I was just thinking about the freedom or the constraints that Atheism can give you, in terms of morality.
But first a story (It's related, I swear)
When I first moved out of my parent's house, I lived on a diet of muffins and candy bars. My mom was what some may call a 'health nut' and we never had any soda in the house (except for once a year at parties), no sugar cereals, no chocolate bars, no candy in general, etc.
So when I moved out, it was like "Hell yes! I can eat whatever I want! I can have a dinner of ice cream and snickers bars! I can have mac and cheese every night if I want! AND NO ONE WILL NO!!!" And I did!
And I gained like 40 pounds, but that's a whole other story
Meanwhile, over time, i've realized that eating mac and cheese and muffins and candy bars every day didn't make me feel so great. I switched to frozen dinners, cause they were easy to make and cheap. And I could lose weight that way!
And then came yet a third stage in my food-eating developement, when I realized that eating frozen dinners (which are chock full of preservatives, including high fructose corn syrup and tons of sodium) was probably not in my best long-term interests. Including the interest of, you know, not dying at age 50. And that I may have lost some weight, but that weight wasn't the most important thing- overall health counts too. And that at age 25 I shouldn't have high cholestorol and high blood pressure (which I did). So even if it takes a lot more effort (which it does), cooking my own food, eating fruits and veggies on a regular basis (which means I have to go to the grocery store semi-frequently), and staying away from chinese and pizza take-out is really the best thing to do.
And I do it. Even though I'd rather cross the street and get some of the kick-ass sesame chicken they sell out of a truck, right now I'm having a homemade salad with homemade balsamic vinagrette dressing.
I guess that's called "Maturity." Doing things that are in your long term interest instead of your short term interest. Even though no one is watching. See also: working on my research every day, even though no one will know if I don't (except me).
Anyways, what does this have to do with being an atheist?
Everything! I think atheists go through the same stages of development, except instead of with food, it's with morality. At least I did.
Stage 1: You realize there's no god. Or at least you strongly suspect there isn't one. And you realize that the religion you were brought up in is wrong.
Suddenly you are free! You can do whatever you want, and NO ONE WILL KNOW!! I (at least) started out by breaking every rule of the religion I was brought up in, and then moved on to breaking some more rules that are present in the larger society. Like shoplifting. And throwing stuff on the floor instead of in the trash. I did that for a while as a teenager. And as long as I didn't get caught (and I never did), who cares? There's no god!
This also applied to being a total dick to people. What reason is there to not be, if there's no god? Making promises and then going back on your word, outright lying, talking shit about people behind their backs, talking shit to people's faces, not helping people (even friends) who clearly needed help.
I did all those things.
But a bit earlier than I went through my food transformation, I went through a morality transformation.
I guess now I try to live by the karmic principle, golden rule, whatever you want to call it. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. First, do no harm. What you send out in to the world will come back to you. Don't be a dick.
And it's not because there's someone watching, or becuase I will get rewarded at the end of my life in the magical fairy tale land where someone will add up all the things I've ever done in my life and then tell me whether I get to suffer eternally or live in some boring heaven playing a harp and flying around in clouds.
It's because I don't believe there is a heaven that it's so important to not be a dick! Because I only get to do this once! And lets say one day I'll be on my death bed looking back at my life (assuming i don't get hit by a bus or die in a nuclear attack); do I really want to have lived my entire life getting my own way at the expense of other people? I'm pretty sure there are some people who would say yes (many of them are probably CEOs), but for me the answer is no. I look at the world, and I would like it to be a certain way. I think it would be awesome if everyone got along, helped each other, shared what they had, and wasn't a dick to each other.
I can't change the way other people act, so I can't make that world a complete reality...but I can change the way I act. No one will forgive me or punish me if I do the wrong thing, and no will will reward me or like me more if I do the right thing. For some people, their 'long term interest' is precisely that- the reward of heaven or punishment of hell. And maybe some people need an idea of a reward or a punishment in order to act in a responsible way. These people are not even at stage 1. They are still acting a certain way because they think someone is watching them. Kind of how I ate healthily when I lived in my parent's house. If one day god fell out of the sky and died, would they act a different way? (For a great book on that topic, check out James Marrow's "Towing Jehovah"). If the answer is no, than this is not true morality. True morality is acting the correct way, even if no one is ever going to know. Including god.
At the end of my life, or at the end of the day I hope that I can look back at my life or at the day and have no regrets for the way I acted, and the way I treated other people. That I made my best effort to reconcile relationships with people who were inadvertently hurt by the decisions I made (ie my parents), that I maed the best decisions for myself with minimal damage to other people, that I never did anything out of hatred, and never intentionally hurt other people for the sake of hurting them. For at least the last 4 or 5 years, I've been doing pretty good on that front.