Op-Ed for Thursday, November 27 (’14)
The Huffington Post has an article out called “The Ten Commandments For Atheists Who Want to Explore Their Values.” The article is actually about a book titled “Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart“, by Lex Bayer and John Figdor, the later of which is the humanist chaplain at Stanford University. The book is meant to be a positive statement of what atheists and humanists do believe, in distinction from the profusion of books in recent years arguing against belief in God. “The result,” says the article, “is 10 “non-commandments” — the authors’ irreducible statements of atheist and humanist belief.” The “non-commandments” are called that because they aren’t really commands at all, they are propositions or maxims.
According to the authors, the book’s purpose is “to encourage atheists and humanists to define what they believe so they can articulate it better, both to themselves and to a broader society that often regards atheists as immoral and untrustworthy.” This is even intended to be an interactive project. The book includes a worksheet where readers can come up with their own “commandments” and share them on a website.
Here are Bayer and Figdor’s “non-commandments”, along with some of my comments in after each:
I. The world is real, and our desire to understand the world is the basis for belief.
Anecdotally, the only person I’ve met who said he wasn’t sure if the world was real was an atheist (a student at Millsaps Universtiy in Jackson, MS). Again, it’s just an anecdote, but it highlights right at the outset the self-evident absurdity of this whole project: What makes one an atheist is the denial that there is a God. Aside from that, there are no necessary beliefs that an atheist must hold. An atheist can come in the form of Joseph Stalin or a nice college kid in Mississippi who thinks maybe the universe is a Matrix-like hologram. As to the second part of the statement, I’m not really sure what it’s trying to say. I take it to be about the common atheist assumption that only facts which are empirically verifiable through the scientific method are worthy of “belief.” This assumption is itself, of course, not empirically verifiable.
II. We can perceive the world only through our human senses.
No argument there. I suspect only new-agey mystics would disagree with this.
III. We use rational thought and language as tools for understanding the world.
Again, no argument from me. I’m not sure if this statement is meant to counter any particular religious belief. Perhaps it’s a coincidence but I do note that this “commandment” and the biblical Third Commandment are both about words. And for that matter, the above second “commandment” and the biblical Second Commandment both have to do with the use of the senses (the Second Commandment in Exodus being directed against superstitious human attempts to make the divine visible or tangible – a perennial problem, not least in the church itself).
IV. All truth is proportional to the evidence.
I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. I would rather say that the truth is true, and “evidence” is simply that which reveals or points to the truth. The more evidence we have, the more sure we can be that something is “true.” But the application of the word “proportional” to “truth” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
V. There is no God.
This is the only point that atheists will necessarily agree on. And in a list like this, it strikes me as remarkably uninspired, and basically just obligatory.
VI. We all strive to live a happy life. We pursue things that make us happy and avoid things that do not.
This is common sense, and I don’t think anyone who seriously thought about it would deny it. In my own Christan circles, this is a reality that John Piper in particular has actively tried to bring to the forefront of people’s minds. I think it was Blaise Pascal (a Christian) who pointed out that even those who hang themselves are seeking happiness – they perceive that they will be “happier” if they are dead.
VII. There is no universal moral truth. Our experiences and preferences shape our sense of how to behave.
This is a remarkable admission. It would seem to imply that in the American South in the 1850’s, for example, as the experience and preference was that blacks be enslaved, such a situation was perfectly valid. It also appears to downplay the importance of morality altogether – the whole concept is brushed aside as relative, and then the bald assertion is made that “how to behave” is simply a function of our preference and experience. So why bother with this list at all, then?
VIII. We act morally when the happiness of others makes us happy.
I interpret this to mean that to be moral is to find joy in the well-being of others. At least, I would assume the authors mean “happy” to equate with “well-being,” as ten more shots of whiskey might make the alcoholic “happy,” but is hardly a good course of action. This “commandment” is fairly close in some ways to the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. But the biblical command seems to me less ambiguous and more demanding, and if followed would do far more good than Bayer and Figdor’s maxim.
IX. We benefit from living in, and supporting, an ethical society.
Yeah but, there is no absolute ethical standard, remember? And who is “we”? What if someone is able to profit enormously and lead a fancy and comfortable life by running organized crime?
X. All our beliefs are subject to change in the face of new evidence, including these.
Again, I don’t know who would argue against this point.
In conclusion, the more I read atheist literature, the more I’m convinced that they excel chiefly in clever mockery of straw-men. When it comes to positive substance, they either come up empty or make points which they seem to think are profound and specially atheistic, but which in fact no Christian would have ever disagreed with. This list is the perfect illustration of that. If they want to come up with assertions of what they believe and what they think constitutes morality, they are welcome to, but the only thing an atheist must believe, by definition, is that there is no God. To expect more conformity than that seems to me to be incredibly naive.