A lot has been made of the death of the professional curmudgeon Christopher Hitchins. He was one of the recent spate of public intellectuals who are also strident atheists. For some reason, the public idolizes these guys as if they were rock or sports stars. If it were all about entertainment, then one could respond according to his/her views about how much of that such stars deserve in any society with measured values. Perhaps they bring pleasure, and that's worth more than so much else in life that is rewarded less plentifully.
The strident atheists get ink and airtime because they are glib and claim that science proves their atheism, and they make a 'story' by using hyperbole to ridicule believers in standard religions. Among other arguments, they point out how much damage has been done in the name of such religions, though perhaps without realizing the similar nature of their relentless anti-religion. I have been reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, his classic WWII Russian-novel that's an analog of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Tolstoy was a communist of sorts, in the best share-the-wealth sense of the term, but his book was more about the rather mechanical forces that control human history than the Great Men to whom historians typically give all the credit.
Grossman's book is about the mechanical grind of evil and human cruelty, often perpetrated in the name of ideology, be it organized religion or its analogs in atheistic communism or fascism (or, we'd add, in sciences like Darwinian-based eugenics). In a very angry and poignant chapter that I wish I could download and post to MT readers copyright free, Grossman argues that as soon as organized religion gains power it almost inevitably brings on evil, in the form of 'We are better than you!' which leads to 'We have to kill you in the name of Truth or Goodness!' Secular ideologies, like Grossman's communist Soviet state, do exactly the same thing as Christianity and other major religions.
Grossman argues that goodness exists only when it has no power, in the lone or even anonymous individual acts of kindness, sometimes under the most horrendous of circumstances. It's person to person, not organized and not implemented by states or churches. It works because it has no power except kindness on its own, for its own sake, in the name of nothing higher or more grand than just a quiet helping hand. Grossman has a point.
People want certainty and to gang together with others who share the same certainty. Scientists are no different in this respect (and, to the extent we develop weapons or create discriminatory ideologies, no better, either). We want simple answers, not complexity, even if complexity is Nature's reality. The strident atheists reflect this: in their own simplistic way they are surely right in pointing out the evils perpetrated in the name of theological religion, and the utter lack of any actual evidence for the organized theological belief systems. It's hard to argue coherently with that, as Hitchins' debate opponents found out. But the lack of evidence for religious truths doesn't mean that science can disprove religious assertions, nor certainly that they have any moral high ground from which to give their sermons.
The most scientists can do is to point out the rather empirically absurd aspects of so many beliefs. Given the vast coldness of the universe, our puny protoplasmic nature, and the mortal or worse evils perpetrated by those claiming to believe in versions of the Good, it is simply very difficult to be a serious scientist and hold to religions based on personal, loving Gods who care about our daily burps. Or to think that there is any rational reason to believe that a system would be set up for us to suffer here for decades (or less) and then be transported forever to some wonderful peaceful place. Nor how this Goodness could deliver a multiple whammy such as has just befallen some friends of ours, good people not deserving of such hits (Thanks, God, and Merry Christmas to you, too!).
It makes no actual sense but worse, tragically, too many believers have been, and are, willing to commit horrors on others in the name of their Goodness, whatever its particular brand, and not withstanding the actual good that many of the same people and organizations do.
The world holds together logically with the kinds of explanations that science offers, no matter that we have gaps in our understanding. It's frightening and depressing, perhaps, to think that science has shown us the nature of our frigid landscape. But the coldness of harsh realities need not lead either to illusions or to harshness on our part.
Can we do better? Can we hitch our wagons to some better star, of actual rather than imagined knowledge? The star will take us so far, but no farther, than what human knowledge can deliver. But we can accept the harshness of life and death, without using that to justify harshness or cruelty. We know clearly, as we've tried to argue here on MT and in our book of the same name, that cooperation is pervasive in all aspects of life, much moreso than competition.
We can take a different path, and argue that if all we have is here and now, and we're in it together, we should share a wagon hitched to a brighter star than what's offered by strident atheists. We may not be able to find scientific justification for such kinder behavior, but we need not search for it in the stars but in our own, individual, local instincts and feelings.
Even in a Darwinian world, the existence, after so many evolutionary millennia, of sparks of local kindness show that it is possible to act cooperatively rather than competitively, warmly rather than coldly. If we can do this on a local level, why not on a more organized level as well? Is that impossible, or is it just that, in societies usually organized around ideology, we haven't learned to do it yet?
We should be able to do this a-theistically, that is, without having to justify it by invoking a God or received sacred book as a justification--even if somehow they could be true. But this is not the same as justifying any behavior on the grounds of the lack of evidence for such received truths, or on a belief instructed by atheism (or any other 'ism'). It is part of our individual nature, whether or not it can ever be at the core of our collective nature.