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Atheism and the ten commandments

10 July 2012, 09:32
The ten commandments, as described in the Biblical books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, is an icon of moral law and recently used by religious people to bash atheists over. Some religious people would go so far as to say that they are the foundation or the definition of morality. Is this true though? Many countries with high (over 45% atheist populations tend to be the most peaceful and law-abiding. Nevertheless, let's take a look at the commandments and how they fit in an atheist world.

Obviously, an atheist doesn’t feel compelled to obey commands in the Bible in general, but should an atheist obey the ten commandments simply because they are a good guideline for morality? At first and casual glance - it seems a legitimate statement. So, let's look a bit deeper.

The first four commandments — have no other gods, make no idols, don’t take god’s name in vain, and keep the sabbath — have very little to zero meaning to an atheist. An atheist believes in neither gods nor idols, and sees no day as holy, so almost by definition cannot break the first, second, and fourth commandments. An atheist might use bad language, but cannot be showing god disrespect by cursing in his name since the atheist doesn’t accept that god exists in the first place, and you can’t meaningfully disrespect someone or something you don’t believe exists. So, let's leave those ones behind and come down to the six that might apply to atheists.

One might argue against cursing because it is rude or might offend others, but aside from that, it’s hard to argue that one must obey this commandment to be considered moral. Also, swearing is not quite the same as blasphemy and, again, not using god's name in vain is not an atheist concern.

The fifth commandment is a command of respect toward parents. This is a good idea, but I could argue that some parents don’t deserve respect. The drunk and abusive ones, the ones who sexually hurt their children or simply neglect them - why do they deserve respect just because the bible tells us so? It's a bit like cultures that believe in respecting elders, regardless of how ignorant, misguided, bigoted and intolerant they may be.

The next three commandments — against murdering, committing adultery, and stealing — most people would agree are excellent ones, but we do need to define the terms clearly.

The command against bearing false witness is also a good one, but I could argue that it doesn’t go far enough — condemning lying only in a certain context instead of in general. Some lies are not bad ones, so it is up to each person to figure out what works for them in this context.

The ten commandments ends with rules against coveting a neighbour’s wife or possessions. I don't see merely wanting something as a moral failure (although it might be evidence of a character flaw depending on the desire and item), and I could argue that if wanting something is bad, then it should be bad regardless of whether the person whose thing you want is your neighbour or not. Although, I want a nice car, good schools and a great job - that can't be bad, right?

The ten commandments are also insufficient as a yardstick of morality because they do not condemn many practices that are generally considered immoral (slavery (actually condoned in the OT) spousal abuse, kidnapping, torture, rape, incest, indecency, cannibalism, mistreating animals, etc.) You might argue that these are implied by the ten commandments (kidnapping is stealing, rape is adultery, incest is disrespecting a parent, euthanasia is murder, etc.), but this seems to be pushing a point and certainly stretching the literal words in the bible. Also, for all the literal bible believers out there - explain yourselves if you want to take that stance.

So for me, as an atheist, the ten commandments might be an important historical document - or not - burning bushes and voices from the sky would today be seen as a form of insanity, and it might be something to ponder while developing an ethical system, but it is not a good stand-alone solution for living a moral life.

Morality comes from within and by obeying the laws of a country out of respect for the laws. Unless of course the laws are idiotic - like Shari'ah.
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