Tract #17: Should I Follow the Ten Commandments?
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Should I Follow the Ten Commandments?
The The Commandments, as described in the Biblical books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, is an icon of moral law. Some religious people would go so far as to say that they are the foundation or the definition of morality.
Obviously, an atheist doesn’t feel compelled to obey commands in the Bible in general, but should a moral atheist obey the Ten Commandments simply because they are a good guideline for morality?
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 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 think that God exists in the first place (and you can’t meaningfully disrespect someone you don’t believe exists).
Is there a good argument for following these commandments for purely secular reasons? 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 these commandments to be considered moral.
The fifth commandment is a command of respect toward parents. This is a good idea, but a moral atheist could argue that some parents don’t deserve respect, or that a moral person should respect everyone who has made sacrifices for the atheist’s benefit.
The next three commandments — against murdering, committing adultery, and stealing — most people would agree are excellent ones (so long as we define our terms carefully).
The command against bearing false witness is also a good one, but a moral atheist might argue that it doesn’t go far enough — condemning lying only in a certain context instead of in general.
The Ten Commandments ends with rules against coveting a neighbor’s wife or possessions. A moral atheist likely doesn’t see merely wanting something as a moral failure (although it might be evidence of a character flaw), and might argue that if wanting something is bad, then it should be bad regardless of whether the person whose thing you want is your neighbor or not.
The Ten Commandments are also insufficient as a yardstick of morality because they do not condemn many practices that are generally considered immoral (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.
So for the moral atheist, the Ten Commandments might be an important historical document, 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.