The New Ten Commandments

For a chilling proof that the evil of religious fundamentalism is still alive and well in the Christian tradition today, one need go no further than the website which bills itself as the Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments, run by one Robert T. Lee. This site, which is a disturbing mix of fire-and-brimstone nightmares, dark hate-filled fantasies, and rants from the depths of a clearly ill mind, claims to advocate a “rebirth” of America upon biblical law, and envisions a theocratic state where all religions other than the author’s extreme fundamentalist Christianity would be outlawed and where atheists and homosexuals, among others, would be executed.

Among other equally spectacular examples, the site mentions its “divinely established” responsibility to “insure [sic] the proper punishment of all true criminal heathens who deny God”; asks, “Has a person ever made you so angry you wished he was dead? Then why can’t you feel and express that same fervency of anger towards true criminals such as atheists, pedophiles, homosexuals, murders [sic], rapists and etc? …. What you should wish for these people is that the government put them to death”; and boasts an article entitled “EVIL FREEDOM SHOULD BE DISALLOWED”.

But as the site’s title suggests, Mr. Lee’s main obsession is with the Ten Commandments. Throughout the site, we are treated to his ravings about how the Ten Commandments are the most perfect laws ever created, how their perfection shows that they could only have been authored by God, how they are far superior to any laws any human ever has written or could write, and so on. A typical excerpt:

God commands all mankind in the TEN COMMANDMENTS to: “Honor your father and your mother,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” and etc, (Exodus 20:1-17). Is any atheist, agnostic or unbeliever foolish enough to publicly deny the decorousness of those laws?

OK, there’s no disagreement with the fact that those Laws are righteous and honorable.

But since atheists deny God’s existence, they don’t have the ability to realize that God is the Author of the TEN COMMANDMENTS. This forces them to attribute their authorship to a human. But since atheism is opposed to the decorous TEN COMMANDMENTS, even while being force [sic] to deceptively think they were authored by a human, this clearly shows evidence that atheism was and is incapable of authoring, realizing and honoring such decorous and noble laws. If in the view of the atheist the TEN COMMANDMENTS were authored by a human, and since it is rightly established that those laws are decorous and honorable, but are hated by atheists, and atheists are said to comprise the most “educated” segment of the human race, then it would have taken a more decorous and honorable human to author them than even the most highly educated atheist.
        –from http://www.tencommandments.org/heathens.shtml

But like many fundamentalists, in his eagerness to prove a point Mr. Lee has charged beyond where the facts allow him to go. I do, in fact, deny that the Ten Commandments are righteous and honorable. I don’t think they’re all bad, but I do think they could stand some improvement. As my article “The Big Ten” explains, the first four of them are purely religious in nature and intent, serving no purpose other than to show how a primitive tribal culture felt their deity should be worshipped, and the remaining six are simply general moral principles, some of which our society abides by, some of which it does not, and most of which are obvious, common-sense ethical directives that every society in history that did not ultimately destroy itself figured out. It certainly took no special insight or wisdom to produce them.

Can we do better?

Can we come up with a new decalogue that would be more relevant and useful for the world today? The old ten are showing their age and provincial origin by now; we need an updated set. But by the same token, the laws we come up with should be genuinely universal, applicable to all human beings at all times and places, past, present and future, no matter how society or culture may change. Laws must address pressing concerns to be relevant, but they must be enduring and all-encompassing to be just.

Therefore, it seems clear that what we must do to produce a new ten commandments is to consider all of human history up to this point and abstract from it those principles of human behavior that span the ages – the moral lessons that apply across space and time, regardless of society or circumstance. From these general universal maxims we can distill the rules that will become a true decalogue for the modern world.

In compiling such a list, we have several advantages over the ancient Hebrews. First and foremost, we have the advantage of experience – we can look back on their own experiment in creating a decalogue and evaluate what the results have been, to see where their rules worked and where they didn’t. Nor are we limited to their insular tribal knowledge, but can look back across the grand sweep of human history to draw lessons from many cultures. Secondly, and at least as if not more importantly, we have come far enough to learn that the world is a rational place after all – that it is not inhabited by thundering deities or malevolent spirits who will cause misfortune and disaster if not appeased, but that the cosmos runs according to the regularities of the laws of science and nature. Human fortune depends not on following the inscrutable whims and dictates of a supernatural pantheon, but on our actions here in this life and the simple laws of reaction and consequence. We should behave morally not because it pleases the gods, but because we, as human beings, owe it to ourselves and to each other. Finally, we have better templates to draw on than those long-ago authors did. In the millennia since the Ten Commandments were first conceived and codified, many great human thinkers and philosophers have offered their own visions for an ideal society, some of which have been implemented in practice and tested against the real world. We can draw upon the thoughts of these great men and the outcomes of their experiments to help us produce a moral code that will guide humanity and outlast the ages.

Presented below in this article are the results of one atheist’s attempt to accomplish this – my humble proposal for a new decalogue that truly would be universal and truly could serve as the basis for a rational and enlightened state. But first, a few introductory remarks:

The first thing to notice about this list is that there are no “Thou shalt nots”. That time-worn phrase is too dogmatic, too authoritarian; it conveys all too well the idea of a stark list of laws chiseled in stone. Secondly, and related to this, the new decalogue contains no prohibitions of any specific acts, no injunctions against killing or stealing or adultery. This too is intentional. Murder, theft and false witness do not even come close to exhausting the possibilities for human depravity, and if we were to try to forbid every immoral action a person could ever engage in, this list would run far longer than ten rules. Since we are trying to distill the wisdom of all human ethics into a concise decalogue, we are back where we started.

Besides, as a perusal of this list will show, to outlaw specific crimes would be beside the point. One can never improve a person by simply dumping a list of edicts on them; if we are to lift up humanity, we must do it by weeding out the ultimate source of immoral behavior. We are aiming not to control people’s actions, but to change their hearts, and such cannot be accomplished with a hard list of decrees handed down from on high, to be obeyed or else. Only through peaceful and rational persuasion can we hope to permanently alter behavior for the good.

Finally, readers will notice that the new decalogue is secular, omitting any reference to deities or how to worship them. This is a long-overdue and badly needed improvement. The intent of this list is to unite, and any rule relating to religion – either for or against – would inevitably serve only to divide. As long as one’s faith does not direct one to harm others, one’s choice of religion (or lack thereof) is a private and individual matter, protected by the right to freedom of conscience, which no one else has any right to forcibly interfere in. To mandate that a specific god be worshipped, or that it be done in a specific way, is nothing more than a tyrannical attempt to impose a particular belief system on others – especially if such religious laws are mixed with secular ones, a dangerous first step toward the always disastrous intermingling of church and state. Rules such as these have no place in a free, enlightened and pluralistic modern world.

Without further ado, we now present the new set of ten commandments, a revised decalogue for this society and all societies to come. Each entry is supplemented by commentary, along the lines of the Jewish Talmud or Islamic hadith, to expound on the meaning of the rules and give suggestions as to how they should be applied.

First Commandment: Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.

The new ten commandments are divided into two equally important major categories, the “moral five” and the “intellectual five”. To use an ancient metaphor, the first five deal with the heart, and the second five with the brain. The former category, and the list itself, begins with the single greatest, simplest, and most important moral axiom humanity has ever invented, one which reappears in the writings of almost every culture and religion throughout history, the one we know as the Golden Rule.

Moral directives do not need to be complex or obscure to be worthwhile, and in fact, it is precisely this rule’s simplicity which makes it great. It is easy to come up with, easy to understand, and easy to apply, and these three things are the hallmarks of a strong and healthy moral system. The idea behind it is readily graspable: before performing an action which might harm another person, try to imagine yourself in their position, and consider whether you would want to be the recipient of that action. If you would not want to be in such a position, the other person probably would not either, and so you should not do it. It is the basic and fundamental human trait of empathy, the ability to vicariously experience how another is feeling, that makes this possible, and it is the principle of empathy by which we should live our lives.

The intent of this commandment is not to forbid the administration of justice, however. Those who freely violate it themselves, who do not let empathy deter them from harming others, may be punished in turn without having their own feelings taken into account. A judge about to sentence a convicted criminal to prison is not expected to empathize with the fear and distress experienced by the criminal upon hearing the sentence pronounced. At its best, the Golden Rule can build a humanistic society based upon compassion and mutual respect. But in circumstances such as the one just described, there is a cold reciprocity to it. Those who would be shown compassion must also show it to others.

Second Commandment: In all things, strive to cause no harm.

Any immoral actions that slip through the net of the first commandment will hopefully be caught by this one. Its intent is to encourage people to live their lives causing as little suffering as they possibly can, weighing the likely consequences of each of their actions and choosing a course to follow based on that evaluation. Actions that cause pain and harm to other beings should always be avoided, unless there is no other choice or unless an even greater evil would ensue if such an action were not performed. Again, this is a simple, obvious rule that virtually all religions and cultures have independently invented, even if most fall regrettably far short of abiding by it.

The intent of this rule is truly all-encompassing, encouraging people to choose an action based not only on what actual pain and suffering may occur as a result, but what potential pain and suffering may also be produced down the line. Eastern mystics who believe in the principle of karma often view it metaphorically as a wheel, a turning circle that returns the consequences of an action to the initiator of that action. While I do not believe in such a force, I do feel that the concept of karma is a helpful guide for choosing a course; however, I believe that a more appropriate and relevant metaphor for karma would be a tree, rooted at the point of action, branching off endlessly into the future. By our actions, we can choose to plant either a tree of good or one of evil, and our smallest decision may have consequences we cannot begin to guess. Therefore, the new second commandment instructs, strive always to take actions that bear good consequences, in order that the net amount of good in the world may be increased, and that evil in the form of pain and suffering may be decreased as much as possible.

Third Commandment: Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.

Where the first two commandments instruct actions, this one instructs an attitude. The two are not truly separable, however – the empathy required to imagine yourself in the position of another, and the desire to avoid causing harm based on that understanding, can come only from a mind that views the world as made up of equals deserving of the four qualities outlined in this commandment.

This commandment also extends the reach of the new decalogue, making it clear that the intended target of the first and second commandments is not just one’s fellow human beings. Our fellow living things that share this planet with us, many of which can feel pain and suffering just as we can, are equally worthy of our empathy and our compassion. Even the planet itself – especially the planet itself, that precious and irreplaceable world where we came into being and still the only place in the cosmos where we can survive – is deserving of our respect and our protection, and should not be seen as useful only insofar as it assists the designs of people.

The qualities demanded by this commandment deserve some further explanation. “Love” in this context does not mean romantic love or affection, but an appreciation for the unique qualities a thing possesses, and a recognition of its inherent value based on those qualities. “Honesty” means being truthful and open, refraining from falsehoods or misleading statements. (Honesty is a high moral value, but not supreme, and may be supervened by other, more important considerations; for example, dishonesty may be required to keep an innocent person from harm, or to avoid needlessly hurting the feelings of another.) “Faithfulness” is similar to honesty and implies an ethic of consistency, of keeping one’s promises and being ready and willing to help those who require it. “Respect” mandates treating others as inherently valuable, not using them as tools or means to an end that may be cast aside and discarded once they have made their contribution. Together, these four qualities are the watchwords of ethical behavior as laid out by the first five of the new ten commandments, and complex moral decisions may be resolved by using whichever potential solution combines them in the highest overall measure.

Note that this commandment does not prevent us from punishing the evil, the malicious and those who cause suffering. Loving and respecting those who do wrong – which we should do – does not mean passively standing aside, but rather stopping them from committing such deeds, in the hope that they may be rehabilitated and become fully functioning, ethical human beings. For more on this issue, see the next commandment.

Fourth Commandment: Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.

The fourth commandment contains several distinct instructions, but all united under one heading: the issue of how to deal with those who run afoul of the other rules. And, make no mistake, there is a strong and consistent message of action here. The new, humanist ten commandments reject the Christian dictum of turning the other cheek when someone slaps you; they deny the Taoist instruction that the best way to eliminate evil is to not oppose it. Such naively pacifistic moral codes only encourage wrongdoing by allowing it to proliferate unchecked, and send the impression that being ethical means standing idly by, complacent and unprotesting, while evil people run rampant over the rights of others.

This commandment, by contrast, recognizes that there will always be those who will not respect the rights of others, and states that it is the responsibility of ethical individuals to stand up to such people, to oppose them firmly and steadfastly, and to prevent them from causing harm to others. If the potential harm is imminent and great, then it is moral to use all necessary force – but no more – to prevent it from coming to pass. Once the immediate danger has passed, the wrongdoer should be made to give restitution for whatever harm he has done, and should be punished, to discourage him from transgressing again – not cruelly or excessively, but by using the minimum possible amount of force consonant with this goal. Justice requires no more and no less.

It should always be kept in mind that the purpose of punishment is not simply to make the offender suffer, but to bring him to an appreciation of the wrongness of his deed, and this is where the second half of this commandment enters. It says that, if the offender recognizes that what he did was wrong, offers his sincere apologies and vows not to repeat his act, then his transgression should not be held against him in the future. Of course, the offender’s contrition must be sincere, and we are perfectly justified in asking for further evidence of such sincerity if an apology is suspected to be less than heartfelt or the person is a known recidivist. Nor is an apology, however sincere, any reason to skip punishment altogether – misdeeds should not go unpunished, and to do otherwise sends the wrong message to both the offender and society at large.

Fifth Commandment: Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.

The first four of the five morality commandments apply to one’s behavior toward one’s fellow human beings and the world at large. The final morality commandment addresses a subject that is very different, but at least as important: one’s behavior toward oneself.

The greatest and most wonderful mystery of the universe is that it exists at all. But no less a wonder is that we are alive in this universe, that we are conscious of it, and more, that we can understand it. If a humanist can believe in anything that might be called a miracle, these things surely qualify. Even the fact that you, personally, exist is a rare chance. Out of all the countless googolplexes of ways that human DNA can align – out of all the countless trillions of ways to mix characteristics, all the immense multitudes of people who could potentially have existed – the one that did come into existence was you. Each human being currently alive on this planet embodies a mix of qualities that has never come into existence before and will never come into existence again. We are, every one of us, more unique and therefore more precious than the finest diamonds, more diverse than the stars that glitter in the night sky. These things are gifts whose value is beyond all measure.

What is the appropriate attitude in recognition of such awe-inspiring truths? Humility, to be sure, but it goes beyond that. To squander this unparalleled chance, to fail to recognize the awesomeness of what we possess, is a senseless and tragic waste of a thing priceless beyond priceless. We have a responsibility – almost an obligation – to live our lives in consciousness of what we have been given, and the only response such recognition can possibly provoke is joy and wonder, just as a man might be joyful and wonder-struck upon discovering a trove of buried treasure.

This commandment does not demand that everyone be happy all the time, for life is a journey through realms of great darkness as well as times and places of light. Instead, it confronts people with the truth that, except in cases of severe and incessant agony, merely being alive is such a joy in and of itself that it outweighs all the lesser suffering that accompanies it. It challenges people to use that knowledge to pull themselves through such difficult times, and denies that depression or hopeless pessimism can ever be the right way to view the world, as appropriate as they may sometimes seem. Life is something to be cherished, not spurned, and gladness is the proper response to each new day and the chances it offers.

Sixth Commandment: Always seek to be learning something new.

Of all the threats to morality and incentives to evil, perhaps the greatest is dogmatism, the invincible certainty that you are right and that the opinion of anyone who disagrees with you is worthless and can be rejected out of hand. The greatest crimes in history have been committed by those who possessed such certainty, whether it appears in the context of religious belief or not. From the belief that a person’s opinion is worthless, it is only a small leap to the conclusion that the person themself is as well.

Likewise, the belief that any one person is fallible and the weight of the evidence must always be the ultimate arbiter of what is true – something known in its institutionalized form as the scientific method – has driven the greatest and most rapid progress humanity has ever known. Therefore, the second five of the new ten commandments are designed to counter the threat of dogmatism and encourage continued human progress by training people to use their intellect in the best way and to the fullest extent.

This commandment has two purposes. First, in teaching that one should always seek to be learning, it promotes full use of the human capabilities to learn and understand – and why are we here if not to fulfill our potential? (It also makes it easier to fulfill the fifth commandment – the joy of understanding is always more sublime than the bliss of ignorance, and knowledge can only enhance one’s appreciation for the wonders of the cosmos.) Second, in teaching that one should always seek to learn something new, it teaches that there always is something new to learn – which is the case. The world we live in is a vast and beautifully complex place, one whose smallest facet holds enough detail for a lifetime of study. Existence is far too grand for any single mind to comprehend all of it in depth. The spirit of intellectual humility engendered by this realization is a powerful antidote to zealous dogmatism.

Seventh Commandment: Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.

Nature is not malicious, but it is subtle, and in the process of intellectual inquiry errors are virtually inevitable. Just about everyone will, at some point in their life, believe something which turns out to be false. This is regrettable, but no blame attaches to it; we are all human, and we are all fallible. However, what is blameworthy is when a person zealously guards an erroneous belief – perhaps because they find its consequences comforting, or because they have an emotional investment in the idea of being right – by refusing to test it to see if it is borne out by the facts, or by refusing to expose it to evidence that could prove its downfall. This path leads only to self-delusion and dogmatism. Truth can only be discovered through careful scrutiny and thorough fact-checking, carried out in a spirit of honesty and intellectual objectivity that divorces the consequences of a proposition’s being right or wrong from the question of whether it is supported by the evidence. That is what this part of the decalogue commands.

Eighth Commandment: Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.

This commandment continues in the vein of the previous one. It is desirable to live our lives and conduct ourselves according to what is true, and therefore we should seek to discover truth. But often, due to our own expectations or the idiosyncrasies of our thinking, we may fail to perceive a flaw in our reasoning that is obvious to others; other times, we may make decisions based on faulty or incomplete evidence, when someone more knowledgeable would have been able to guide us to the correct path. (As the sixth commandment points out, no one person can know everything.) Therefore, if we are to discover what is true, it is far better to seek the advice and counsel of others than to toil in isolation – to work in a climate of free speech, mutual correction and open debate, where fellow thinkers can scrutinize and correct each other’s work, and where any individual mistakes or biases can therefore be canceled out to produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is the mark of dogmatic belief and prejudice that it cannot abide such correction and instead seeks to stifle and condemn those who disagree with the prevailing wisdom. In reality, such heavy-handed protectionism is never justifiable. The truth will survive honest inquiry, but falsehood – never. And if a belief is false, should it not be discarded?

Ninth Commandment: Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.

Though dogmatism and prejudice may arise, they can cause no harm if they are not widely shared. Hence, the ninth commandment of the decalogue seeks to halt the spread of such errors by exhorting people never to accept the claims of another without sufficient proof. As well, this commandment is meant to counteract another human failing – the tendency of the governed to unquestioningly accept the pronouncements of their government. In all cases, we are told to be critical thinkers, sifting the words of others for truth, accepting their statements only after rigorous skeptical examination. If anything, it is even more vital to do this in times of crisis than in times of peace, because the decisions made in times of crisis have more potential to cause harm if mislaid and so must be studied all the more carefully.

This commandment does not call on us to ignore the research or the conclusions of those who have delved more deeply or studied more widely in a particular field than we have, however. On the contrary, one lifetime is not enough to learn everything, and for humanity as a whole to advance we must have specialists who can devote their time to investigating specific subjects. Instead, what this commandment instructs us to do is to accept the conclusions of these experts to the degree that they can marshal evidence to support them, not simply because they are the experts. Their function is to provide the facts to convince us, not to flatly state that some proposition is true and expect us to take their word for it, and we should not be shy in demanding that the evidence be strong enough to shore up any proposition in whose support it is deployed.

Tenth Commandment: Question everything.

Nothing is so sacred that it is beyond questioning, no belief so well-supported that it does not need any more reexamination. That is the thrust of the tenth and final commandment. Truth emerges from scrutiny unscathed; only error shows itself in need of correction. And since human history bears witness to the fact that even beliefs thought true for hundreds of years can be overturned by new discoveries, the older and apparently more solid bricks in the structure of our understanding need continual recertification just as the newer ones do.

This commandment does not call for an epistemologically hopeless solipsism or a nihilistic skepticism where all knowledge dissolves into a fog of uncertainty. On the contrary, we should recognize that there are some truths that, while they cannot be proven, are so basic and important to our knowledge of the world (for example, the efficacy of induction) that it would be futility itself to discard them. Instead, this commandment calls for the questioning of everything that can be profitably questioned, every proposition that has the potential to be replaced with something better. Indeed, this includes these commandments themselves. Any set of rules that is never questioned can only stultify into tyranny, but rules that are continually reevaluated will remain living and vibrant. Likewise, since the new ten commandments are simply general principles that do not prescribe specific actions, questioning will always be required to figure out exactly how they should be applied. No set of rules can ever remove the need for a rational and moral person to think for himself and make decisions using his own best judgment.

There is an incident in the New Testament where Jesus is asked to distill the Ten Commandments down to their essence, and he replies that the two greatest commandments are for people to love God and love their neighbor. Likewise, the new ten commandments can be condensed into one single dictum, one universal and overarching maxim: Be human. For, indeed, this is all that morality consists of or needs. Morality is not complicated, nor does it need to be supported by dense philosophical arguments. We, as human beings, are intelligent, social primates who inherently possess the theory of mind that allows us to understand the feelings and thoughts of others and the inquisitiveness that gives us the drive to understand the world we live in. Compassion, empathy, curiosity, intellectual inquiry – these things come naturally to us. They are part of our nature and of our heritage. To be human is simply to exemplify these qualities that all of us at least potentially possess. The new ten commandments are not meant to be bars laid across our behavior, but rather signposts that guide us to this understanding which lies at the heart of morality. We are not innately evil or misguided, the new ten commandments tell us – we are human beings, with the potential to do good as well as the potential to do evil, and we have the power to make this a better world if only we choose to use it.


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