On the bottom of this hierarchy is the New Atheism, which simply plays pretend and clings, despite no rational justification of its position, that, despite there being no God, there is still morality. The existentialists, being philosophically sophisticated, basically laugh at this position. Nietzsche calls the people who hold it "Englishmen" because he saw the Victorian culture of 19th century Britain doing exactly this.
And how ironic is that? That the New Atheists are essentially recapitulating the Victorian view on morality?
This latter position has now been taken up by people like Sam Harris, the author of Letter to a Christian Nation. I have not read Harris' new book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, and I hope to review it soon. However, his comments describing his argument in the book don't look terribly promising.
Harris first tries to recast the concept of morality in what he calls "flourishing,"and flourishing, he says, "depends on the way the universe is." Therefore (apparently), morality depends on the way the universe is. He argues that because questions of right and wrong are about human and animal well-being, and that human and animal well being depend on certain things in the world that we can study scientifically, that therefore morality can be studied scientifically.
In my book I argue that we can view all possible experience on a kind of landscape, where peaks correspond to the heights of well-being and the valleys correspond to the lowest depths of suffering. The first thing to notice is that there may be many equivalent peaks on this landscape - there may be many different ways for people to thrive. But there will be many more ways not to thrive.In fact, what he seems to be doing is simply redefining morality, which cannot be scientifically studied, by repackaging it in something called "flourishing," which he defines in such a way that it can be scientifically studied. He then concludes that morality can be scientifically studied. It's sort of a shell game where the pea somehow gets removed from the shell it was originally under.
There are two fallacies that people like Harris commit over and over when they discuss morality, as if committing them enough times somehow made them go away. The first is that think they can cross back and forth over the "is/ought" divide as if it didn't exist, and they never explain how they get from an is to an ought. As David Hume pointed out in the 18th century, you simply can't do it. To conclude anything about what should be on the basis of what is is to commit what other philosophers have since called a "category mistake." It's like saying that 2 + 2 = 4 is purple, or that my appreciation of a song I heard today is three feet tall.
This, by the way, is not a problem for classical morality (i.e., Aristotelian Thomism), since classical morality presupposes formal and final causes. If you believe that things (such as human beings) have a definitive nature and purpose, and that acting in accordance with that nature is what is good, and acting in defiance of that nature is bad, then everything makes sense. But the New Atheists, adopting the modern view deriving from the Englightenment that there are no formal or final causes, have left themselves at the mercy of what has been called "Hume's Guillotine."
The second fallacy Harris and his fellow New Atheists repeatedly commit is the Naturalistic Fallacy, which consists of asserting that you can explain ethics by simply describing the conditions that accompany the quality of goodness. If, for example, pleasure always accompanies virtuous acts, then virtue and pleasure must be the same thing. G. E. Moore articulated the problem with this fallacy in his Principia Ethica in the early 20th century.
It is important to note that Hume and Moore are not Christians or even traditional thinkers: Hume was a British empircist Philosopher (and religious skeptic) and Moore was a modern analytic philosopher.
The more fundamental problem, however, is that the New Atheists are mostly philosophically ignorant and don't even seem to be familiar with the fact that these are problems in the first place. I have yet to hear one of them actually address the is/ought problem or explain how their position on morality avoids the Naturalistic Fallacy. You would think they had never heard of Hume or Moore.
I'm sure Harris is more specific in his book, but it will be interesting to find out whether he tackles these problems head on--or whether he simply ignores them as he has done in all the public statements from him I've seen so far.