Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Ten Commandments For Atheists?

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. 


  1. HI Doug, this is very interesting and worthwhile. My thoughts often parallel yours, though with a few differences.

    I think it is reasonable to ask not only "why be moral?", but also "what is moral and what isn't?" The suggested commandments are actually slightly self contradictory. If #9 is true (there is no one right way to live) then either there is no right or there are many rights. It implies morality is subjective. But if so, then all the other ten are subjective, and we could just as easily choose otherwise.

    That is (for me) the dilemma of atheism. An atheist can choose to behave in a way he or she thinks is moral, but there is no compelling reason to do so, just a personal choice - about what they believe is moral and whether they choose to follow it. So at the heart of a belief that belief should be based on evidence (#1), objective truth (#2) and scientific method (#3) is a set of beliefs about morality that cannot conform to any of those requirements!

    As you say, humanists are the "nicest" atheists, but they are not necessarily the most logical or consistent. The world would be more pleasant if everyone was humanist (whether atheist humanist or religious humanist) but behaving humanistically is a choice with little reason for an atheist - we can hope that if we behave well, others will behave well in return, and that will sometimes be true, but evidence (#1) suggests this often isn't true.

    Having said all that, I pretty much agree with all these "commandments", though I think some only state half truths. For example, of course we should base our beliefs on evidence (#1), but loyalty and trust are also important. Imagine a situation where a husband sees some reason to doubt the faithfulness of his wife. Should a loving husband then investigate thoroughly, employing a private detective, or should he trust her at least until more compelling evidence? Likewise, a scientist shouldn't abandon a hypothesis he or she has worked on just because a new hypothesis has some evidence. It is more sensible to keep going until the evidence gets a little stronger.

    My belief in God is a little like both those examples. I think it would be foolish to give up belief as soon as some argument or evidence is presented against God. Rather, I should wait and see for a while. Eventually, I agree I should follow #1 and the evidence, but there is a balance here as my relationship with God is personal as well as logical.

    This is a very interesting topic. It would be good if a thoughtful atheist reader (or several) would share their views.

  2. Hi unkleE and thanks for your comment. Our views do often parallel . There is extra baggage in more specific religious claims, such as Christianity, baggage that I don't seem to have the strength to carry - at least now now.

    I typed my thoughts out on this item as they occurred to me. No effort was made to work out a philosophical statement. Atheism fascinates me and always has since the time I first decided to seriously think about it. The truth is, I always had problems with the negativity of that view, which is why when I left Christianity I tended to gravitate toward Deism and Pantheism. I have never been able to reconcile my deepest intuitions with the possibility that the Cosmos is a happy accident and that life has no ultimate meaning.