dogmatic belief into the discussion of moral questions typically above all other considerations, but such questions can be considered without any reference to religion. Indeed, often the only rational way to decide moral questions is to remove religion from the mix.
No guidance in the case of moral questions
Religious texts offer no guidance in the case of moral questions arising out of new technological advances. Whether to use stem cells in the fight against degenerative illnesses, whether to permit transplantation of organs, or gene therapy, or prenatal testing for genetic diseases, these questions have to be considered in the light of secular social values. Religious dogma often has a prescribed set answer in advance of any moral considerations, based on the social customs of ancient societies.
All ethical values are secular and even those adopted by religious people, get their validation from acceptance in society. That is why religions change over time. Practices that are socially unacceptable get dropped and religious dogma is adjusted to remove them. The modern churches, Christian as well as Islamic, rely on theologians to continually modify and update religious dogma and the interpretation of religious books, to permit the continued relevance and acceptance of religious beliefs.
Society itself determines what ethics and values are acceptable and religion adapts to it.
So even in the absence of religious values, and in spite of their presence, there is always a strong social base for moral principles. It is the solidity of secular principles that binds societies together and paradoxically provide religions with the moral space in which to pontificate.
If it wasn’t for atheist and secular reasoning about moral issues, and then historical development of those arguments, religions would have no moral basis at all. Indeed, looking through any revered religious books ranging from the Talmud, the Qur’an, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and many others, you will find exhortations and approval for wiping out populations, smiting and blinding opponents, and the most extreme violence, along with pleas for honour and justice, love, generosity and understanding, tolerance and pity. A veritable smorgasbord of ethical choice.
Such books cannot be based on a consistent ethical basis and still contain such wildly disparate ethical principles. It is the solid secular ethical basis of societies that allows religious people to have something against which they can look for meaning in these texts. They can select those principles most consistent with the secular needs of society and that is how they can demonstrate their relevance. Religious people who think society gets its morality from religion have the arrow pointing in the wrong direction.