Atheist Ten Commandments

They’re not “formally” commands, but they are ten principles to live by:

Alain de Botton’s ‘list for life’

  1. Resilience: Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
  2. Empathy: The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
  3. Patience: We should grow calmer and more forgiving by being more realistic about how things actually happen.
  4. Sacrifice: We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
  5. Politeness: Politeness is closely linked to tolerance, -the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, cannot avoid.
  6. Humour: Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it is disappointment optimally channelled.
  7. Self-awareness: To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
  8. Forgiveness: It’s recognising that living with others is not possible without excusing errors.
  9. Hope: Pessimism is not necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
  10. Confidence: Confidence is not arrogance – rather, it is based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we will ultimately lose from risking everything.
About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • John M.

    Interesting… These are great ideals. If there is no God and the world was completely cleansed of all religion, would these ideals still exist?

  • Nick the Nevermet

    Clearly, the author of the list thinks so, and thinks point #1 is already true.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    Ive often wondered the something similar. People talk of all the evil done in the name of Christ (which can’t be denied of course), but the good done by his true followers and the seeds of these ideals that have been planted are much harder to quantify. I suspect that the world would be much darker without the influence of those who have faithfully taken up their cross and followed in his steps.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    At the same time, though, it seems that many of these ideals stop sort of the full measure of Christ’s love. Example: To deal politely with those we can’t find agreement with and are unable to avoid is a long way from becoming all things to all people and dying in love for those who hate us.

  • Nick the Nevermet

    I don’t find it particularly shocking that a list of virtues as described and compiled by an atheist doesn’t leave room for Christ’s love (I think “virtue” is a better descriptor than commandments, given they are characteristics and not rules). At the same time, I don’t really find much to be wrong per with any of them. Politeness, for example is a good thing as the author defined it, I think, and I’m sure many/most would agree.

    I would actually be curious to see what an “atheist” set of 10 commandments would be, though I suspect it would necessarily have a more specific descriptor than atheist.

  • GeneC

    I wonder if this atheist is aware that many (most?) of these were given to the world by Christianity? Empathy, Patience, politeness, (self) sacrifice, Forgiveness and Hope are all gifts to the world through the church who got them from Jesus. As I understand my history none if these traits were a part of the pre Christian world, except possibly to some degree in Israel.

  • Liz

    I’ve been reading John Ortberg’s new book, Who Is This Man? And I’m struck by the thought: while these commandments may be “athiest”, they are actually fully influenced and shaped by a Christian worldview. These commandments would have been outrageous to the ancient world. And don’t even make much sense within the framework of the Far East. Only in the West, do athiests see these ideals a “the way things are” – because Western culture and ideals have been so deeply impacted by Jesus.

  • NateW

    GeneC – In my comment (#3) I did not mean to suggest what you do here. Be careful, brother. Do you really mean to say that no non-Israelite father ever loved his children, forgave his brother, or died to save h is family? Do you mean to say that Buddhism did not teach and encourage self-awareness, patience, or empathy?

    There are many examples of non-israelites who showed virtue in the OT. Christ is said in Hebrews to be a high priest in the order of Melchizadek, a holy man who blessed Abraham when they met as Abraham traveled, prior to Israel even beginning to exist.

    What you are saying is essentially that it was with CHRIST that man came to have “knowledge of good and evil”, rather than with Adam in the beginning!

    No, Christianity isn’t distinct because of the virtues that it cherishes, but because within active participation in the eternal death and resurrection of Christ we find ourselves freed from slavery to virtue and vice, from command and punishment.

  • Banner

    Liz, just finished Ortberg’s book a few days ago. You make a valid point from the book. Our society (Western) has been deeply influenced by Jesus, to the point that many are unaware of what a debt we owe.

    These commandments are certainly to be commended as beneficial to society. But I don’t find them consistent with a true atheist worldview. I have often thought Nihilism is the most honest form of atheism.

  • http://aristophrenium.com David Smart

    Interesting. Three principles of significant importance to me as a Christian apologist are conspicuously missing from this list: honesty, integrity, and rationality.

  • Richard T
  • JamesB

    @Banner,

    Can you give an example of a “true atheist worldview” and what you base it on?

  • JamesB

    @David Smart,

    By “conspicuously missing,” are you implying that they aren’t important to the author or to atheists in general?

  • Banner

    JamesB as I mentioned I consider Nihilism as a more consistant worldview with the idea of no God.

    I just find it hard to come to some of the moral conclusions of the “10 Commandments for Atheist”, without the belief in God.

  • JamesB

    @Banner,

    As an atheist I disagree with you, both on the nihilism front and on the difficulty of coming to the same moral conclusions as the author. They all make perfect sense to me in that it’s not hard to figure out that my life will be better for the most part if I adhere to ideas such as these.

    For what it’s worth, I personally find it hard to read the Bible and come to some of the same moral conclusions of the “Atheist 10 Commandments”.

  • Banner

    JamesB. I can certainly agree with you that following those commandments would be beneficial in many ways. I don’t really see anything innately wrong with the commandments.

    In the person of Jesus I see aspects of God reveled to me. I see him desiring a relationship with me and his commandments are meant for my good; much as father forbidding his child from playing in a busy street. I also see his commandments as a deeper reflection of his character.

    I have sincerely tried to wrap my head around ethics from a atheistic point of view and always come back to nihilism as the most consistent view.

    Basically the above commandments are designed with the thought of what is best for the society for which they are being formulated. As a societies’ needs and desires change, who is to say that these characteristics will still be viewed as virtuous. If human standards are the highest measure we can apply, what makes one societies rules better than another (either from cultural or historic view).

    I appreciate your disagreement and the spirit of your dialogue.

  • http://www.timhein.com.au Tim

    I’ve put together a response to this, if it’s of interest: http://timhein.com.au/2013/02/06/alain-de-bottons-borrowed-virtues/

  • JamesB

    @Banner,

    How do you know what God’s commandments are and what do you do when you encounter an ethical dilemma with no explicit commandment attached to it?

  • Banner

    I accept the bible as containing God’s word (OT & NT). I realize that is a loaded statement and one with which you may not agree, but for sake of our discussion I will answer that I have satisfied my mind that the bible is a reliable source for understanding God.

    You ask an interesting question regarding ethical dilemmas for which we do not have a specific command. That is one of the aspects about about the Bible that adds to my belief that it is from God. I find in it a universal quality that relates to the human condition within different time periods and cultures. Basically I believe the commandments like “love thy neighbor” are meant for us to apply to whoever our neighbor might be, in an African village in 2013 or a medieval castle in Europe.

    Now it’s not always a neat and easy package, I’ll admit.

  • JamesB

    @Banner,

    Life, in general, is not a neat and easy package, so you’ll get no quarrel from me there.

    It was sort of a leading question on my part, as I like to point out that God or no, Bible or no, we all face ethical dilemmas without easy answers. For some, a belief in God or a particular religious system helps answer a few things, but in the end we all face the same challenges. I just don’t see a need for God-belief to face them. That’s all.

  • Banner

    JamesB
    The Bible talks a bit about the concept of discernment which calls for me to apply a bibical worldview to my walk in life. We are not always feed like a mom bird feds her young, we have to work for it. In trying to apply these principles I have always found the bible to ultimately honor my fellow man and the society and government in which I live.

    I have found our discussion refreshing.

  • Tony

    The great thing about these principles is that they’re not cluttered up with extraneous fluff about not worshipping other gods, keeping certain days “holy” or making graven images, which have absolutely nothing to do with trying to be good or moral.

  • JamesB

    @Banner,

    The concept of a “Biblical worldview”means different things to different people because the Bible has to be interpreted, which is basically my point. Whatever one uses as a guiding principle, there is still some combination of reason, logic and emotion needed in order to make the “right” decision in any given situation.

    I think I’ve said what I came to say and am getting redundant at this point so I’ll duck out. Thanks for the conversation.


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