The Bible’s Ten Commandments
While there are two separate lists of the Ten Commandments in the Bible—Deuteronomy Chapter 5 and Exodus Chapter 20—they are very similar. The writer known as P for Priestly is probably responsible for their final written form dating from the exile of the Hebrews in Babylon in the early sixth century BCE. These directives are seen as the moral underpinning of Judaism and Christianity.
The first four of the Ten Commandments focus on obeying god, not making graven images, not taking his name in vain, and keeping the sabbath day holy. They also portray this god as a jealous and vengeful deity who will seek retribution on children of succeeding generations for any faults you commit. There is a lot to unpack here, but suffice it to say this is a typical Iron Age angry sky god. Priests, kings, and prophets used these laws to keep people in line through fear and punishment. As one author so eloquently stated, “Quite simply, the only way you could make a nomad into a citizen was by putting the fear of a god into him.” If you do not believe in a supernatural god, these must be rejected out of hand. And why would you want to believe in a deity that would punish your innocent children for something you did? Isn’t that an outmoded form of justice? Would you tolerate a court punishing your daughter or son for a murder you committed?
The final six involve acts that should not be committed: murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting as a well as a command to honor your parents. But does the Bible really mean what it says? How many times were people, including women and children, killed on the orders of a king, prophet,or ruler? Death was also meted out as a punishment. Adultery probably affected women more than men because men chose their wives, often more than one, and also were free to have sex with their slaves. The last prohibition, coveting, is clearly based on the patriarchal view of property belonging to men. “Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Deuteronomy 5:21) Everything in this list literally belonged to men, including wives. The presence of servants also indicates owning people in addition to wives. They are not referring to trying to hire an employee away from your neighbor—both the Hebrew and the Greek words refer to slaves. Notice also that there is no prohibition in this list for slavery, rape, or child molestation all of which were condoned in the writings of the Old Testament.
Can Atheists be Moral Without God?
Christian Apologists believe that unless you accept god in your life, you cannot be a moral person. As an atheist, I beg to differ. Michael Shermer, in his recent work, The Moral Arc, defines the individual as the moral agent because “it is the individual who survives and flourishes, or who suffers and dies.” I consider myself to be a moral individual and have taught secular morals to my son. Listed below is a shorter version of moral dictums that I think would work just fine to make our world a better place. Let me know if you agree.
A Revised Version of Commandments to Live By
Instead of loving and obeying a supernatural deity, let’s substitute loving and respecting yourself as a human being who has the capacity and capability of living in harmony with others. If you do not love and respect yourself, you will not be able to move on to respect and love other people. How can you follow the golden rule of doing unto others if you cannot accept that you are a person who deserves love in return?
Most monotheistic religions teach children that they are sinners and through coercive methods such as early indoctrination, no access to alternative worldviews, fear, shame, and guilt tell them that they are not worthy unless they accept belief in god. Without religion, parents can teach their children that they are worthy of love and they can love themselves fully and wholly without using any of the punitive measures mentioned above. Looking back at your own childhood, which method would you have preferred?
During the last several millennia, humankind has used its reasoning power to understand a great deal about the environment we live in. Instead of believing that earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions are caused by the whim of sky gods, we now know what causes such phenomena and can prepare ourselves through our ability to predict and track them. In addition, we have progressed from believing that certain plagues in the Middle Ages were caused by witches to developing inoculations that can prevent such outbreaks. Our knowledge of technology has also allowed us to develop more sustainable energy resources, better food production, as well as many other endeavors.
In order to take advantage of the brain we are endowed with, however, we have to use this reasoning capacity. We have to be willing to learn. We have to be willing to trust experts in fields in which we are not knowledgeable and accept their scientific results—results that are continually tested and revised through the scientific method. How many children have come down with diseases in the United States because certain parents thought they knew better than to vaccinate their children? Will the climate change deniers overcome what most scientists claim, namely that human activity is causing a serious detrimental impact on our planet? If we use reason, we can create a better life for ourselves and everyone else on the planet.
Julian Baggini summed it up well in this statement: “Atheism is thus part of a progressive story of human culture in which superstition is replaced with rational explanation and in which we lose the illusions of the supernatural realm and come to learn how to live within the natural one.”
The notion of an afterlife has been with us since primitive people began to bury their dead. As an atheist I reject both the concepts of hell and heaven. What does this mean? It means we should treasure this life, live life to its fullest, and focus on what we can accomplish here on Earth. What would change if the majority of people believed this? I think that we would have more respect for nature and all that is in it. We would see ourselves as just one set of beings on earth—maybe the brightest, but not the best. We could focus on improving the lives of everyone today and stop saying things like, “Well, they are better off, they are in heaven” to console people after a tragedy like the recent mass shooting right here in Oregon at Umpqua Community College. Instead of being content with offering prayers to the survivors of this tragedy and the families of those who did not survive, we would take action to prevent future occurrences.
At a recent discussion on morality with friends, the question of whether one could be a moral person without helping others was posed. Some voiced the opinion that doing no harm to others was enough to make you a moral person. I disagreed. Compassion for others must be a part of morality. We must look at what we have in common, not what sets us apart. If you were lucky like I was to grow up in a safe community, in a stable family, with access to a great education, you should be able to help those who were less fortunate. So pick a charity that you have confidence in. Contribute regularly. Donate to worthy causes. Think beyond yourself.
Religion adherents cite the charity work that some churches do. Some of this work certainly helps to maintain a social safety net. However, the largest religious charity, the Catholic Church, does great harm in some of its efforts. By refusing to offer condoms (because of its prohibition on birth control) in its missions in Africa and elsewhere, it allows the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS. In addition, many of these gifts come with the cost of listening to the proselytizing of the specific religion doing the giving. As an example, the Salvation Army’s clearly states that its mission is “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”
There is nothing wrong or shameful about the human body. It is the product of millions of years of adaptations that have led to the form it is in today. Take care of it. It is the only one you are going to have. My brother recently passed away after decades of tobacco and alcohol abuse. It was tragic to see what happened to him in his final years. I will strive to remember him as the hunky lifeguard at the local pool in high school whom everyone looked up to.
One aspect of many religions is to induce people to feel shame over the sexual functions of the body. Most have included prohibitions on sex primarily as a means of control, especially over women. Even today, many faiths promote and even require sexual abstinence for everyone outside of marriage. But studies have shown that abstinence education doesn’t work. It only leaves these young people unprepared for the reality of their own bodies leading to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Read more here.
It might be noted here that the concept of marriage between one man and one woman is also a misreading of the Bible. While the Catholic Church has issued several edicts against plural marriage throughout the Church’s history (almost always defined a one man having several wives, not the other way around), the question was still being debated at the time of the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther, who started this movement with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517, wrote: “I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.” I am not endorsing plural marriage, I am just pointing out the hypocrisy of the focus on the biblical notion of marriage.
The first reference to the Golden Rule, as it came later to be named, may well be that of Ancient Egyptians during the Middle Kingdom (2040 BCE to 1650 BCE) in the story of The Eloquent Peasant that stated “Now this is the command: Do to the doer to make him do.” If you have a doubt whether you should rape, murder, steal, lie or other sundry acts, just ask yourself how you would feel if someone did that to you. It is likely that you will have your answer.
Robert Green Ingersoll, an atheist orator in the 19th century wrote his version of this rule. “Happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to makes others so.”
I’m sure that I could create a longer list and I’d be interested in hearing your comments about key tenets that I have forgotten to mention. Morality just doesn’t depend on believing in a supernatural deity. If you want to read more about the topic of morality, try Michael Shermer’s latest book, The Moral Arc. It is an excellent read.
Karen L. Garst
The Faithless Feminist
October 7, 2015
P.S. If you are interested in being a guest writer, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (New York, NW: Ballantine Books, 1977), 4.
 Don Cupitt, After God: The Future of Religion, (New York: NT: Basic Books, 1997), 8.
 Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2015), 13.
 Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, U.K.:Oxford University Press), 133.
 Martin Luther, De Wette II, 459 (letter written by Luther in January, 1524)