Now that Christopher Hitchens has died and people have ceased to care much about Richard Dawkins's strident atheism, apparently others have decided they need to take up the slack. Thus we are presented, in the NYT, with a fairly tame and tired defense of atheistic morality, courtesy of one Louise M. Antony, who "teaches philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst." She does not give me a lot of confidence in the quality of instruction there, as she skips over the whole 19th-20th century demolition of natural law with nary a mention of so crucial a figure as our old buddy Friedrich Nietzsche. On the strength of this recommendation I've taken up reading Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh, and while I would agree that, thus far, he goes a little easy on the allies (an early section on Churchill leans to the hagiographic) the relentless listing of the atrocity-based methods of Nazi and Communist rule laves me with little doubt about their moral systems. Yes, atheists can be moral, and that's mostly because most atheists in the USA at least take their moral compass from the hands of those Enlightenment moralists who fused Christian and old pagan virtue; one doubts, however, that Marx was enamored of the Stoics. The years passed, and we all saw that, in the end, almost anything could be justified, or indeed justification set aside entirely. Natural law worked only as long as all more or less agreed on its basic principles, and in time, that agreement failed.
Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post we have yet another tired atheist trope, this time in the declaration that "Celebration, despite their protests, does not belong solely to the pious." Here the question is why the irreligious should celebrate Christmas, to which this particular pious person must reply, "Madame, you may celebrate, but you do not observe Christmas." We of course must be trotted through all the tired old saws about how it's really a co-opted pagan holiday anyway (which may or may not be true) and how it's about family and stuff, and one longs for Linus to set Charlie Brown straight again for another year. As with nearly everything about Christian holidays, it's all about anamnesis, the annual recollection of the miracle of the incarnation, how God hallowed human flesh to the utmost and set us on the road to Calvary and redemption. All that family stuff is nice if your family is pleasant and hell if they aren't, and giving presents can likewise cut either way depending upon how you feel about shopping. But it's all supplementary to the real observance of the feast. Our atheist is sentimental; we are faithful. There is a great and unbridgeable gulf between the two.