No Commandments

“That most of the [kosher] laws are divine ordinances without reason given is 100 per cent the point. It is very easy not to murder people. Very easy. It is a little bit harder not to steal because one is tempted occasionally. So that is no great proof that I believe in God or am fulfilling His [sic] will. But, if He tells me not to have a cup of coffee with milk in it with my mincemeat and peaces at lunchtime, that is a test. The only reason I am doing that is because I have been told to so do. It is something difficult.”

—An unnamed Jewish rabbi, quoted in Richard Dawkins’ “Viruses of the Mind

“But in addition to the content, the mere obeying is also intrinsically good, for, in obeying, a rational creature consciously enacts its creaturely rôle…”

—C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

The story of the giving of the Ten Commandments is one of the most iconic in the Bible. The imagery that accompanies this story conveys all too well the idea of a terrifying, unapproachable overlord: the peak of Mt. Sinai wreathed in smoke and flame, the earth trembling, a thunderous voice speaking from the dark clouds, and a divine hand reaching down out of the sky to engrave stern rules on heavy stone tablets as an everlasting covenant.

More generally, God’s manifestations throughout the Old Testament continue this theme, each one making glaringly clear the vast distance between God and man and the fearful, alien otherness of God. On multiple occasions, the text gives dire warnings that the unworthy, were they to tread on his holy ground, would be struck dead – and there was no reliable way to tell in advance who was worthy. His authority was absolute, his demands not to be questioned, and anyone who dared to dispute his rule would usually be instantly annihilated in some dramatic fashion.

This model of human relations with the divine exemplifies quite well a more general trend of religious morality. In systems of divine command ethics, the emphasis is always on following the rules, not on understanding them. In religion, the rules should be followed simply because they are the rules – the justifications behind them are irrelevant and sometimes nonexistent, as the quote at the beginning of this essay explains, and it goes without saying that they may not be questioned or changed. They are rules for the sake of having rules, existing for no higher purpose than to accustom believers to the habit of doing as they are told. C.S. Lewis defends a common religious viewpoint when he asserts that obedience is “intrinsically good”, regardless of the content of that obedience.

By contrast, atheists have moral rules, but we have no commandments in this sense. To an atheist, the rules are not arbitrary – they exist for a very good intrinsic reason, namely, to prevent acts that harm others and decrease their happiness. And rather than promoting blind obedience, we want people to understand that; we want people to understand the motivations behind the rules and freely choose to abide by them. More, in an atheist moral system, the rules can and should be questioned. If people think a rule is misguided or unnecessary, we should not just allow but encourage them to make their case in a suitable public forum, and set up a process by which the rules can be changed. A rational system of morality, founded on sound general principles and set up on this democratic basis, is far more adaptable when it comes to difficult real-world dilemmas, and far more likely to produce the best result for all parties involved.

There will always be those who spurn this flexibility and seek refuge in the rigid, unchanging certainty of religious dogma. But any security this approach provides is purely illusory; dogmatic morality offers no certainty but the certainty of error. This is because religious morality is far easier to subvert than morality based on reason. Literally anything can be justified by claiming that it is God’s will, and people who are accustomed to obedience and believe it to be “intrinsically good” are far more likely to fall under the sway of an eloquent sociopath who knows the right code words.

The examples of this phenomenon are legion, from the pre-World War 2 Germans who were swayed by the Nazis’ racist Christian rhetoric, to the young and often prosperous and well-educated Muslims who are persuaded to throw their lives away in suicide terrorism by hate-spewing Wahhabist imams. There is even the case of Elizabeth Smart, the Mormon teenager whose fundamentalist kidnapper brainwashed her into obedience by invoking Mormon doctrine she had always been taught to obey (as Jon Krakauer documents in his chilling book Under the Banner of Heaven). By accustoming people to unquestioning obedience, religion cripples their skills of moral reasoning, often resulting in a sort of induced “ethical dyslexia” where they are unable to recognize evil for what it is, even when it is staring them in the face. Just consider how many Christian apologists continue to defend the atrocities recorded and praised in their own Bibles.

Theists say that abandoning the inflexible approach of religious dogma risks a headlong plunge into the swamp of moral relativism. But the reality is that a consistent, objective secular morality can easily be constructed from just a few basic principles. If anything, I would venture that atheists are, for the most part, more in agreement with each other than theists are. While religious groups are forever arguing about what God’s will is and how to interpret ancient books that are self-contradictory to begin with, we are broadly united by a commitment to justice, happiness, and human welfare.

In any case, both theists and atheists debate over what moral directives are best. If this is moral relativism, then everyone is a moral relativist. The only difference is that atheists do not claim our conclusions are God’s infallible will, which saves a lot of embarrassment when they subsequently need to be reevaluated. Theists, on the other hand, often find themselves faced with the bizarre difficulty of exalting a past religious leader as the infallible messenger of God while simultaneously acknowledging many of his beliefs and proclamations to be gravely immoral.

An atheist morality based on reason and human conscience avoids all these pitfalls. Instead, it teaches people to think for themselves, and never to obey an authority figure without questioning. It teaches them to welcome, rather than fear, rational debate over moral principles as the only way to get at the truth. It encourages them to question and reevaluate older principles and throw out those that show themselves to be in error in the light of new understanding. And it brings out the fact that what is truly and intrinsically good is not obedience or blind faith, but happiness and the actions we take to bring it about on behalf of each other. Where religious ethics would have us still quaking in fear before the fires of Sinai, atheist morality heartens us with the realization that we have nothing to fear from asking questions. In fact, it is the only way to move beyond the primitive and often savage moral systems of our species’ youth, and toward a future where what guides our decisions will truly be what is best for all people.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    A large part of the reason for those “unreasonable” commandments, the ones that the only reason you do them is because you were told to do them, is not to prove how “obedient” you are; it’s to prove that you are “one of Us”. To show everybody that you are willing to do something to belong to the group, no matter how silly.

    Which is fine if you’re a teenager, but … “If ‘everybody’ jumped off a cliff, would you?”

  • bookjunky

    “By accustoming people to unquestioning obedience, religion cripples their skills of moral reasoning, often resulting in a sort of induced “ethical dyslexia” where they are unable to recognize evil for what it is, even when it is staring them in the face. Just consider how many Christian apologists continue to defend the atrocities recorded and praised in their own Bibles.”

    Never thought about it in quite this way, but this is spot on. Have been having a frustrating discussion on dangerous idea’s blog with some theists about the problem of evil and no matter what evil exists, it’s okay because god ordained it for some good reason. 10 million children die each year of starvation-related causes but no worries! And most of those will go to hell according to their theology but, that’s just too bad! etc.

    Excellent essay.

  • Philip Thomas

    Obedience to duly constituted authority is an important virtue. A clear hierarchy and chain of command is an essential part of a working organisation in many fields of human endeavour, from the military to the realm of science. Not that one should not question such authority when appropriate, and of course one should not obey a command which violates the moral code. But in matters indifferent one should obey the law.

  • andrea

    It always struck me as truly weird and capricious for a deity to give laws just to test people. Ooops, don’t wear the cotton with the wool, or I’ll kill you. Doesn’t speak much to the rationality of the deity in question. You might argue, as the rabbi did that it’s just God seeing if you can get the little things right. But that doesn’t address the ludicrously over-the-top punishments for breaking such laws.
    Obedience for the sake of obedience is just wrong. Of course, it does play into the Biblical instruction to obey *any* ruler, with the assertion that God put them *all* there. There is no exception for genocidal rulers, immoral rulers, etc. They’re all just as good as the other, no questions asked. Just curious, Philip, what do you consider “matters indifferent”? Ones that don’t affect you personally?

  • Philip Thomas

    By ‘matters indifferent’ I mean actions that are not morally right or wrong in themselves. They may very well affect me personally. For example, I am driving along a country road when I see a sign imposing a speed limit below the speed I am currently driving at. Should I obey the sign?

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    This makes me wonder: Is it this very religiously-ingrained obedience that is causing many people these days to simply say things like, “I think we should follow Bush because he’s the President,” and other statements of blind obedience? I try to argue with them about it, and it happens so much I’ve settled into a refrain of, “Patriotism is obedience in a dictatorship; in a democracy it’s vigilance,” but it’s just too hard to get people to think for themselves these days.

    In response to Philip: The reason we should obey in matters indifferent is based on trust. We should (hopefully) have an innate trust for those in authority that they do know what’s best, and have a reason for their laws. But trust must be earned, and the first thing any leader should do is build trust. If they expect obedience simply by virtue of being the leader, they should expect to be questioned at every turn. It’s the unfortunate indoctrination to always obey which means that these types of leaders don’t always get questioned.

  • Philip Thomas

    All well and good, with the caveat that soemtimes you have to trust the system that produced the leader rather than waiting for the leader to build trust themselves (for example, on an aircraft which is about to crash, you really need to obey the crew’s instructions, not wait around to see if they are trustworthy!)
    Trust is also a complicated matter. I don’t trust the British government, especially our esteemed Prime Minister Tony Blair. That doesn’t mean I’m entitled to break the law if I feel like it, though: I should trust in the system that produced the laws, despite my distrust of its current leadership.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    For The Ridger:

    A large part of the reason for those “unreasonable” commandments, the ones that the only reason you do them is because you were told to do them, is not to prove how “obedient” you are; it’s to prove that you are “one of Us”. To show everybody that you are willing to do something to belong to the group, no matter how silly.

    That’s a very interesting suggestion. I believe Dawkins’ essay makes the same point: that bizarre religious beliefs are, in some sense, markers of fitness just like the peacock’s tail – a costly handicap that only the truly strong can bear. “Strong” in this sense should probably be construed to mean something like “loyal” – the “fitness” could be the memetic fitness of a religious group’s beliefs.

    For Philip:

    Obedience to duly constituted authority is an important virtue. A clear hierarchy and chain of command is an essential part of a working organisation in many fields of human endeavour, from the military to the realm of science. Not that one should not question such authority when appropriate, and of course one should not obey a command which violates the moral code.

    That last, qualifying sentence is precisely the point I was aiming at with this post – that there are many religious people and groups who believe precisely the opposite, that authority should not be questioned but should be unconditionally obeyed. That is the type of “commandment” that should be rejected. As the C.S. Lewis quote shows, for example, some theists hold the opinion that obedience is intrinsically a good thing, regardless of whom one is obeying or why. This opinion is not just wrong, it is dangerous.

    We will probably always need some form of hierarchy in human society, which is precisely why we need to exercise due vigilance and proper skepticism of those who are in power to ensure they stay within the rationally prescribed limits of that power. Too many people hold the view that the authorities deserve to be obeyed because they are in authority. The correct view is that they should be in authority only if they deserve to be obeyed.

    For Infophile:

    This makes me wonder: Is it this very religiously-ingrained obedience that is causing many people these days to simply say things like, “I think we should follow Bush because he’s the President,” and other statements of blind obedience?

    Fortuitously, I intend to address that exact question in an upcoming post in this series, “No Messiahs”. I think that’s an excellent point: it’s probably no coincidence that most of Bush’s following comes from those very fundamentalist sects that have the habit of unquestioning obedience most strongly ingrained.

  • Oz

    Reading through the Bible blog you referenced today reminded me of the story of the (Non-)Sacrifice of Isaac. Indeed, Yahweh apparently expects you to be so obedient that you would kill your child on God’s say-so.

  • Philip Thomas

    Thankyou for the link to the Bible Blog: I look forward to reading his comments on the remaining passages. I’m not sure there’s much point in emailing him with particular Bible stories- he’ll get to them in due course, and the effect will probably be stronger if he hasn’t been directed to them.

  • Infophile

    Re Philip: (sorry, can’t quote, computer’s being a bit glitchy right now)

    I think that’s a very good point. In my comment, I was thinking more along the lines of an elected official. When someone like Bush gets elected, you tend to lose a lot of trust in the system. In fact, any elected official still has to prove him/herself to all of those who didn’t vote for him/her.

    Now, this of course doesn’t mean I’ll blindly mistrust someone like Bush, either. If I run into him on the street and he suddenly yells at me to “Get down!” I’ll obey him on that. A safety matter like that is something I’d trust him on. I don’t trust him so much in running the country, and if he plans to lead the country into another war, for instance, you can expect me to speak out about it. (Which is not to say that a just war (read “defensive war”) is out of the question; I’ll just be speaking out in favor of it then.)

  • Shawn Smith

    <offtopic>

    One thing about the blogging the Bible series in Slate that made me widen my eyes was that he considered the story of Abraham and Isaac as having a much greater emotional impact than Noah and the Flood. It seems to be a demonstration of Stalin’s observation, “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” I wonder if he’ll have the same reaction to the story of Jepthah. He also seems to be setting himself up for the the extreme Zionist position that Israel / Palestine is “Holy Land,” something that is required to be occupied only by Jews in order to obey God’s Commandments.

    </offtopic>

  • Philip Thomas

    That most of the [kosher] laws are divine ordinances without reason given is 100 per cent the point. It is very easy not to murder people. Very easy. It is a little bit harder not to steal because one is tempted occasionally

    Has it ocurred to anyone else that our friend here (an anonymous rabbi) is tallking nonsense? It is not easy not to murder people. People get murdered every day. Nor is it easy not to steal, especially if one lives in grinding poverty.


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