But then we are almost obliged to ask: if we aren’t beholden to some carrot and stick of religion, what does move an atheist to behave according to those nobler attitudes if not an alternate sense of right and wrong?, and why do we heed that inner sense of self or sense of spirit and desire to do better than our animal instincts would have us, instead of thinking that without a deity’s rewards and punishments we might just as well live completely hedonistic and immoral lives?
We could just say we are trying to do the “right” thing, but then what makes it “right,” why is moral behavior “better?” We see ourselves as superior to other living creatures which behave according to survival imperatives, true to themselves and without any guilt or sense of morality. Perhaps it has to do with calling ourselves “human,” in which case how early did we begin to refer to ourselves this way and differentiate from the other mammals and does this hold any key? Early myth suggests a struggle to make the distinction in our ancestors, many early tales involved talking animals as virtual co-conspirators with and against and superior to humans, the American Indians have tricky blackbird and animal gods; ancient legends incorporated combination beings: centaurs, the Minotaur, mermaids and mermen, Medusa with her hair of snakes, the Sphinx, lots of other blurrings between us and the other creatures of the Earth.
Those myths also showed evidence that perhaps we understood these were creations that could not come about by natural procreation, they always involved magic. Leda the swan bore human children but only from being impregnated by a god. So perhaps eventually getting it that we were distinctively different and had moved away from being animals we needed reasons to aspire to something better.
From the atheist viewpoint that sense of some higher authority which believers call “God” is probably the externalized and personified embodiment of this feeling we all have. Some atheists argue that moral behavior must be due to bio-neurological imperatives (or bio-programs) that with machine-like precision calculate our behaviors with more complexity than animals might apply to maximize chances of survival, taking into account subtle arguments that could only be seen by human beings with their advanced knowledge, as in the saying that “knowledge is power.”
It seems to us the jury is still out on deciding this issue, we reserve the right to revisit it after more consideration. But none of this denies the fact that atheists behave in moral and ethical ways and feel just as beholden to respect society’s rules and laws as any believer, without a deity’s rewards and punishments each of us still has to look into a mirror and see ourselves as a person we would respect, something to do with being self-aware in ways that animals are not.