You're at the library, between the rows and rows of books, and at one of the study tables you see someone studying. Except he's not. He's actually asleep. Sound asleep. In fact, he's snoring - not too loudly, but every indication is that he's in a very, very deep sleep.
Sitting next to him on the table is $100 in cash. Nobody else can see you, the sleeping person, or the money.
Would you take the money?
I'd bet that for virtually everyone reading this blog post (all six of you) or even anyone who would ever read a blog such as this one, the answer is no. The answer is no whether rich or poor, theist or atheist, male or female. In fact, I'd also bet that taking the money wouldn't even cross most of our minds in the first place. By not taking the money, we're essentially following the "thou shalt not steal" commandment, whether or not we directly subscribe to the religious version of it.
That's important because following "thou shalt not steal" coupled with the commandment about not coveting thy neighbors stuff forms the basis of western society's property rights. Property rights have enabled prosperity on a scale unimaginable when these commandments first evolved. On the other hand, communists threw out these commandments and ushered in an era of misery on a scale also unprecedented in human history.
For society as a whole, I believe it's incredibly important that these commandments are followed in aggregate, most of the time. For society as a whole, it's a rational thing to do. But it's much less clear that it's rational for a given individual.
For theists, at least of the Judeo-Christian heritage, it's perfectly rational not to take it. After all, God is always watching, and come judgment day, stealing $100 is just not worth it.
But for materialists? It's seems quite irrational to leave the money sitting there. Yet they won't take the money either. Why?
It can't be a directly genetic phenomenon. If it was, there wouldn't be a commandment about stealing. After all, there aren't any commandments like "Thou shalt breathe" or "Thou shalt lust after every pretty girl who walks by". If it's a natural behavior (or lack of behavior), God doesn't need to command it. Also, the soviets were able to toss out the commandments regarding stealing and coveting in one fell swoop with a large segment of the population going along with it.
It also can't be inherent respect for the laws of man. I'm sure y'all have exceeded the speed limit purposely and rolled through at least a few stop signs. Perhaps there was a little recreational drug use in college or maybe you pushed the legal limit of drinking while driving. I suspect that most of us who wouldn't dream of stealing the money in the library have broken numerous other laws of man. If the laws of man were written as commandments, they'd go something like "thou shall not speed unless you can get away with it or the penalty if caught isn't too big".
Even the golden rule doesn't provide a good explanation. One could always make the argument that if you're so stupid as to fall asleep with $100 out in the open in public, you would want someone to steal it to teach you a lesson. Besides, following the golden rule itself is irrational for a materialist (though pretending to follow it is not).
My explanation is that people are genetically predisposed to accept the mores of the greater culture even if they don't accept the beliefs. In this case, materialists accept the "thou shalt not steal" commandment even though they don't believe in God. I'm an agnostic who believes that it's extraordinarily unlikely that some supernatural deity has the inclination to track my every move (or any move for that matter) so I fall in the same boat as the materialists for the purpose of this discussion.
So I would leave the money on the table because I'm a stupid, irrational git. Fortunately for society in aggregate, most of us who are not religious are stupid, irrational gits. We have adopted the mores of the society around us even though it is irrational for us to do so given our beliefs.
Here's one interesting point. Our society is prosperous because most of us believe either in a God who has given commandments regarding property (which I think is most likely an irrational belief), or we've irrationally adopted the mores of those who do, or we've somehow otherwise irrationally adopted this set of mores. In any case, our society is prosperous because we are mostly all irrational one way or another. There has to be an irrational premise or conclusion somewhere in our chain of reasoning for there to be a prosperous society. Thank God for irrationality! Maybe I'll adopt that as my new motto!
I'd like to address one objection to the preceding statements immediately. You may argue that it's rational not to steal because if everybody did it, society would be less prosperous. True, but you would still be better off performing riskless thefts while pretending that you never did such things. Therefore, it's still irrational not to take the money in the library if you don't believe in God and the commandments.
So let's say we all became materialists tomorrow. Nobody thinks God's watching them anymore. Nobody thinks that the commandments are being enforced by God. The commandments are now just rules (or "guidelines" to paraphrase Captain Barbados in Pirates of the Caribbean) of man.
I suspect that we would then evolve towards the collectivists view of property rights (i.e. no property rights) and lots of theft. Already in the Netherlands, which is a fairly non-religious society, pretty much anything that isn't actually in your hand or carefully locked up disappears in fairly short order. Bicycle owners are instructed to use two different types of locks, each of which needs to simultaneously lock the bicycle to some stationary object. Even then, with as much bicycling as the Dutch do, you don't see very many nice bicycles.
This is one reason I have qualms about materialists wanting to weaken the religious infrastructure of the United States. I think our prosperity might depend on it. The irrational concept of a God watching us and potentially punishing us come judgment day if we violate His rules serves us well.
Of course the problem remains that many of God's rules are a bit out-of-date. It would be quite helpful if God would repeal the "thou shalt kill infidels" and a variety of other directives that some variants of religion have attributed to God. But we don't need to throw out the bearded baby with the bathwater. We just need to constantly lobby the spokespersons for God in their various religions to have a new vision about God's word. Indeed, for this one example, the spokepersons could just revert to boosting the priority of one of God's other commandments: "Thou shalt not kill."