This Discussion is feature more Psychology Babble. So if you think you're heads going to explode from too many technical terms, feel free to tune out. lol
Psychology has a "superstar" who made a HUGE impact on the psychological study of the development of human morality. His name was Kohlberg. Kohlberg's Theory sets out three levels of development in human morality... advancement indicates higher moral maturity. Let me say this now: I DO NOT agree with Kohlberg on some parts of his theory, but, in general I think he was fairly accurate.
The reason most atheists have a higher developmental level of morality is because we are [most of us] in the "last stage" - Postconventional Morality Reasoning. Whereas, the majority of traditional theists [esp. monotheists] fall into either the first or the secong stage. You will see this for yourself in a moment.
STAGE 1: PRE-CONVENTIONAL MORALITY REASONING
This stage is most often found in childhood, although it is not uncommon to find it in adolescents and even adults. This level of thinking is highly primitive in cognition development. At this stage the person [usually the child] bases their moral reasoning and decision making on rewards and punishments.
Among children, the most familiar of these is "should I take that cookie even though mom says 'no."
For many children this is a choice between being punished for taking one... or not being punished.
When it applies to logical reasoning, Pre-Conventional Moralizers base their distinction of right and wrong on this: If I am rewarded for action X, then action X is Right. If I am punished for action X, then action X is wrong.
Among Religious Adults this level of moral reasoning is common in those who ascribe to the doctrine of Hell.
How does this subscibe to this level?
The basic level of thinking of those who believe in Hell is...
"I should do what God asks because if I do, I will be rewarded in Heaven."
"If I don't do what God asks, then I will be punished in Hell... so therefore... I should do what God asks."
People who reason morality on this level do not think of whether what "God says" is consistent, or causes other people pain and suffering. To be perfectly honest, they don't think about or don't care about other people's suffering or injustice. They just want to be rewarded for their actions and not punished for disobedience. I don't know of ANY atheists that base morality on this... because if we did, we most likely wouldn't be atheists. lol.
STAGE 2: CONVENTIONAL MORAL REASONING
Let it be noted that few adults get past this stage of moral reasoning.
At this stage the person bases moral judgements and actions on "what others think is right or wrong" and/ or upon what an AUTHORITY thinks is "right or wrong." Basicaly the thought process of this individual is like this: "If Authority Y thinks X is right, then X is right. If authority Y thinks X is wrong, then X is wrong." Like Pre-Conventional thinking. These people are characterized by being unable to think for themselves.
Few atheists are at this level either because we tend to DEFY religious authority.
When it comes to religious morality, the Christian [or Muslim or Jew] is likely to base what is right and wrong on "what God says" but their reasoning has more to do with "what is written in the Bible" then "whether they get to heaven or hell." - although they still may try to use the doctrine of hell to convert people to believers.
They may quote the "Ten Commandments" as a basis for moral judgments.... and in this stage there is NO EXCEPTION TO THE RULES! The rules are viewed as absolute, so anyone who breaks them is wrong no matter what.
STAGE 3: POST-CONVENTIONAL MORALITY
As said before, few adults ever reach this level.
This is the HIGHEST level of developmental moral reasoning.
The individual in this level bases moral judgements and reasoning on an internal moral compass. They are willing to break not only religious rules, but also government laws... if they deem that necessary to do the right thing. They are characterized by the ability to think for themselves and are more able to "put themselves in the other person's shoes." Also, some individuals at this level demonstrate a will to rebel against authority if authority members step out of line of what they consider "moral."
The individual at this stage tends to think like this: "If action X causes less suffering/ is more important then action Y, then it is right. If action X causes more suffering/ is less important then action Y, then it is wrong."
IT IS MY BELIEF THAT MOST ATHIESTS FUNCTION ON THE POST-CONVENTIONAL MORALITY LEVEL... WHILE MOST THEISTS DO NOT. AND THOSE THAT DO, FACE IMMENSE CHALLENGES TO THEIR FAITH WHEN FACED WITH AN AUTHORITARIAN RELIGION THAT CLASHES VIOLENTLY WITH THEIR INTERNAL MORAL COMPASS.