It’s a frequently asked question when theists encounter an atheist: How can people tell right from wrong if they don’t believe in God?
I’m tempted to reprise Penn Jillette’s answer and leave it at that:
But here’s a nicer way of describing it (it’s going to take a few paragraphs though): We can’t really thrive and advance as individuals. There’s a reason most people don’t become hermits. We need others. Not just to procreate, but to collaborate with, for all kinds of practical purposes.
Thousands of years ago, in times predating today’s religions, we joined forces with others to build hunter-and-gatherer communities. If you weren’t a helpful part of such a group, you didn’t remain in good standing. You might’ve even been exiled. So there are clear reciprocal advantages to sharing, and to helping others, and to working/fishing/hunting together.
Those who violated the social contract would find themselves without food if food got scarce, and without care if they got wounded or sick. That’s pretty much the mother of all incentives to be good.
Being good, in that context, means don’t murder, don’t rape, don’t steal, don’t make others suffer needlessly, and don’t be a selfish pig; and do try to treat others as you would like to be treated. Those were the general rules and expectations in the millennia before Christianity, Islam, Judaism, et cetera; they’re still perfectly valid today.
I’ll add another observation, going from the sociological to the purely personal. Because I don’t believe in god(s), I have no confessor or savior to wash away my sins. If I fuck up, it’s on me. My misstep will haunt me. My guilt will gnaw at me. No shortcuts to (self-)forgiveness are available to me. I can’t go to church to pray and tell Jesus how sorry I am, and then walk out with both the pastor’s blessing and with the knowledge that Christ, who died for my sins, has already forgiven me.
No — I’m responsible for what I did.
That’s good, because it’s a very powerful preventative. As unlikely as it may sound to the religious, not believing in a god, for me, is what helps immensely to keep me on the straight and narrow. I think I might be a worse person if I could buy cosmic forgiveness for absolutely anything with just a few heartfelt prayers.
That doesn’t mean I think you are probably a bad person if you believe in God. Not at all. I’m just describing what works for me.
[cartoon via Freethinkers of East Texas]