Secularist parents have an insufficient base for a theory of goodness so they tend to produce amoral but socially competent adults, who feel little guilt. (Whenever anyone offers the seemingly pregnant observation that religious people are plagued by guilt, my secret response is something like “duh.” Of course they do.)
By “amoral” I don’t mean they don’t act morally, but that they have no explicit moral theory. The best of these secular parents have only “kindness” as an organizing moral value for their children. They may call it other, more profound-seeming names, like “love”, but this kindness is just a residual glow of an ancient but dead Christian Agape. It comes out in practice something like “be nice when you can.”
My critic would wonder why this is not actually enough. Millions and millions of “good” people live their whole lives with no moral theory any more explicit than this, and they stay out of jail, get rich, and win Pulitzer Prizes.
Other than the obvious retort, that you can win a Pultizer Prize and be a horrendous person, there is a wider cultural reason it matters.
Virtues will live on in cultures long after their tap-roots have died. The Time Gap between the death of the root ideology and the virtue it engendered is another source of great deception.
Theists like to argue to secularists that they have no basis for morals. Secularists correctly respond that this is a silly argument, because many people with no explicit religious belief are, in fact, moral. Both sides are right and wrong. Their common error is to focus on individuals and not on cultures.
Morals must have a tap-root in a deeper (or higher, or pick your own spatial metaphor) dimension. But, like many plants, the visible plant matter doesn’t shrivel as soon as the root dies. Many plants can live on for quite a while when they have no chance of surviving.
In the moral realm, this period of residual life is longer than a human generation, or even several. So individuals can get from their parents a moral code, or what is in most cases simply a habit of conscience with no explicit code – most individuals get this conscience from their parents but do not perceive that the conscience is dying by degrees over generations. By simple entropy.
The law of moral entropy says that no parent can pass on to his child a conscience as keen as the parents’. The conscience in the child will only grow stronger if it is nourished by a tap-root innate to the child, a tap-root into the transcendant realm, which must originate in the child’s free volition. The conscience can come from nurture and can be un-examined for a lifetime; that which nourishes the conscience must be chosen and explicit.
There is no rationalistic, secular basis for morality. That we are altruistic because the species must survive, and the species must survive because, well, because the sun exists is, well, less than inspiring. It will not nourish the moral life of a culture over time. The secular or atheistic individual does not feel the lack of a moral base because he is sustained by the moral capital built up by religious charisma generations earlier.
There are rationalistic arguments for doing good, but they are pragmatic arguments. The truth is, if there is no transcendant reason for the species to exist, there is no reason for the individual to exist. If that is true, then the cumulative weight of the pragmatic arguments for altruism will collapse in the face of a political will to power. Thus, the French chopping-block, the Soviet gulag, the Nazi oven.
It is not that the secular culture has the direct seed of genocide in it; this is the common theistic debating point and the secularist rightfully rejects it in that form as over-reaching. It is, rather, that it simply has no other seed in it.
On bare ground, the weeds win.