Tract #17: Should I Follow the Ten Commandments?

Tract #17, Should I Follow the Ten Commandments?, is ready for you to download and review. Download it, see page #3 for printing instructions, and let me know your comments! Thanks!

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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.

Posted on June 16, 2009 at 8:34 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Morality, Tract

4 Responses

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  1. Written by keddaw
    on June 21, 2009 at 10:41 am
    Reply · Permalink

    There are only two commandments that are illegal (and hence considered sufficiently immoral by society to be punishable): killing and theft. The other 8 are, at best, civil issues.

    As for the 10 Commandments being the starting point for morality… has there ever been a society that thought killing your neighbour was an acceptable act?

    I think any group of humans (or any social animal for that matter) living together will form some general rules for making things run smoothly. Recent studies have shown most animals have some innate sense of fairness and I can only imagine that the more complex the animal and more social the group the more fairness will play a part.

  2. Written by Christina
    on September 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    So what should atheists follow to be moral? How do I answer the question, “how do you judge what is good if there is no divine judge?”

    • Written by ideclare
      on September 29, 2009 at 6:30 pm
      Reply · Permalink

      Shameless plug: For a partial answer to that question, read my book “Ask Yourself to be Moral,” which will be available in October.

  3. Written by Christina
    on September 29, 2009 at 11:22 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    What about the Seven Deadly Sins?

    God says, “Thou shalt not kill”, and yet there are many instances of God striking down people in the Bible (for what seems like silly things, looking back on them)or telling his people to kill other people. Jealousy is a deadly sin, and yet he says “I am a jealous God”, which, by the way, is why we must “have no other gods before him”. I think this also falls under the sin of “pride”. Wrath – Jesus’ tirade in the temple (cause Jesus is God right?). I think he went a little overboard even if he was “justified” which some claim.

    How can God be good if he doesn’t even follow his own rules?!

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