Pack up again, head to the next place where we’ll make the same mistakes… On the Atheist 10 Commandments

Freedom From Religion Foundation
Freedom From Religion Foundation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There have been many attempts to rewrite the Ten Commandments for atheists.  Every pseudo-intellectual pop-atheist — up to and including Alain de Botton — has had a crack at it over the years, and now we are resorting to crowdsourcing this buffoonery:

Lex Bayer, an executive at AirBnB, and John Figdor, a humanist chaplain at Stanford University, delivered their own 10 “non-commandments” in a book they co-wrote: “Atheist Heart, Humanist Mind.” Bayer said the book forced him to clarify and articulate his own beliefs, and he thought others could benefit from doing the same.

“A lot of atheists’ books are about whether to believe in God or not,” he said. “We wanted to consider: OK, so you don’t believe in God, what’s next? And that’s actually a much harder question.”

Enter the “10 ‘Non-Commandments’ Contest,” in which atheists were asked to offer modern alternatives to the famous Decalogue. And, to sweeten the pot, the contest offered $10,000 in moolah to the winning would-be Moses. (If it helped boost atheists’ public image and drum up publicity for his book, all the better, Bayer said.)

The contest drew more than 2,800 submissions from 18 countries and 27 U.S. states, according to Bayer and Figdor. The proposed “non-commandments” ranged from the quizzical (“Don’t follow your nature”) to the quixotic (“Thriving in space is the ultimate goal”). [Source]

The ‘winning’ list was:

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 of 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 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.

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.

Leaving aside the nauseating vapidness of the list, it shows again how little pop-atheists are willing and/or able to engage with serious theology.  What is the point of the Ten Commandments?  To what extent would an Atheist Ten Commandments reflect that original purpose?  If it doesn’t reflect that original purpose, why would be bother writing an Atheist Ten Commandments?

Imagine I told you that I had updated Pride and Prejudice because the original was clumsy and awful, reflecting terrible social attitudes about women and class.  You would, of course, congratulate me because that book is just terrible.  But when I produce a novel that’s about Godzilla fighting an invasion of ant-people, you might wonder to what extent I rewrote Pride and Prejudice and instead just wrote something else.

That is invariably what happens with these atheist Ten Commandments.  They produce something so utterly dislike the original in intent and content that it is difficult to see in what way they are ‘Ten Commandments’.

The original ten-and-a-bit Commandments have a large chunk that are fairly secular: don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t covet, don’t commit adultery, and honour your parents.  In an atheist Ten Commandments, why would these need to change?  The only answer given so far is that pop-atheists really struggle with the idea of authority, and people telling them what to do is anathema.  That’s a problem if you’re going to write a new set of Commandments which, ordinarily, issue commands.

The others are distinctly more religious: have no other gods but the Lord, don’t worship false idols, don’t take the name of the Lord in vain, and keep the Sabbath holy.  But even then, they seem to have a purpose beyond mere ‘obeying the Old White Man in the Sky’ — these are about the fundamentals of Hebrew society (and, eventually, Christian society).  When rewriting them, we should be looking for those things that are and remain taboo even within secular society.

It’s here that we see what an utter failure pop-atheism is as a cultural project.  It’s intellectually empty.  There’s little (if anything) that’s off-limits to the pop-atheist because they’re all a bunch of antisocial man-children.  They can’t even Command the dignity of the person without framing it as an attack on religious belief (4 is clearly a pro-choice line, and probably doesn’t extent to women wearing religious face coverings) or as a wishy-washy, liberalism-lite version of the Golden Rule (7).

Atheists need to reengage with theology.  They clearly don’t know what they’re talking about when they claim to be atheists.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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