The following quotation from a very interesting Guardian piece by John Gray entitled What Scares the New Atheists (HT: Karl White):
 The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him.  This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality.  It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates.  The question is which morality an atheist should serve.
Five sentences, five comments.
2. Granted, the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. But this is consistent with their racism having other sources as well. So it doesn't follow that it is an "unlikely tale" that the Nazis drew inspiration from Nietzsche. I say it is very likely. See Nietzsche and Nationalism Socialism.
3. Spot on!
4. Agreed, atheists can be moral. Indeed, some atheists are more moral that some theists — even when the moral code is the Decalogue minus the commandments that mention God. The question whether an atheist can be moral, however, is ambiguous. While it is clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of satisfying moral demands, it is not clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of recognizing moral demands in the first place. It is an open question whether an atheist, consistent with his atheism, could have justification for admitting objective moral demands.
5. Before one can ask which morality an atheist should serve, there is a logically prior question that needs asking and answering, one that Gray glides right past, namely,
Q. Is there any morality, any moral code, that an atheist would be justified in adhering to and justified in demanding that others adhere to?
Most of us in the West, atheists and theists alike, do agree on a minimal moral code. Don't we all object to child molestation, female sexual mutilation, wanton killing of human beings, rape, theft, lying, financial swindling, extortion, and arson? And in objecting to these actions, we mean our objections to be more than merely subjectively valid. When our property is stolen or a neighbor murdered, we consider that an objective wrong has been done. And when the murderer is apprehended, tried, and convicted we judge that something objectively right has been done. But if an innocent person is falsely accused and convicted, we judge that something objectively wrong has been done. Let's not worry about the details or the special cases: killing in self-defense, abortion, etc. There are plenty of gray areas. The existence of gray, however, does not rule out that of black and white. Surely, in the West at least, there is some moral common ground that most atheists and theists, liberals and conservatives, stand upon. For example, most of us agree that snuffing out the life of an adult, non-comatose, healthy human being for entertainment purposes is objectively wrong.
What (Q) asks about is the foundation or basis of the agreed-upon objectively binding moral code. This is not a sociological or any kind of empirical question. Nor is it a question in normative ethics. The question is not what we ought to do and leave undone, for we are assuming that we already have a rough answer to that. The question is meta-ethical: what does morality rest on, if on anything?
There are different theories. Some will say that morality requires a supernatural foundation, others that a natural foundation suffices. I myself do not see how naturalism is up to the task of providing an objective foundation for even a minimal code of morality.
But of course one could be an atheist without being a naturalist. One could hold that there are objective values, but no God, and that ethical prescriptions and proscriptions are axiologically grounded. (N. Hartmann, for example.) But let's assume, with Nietzsche, that if you get rid of God, you get rid of the Platonic menagerie (to cop a phrase from Plantinga) as well. It needs arguing, but it is reasonable to hold that God and Platonica stand and fall together. That is what Nietzsche would say and I think he would be right were he to say it. (The death of God is not an insignificant 'event' like the falling to earth of a piece of space junk such as Russell's celestial teapot.)
No God, no objective morality binding for all. Suppose that is the case. Then how will the new atheist, who is also a liberal, uphold and ground his 'enlightened' liberal morality? John Gray appreciates the difficulty:
Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. [. . .] Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values. To be sure, evangelical unbelievers adamantly deny that liberalism needs any support from theism. If they are philosophers, they will wheel out their rusty intellectual equipment and assert that those who think liberalism relies on ideas and beliefs inherited from religion are guilty of a genetic fallacy. Canonical liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant may have been steeped in theism; but ideas are not falsified because they originate in errors. The far-reaching claims these thinkers have made for liberal values can be detached from their theistic beginnings; a liberal morality that applies to all human beings can be formulated without any mention of religion. Or so we are continually being told. The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism.
Gray is right. Let me spell it out a bit.
Consider equality. As a matter of empirical fact, we are not equal, not physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, socially, politically, economically. By no empirical measure are people equal. We are naturally unequal. And yet we are supposedly equal as persons. This equality as persons we take as requiring equality of treatment. Kant, for example, insists that every human being, and indeed very rational being human or not, exists as an end in himself and therefore must never be treated as a means to an end. A person is not a thing in nature to be used as we see fit. For this reason, slavery is a grave moral evil. A person is a rational being and must be accorded respect just in virtue of being a person. And this regardless of inevitable empirical differences among persons. Thus in his third formulation of the Categorical Imperative in his 1785 Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes:
Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only. (Grundlegung 429)
In connection with this supreme practical injunction, Kant distinguishes between price and dignity. (435) "Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has dignity." Dignity is intrinsic moral worth. Each rational being, each person, is thus irreplaceably and intrinsically valuable with a value that is both infinite -- in that no price can be placed upon it -- and the same for all. The irreplaceability of persons is a very rich theme, one we must return to in subsequent posts.
These are beautiful and lofty thoughts, no doubt, and most of us in the West (and not just in the West) accept them in some more or less confused form. But what do these pieties have to do with reality? Especially if reality is exhausted by space-time-matter?
Again, we are not equal by any empirical measure. We are not equal as animals or even as rational animals. (Rationality might just be an evolutionary adaptation.) We are supposedly equal as persons, as subjects of experience, as free agents. But what could a person be if not just a living human animal (or a living 'Martian' animal). And given how bloody many of these human animals there are, why should they be regarded as infinitely precious? Are they not just highly complex physical systems? Surely you won't say that complexity confers value, let alone infinite value. Why should the more complex be more valuable than the less complex? And surely you are not a species-chauvinist who believes that h. sapiens is the crown of 'creation' because we happen to be these critters.
If we are unequal as animals and equal as persons, then a person is not an animal. What then is a person? And what makes them equal in dignity and equal in rights and infinite in worth?
Now theism can answer these questions. We are persons and not mere animals because we are created in the image and likeness of the Supreme Person. We are equal as persons because we are, to put it metaphorically, sons and daughters of one and the same Father. Since the Source we depend on for our being, intelligibility, and value is one and the same, we are equal as derivatives of that Source. We are infinite in worth because we have a higher destiny, a higher vocation, which extends beyond our animal existence: we are created to participate eternally in the Divine Life.
But if you reject theism, how will you uphold the Kantian values adumbrated above? If there is no God and no soul and no eternal destiny, what reasons, other than merely prudential ones, could I have for not enslaving you should I desire to do so and have the power to do so?
Aristotle thought it natural that some men should be slaves. We find this notion morally abhorrent. But why should we if we reject the Judeo-Christian God? "We just do." But that's only because we are running on the fumes of the Judeo-Christian tradition. What happens when the fumes run out?
It is easy to see that it makes no sense, using terms strictly, to speak of anything or anybody as a creature if there is no creator. It is less easy to see, but equally true, that it makes no sense to try to hold on to notions such as that of the equality and dignity of persons after their metaphysical foundations in Christian theism have been undermined.
So there you have the Nietzschean challenge to the New Atheists. No God, then no justification for your liberal values! Pay attention, Sam. Make a clean sweep! Just as religion is for the weak who won't face reality, so is liberalism. The world belongs to the strong, to those who have the power to impose their will upon it. The world belongs to those hard as diamonds, not to those soft as coal and weak and womanish. Nietzsche:
Here one must think profoundly to the very basis and resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation - but why should one for ever use precisely these words on which for ages a disparaging purpose has been stamped?
Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 9, What is Noble?, Friedrich Nietzsche Go to Quote
More quotations on strength and weakness here.