When I read this report about a contest that was the brainchild of Lex Bayer and John Figdor (who wrote the book Atheist Heart, Humanist Mind), I thought to myself, that is probably a bad idea.
It seems to me that the question isn't, Can atheists be moral? It is abundantly obvious they can be and often are. The question I have for atheists is this: Why was Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov wrong to suggest "If God does not exist, everything is permitted"? That seems to encapsulate the common thought of the God-believer. Without a supreme Law Giver, how can there be moral laws to break? Atheism is the denial, or at least lack of belief in, such a Supreme Law Giver.
The atheistic "commandments" in this article are obviously something more. It is really a statement of humanist ethics. Not all atheists are humanists. (But they are my favorite atheists!)
All that being said, I offer my thoughts on these "commandments."
1. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
The problem I have here is the word evidence. Evidence needs to be assessed and interpreted - lots of room for disagreement there. I think open-mindedness is a good idea. Perhaps we should begin practicing open-mindedness by recognizing that our way of looking at the evidence might not be the correct one, or only way of interpreting it.
2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
Paraphrase: Religious faith is no damn good.
3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
But does morality, the subject under discussion, have its grounding in physics or metaphysics?
4. Every person has the right to control of their body.
5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
Agreed. But how does one get to ethical imperatives without God? The question I have is, Is morality something humans ought to practice?
6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize 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.
But why should we do this? Those, for example, who go through life with a brutish attitude, oppressing those who are weaker, thinking primarily of themselves, living solely to satisfy their own desires are bad people, why? Are they bad at all or merely "dancing to the beat of a different drummer?"
8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
Why have we that responsibility? Who says so? This is a fantastic thought, in my opinion. But it is obvious that millions take no heed to it. What is wrong about that?
9. There is no one right way to live.
That is the problem I have with atheistic morality. And it seems plain to me that it undermines the very idea of a set of commandments for atheists. If we take this "commandment" seriously, then the egoist is only practicing an alternative lifestyle. If there is no one right way to live, then why doesn't might make right? If there is no one right way to live, then number 7 above is just a quaint little thought instead of the way humans ought to conduct themselves.
10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
But if there be no Divine Purpose and life is an accident without rhyme or reason, this is a mere platitude.
Now I add that I was critiquing the above ideas as atheist ideas. From the Humanist point of view they makes sense and have force for those who are committed to the principles of Humanism. But for those not so committed, they lack any force at all.
There is in this article a thought I found interesting. The author writes:
It's all about compassion: ... one does not need a religion to act ethically, with compassion, in the world. People, in fact, are "hardwired" to be compassionate. That is, people can be good, productive and caring citizens without a higher deity telling them to act in certain ways.
I actually find myself more or less in agreement about the "hardwiring" for being compassionate. That is what religious believers mean when they speak about a Law of God written on the heart. It's simplistic, I suppose, but I agree with Christian Philosopher C.S. Lewis when he wrote "conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver."
Again, I don't think it is a question of whether disbelievers in a Divine Lawgiver can behave morally. At the same time I certainly think it a misrepresentation to suggest God-believers only do good because a "higher deity" tells them to behave certain ways. No, the person who acts out of harmony with their conscience cannot be truly at peace.
I suppose I find myself in the position of being an Agnostic Theist. I'm not committed to number 3 above. I find room in my worldview for intuition, an inner light which guides us. That isn't to disparage the scientific method. It's just to leave room for a transcendent reality. And no, not solely because I wish it to be true (but confessedly, I do), but because I find evidences that to me makes more sense. Yet I am willing to concede I may be wrong.