Something about the holiday season seems to bring out atheistic activism, or at least media interest in atheism. Now that we’re safely in 2015, I suspect things will quiet down a bit until the next major religious holiday comes along. Ironically, since I was a child I’ve heard about how secular Christmas, in particular, has become. Reactions to this have led to “Christmas wars” that give the lie to sleeping in heavenly peace. In any case, back in December CNN ran a story on the atheist ten commandments. This was just before the holidays, but just after the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings, so it was a story sure to capture human interest. The atheist commandments were chosen by a committee, and, of course, have no binding value. Many of them are more precepts than commandments since, it seems, you need a deity to command all of humanity. Nevertheless, the number 7 commandment has a very biblical sound: “Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated.”
More interesting than the list, in my way of thinking, is the form of delivery. The ten commandment format is an obviously religious one. Atheists have long tried to make the case that non-belief is not the same as immorality, and there can be little doubt that this is correct. One need not believe in order to be a good person. Yet, the force of the symbolic ten commandments comes from a divine mandate. Committees, as efficient as they may be, don’t have the same kind of authority. You can hear it now—“Why should I listen to you? Who are you to tell me what to do?” With God there is always the threat of eternal damnation or the sending of plagues. Commandments by committee appeal to reason.
The ten commandments—here I mean the traditional ones—haven’t fared especially well among the faithful. Survey after survey shows many people don’t know all ten well enough to cite them. Some, such as the one against coveting, are hard to demonstrate or prove one way or the other. Honoring parents, in some extreme cases, seems sinful in itself. What doesn’t count as a graven image? So my question is, who has the authority in a post-Christian world to give commandments? The religious certainly won’t take advice from atheists, and religious leaders disagree among themselves about what the deity demands. No committee, it seems, can capture the true essence of divine demands. Perhaps it is a matter of boiling the ten down to one (similar to number 7 cited above) and getting our leaders to truly believe this before imposing it on all.