This weekend I had a couple long discussions with a good friend of mine regarding the relationship between atheism and moral language. I want to make sure that I don’t misrepresent anyone’s views, so I am asking this question desiring feedback: What is the basis and substance of morality according to one who is an atheist?

I ask this because (1) it seems very pragmatic and utilitarian when I hear people like Sam Harris discuss how evolution shows us what is best for the survival and happiness of our species, but I don’t sense that he provides sufficient reason  for why it would be “immoral” for someone to say they want to murder, or rob, or deceive another human on the basis of their own selfish desires, and that they don’t care about the good of the species. Why would they be wrong? Why should they care about other humans? (2) It seems to me that moralal language is grounded in feeling, happiness, comfort, and survival. Likewise, it also seems like morality is more about what is best for the whole rather than grounded in something outside ourselves. Is this an incorrect way of explaining it?

When I was a teenager there were a few years when I was a self-described “deist” who was essentially atheistic. I argued for the relativity of morality and assumed “right” and “wrong” were merely social constructs so our species could function (which is why I couldn’t understand why people were so scandalized by Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky). Over the years I have thought Nietzche’s “will to power” made the best sense of how we determine what is “good” and “evil” in an atheistic construct. But I see that the Neo-Atheist don’t want to go this direction.

If you are an atheist (or you can speak to the views of atheists you know in good conscience) I’d like to hear your view of how we get moral language and why it is important. Also, let me know who your influences are.