Many religious folk make the claim that without God, people will do whatever they want to do. Atheists especially, they insist, are self-seeking and know no good. They’ll do anything they like because they don’t believe there is any God to answer too. And when it’s pointed out that there are plenty of law abiding Atheists, the religious person will probably claim that they only obey the law because they’re afraid of the punishment.
What a horrible world we’d live in if that were truly the case. People only doing good because they’re afraid that if they do bad they’d be punished. It seems even religious people themselves believe that if it wasn’t for God, they too would be out on the rampage committing atrocities. Actually makes you wonder what sort of people they are, that they would be so certain of that. What despicable things must go through their mind, things they refrain from doing all because of the threat of unleashing God’s wrath? I shudder to think. I’m just glad that I’m not like them.
I will admit that as an Atheist that the fear of punishment can sometimes be a deterrent for doing wrong, (eg defrauding a multimillion dollar company) but for the majority of times that is not the case. For me empathy has a major part to play. I just hate the thought of causing pain to other human beings. So much so that I will endure pain myself rather than hurting someone else.
How I would feel afterwards is also a contributing factor to why I try to what's right. I don’t like the way I feel after wronging someone. For example, when I was 5 years old, I used to bully one of the girls in my class. A timid lonely girl who never said a bad word to anyone, but for some reason I saw her as an easy target and made her life miserable. I knew that girl for maybe a year before I moved to another town.
To this very day I still feel guilty about the way I treated her even now that I am no longer a Christian. I have even made some effort to track her down to apologize to her, with no luck (although chances are she will no longer even remember me, if she is still alive) I learnt way back then that bullying people just makes me feel like a lousy human being, so I don't do it. I also know what it's like to be bullied so that too goes a long way to stop me from bullying others. So not only does empathy come into play here, but also the fact that I need to live with myself if I harm others. I would be punishing myself!
My point is that with empathy (and the knowledge of guilt I would have to endure later) there is no need for a big stick. There is no need for the threat of Hell or any other punishment, because when you have empathy you want to avoid harming others. You look at people and think "how would I feel if that was done to me?" or "how would I feel if someone did that to one of my loved ones"? And you learn from your mistakes, knowing how bad you would feel later so you never do it again. Due to that empathy and that compassion, you do good acts rather than bad acts.
No threats of hell or damnation needed. No threats of jail. No threats of an ass kicking. Definitely no need of some God to dictate how you should behave. All you have to be is a decent human being to know you need to treat others as you would have them treat you. No need for anyone to teach you that. You can figure that out from an early age just as I did.