Daily Archives: April 15, 2008

Ten Commandments for Atheists, pt. 2

The ironically named Christian, proprietor of Free Thinking Joy, asserts that the Ten Commandments are perfectly compatible with atheism. It is absurd on its face to think that any of the first four commandments, which center on man’s relationship to God, could be followed or even understood by atheists. Christian’s analysis is flawed, as I have shown in my first post.

The second six commandments give rules for relating to fellow humans. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that any atheist is capable of both understanding these rules and living them out on a day-to-day basis. I haven’t heard of any notable atheists that live otherwise.

The only problem is that the atheist views breaking these commandments as torts rather than crimes. This becomes especially noticeable for the commandments dealing with adultery and murder. A violation of these commandments is absolute, not situational.

5. Honor your father and mother.

Agreed–“Because, once you are a parent, you like to be respected by your own children.”

6. You shall not commit murder.

Christian says, “There have been many violations against the Sixth Commandment in the name of God.” However, there have also been violations by atheists. As I’ve stated in my previous post, the actions of one group have nothing to do with the other group. Since the claim of the post is that the Ten Commandments are perfectly compatible with atheism, merely pointing to another group that violates the commandment doesn’t belong here.

Philosophically, this isn’t 100% compatible with atheism. Natural selection, a component of philosophic naturalism, wants the weak and the sick culled out. This means that murder in some forms, such as euthanasia and abortion, is perfectly acceptable given the right set of circumstances. The general theistic view respects the dignity and right to life of all human beings, regardless of status, sickness, or number of cells. The atheist version makes us little better than animals.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

Christian returns to flawed reasoning with this commandment:

The wording is not quite how a secular humanist with a modern sexual ethic would put it. There are modern forms of ménage à trois, and they may work in some cases. But if you do not like your sex partner to have partners besides you, you should keep the same rule for yourself.

This is fine, if one subscribes to situation ethics. The commandments, however, were not designed with that in mind. They were designed to be absolute rules, hence their pronouncement as “commandments.” Very few would argue that they should be called the Ten Suggestions.

That said, Christian’s view grows out of the mistaken assumption that adultery is a tort committed against a spouse or significant other rather than a crime against God. The entire Holiness Code given to Israel is essentially God’s equivalent to a revised criminal code. Adultery isn’t just an offense against one’s spouse; it is a crime committed against God.

These “ménage à trois” that “work in some cases” might be perfectly fine with a spouse. But that doesn’t mean that God will be fine with them; in fact, the Bible teaches the opposite. Adultery, according to Jesus, is committed the moment you look upon someone with lust. With that in mind, we can hardly assume that God would condone the act even if the spouse does.

8. You shall not steal.

Agreed–“you do not want to be a victim of theft.”

9. You shall not lie.

Agreed–“Because you do not want him to do it to you.”

10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s property.

Agreed–“Because it is easier to prevent a conflict than solve it later.”

Christian concludes:

I have shown that it may be easier for an atheist than for observant Jews and Christians to keep the first three commandments. The big part of the rest has nothing to do with God, therefore atheists and believers are equally fit to keep it or violate it. The only instance where atheist will lag behind is the Fourth Commandment, but this may not be the most important one.

I disagree that Christian has shown that it is easier for atheists to follow any of the commandments, let alone the first three. The atheist is equipped to keep Christian’s version of the commandments, but that is a false understanding of them. He is dead wrong to think that the rest of the commandments have nothing to do with God, for the commandments are crimes against Him, not torts against humanity. Finally, I agree that the atheist will lag behind on the Sabbath day, for he will not esteem any day above any other. But Christian’s response is to minimize the commandment, which is fallacious. All of the commandments are important or they wouldn’t be on the list.

Ten Commandments for Atheists

“I guess that most atheists may not be aware of the fact that they observe the Ten Commandments better than many observant Jews and Christians,” says Christian, keeper of Free Thinking Joy. Let’s examine his post and see if that is true or if Christian is blowing smoke.

1. You shall have no other gods before Me.

Christian says:

The observant Jew will certainly fulfill this commandment. The observant Muslim, too. The observant Christian, too. But most certainly of all, any atheist will fulfill it perfectly. He is the only one who can be certain. All others must ask themselves whether they really might worship the wrong god, and who the big Me really is.

This is silly. Christian thinks that by worshiping no gods at all, that he is fulfilling this commandment. He wishes. The Ten Commandments set the stage for the Jewish holiness code, the Greatest Commandment of which is “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and might” (Deut 6:5). Not loving God at all isn’t fulfilling this commandment–it is grossly violating this commandment.

2. You shall not make yourself an idol.

Christian’s take:

Observant Jews (and Muslims) will fulfill this commandment in the real world, but not in their mental imagination. Observant Roman Catholics violate it grossly, making crucifixes and Mother of God statues, even praying to them. Observant Orthodox Christians violate it grossly, making icons and kissing them in prayer. Only atheists will fulfill the Second Commandment perfectly, in the real world as well as in their imagination.

Christian assumes that an idol is only a statue or an image. John Calvin, however, rightly recognizes that idolatry can be much more subtle than that. Calvin writes:

Bright, however, as is the manifestation which God gives both of himself and his immortal kingdom in the mirror of his works, so great is our stupidity, so dull are we in regard to these bright manifestations, that we derive no benefit from them. For in regard to the fabric and admirable arrangement of the universe, how few of us are there who, in lifting our eyes to the heavens, or looking abroad on the various regions of the earth, ever think of the Creator? Do we not rather overlook Him, and sluggishly content ourselves with a view of his works? And then in regard to supernatural events, though these are occurring every day, how few are there who ascribe them to the ruling providence of God – how many who imagine that they are casual results produced by the blind evolutions of the wheel of chance?

. . . Hence that immense flood of error with which the whole world is overflowed. Every individual mind being a kind of labyrinth, it is not wonderful, not only that each nation has adopted a variety of fictions, but that almost every man has had his own god. To the darkness of ignorance have been added presumption and wantonness, and hence there is scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a substitute for Deity. Like water gushing forth from a large and copious spring, immense crowds of gods have issued from the human mind, every man giving himself full license, and devising some peculiar form of divinity, to meet his own views. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:11-12)

Calvin asserts that fashioning your own god is idolatry. Put another way, an idol need not be a statue, a picture, or other physical entity–it can be anything that takes the place of the One True God. In the case of many atheists, that is science or other mental reasoning. They worship it and make it inviolate the way that a Christian worships God and makes Him inviolate.

Because Christian misunderstands what an idol truly is, he fails to realize that atheists are actually the worst violators of this commandment.

3. You shall not use the name of the Lord in vain.

Christian says:

Observant Jews have taken the Third Commandment very seriously. They considered every use of the name of God as wrongful and therefore avoided even to pronounce it. This position comes very close to atheism. Any atheist may be ready to share this view, stating that there are really great things behind our visible world, things that we never will be able to fully understand, and that we should not use the name of a god to denominate them. Devout, fundamentalistic Christians and fanatic Muslims use God’s name frequently, and this use is considered wrongful by more liberal and open-minded Christians and Muslims. Only atheists can be a hundred percent sure that they never will violate the Third Commandment.

First, I don’t see how the Jewish prohibition on pronouncing the name of God comes close to atheism. The Jews still believe in God, and they hold a special reverence for His name. Second, Christian asserts without backing himself up that “Devout, fundamentalistic (sic) Christians and fanatic Muslims use God’s name frequently, and this use is considered wrongful by more liberal and open-minded Christians and Muslims.” I can’t respond since I have no idea what he’s talking about. From these premises, however, it doesn’t follow that atheists can be 100% sure that they will never violate this commandment.

The excellent Parchment and Pen theology blog has defined the third commandment here as making a pronouncement in the name of God that did not come from God. Perhaps Christian is following that premise, in which case I can agree that the atheist is less likely than a theist to make a false pronouncement in the name of God.

Traditionally, Christians have understood this commandment as forbidding the use of God’s name for all but reverent and prayerful uses. In other words, God’s name shouldn’t be used as a swear word. While I agree with C. Michael Patton’s definition linked above, I also firmly believe that God’s name shouldn’t be used as or with vulgarity. In that respect, the atheist isn’t safe from violating this commandment.

4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

Christian admits that this would be hard for an atheist to follow, but then asserts (again without evidence) that Christians don’t pay this commandment any mind either. Amazingly, the actions of one group of people bears little relevance on another group of people. The commandment is still grossly violated by atheists; whether or not theists are following or ignoring it is completely irrelevant.

The remaining commandments are covered in the next post.