My favorite atheist is Guenter Lewy. I have never looked into his beliefs about ethics in general; it’s not that. What interests me about him is his confession, in a little book he wrote some years ago called Why America Needs Religion, that he envies his religious friends their moral resources. Lacking the model of the love of God, he says, many people on his side love “humanity,” but far fewer love “individual human beings with all their failings and shortcomings.” They may do good works, but they are “not likely to produce a Dorothy Day or a Mother Teresa.”
Though Lewy insists that a few individuals manage to be good without believing in God, he doesn’t think a whole culture can do so. This is where it gets interesting – because why doesn’t he? The reason most atheists give is that common people are not intelligent enough to grasp the true, godless reasons for being good. Lewy’s reason is different. It turns out that in his view, even these few who can be good without believing in God are living on borrowed scruples. For although nonbelievers can recognize such truths as the sanctity of life (so that in that sense these truths are self-evident), they are unlikely to discover them (so that in that sense they are not self-evident at all). Yet somehow -- mysteriously -- believers can discover them.
The upshot would seem to be that humanism depends for its very life on religious traditions that it can neither produce nor support. Secular humanism is the parasitic variant that harms its religious host; what Lewy calls nontheistic humanism is at best the commensalistic variant that tries to do no harm.
Now if only the gentleman had followed his premises just a little bit further.