10 Commandments (for Atheists)

10 Commandments (for Atheists) November 2, 2018

The authors of the 2014 book Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century 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.

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We could tweak the wording, swap out a few, or maybe add a few more (what’s magical about 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, and I 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 categories, I’ll respond only briefly, but feel free to add your own 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?’” (I doubt he wants to go there. The Old Testament gives death as the punishment for almost all of the original ten.)

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! And also stupid!” 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 negligible evidence, 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 someone 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). There are lots of enthusiastic and confident claims, but no good evidence.

Anyway, there are plenty of consequences right here. Society imposes legal or social sanctions for poor behavior. Atheists happily acknowledge the obligations they have to their family and friends. Christians who think that they’d rampage through life without God to constrain them 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? Nope.

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? The separation of church and state that prevents Christian-only displays on public property also prevents only Muslim prayers in your kids’ classrooms.

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. As to the logic of this project, it looks to me like a reasonable and interesting challenge to take the constraints of the well-known 10 Commandments and see what it would look like if reason and evidence were the guiding principles.

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, handwaving about how great heaven will be, and Pascal’s Wager. In short: Christianity, just because.

There is more—atheists love abortion, atheism = communism, 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 45,000 denominations. Christians 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)

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/2/15.)

Image credit: Hartwig HKD, flickr, CC

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