An Atheist’s Ten Commandments

Religious people always contend that the non-religious can’t have morals, because they don’t have a list given to them by some god. But all civilizations have had laws, and if you don’t believe that those cultures got their laws from a “god” (Ra, Ahura Mazda, Odin, Zeus, Enki, Marduk, etc.) then you have to believe that such laws were made by people. The laws of those people are not significantly different from those of the three monotheisms, and in many cases are superior to them (based on the morals of today). I get challenged about this so often, that I thought I would come up with my own modern “commandments” from an atheist. (No stone tablets in stock; available only in soft copy.)

1. Don’t Kill

Do not kill others, except in an action of self-defense of your own life or that of other people

No death penalty, no wars of conquest, no unreasonable “stand your ground” laws, all these would go out. Abortion is a tricky issue, admittedly, and I will leave that to people who have a better understanding of the biological issues. I am not aware of any human society that has not prohibited murder at one level or another.

2. Don’t Rape or Otherwise Harm Others

Do not rape, physically molest or intentionally harm others

Most societies have had this one in place. It’s pretty basic if you think about it, even though it didn’t make the Hebrews’ top ten. Oddly, they based the degree of punishment for rape on the status of the woman. A rapist, if caught in the act with a virgin is supposed to marry his victim and pay her father some money (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). If the woman is betrothed, and raped in a field, then the man dies, but if the rape is in a town and the woman did not sufficiently cry out, they both die by stoning for the crime of adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-26). Talk about blaming the victim…(sadly, this bias against the testimony of women in rape cases was carried over into Islam through sharia as well, although it is absent in the Koran).

3. Don’t Steal

Do not steal or abduct that which does not belong to you

Again, this is pretty standard stuff in most societies. You don’t need a god to tell you not to do this. By abduction, I am trying to include things like forced marriages, kidnapping, etc.

4. Don't Discriminate

Do not discriminate against anyone based on their ethnicity, religion, philosophy, gender, sexual orientation, age, language, physical abilities or skin color

This is a new one, and represents a substantial degree of progress in human rights over the laws of our forbearers. All people are to be treated equally. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you can’t be selective (i.e., this doesn’t mean that professional basketball teams have to hire people under 150 cm in height). But any qualifications on those items need to be based on actual requirements, and not arbitrary ones. Laws cannot dictate that we like everyone equally and that we are devoid of prejudice, but this is a step in that laudable direction.

5. Don’t Lie with the Intent to Hurt

Do not lie if the purpose is to hurt others

The first thing people will say when seeing this is “why not just prohibit lying altogether?” The reason is that a commandment shouldn’t be something that everyone is incapable of obeying. There is no point in having a law against breathing. Lying is a pretty normal activity to one degree or another. Often people don’t consider themselves to be lying, even though they remember an event distinctly different from reality. Also, most developed countries have laws protecting people from self-incrimination, thereby acknowledging that they would be expected to lie to protect themselves. The Commandments are not meant to punish human nature.

6. Don’t Own Others

Do not own any other person, or condemn them to servitude, and your children are not your property although you are their guardians

This one needs some nuancing, but basically no slavery, no indentured servants, no bondsmen, or any of the other horrid ways people have dreamed over the ages up to allow the poor or the disadvantaged to be wholly controlled by the rich and influential. You are to nurture your children, not intentionally harm them. This is also a development beyond traditional religiously condoned morals, perhaps because when a lot of today’s holy books were written slavery was part of the normal fabric of society and parents often had absolute control over their children’s lives. How nice that we have improved ourselves morally beyond God’s laws.

7. Treat People Equally

All people are fundamentally equal and are entitled to the same protections and rights in any society

No more kings and queens. No more hereditary titles. No bowing before people because of who their progenitors were. Does this mean a classless society? Probably not. It doesn’t mean that all people are entitled to the same material goods, but that they should benefit in terms of equal rights under the laws and equal access to the benefits of society. If the government is providing educational opportunities to some people, it must provide it for all. This still would allow for some discrimination based on age. A four year old cannot be given the same rights in terms of voting, access to a license to operate a vehicle, or enable her to buy certain items like tobacco or alcohol.

8. Care for the Environment

The environment is the heritage of all people, and it is not to be wantonly consumed or polluted, and where it is polluted it should be cleansed if possible

Although it sounds like a new age commandment, it’s not. In the 3rd Century BC, Ashoka the Indian ruler of the Maurya Empire and a new convert to Buddhism, promulgated laws forbidding the unnecessary killing of animals and destruction of forests. You cannot forbid all pollution, but it needs to be recognized as an evil that should be reduced as much as possible. This is the first commandment which positively requires action, in the form of remedying existing pollution.

9. Help Those in Need

You should help those in need, if it is within your capabilities

This is on the order of those injunctions to give alms that we see in some religions, most notably in Islam where it given special significance. It does not say you must, only that you should. So it is not a positive commandment like #8; rather, it is an admonition to follow a standard that each person can interpret in their own way.

10. Treat Others the Way you Wish to be Treated

Treat others the same way as you would wish to be treated

The “golden rule” has been around for ages, and exists in various forms in many cultures. It’s a good code of conduct for everyday living, and hopefully can promote a degree of civility and responsibility in society.

Hope you found something of interest. Let me know what commandments you think would be best for a moral society

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