Recently, prominent atheist Alain de Botton constructed a list of 10 commandments that would promote virtue in a society, even if that society were moving past the need to believe in God – a 10 commandments for atheists. In an article in The Telegraph, de Botton writes,
Even if we now realise that we made up our own moral exhortations, we have no cause to do away with them all. We continue to need reminders to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so.
de Botton explains that even though he rejects the idea of a moral code originating from God, there is something to be learned from the promotion of virtue, leading him to come up with his own list, “If I had to design a list of 10 virtues that could apply today, I might go for the following”:
In subsequent articles, de Botton’s list has been praised as a more enlightened list than many outdated moral codes. Others have chimed in, blogging about de Botton’s list and constructing their own 10 commandments for society to live by. One such blogger has devoted much time to demonstrating the archaic and outdated nature of the Biblical 10 Commandments, as well as coming up with a list of his own.
Actually, I must admit that de Botton’s list is not a bad list. I’m not sure I would reject anything on that list as immoral or self-indulgent. And having perused a handful of these newly emerging 10 commandment for atheists lists, there really isn’t much to dismiss from them. Surely the world would be a better place if religious, agnostic, and atheist alike tried to embody most of the virtues being put forth on these lists.
But here is the thing. My concern is not so much with the content of these lists as the precariousness of the philosophy that lies behind them. Actually, two issues come to mind:
- The person who does not believe that God exists will have the difficult, if not impossible task of promoting a virtue or morality that should apply to everyone else. This tension has been debated in many philosophical circles and has not been overcome. I recently listened to an interesting lecture by an atheist who was wrestling with this very issue: How do you promote a good and virtuous society while rejecting the existence, and thus the moral authority, of a transcendent deity? If there is no God, then there is no basis for a moral code that applies to society as a whole. There is an entire debate surrounding this very issue.
- But my main caution would be this: If any transcendent moral code is rejected, then who does get to decide what is good and virtuous in a society? Does the majority get to decide? Should it be de Botton who decides for everyone? Should I appoint myself as the virtue police, as many have done in response to this 10 commandment list for atheists? What I am getting at is that if there is no higher authority, then I am precisely the one who gets to define what is moral and virtuous! While the list above is laudable, who is to say what would have been defined as virtuous in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, or during the period of American slavery? What might be considered virtuous ten years from now?
As much as I might like to think that I could come up with a list of virtues that should govern society, I am glad that responsibility does not fall on me. It is because religious people believe that the 10 Commandments originate from God (and not Moses) that those commandments have moral authority to govern our lives. Of course, people of faith will not always live up to these commands – this is one of the points Jesus asserted many times. The cultural expressions (enforcement, punishment, promotion, etc.) of these commands looks different today than 3,000 years ago, but the principles behind the expressions are enduring. This issue is one of the main themes of Ten Essential Words, (and is an issue that is not readily understood my many critiques of the Ten Commandments!).
People are certainly free to believe what they want to believe. I have never been one to assert that the 10 Commandments should be displayed on every street corner, whether you hold to them or not. And if you don’t believe in God, I would not expect you to live by the Ten Commandments. But if God does not exist, then I become my god and you become your god, and we begin to resemble Mount Olympus, full of competing deities all battling for their share of power and moral authority.
I do believe there is a God and am happy to let God be God! I don’t want the job.