One of the criticisms I hear from time to time about atheists (with a small "a" - used to describe all manner of non-believers, not all of whom consider themselves Atheists) is that they have chosen the easy way out. Atheism means never having to answer to a supreme being, and getting to choose your own moral standards to live by.
I'm not going to deal with the absurdity of that claim on the whole, but rather the assumption that atheism is easy.
Becoming an atheist is (or was for me) an easy decision to make. Essentially I had changed my world-view to the point where the evidence I had seen for the existence of God was no longer good enough to satisfy me. I didn't even choose it, I just couldn't believe anymore.
But that's the end of the easy part. From there on it gets difficult.
The realisation that there is no afterlife was a difficult one. It still is. I still tend to default to the childish image in my mind of my late grandparents watching over me from Heaven. And every time I do, it hits me again that there is no Heaven, and that my grandparents really are dead. And I have to mourn them again, even if only for a moment. That doesn't seem to get easier.
And then there's the free will thing. Although I don't believe in free will as such, I must subscribe to the illusion of it, because that is how our society is structured. It means that I am always ultimately responsible for my choices and actions. Even though, under the circumstances, I couldn't have acted any differently, I must still be held accountable for what I do.
I no longer have the security of faith in a friendly omnipotent being looking over my shoulder and shielding me from life's harshest manifesations. Of course I never had that protection, but I was comforted by the belief that I did. It meant that no matter what I said or did, there was always a safety net to catch me if I went too far astray. God would always be there to help me, and that meant an awful lot.
I don't have that guiding hand anymore. I'm on my own now, and every choice or action I make can have lasting consequences for me and those close to me.
One one hand that's liberating: I'm not bound by any divine imperative. But on the other hand it scares the crap out of me. One questions haunts me: What if I don't get it right?