A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine shared a set of ten “non-commandments” for atheists that had been compiled through a national contest. I thought I would take a moment to ponder them and offer some commentary in response. I hope that I am able to do this in a spirit of friendly conversation. As an evangelical Christian, I was indoctrinated to view every conversation with non-Christians as an opportunity to seek their conversion. While I do believe that Christianity has offered me indispensable spiritual resources I couldn’t live without, I hope that I can speak here in such a way that I am sharing my beliefs openly without being manipulative or argumentative. I have learned a lot from atheists. Some of my most important theological insights have come from atheist philosophers like Slavoj Zizek, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler. So here are my thoughts about these atheist commandments.
1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
This is a very important principle for me. I think that too many Christians are willing to ignore any evidence from our encounters with people and events in the world that contradicts our religious doctrine. Too many of us especially in the evangelical world are very nihilistic about human epistemology. According to the mainstream evangelical Christian view of human nature, our minds are so deformed that we cannot trust our perceptions of the world around us; we can only trust the Bible (even though it has to be interpreted through the same supposedly deformed minds that we mistrust to interpret reality). I see the Bible as a tool, not an idol. I have experienced its teachings to be useful to my spiritual growth. This does not mean that I have to believe everything described in its stories is historically factual. As a Protestant Christian, I have an advantage. I am not chained to declaring the infallibility of everything every Catholic pope has ever said in the past. I am free to utilize scripture, the wisdom of the past, my reason, and my experiences all as resources to find the truth, which is not a decree pronounced by an authority figure that I must passively accept, but the mystery of reality that I believe both science and religion play legitimate roles in explaining.
There is a Judeo-Christian concept called the “fear of the Lord.” The ancient Israelite leaders were said to exemplify the fear of the Lord when they behaved honorably even when they had the power to do whatever they wanted, like kings who had the power to murder or sleep with anybody they wanted but did the right thing out of respect for God. I consider “the fear of the Lord” to be the same thing as integrity. It’s not that I’m actually afraid of God, but rather I am afraid of betraying the truth that God has shown me. Scientists who are willing to record and publish experimental results that contradict their long-held hypotheses and jeopardize their professional credibility exhibit an integrity analogous to the “fear of the Lord” that the ancient kings exhibited by doing what was right when they had the power not to do so. In the Bible, 1 Peter 1:22 talks about being “purified by obedience to the truth.” I want to be obedient to the truth wherever that takes me, because I am afraid of what I become when I’m not.
2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
In general terms, I absolutely agree with this statement, even though it’s very, very hard to live out. The one qualification I would put on it is that we cannot avoid having starting premises when we set out to seek the truth. For example, I don’t know of any way to prove or disprove the existence of God. You either interpret reality with the assumption that God does exist or you interpret reality with the assumption that God doesn’t exist. I can’t even prove that the people around me actually exist and aren’t just part of a massive virtual reality simulator that I’ve been hypnotized into believing is the real world. Ultimately, it’s not going to get me very far to spend a lot of energy debating whether or not I’m in a virtual reality simulator, so I just cast that possibility aside, not because of evidence but because of pragmatism. To say “I think therefore I am” with Descartes is a pragmatic choice. Likewise, my belief in God is a pragmatic choice for me. Just because I can’t prove something from my empirical vantage point doesn’t mean that it can’t be true, so pragmatism takes over from there. The world “works” best for me with the presumption that God exists.
So it’s definitely the case that I do believe some things I wish to be true. I believe in God. I also believe that somehow justice will prevail in the end which is perhaps the most important extension of my belief in God. It’s because I believe in the eventual triumph of justice that I don’t despair and shut down when I see wicked, greedy people always winning and millions of people around me (particularly my fellow Christians) believing despicable lies fed to them by cable news channels. My interaction with truth is not merely as a passive observer, but as a participant. The truth that I make in solidarity with others who fight for justice is contingent upon what I wish to be true. The truth that I wish for is the vision that pushes me forward. I refuse to accept the “truth” of our present global capitalist order, because I really believe that humanity can do better. My religion gives me the vision I have for a just world (though I completely understand any skepticism others might have about the Christian vision for the world based upon our horrendous behavior throughout the past several centuries of Western European imperialism).
3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
I appreciate the way this statement is qualified. I agree that science is the most reliable way to explain processes in the natural world. I don’t think that this means that no other approach to knowledge is useful. Poetry is the most beautiful way to describe the natural world. When I am overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, I am experiencing something other than science, even if I have this encounter in the midst of a scientific process. My religion tells me that it’s okay to see a “you” in the world around me instead of just an “it,” to use the terminology of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. When I see a sunset, I appropriate my encounter with it as an expression of love from the somebody who created it with whom I claim a personal relationship. There’s nothing reliable about viewing reality this way, but it’s more beautiful to me.
The ancient Israelites who wrote part of the Bible didn’t have science, so whenever they came upon a natural disaster, like a drought or the invasion of a foreign army, they interpreted it as a sign of God’s anger against their wickedness. When I read these stories in the Bible, I recognize that there probably was a scientific or sociological explanation for the drought or invasion, but I also believe the Israelite prophets were absolutely telling the truth about the injustices they interpreted to be the source of God’s anger. I also believe that there are hidden spiritual realities in our world that cannot be captured through the empirical observation that the scientific method relies upon. To some degree, the “natural” world can be defined as that portion of the universe that is empirically observable by humans. Claims that are made about spiritual realities that cannot be captured through empirical observation are definitely not reliable, but they are not inherently false just because they aren’t empirically verifiable.
4. Every person has the right to control of their body.
I struggle with this one. We aren’t as autonomous as the Enlightenment has taught us to see ourselves. Everything I do with my body impacts my community. If I fill my body with cocaine, I can’t just say it’s my body, I can do whatever I want with it, because my habit will inevitably cause me to harm other people. Should athletes have the right to take whatever performance-enhancing drugs they want because it’s their bodies? With regards to the abortion issue that this seems to be mostly about, I am painfully in the middle. I certainly don’t believe that the government should be getting into women’s uteruses. But I worry about the consequences of living in a world in which we have so radically departed from the natural order where sex actually makes babies and thus your sexual partner is also your partner in making a family (recognizing that there are people who are naturally born with sexual or gendered otherness who deserve to have lifelong intimate companionship as well). There’s an analogy between the unhinging of sex and procreation and the way that our food consumption in industrial society is completely detached from the land where it was grown. Will we reach a point in the future where our food and our sexual partners are both made from plastic? I read an article that claims that sex robots are getting more and more realistic. Sure, people should have the right to control their bodies, but shouldn’t we also try to live in harmony with nature to the degree possible rather than constantly trying to engineer our way around it?
5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
I’ve met too many good atheists who live full and meaningful lives to deny this one. I do want to clarify that the relevance of God to my life is not that I wouldn’t know how to behave morally without God commanding me to do things. Though I have been shaped by Christian morality, God’s existence is not as critical to my sense of morality as it is to my sense of hope. I wouldn’t become a raving hedonist if I stopped believing in God. But the only reason I think I have a chance of making it in my career and life in general is because God is with me. If I were a strong, self-assured person all the time who never felt inadequate or terrified about anything, I suppose I could get along without God. It’s my frailty and anxiety that makes me cling to God. What’s really strange is that I accomplish things that I don’t feel at all capable of doing and the only way I can explain it is that God moves through me. It’s just a different way of narrating my existence, but I think the advantage to it is that I’m able to enjoy my accomplishments a lot more because I see them as gifts that surprise me rather than meritocratic reflections of my hard work that requires others’ recognition in order to count. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, the apostle Paul says that God told him, “My power is made perfect in your weakness.” There’s something powerful about people who experience themselves to be weak but strangely accomplish more than they think they can through a power beyond themselves.
6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
I think the most terrifying responsibility that I have is being a parent. I screw up so many times every day that it seems like it will be a miracle if my children grow up to be well-adjusted adults. So admittedly this is an area where I look to my religion for a tremendous crutch. If I didn’t believe in God’s grace and forgiveness, I would probably just curl up into a ball and never leave my bed. While my actions do have consequences, my ability to function and not collapse under the weight of all my failures comes from believing that Jesus through the cross has somehow absorbed all the evil and stupidity and violence in the world including mine. I realize how ridiculous that must sound to anyone who hasn’t been indoctrinated with this bizarre concept. I just know that somehow through asking Jesus to put all my mistakes on his cross, I’m able to pick myself up again. I take better responsibility for my actions when I feel completely enveloped by God’s grace. It doesn’t mean that the consequences disappear. But facing my failures with the sense that I am forgiven and loved by God makes it easier for me to be honest and not completely devastated so that I can learn and improve.
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.
I don’t think anyone would ever disagree with the Golden Rule which appears in nearly every major religion. At the same time, it can be very presumptuous if it’s taken too literally. When I treat others how I want to be treated, I’m presuming that I can put myself in their perspective. Everything I’ve learned about how to respect people who are different than me says that I shouldn’t try to do that. As a cis-het middle-class white male, I have no idea what a queer working class transgender woman of color wants or how she is going to interpret my actions. So more important than treating her literally as I would want to be treated is to listen to what she says about how she wants to be treated. Being humble and hospitable to other people is more about listening than it is about superimposing my wants and needs onto their perspective.
8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
Here is a place where I recognize that believing in God can be very problematic. The reason so many Christians harbor a bizarre disbelief in human-derived climate change (other than their loyalty to the political party that’s bankrolled by polluters) is because they believe it’s a matter of faith to say God has everything under control. I do believe that we can make our world uninhabitable through our recklessness. I don’t think God will magically intervene to blow extra ozone into the stratosphere if we screw it up. But it’s part of my basic posture of hope and faith in God to do what I personally can to live sustainably instead of falling into nihilism and saying there’s no point in trying because of the failure of global superpowers to cut back their carbon emissions.
9. There is no one right way to live.
But not every way of living is equally valid. In Christianity, we have a concept called the body of Christ. In the Bible, 1 Corinthians 12 talks about the way that everyone has different gifts and a different role in the human family just like the different parts of a human body. The ear is no less essential than the foot and so forth. I believe that just as each of us is gifted differently, each of us needs different beliefs in order to perform our particular role in the human family most effectively. The hand requires different knowledge and different priorities than the elbow, etc. I don’t believe that our beliefs need to be in unison with one another, but I do believe that they need to be harmonious. I will never be able to form a viable society with a group of cannibals. There are some things like child sacrifice and slavery which are never okay, no matter how accepting we want to be of cultural differences.
10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
One of my greatest struggles in life has to do with a desperate need to make a significant contribution to humanity by writing a really important book or something. I think if I didn’t believe in God, I would definitely feel like a failure if my life slipped away before I could make a major measurable contribution to the world. I think it helps that I believe in some kind of afterlife though I have no idea what it really looks like, because it means that my legacy here on earth is not my only shot at immortality. Part of what I’m trying to learn is to trust that playing my part in God’s greater plan is good enough. It may be that I’m not the one who’s going to write the great book, but I’ll say something in a sermon that inspires one of the students in my campus ministry to do it. I definitely want to leave the world a better place than I found it. And I hope I can make peace with doing this in a lot of small, intangible ways rather than needing to be a highly-acclaimed rock star with glamorous contributions.