The Bible’s Ten Commandments are among the great cultural icons of the West. Even among those who can’t quite list all ten, many say they “pretty much live by the Ten Commandments.” They’re probably right. The social impact of this ancient moral charter is so great that most people living in the post-West are living by the Ten Commandments, pretty much. These rules seem to represent, consciously or not, what Westerners think of as “the Good” (as Socrates called it)—the happy union of the goal of human society and the virtues needed to get there.
Naturally, many Westerners prefer to say their vision of “the Good” is grounded in “secular ethical reasoning,” not “religion,” the sort of code any rational human being would aspire to under the right conditions. I don’t believe that, and I hope I won’t lose friends right here in the second paragraph by saying that much of what’s called “secular ethical reasoning” is just a minor revision of Moses’ Ten Commandments with a bit of Jesus of Nazareth thrown in.
These two ancient teachers have influenced us more than we imagine. Like great-grandparents who fled a war-torn land to establish their family in an entirely new culture, Moses and Jesus have shaped our outlook and choices immeasurably, even if we don’t know it. We’ve never met them, and most of us probably haven’t even glanced at their “family tree,” but we are their great-great-great-grandchildren. They’re our heritage and our ethical homestead.
I’m reminded of the great twentieth-century British thinker and writer G. K. Chesterton, who compared his philosophical journey to unwittingly discovering his own home. As an educated “free-thinker,” as they used to call skeptics, he explored the world of ideas, confident that Christianity had very few answers to life’s important questions. But when he stumbled across the intellectual and moral landscape he most admired, he was shocked to discover that it looked like Christianity!
He compared himself to an adventurous yachtsman determined to explore new frontiers, only to find that he had “discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” Finding Christianity was a mistake, he said, but a happy one: “What could be more delightful,” he enthused in his 1959 book Orthodoxy, “than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”
Like Chesterton, many thoughtful folk have walked away from the religion associated with their childhood, or with childishness per se, only to realize that some of their most mature “free thoughts” about justice, compassion, human rights, freedom, and so on are just an adult version of the Judeo-Christian worldview they thought they’d left behind.
Influential political philosopher Jürgen Habermas—who remains an atheist—acknowledges the monumental cultural influence of Moses and Jesus. The West, he reckons, was shaped by the fairness ethic of Judaism and the compassion ethic of Christianity. In his book Time of Transitions he says, “Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom . . . , human rights and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. . . . To this day, there is no alternative to it.”
Habermas’s division between the “Judaic ethic of justice” and the “Christian ethic of love” is probably too neat (I’m sure he’d agree). It’s not like Moses never talked about love or Jesus about justice. But Habermas does put his finger on an important historical truth about the way the Ten Commandments came into Western culture. They arrived in Christian form.
What I mean is that Judaism per se did not convert the West. Christianity did. And wherever Christianity went, the Jewish Old Testament, complete with the teachings of Moses, also went. It was the specifically Christian vision of the Ten Commandments that gave the West its “egalitarian universalism,” as Habermas put it, its peculiar “ideas of freedom.”
So iconic are Moses’ teachings that atheist groups have proposed their own “ten commandments.” CNN reported a recent competition to come up with the best set of godless guidelines. They were dubbed the “Ten Non-Commandments.” The contest attracted nearly three thousand submissions, with $10,000 going to the winning combination. And here it is:
“1. Be open-minded, and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
2. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
3. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
4. Every person has the right to control of their body.
5. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
6. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions, and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
7. Treat others as you would want them to treat you and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
8. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
9. There is no one right way to live.
10. Leave the world a better place than you found it.”*
The project is a fascinating thought experiment, and it reveals much about our age. There’s something a little weird about calling these “non-commandments,” when they’re every bit as commanding as the biblical “thou shalt nots.”
But such is today’s aversion to the idea of rules for life—even though rules are among the most comforting and freeing elements of existence, as anyone who has tried to surf or sing or ski without instruction has quickly discovered.
The first two prize-winning instructions above seem to be saying the same thing: follow evidence. They’re probably designed to be snippy criticisms of some versions of religious faith. Ditto the emphasis on science in the third non-commandment: “The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.”
I hope the winning lawgiver means how the natural world works, because the scientific method tells us nothing about what the natural world means, how we should live within it, or why living within it is worthwhile in the first place. Again, I suspect this non-commandment is just a little dig at perceived fundamentalist readings of the Bible. Fair enough.
More striking is the way several of these award-winning instructions resonate with the original Ten Commandments and with biblical ethics generally. “We have the responsibility to consider others” is pretty much what three or four of the Ten Commandments enshrine. And, “Treat others as you would want them to treat you” is almost a direct quote from Jesus, who said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). I wonder whether the winner and the organizers knew that or if they all imagined they were recalling a principle of universal secular wisdom.
The final two commandments offer an almost humorous juxtaposition. Before earnestly mandating in number 10, “Leave the world a better place than you found it,” the ninth rule declares without irony, “There is no one right way to live.” A smart aleck could be forgiven for asking, If there is no one right way to live, why bother telling me to leave the world a better place than I found it? And what are the other commandments in this set about if not to guide me in the right way to live?
Then again, perhaps I’m being unfair and this ninth commandment just means there are a number of possible ways to properly obey all these rules. That would be true, but it’s hardly worth making it a rule.
All of this highlights a tension found in much atheist literature, from David Hume and Bertrand Russell to Richard Dawkins and Michel Onfray. On the one hand, there’s a philosophical admission that universal morality is difficult to ground objectively if there’s no absolute principle such as God, whose character establishes the Good. On the other hand, there’s a practical necessity of articulating a moral viewpoint that doesn’t sound like mere preference and that has the authoritative ring of religion to it without any of religion’s justifications. The tension is perfectly, if unwittingly, illustrated in the ninth and tenth non-commandments above, and it isn’t easily resolved.
For now I’m happy to just emphasize the iconic status of the Ten Commandments—in the priority given to them in our religious traditions, in the honor accorded to them in Western law, and even in the reverse compliment paid to Moses and Jesus in this recent atheist effort to rewrite the Ten Commandments.
The Code of Hammurabi and the maxims of Delphi are two of ancient history’s most famous moral codes, yet they enjoyed favor for a very limited time. Now they’re all but forgotten. They’ve been eclipsed in a monumental way by ten simple “thou shalt nots” for a slave nation three thousand years ago. Pondering such a history makes a mockery of claims that biblical ethics is a thing of the past while secular ethical reflection, presumably of the kind articulated in the award-winning “Ten Non-Commandments,” is the true future of morality. I doubt it. At least, we need a millennium or two to confirm it.
Originally published in a slightly different form in John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016). Reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.