Living by the 10 commandments – possible as an atheist?

*my position as an atheist is that someone wrote the bible, probably a very long time ago – and the version we see is not complete, which we do know as fact – books omitted and so on. Jesus probably existed as a real human being, but that the supernatural, holy part did not exist and was more likely than not something that came from a place of unawareness of the universe*

Yes. That’s my short answer.

The entire bible is open to interpretation – this is how we have different religions with the same core in the first place – Catholic, Protestant, Baptist – all Christian and all with their own interpretation of the bible. Fundamentalists with the more literal interpretation, and so on.

So why not interpret these commandments in another way? On a general level I think it’s safe to say that they are a fairly ideal code of conduct and there’s nothing wrong with following them no matter what you believe. I believe strongly in the Golden Rule – the origin of which I am unaware but that is a core feature in religious teachings and in the guidelines of Jesus, but one that is just as worthwhile to any human, whether they be Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu or atheist. That is – do unto others as you would have done unto you. Or whatever language spin you want to put on it.

It’s not about treating other people well so that you ARE treated well, it’s making sure you’re responsible for your own actions, making sure that you treat people only as well or as poorly as you deem acceptable for yourself. It’s a rule of giving, not of receiving and not of implied return of favour. Just giving. Easy, right?

So lets try the same thing on the 10 commandments and see where we get. One by one we’ll see if we can adapt this to an atheist code of ethics as well as anyone can justify living by the Golden Rule.

1. You shall have no other gods but me.

This one is pretty easy to me, although I know a lot of people see this as number one and go Ummmm… nope, cancel the whole thing, we cannot possibly follow these. We have no God! Well yes, exactly. This I believe is that whatever it is you choose – follow it with all of your heart. Do your research, find what you truly, fully believe – and stick to it. Do not be swayed by arguments you wish to question, do not be swayed by beliefs that sound ‘nice’ but don’t fit your own ethics. If you totally, 100% are ok with God as a Catholic God – then don’t go worshipping the Jewish form. Similarly, if you are totally 100% ok with God as an imaginative figure that you do not believe in – then DO NOT PRETEND YOU DO. Have a foundation in your belief, do not imply any other point of view unless it is the true view yourself. By all means allow everyone else to have different views and beliefs of their own – this is vital to a tolerant and accepting society (I hate the word tolerance, accepting is better – tolerance is begrudging in a way acceptance is not). But don’t fake it for an audience, don’t fake it for acceptance in other groups – and don’t feel the need to lie about it, don’t pretend to worship something you don’t. No matter what that may be.

2. You shall not make unto you any graven images

Ok another interpretation of this one is do not worship false idols, my personal wording preference and I believe one that is clearer in its meaning. We don’t really use the word graven anymore and people may not know what it means.

Definition:

graven images plural of grav·en im·age NounA carved idol or representation of a god used as an object of worship.

Now I’m allowing for the use of the false idols one to cover those religions that have large Jesus statues in their church, behind their altar, that have pictures of Mary or whatever else. That’s not really my argument – that’s one to have with other people who also believe in your God in order to work out whether or not you’re following rules set out for you. Not my fight to have, so I’m not going there.

Mine is in relation to how this can be atheism. My husband had a great interpretation of this that I really appreciated hearing, his position was that a false idol can be considered essentially any hypocrite. What they are standing for, being ‘worshipped’ for – is false. It is either not how they live, what they truly believe or how they behave. I think that’s perfect. I know I am not alone in considering performers and musicians and celebrity as idols – this is a common view amongst many Christians too. But if they are to be false – they must be hypocritical. I think idols can be role models, graven images – the image they present (and their merchandise, photos, movies, barbie dolls etc) without consideration to ethics. I believe a true idol is an ethical one. One who practices what he preaches. It’s that simple.

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain

This one has a few options available to it. It’s tricker than some of the others but I have a few ideas. See what you think.

Firstly, I think an option here is to not blame a God you don’t believe in when things get wrong. It happens a lot – God doesn’t exist ‘because I didn’t get *insert thing here*’. Well no, he doesn’t exist because of whatever reason but because you didn’t get that last promotion or the newest car, or the offer wasn’t accepted on a house you wanted – that wasn’t God not existing to blame. So atheists – take responsibility. The concept of atheism is that we are responsible for ourselves, so don’t go blaming a God you don’t believe in – or using your choices as a reason to blame him for something you should be holding yourself responsible for.

Another one – what about we reduce this to something really simple? How about watch your language? Be polite. Don’t swear in public or around small children. Basic consideration for the ears of others. Works for me.

4. You shall remember the Sabbath and keep it holy

We all need a break. It is not because of God that we have penalty rates on weekends or after 6pm (Australia). It is not because of God that we wait desperately through the working week for a decent weekend to come along so we can have a break. So yeah – we need the Sabbath. It simply means ‘7th day of the week’. Keeping it holy means giving the value of this day high weighting in your life. Make sure you do what you can to have at least this one day – for family, friends or hobbies, for rest and rehabilitation – whatever it is that feeds your soul. Make sure you MAKE SURE you get that.

5. Honor your mother and father

I am not one to hold the belief that our parents are infallible creatures that do not make mistakes and do not need to be accountable for their actions. They are people and as responsible for their choices as the rest of us. So with this one, I think it is honouring them for whatever you can. Even the most abhorrent parents on the planet are the reason you are here at all. And no matter what hell you may have had to endure at their hands, if you value your life and your own position in this world – your own existence, then you can at least honour their choice to create you. You can do that while simultaneously absolutely hating everything else they ever did to you, you can. It’s not about ignoring their faults, it is about appreciating their input into your existence, and if nothing else, respecting that it is only for them that you are here at all.

6. You shall not murder

Kind of obvious, really. Don’t kill people. Don’t kill anything for no reason at all, and don’t, don’t don’t kill people. You don’t need God to tell you that’s a pretty crap thing to do. If you want to talk death penalty, I’m against it (I don’t believe in a Hell so why let them have an easy out of having to live with their crime? better to have it in their consciousness for the rest of their lives, the longer the better, if you ask me).

7. You shall not commit adultery

This is basic ethics, really. Now a few points I want to cover. Things like polyamory, polygamy and open relationships. NONE OF THESE ARE ADULTERY! BUT yes you CAN commit it if you are in these types of relationships. To be clear, adultery/cheating in my ethics system is that which is completed without consent of the other party. As in, your wife doesn’t know you had that thing with your secretary at that  business trip. That is cheating. EVEN IF you go home and pick up your wife and go to a swingers party where you each knowingly sleep with 5 different people. You still cheated on her with the secretary. Anything going outside the boundaries of your relationship – whether the boundaries knowingly include 2 people or 22 people – that is committing adultery, and its wrong. Just as wrong as an affair in a monogamous relationship.

8. You shall not steal

Again this is really simple and straightforward. And applies to more than just goods. Don’t steal ideas, don’t steal property – don’t take anything without fair compensation or explicit consent from whence you received it 🙂

9. You shall not bear false witness

Once again this is easy. Ignore the old language. It says ‘do not lie’. Makes sense, right? An honest world is always better, even if sometimes its harder. Be honest, be open, don’t tell lies – on any level.

10. You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor

So we change neighbour to ‘peer’ or ‘fellow human’ or whatever it needs to be in this more global society we now live in. Otherwise, its a caution against envy. The grass is greener phenomenon. It applies to his wife, his house, his car – whatever. Hers too. Look after your own backyard and your grass will grow. Going after or lusting after someone elses – well, that’s not only a waste of energy, making your own browner in the process, but it just means you miss all the good things your own life has to offer. You never know what struggles someone else has so don’t judge them based on their stuff or their wife – that ‘hot wife’ might be the biggest bitch on the planet, and your wife may be the best woman in the world – if you just noticed it.

Water your own grass, people. Concentrate on what you have, how you can improve what you have and keep the blinkers on as far as what it looks like other people seem to have. Who knows what the price they are paying is, and who knows what parts are just astro-turf and cardboard cutouts. Just worry about you.

Hmm. So there we go. My atheist interpretation of the 10 commandments. Easy enough. So why not live by them? Why not take those, the Golden Rule and still be nice and decent people? It’s a code of ethics by any other name, and one we can all do well to incorporate into our lives. Religion or not. The religious do not have a monopoly on morality, we’re welcome to be moral and just people too, and we can do it with the same set of guidelines.

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2 thoughts on “Living by the 10 commandments – possible as an atheist?

  1. I’m impressed, I have to admit. Rarely do I come across a blog that’s both equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue is something which too few folks are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy that I stumbled across this during my hunt for something relating to this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you 🙂 I’m glad you did too. I hope you got something out of it – I thought it would be harder when I sat down to deconstruct it but alas, it turns out we can absolutely do this and it’s not too hard at all.

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