10 Commandments (for Atheists)

10 Commandments (for Atheists) January 2, 2015

The authors of the book Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century recently sponsored a competition for a new set of atheist Ten Commandments. Here are the winners:

  1. Be open minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
  2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
  3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
  4. Every person has the right to control over their body.
  5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
  6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognise that you must take responsibility for them.
  7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
  8. We have the responsibility to consider others including future generations.
  9. There is no one right way to live.
  10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

We could tweak the wording, swap out a few, or maybe add a few more (why stick with ten?). Overall, though, I think it’s a great list.

But not everyone was pleased. At Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, conservative commenters objected in various ways. I’ve waded through hundreds to get the major themes. I didn’t notice any Christian commenters applaud the general idea. Instead, they all dug in their heels in various ways.

As I go through these, I’ll respond only briefly. Feel free to add more in the comments.

Quibbles.Some complained that they aren’t all commands—numbers 3, 4, and 5, for instance. Some are similar and could be combined—6 and 8, for instance. One commenter asked, “What is the penalty for violating these ‘Ten Suggestions?’” And some of this is subjective—for example, what does it mean to leave the world a “better” place?

And that’s the problem when using the format of immutable laws from an absolute dictator as a structure for enlightened advice. Fair points, I’d say, but they (deliberately?) avoid the issue. As for the concern about subjectivity, yes, we may have different directions we’d like society to move in. Welcome to the real world.

Defiant or petulant. One commenter winsomely said, “I seem to like the original version, atheist can kiss my @ss!” Another: “They don’t seem to get that their way of life is so illogical even though they claim to be such superior intellects.”

If you’re frustrated but have no concrete complaint, I suppose this is what you’re left with. I get empty “You’re wrong!” comments of this sort regularly at this blog.

Atheists are hypocritical. Sure, you atheists will follow rule #1 and alter your beliefs … “unless it points to God.” You’ll follow #2 and reject that which has no evidence … “unless it’s what you think is true.” You’ll follow the scientific method … “only if it fits [your] agenda.” Summing up, “These sound like liberal commandments for others, not for themselves.”

Are atheists imperfect? Of course. But I see none of the hypocrisy that they imagine. I strive to follow these rules and would encourage those in my life to point out where I fall short.

Atheists are arrogant. “My primary argument with atheists is that they are so arrogant as to not consider that there may be a higher power than themselves.”

I’m happy to consider that. In years of searching, I’ve found very little, but I continue to seek out good arguments in favor of Christian claims.

Your list is incomplete. “Not a single word against killing, stealing, diddling somone else’s spouse, catting around while your spouse isn’t looking, being greedy or being excessively prideful. So basically, ‘Anything Goes!’”

You need commandments to be reminded not to kill someone? Anyway, #7 (“Treat others as you would want them to treat you and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated”) covers that. “Anything goes!” is neither the point of this list nor the philosophy of any atheist I know.

Where are the absolute consequences? “What happens if you break these atheist commandments? You go to not-hell? What’s the punishment? I see no reason to follow any of these if there is no God.”

“What is the incentive to be good when evil is more fun and profitable?”

Penn Jillette had a great response:

The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero. The fact that these people think that if they didn’t have this person watching over them that they would go on killing, raping rampages is the most self-damning thing I can imagine.

I’ve yet to see any compelling argument for objective morality (that is, moral claims that are true whether anyone believes them or not). Lots of enthusiastic and confident claims, but no evidence.

Anyway, there are plenty of consequences right here. Society imposes legal or social sanctions for poor behavior. The Christian who thinks that he’d rampage at will hasn’t thought this through.

Atheists wouldn’t worry about God unless they knew he existed! About nativity displays on public property: “I would have no problem if I had neighbor who worshiped turnips, and put up a yearly display. I wouldn’t try to prohibit his freedom to do so. Why are atheists offended by religious displays? I suspect they, deep down, know and refuse to acknowledge the Divine Designer.”

So atheists are really all believers? I doubt it.

As for nativity displays, I don’t know why the War on Christmas® is that big a deal (except for Fox News ratings, I mean). I have no problem with a neighbor who puts up a yearly display for turnips or Jesus, just don’t do it on government property. Show respect for your Constitution. Why is this hard?

It’s all the atheists’ fault. “Back in the 60’s before prayer was kicked out of school and the teachers had a copy of the 10 Commandments on her board you never heard of any kids killing kids.”

Not really. When you look at social metrics, you find that belief is inversely related to social health. The godless Scandinavian countries embarrass the U.S. with statistics on lifespan, divorce, life satisfaction, murder, and so on.

10 atheist commandments? Must be a religion. “Funny how the supposed sect of the nonreligious has to make their ‘thoughts and beliefs’ in a form that parallels another religion.”

“If they’re trying to make themselves not a religion they’re a doing a terrible job at it.”

It’s quite a stretch to call anything within atheism a religion when atheism is a rejection of supernatural claims.

Other commenters looked down their noses at Humanist chaplains and atheist church services, but there is no inconsistency. Take chaplains and church, remove the supernatural, and what remains can be useful.

Double down on Christianity. “To believe in a non belief.. So sad for them to believe that when we die, there is nothing. I choose Heaven.. These people have lost all hope.”

“You Atheists are starving. Like petulant children who stomp their feet because they resent the thought of someone being ‘in control’ other than they, themselves.”

No evidence here, just Bible quotes, Christian theology, an opportunity for proselytizing, tales of how great heaven will be, and Pascal’s Wager. In short, just cuz.

There is more—atheism = communism, atheists love abortion, Stalin was an atheist—but you get the idea.

(I’ve written more about the Ten Commandments: about their irrelevance to modern society, how the ten that we’re familiar with aren’t the correct ten, and about an American Atheist monument put up in response to a Ten Commandments monument on (you guessed it) public property.)

Christianity has 42,000 denominations. They can’t even figure out their own Bible.

The intellectual and emotional energy it takes
to figure out how God fits into everything
is far greater than dealing with reality as it presents itself to us.
— Ryan Bell (“Year Without God” blog)

Image credit: Hartwig HKD, flickr, CC

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  • MNb

    I think nr.1 the hardest.

    “What happens if you break these atheist commandments?”
    That believer apparently is going on a killing spree as soon as his/her god gives permission.
    But let me answer the question. Breaking these atheist commandments means the most important reward is diminished: human happiness.

    • wtfwjtd

      “That believer apparently is going on a killing spree as soon as his/her god gives permission.”

      This is frightening, to think that someone who believes in their god without evidence can imagine themselves to be commanded to do all sorts of things by their god, based on no evidence.

      “Breaking these atheist commandments means the most important reward is diminished: human happiness.”

      Exactly, and I would add it’s diminished in the here and now, and not in some pie-in-the-sky, imaginary future place.

  • Rudy R

    What is the incentive of being good? Society has, in one way or another, enforced it’s moral values through a punishment system. Religions were invented, in part, to ensure punishment was meted out (by a god) in the afterlife for those that escaped punishment for committing murder, rape, theft etc. in the present life. After all, that was the basis for Jesus’ ministry, preaching the apocalypse, that God would ensure everyone would receive their just deserts here on Earth.

    • MNb

      Being good makes me feel better. Guess what? That applies to the vast majority of mankind.

      • TheNuszAbides

        I tend towards this optimism but also often wish I knew for certain. then again, wishing one knew for certain is probably the root of most of the nonsense!

        • MNb

          There is this though experiment: organize a world wide poll. Ask questions like:
          1) do you prefer to be happy or unhappy?
          2) does it make you feel good to make other people happy?

          I don’t think it hard to predict the answers.

          Mind you, that’s only where the problems begin (it made Hitler happy to kill 6 million jews and quite a few Europeans thought that a good thing). But the incentive of being good is not a problem in my view. The only exceptions I can think of are psychopaths.

    • TheNuszAbides

      unfortunately, getting a “clean read” on humanity’s individual motives for good (or bad) behavior in the counterfactual context of there never having been religion and its leaders (and/or NoTrueReligionist charlatans, and whatnot) is simply impossible.

  • Greg G.

    If we allow turnip displays, we will have to permit carrot displays, then parsnips and rutabagas? Where will it end?

  • ZenDruid

    I would advocate, “Honor the little children; they are wiser than they let on.”

    • Sophia Sadek

      A variation on the theme might be, “Honor the little children for they may be pushing your wheelchair some day.”

  • Sophia Sadek

    The blurb on atheist arrogance ignores the fact that each individual faces higher powers on a daily basis. None of them is eternal, but they are higher than the observer. Science itself depends on the higher power of the community of investigators to question and improve on the work of its individual members. Religions have a similar convention on what constitutes the wants and needs of the cult object.

  • Kodie

    The “atheists are arrogant” complaint – none of us exist in a vacuum. The “higher power” is everything that I am in that is not me. I am not economics, I am not democracy, I am not traffic, I am not my environment, my city, my neighborhood, or even the contents of my apartment. I am not even my stomach. We all serve our stomach, and we all serve dirt. Doesn’t that suck, we are lower than dirt.

    • smrnda

      Higher powers exist, they just aren’t persons. They don’t usually offer us moral rules, but they do present limitations. And some higher powers are really just people acting collectively to make rules for governing society. There are all kinds of laws that exist, but the thing is, with that type of power we can change them when we figure out they aren’t working.

      • TheNuszAbides

        it’s a shame how often egocentrism, anthropocentrism, and similar projections is lambasted (collectively or individually) as consciously arrogant (even when this is an accurate charge, it’s a shame of a different sort). sometimes it’s just not [yet] having any other perspective to work with. yet another case for education over condemnation.

  • RichardSRussell

    I’ve gotta agree with the objection that these are poorly named as “commandments”. I would’ve named the contest the same — “rewriting the 10 Commandments” — but labeled the results “10 Good Ideas”. (Of course, the religionists would’ve found something to complain about over that as well, but I wouldn’t have felt so squirmy about the authoritarian nature of “commanding” someone else to behave the way I’d prefer.)

    • Kodie

      I was thinking about how humans like lists a lot, and also when you get to the part where they tell you how you should behave, like you don’t already know. There are regular social interactions that inform you; putting them on a list says we have to keep reminding you explicitly, and “commanding” means judging. I just think people like laws so they can point to people who break them.

  • Rikki

    “My primary argument with atheists is that they are so arrogant as to not consider that there may be a higher power than themselves.”

    Almost tone deaf to perfection. I would wager the author of this line knows for a fact many atheists were indoctrinated as children or at the least they were once religious believers but the author chooses to pretend reality is otherwise. Even if you grant this person the falsehood, it is still an absurdity to think “atheists” have never considered it.

    I’ve not only “considered” a higher power, I was raised to believe in one. However, I bothered to evaluate any evidence offered that there might be one and found what is claimed to be evidence is not only incredibly lacking in substance, but big on rationalization and fallacious philosophical shenanigans.

    As much as I would like it to be true, say a truly benevolent loving god granting an afterlife rather than the previously pantheistic war deity Yahweh, I refuse to lie to myself for “hope” or comfort when contemplating my own mortality or the loss of loved ones.

    A comforting lie is still a lie. Much like this one …

    “My primary argument with atheists is that they are so arrogant as to not consider that there may be a higher power than themselves.”

    • Godlesspanther

      The fact of the matter is that atheism is a very humble position. Reality is what it is regardless of what I know, believe, want, care about, etc.

      To say that there is this mysterious thing that can’t be detected with our senses and that you just happen to know the right way to believe in it is pathologically arrogant.

  • Blizzard

    “They don’t seem to get that their way of life is so illogical even though they claim to be such superior intellects.”

    “They” who? It don’t take a rocket scientist to be an atheist. Not exactly rocket surgery. Mr. or Ms. “logic” expert lol.

  • Greg G.

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3600#comic

    I just wanted to share today’s SMBC, though it would be better if there was an active Martin Luther conversation going on.

    • MNb

      Tsssss – it’s a quite dishonest comic. It were mostly male catholics who insisted on burning lutherans (and vice versa).

  • MNb

    An excellent attempt by a mathematician to kick god out of another gap:

    http://www.salon.com/2015/01/03/god_is_on_the_ropes_the_brilliant_new_science_that_has_creationists_and_the_christian_right_terrified/

    At the other hand Flemish atheist philosopher has proposed another argument for god:

    https://twitter.com/mboudry/status/551713345368510465

    • Clever!

    • Rudy R

      Neil deGrasse Tyson has an interesting take on kicking god out of another gap or, as he says it, God exists at the frontier of science and as we learn more and more, the frontier and god move farther and farther away.

      • Pofarmer

        “God is an ever receding pool of scientific ignorance.”

  • Pofarmer

    Interesting. Catholic theologian John Haught talking about sophisticated God belief. It is mostly a big argument from Consequence.

    http://www.salon.com/2007/12/19/john_haught/

    • Dys

      I think, to a certain extent, John Haught is correct, but fails to understand the totality of the issue. I actually agree that atheism necessarily entails a form of nihilism, but hardly the “woe is us” depression that theologians seem to think it has to be. Most atheists I’ve encountered accept that there’s no ultimate meaning or purpose – it’s why everyone, whether they realize it or not, makes their own. I also agree that many atheists tend to concentrate on the fundies a bit too much. But such a large percentage of the US population accepts young earth creationism, and we have idiotic creationists trying to cripple science standards in public schools. Whether Haught chooses to recognize it or not, he’s in the minority.

      I generally see the types of appeals Haught makes as a type of arrogance – that humanity itself must have an important place in the universe because…reasons. But I think the fact remains that mankind is more than capable of inventing their own purpose and meaning. And some choose to elevate their invention to encompass everyone else, which is unwarranted.

      Lastly, his (and other’s) attempts to exempt the miracles described in the bible from any level of empirical verifiability (or probability) strikes me as more of a safeguard to ward against cognitive dissonance than anything else. Wrapping a bubble around events you want to accept and plastering a “Does not apply” sign on it isn’t worth much, in my opinion.

      • You can see this as a meme struggling for survival. Religion thrives when social conditions are poor. When society cleans house by itself, there are fewer problems for religion to assuage, and it withers, as has happened in parts of Europe.

      • MNb

        “I also agree that many atheists tend to concentrate on the fundies a bit too much.”
        So do I, but I think Chris Hallquist had a point when he wrote that liberal (as opposed to fundie) believers produce so little substance that it’s only rarely worth the effort for us.

        • Dys

          The problem with liberal believers is that they have to wrap the bible up with so many excuses, apologetics, and appeals to metaphor in order get around many of the unpleasant implications of the book that it becomes indistinct. They pat themselves on the back for having a sophisticated theology, but it’s so divorced from reality that it’s pointless. In some extreme cases, it basically becomes a pantheistic Jesus appreciation club. It’s one of the reasons I find Yonah’s “Historicity? Who cares?” apologetics so lacking.

          The one thing I was going to add to my previous comment is that, in many cases, the atheists are attacking points of common belief. For most Christians, a literal resurrection is accepted dogma, and that’s a legitimate point of contention due to the lack of evidence for such an event. That doesn’t really devolve to a fundie/liberal divide, unlike such things as the creation myth, Noah’s ark, etc.

      • Pofarmer

        Thoughts like this are why I love the commenters here.

    • MNb

      “We rarely hear from religious believers who accept the standard Darwinian account of evolution.”
      Francis Collins wrote a book about the subject.

      “That’s the question John Haught has set out to answer by proposing a “theology of evolution.”
      Haught is a bit late.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Dowd
      https://tasmedes.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/een-aanzet-tot-een-theologie-van-evolutie-deel-1/

      The issue is quite simple imo. Evolution Theory says exactly zilch about god. So a priori there is no reason to assume that ET and christianity have to conflict. Sure we can connect it to the Problem of Evil, as Neil Carter recently did, but that’s nothing new. Natural disasters pose exactly the same problem.
      The problems for believers start, as usual, as soon as they derive concrete claims from their holy book: young earth, literal Adam and Eve etc. But I can imagine a theology free from such problems. I’m just not interested in formulating such theologies. Why would I?

      “My chief objection to the new atheists is that they are almost completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world of theology.”
      Whine, whine, whine. It’s up to Haught and co to develop a christian theology that doesn’t conflict with ET, not up to any atheist. Plus he neglects the many atheist comments addressing WLC and Plantinga on evolution.

      “The Darwinian story of evolution seems to give people a whole new creation story.”
      I’m not going to look up sources today, but European believers have realized this long ago. Haught is behind the times.

      “a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence.”
      More whining. No, it’s up to theologians like Haught to show that there is non-scientific evidence as well (I have never seen any) and how such evidence can separate correct theological claims from incorrect ones.

      “it’s a kind of dogma — that science is the only reliable way to truth.”
      More of the same. It’s up to Haught to show that there are other reliable ways to truth – whatever that means, as the theist meaning usually is quite different from the scientific one.

      “that itself is a faith statement”
      The old blooper that science requires faith in a sophisticated form. No, I just notice that theologians – specifically Haught – thus far have failed to find a non-scientific reliable way to truth. They have even failed to unambiguously to tell what they mean with truth. Haught can wake me up as soon as he thinks he has succeeded. If yes I’ll promise that I’ll be the first one to test it and to investigate where it leads us to.

      “But the idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There’s no scientific proof for that.”
      Consistently missing the point. That’s not the problem. The problem is that there is no non-scientific proof for the idea that theology, belief and/or faith can lead us to truth.

      “the most important dimensions of reality”
      And predictably Haught falls back on gibberish. Reality may have four dimensions or ten (String Theory), at least in science it has an unambiguous meaning. Leave it to Haught not to define, no matter how provisional, what he means with “most important dimensions”.

      “So we can never get our minds around it.”
      Quite an understatement – theologians even fail to begin getting their minds around it. That’s exactly the problem – not of atheists, but of theologians. Look how he contradicts himself. He claims a non-scientific way to truth, but we’ll never get to that truth because the path is fuzzy and elusive. I have news for you, John Haught. The scientific way is anything but fuzzy and elusive. Guess which way is the reliable one?
      What follows thus can be nothing but baked air, so I stopped reading.

      • Pofarmer

        Great comment.

      • TheNuszAbides

        “The problems for believers start, as usual, as soon as they derive
        concrete claims from their holy book: young earth, literal Adam and Eve
        etc. But I can imagine a theology free from such problems. I’m just not
        interested in formulating such theologies. Why would I?”

        and merely contemplating the possibilities gives the lie to wishful dismissals like “oh, you atheists are so literal, ~most Christians~ [or whoever] don’t ~actually~ believe there was a garden of Eden, it’s not important to our ~deeper~ beliefs” etc. etc…

  • Mary

    Thank you for this post. I’m a Christian, but I can see that these “commandments” are reasonable and good (I especially liked “treat others as you would want them to treat you”–that’s the Christian Golden Rule). I think your list shows that Christians and Atheists can agree on some things, like basic moral principles!

    • MNb

      Very nice comment – but one remark: the Golden Rule is not typically christian (or atheist for that matter).

      “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

      Confucius.

    • Thanks for the feedback. It’s good to be reminded of our substantial common ground. It would’ve been nice to have more thoughtful Christians like you commenting at The Blaze.

  • The dumb 16 year old

    Everyone on this site that claims to be Christian is not doing what they are supposes to. The word of God is not supposes to be argued. The message I get is to love everyone. That murderer does wrong but we do wrong too. Nobody is perfect. Talking about people is wrong . Lying is wrong. Hate is wrong but we all do it. As a Christian it is your job to love those people anyway and guide them in the right direction. Your job is not to call them ignorant and shove religion down their throat . If you can be a good morally righteous person and be an atheist or a Jew or Muslim than go ahead. But please stop arguing and and fighting over what doesn’t matter. Churches now have gone in such a bad direction where people look down on them. Pastors stealing money and its all just wrong. It makes me sad that I sometimes doubt being a Christian but it makes me feel better that I feel that I always have a God to talk to and that I feel like he listens and leads me. I love my God. And I hope you all may find him and love him as well.

    • Dys

      The word of God is not supposes to be argued.

      Arguments about the bible are as old as the books that comprise it. One of the main ones is whether it’s the word of any god at all.

      As a Christian it is your job to love those people anyway and guide them in the right direction.

      There’s no assurance that Christians know what the right direction is.

      I suppose I can understand the “can’t we all just get along” sentiment you’re going for, but it’s not going to happen. The fact is that Christians and atheists can get along where their interests are shared. Religion just isn’t one of them. We don’t think your god (or any others) exists.

    • MNb

      “And I hope you all may find him and love him as well.”
      Your hope is vain.

    • Pofarmer

      “Churches now have gone in such a bad direction where people look down on them. Pastors stealing money and its all just wrong.”

      As if learn some history. There is nothing new under the sun.

    • The focus here is more on apologetics–that is, intellectual arguments for Christianity (and related ideas).

  • JR

    As usual, I see no attacks on Islam, Judaism, American Indian deism, or any other belief other than Christianity. So until you atheists get some intellectual integrity, continue to enjoy your circle fest. One question, is there the possibility of any higher life form in the universe than humankind? If your answer is “yes”, the stop, look yourself in the mirror, and see the hypocrite standing in front of you. Now apply your own “scientific” standard to yourself.

    • Kodie

      Will doing that make your beliefs true? Then it’s not scientific, ya dummy.

    • Greg G.

      As usual, I see no attacks on Islam, Judaism, American Indian deism, or any other belief other than Christianity.

      Here’s a couple of clues: The name of the blog is “Cross Examined”. The subtitle is “Clear Thinking about Christianity”.

      The blog topics are focused but they lead to a wide variety of topics in the comments section. Perhaps you would like to defend the position of Christianity being any more valid than “Islam, Judaism, American Indian deism, or any other belief other than Christianity”. Also, why is your brand of Christianity better than every other Christian belief system. We deal with Creationists, Mormons, Scientologists, and Progressive Christianity that considers God to be an inpenetrable ground of being. Are you willing to defend all of those or just what your church believes?
      Why don’t all you Christians work out one rational belief system instead of having over 40,000 denominations, each guided by the Holy Ghost?

      You might like Jesus and Mo.

    • Ron

      One question, is there the possibility of any higher life form in the universe than humankind?

      The Cosmic Jelly Donut: It deep-fried in oil for your ravenous cravings.

      • I knew there was a higher power behind donuts! And it gave its life so that I might get fat …

    • One problem at a time, friend. Let’s put Christianity in its place first, and then we’ll move on.

      Yes, a higher life form is possible. I’m missing the obvious lesson.

      If you’re assuming that I reject the possibility of a supernatural creator, I suggest that you stop and look at yourself in the mirror with a dictionary in your hand and look up “atheist.”

    • MNb

      Please read the subtitle: “clear thinking about christianity“. But now you insist – I think Mohammed riding the sky on his horse Buraq as silly as Jesus’ Resurrection.

      “the possibility of any higher life form”
      There are higher life forms here on Earth. Here is one:

      http://www.droomplekken.nl/images/dp/nieuws-2014/Berggeiten-Gran-Paradiso-klein.jpg