Christianity (and religious belief generally) is sometimes criticized for being nothing more than an emotional crutch of some sort by its critics. Its adherents find solace in knowing an eternal reward is awaiting them for their faithful devotion and evil doers are punished. There is something comforting and fulfilling in believing you will be rewarded for your efforts, and thus only behave in hopes of reward. I don’t know any Christians who reason this way, but there might be. This is seen as self-serving and the good is sullied by the motive. Skeptics, on the other hand, don’t fashion their behavior toward the hopes of somehow benefiting in the afterlife for it. Doing good for the sake of doing good is good enough. They aren’t looking for rewards on the afterlife and seek no solace from their deeds. This makes them morally noble.
However, I do think there is a comfort in believing a God who will hold us accountable for our moral misgivings. In the same way the Christian may find comfort in the prospects of an afterlife, the Atheist finds solace in the prospect of there being no judgement after death. There is a certain consolation in believing there will be no recompense for a lifetime of transgression. Even if the Atheist were held to his own moral compass, I think it would be safe to say he has done something he knew to be wrong. I have violated my conscience. I’ve done wrong even by my own standard. Not having to answer (or at least believing you won’t) for the misdeeds of life can be quite a relief.
All of your undiscovered crimes and maleficence are completely free and clear. Think of the freedom. I recall back to grade school, there was this one teacher who had a nasty habit of administering pop quizzes without a moments notice. Every so often, when the class completed the test, she announced that the test was just practice — it didn’t count and our scores would not be held against our grade. There were two kinds of reactions to this news: Relief and disappointment.
Presuming atheistic naturalism to be true, the Christians would represent the disappointed students. For all their efforts and self-sacrifice believing they were being piously obedient to a God they believed existed; all was in vain. All the passed up opportunities to indulge in fun things the Bible has placed on the don’t list: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Just like the students who took the time to study and focus on the test at hand, the Christians forewent life’s “sinful” distractions. But all the effort was for nothing…suckers.
Those relieved by the news the test doesn’t count, the Atheists, they weren’t prepared for the test and it’s great news the score will not count. They did whatever they were inclined to do, hindered only by their own conscience. Now, I wonder what would happen to the study habits of a student if he knew none of the scores on any test or assignment were going to count for anything? Studying would be optional. No more worries about failing, no more worries about discipline for non-participation, no more worries about getting sent to the principal’s office for mischief.
Of course, I am not suggesting that Atheists cannot act morally or do good. I also don’t think Atheists will inevitably decline into moral decay and become seething miscreants either. Atheism does provide solace and comfort, even if subconsciously in the opposite direction from Christianity. Knowing or believing there is no ultimate accountability to a Just and Holy God for moral crimes committed against Him, however inconsequential, bestows a sense of relief even if it’s not a direct motivation for being an Atheist. Believing in a Godless universe provides (im)moral options even if those options are not explored.