“Shining a New Light: An Atheist’s 10 Suggestions”

February 11, 2018


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Feb. 11, 2018

Shining a New Light: An Atheist’s 10 Suggestions
Exodus 20:1-17

Dennis Lee Curtis was an armed robber who was arrested in 1992 in Rapid City, South Dakota. It turns out that Curtis was a scrupulous robber. In his wallet, the police found a sheet of paper on which was written the following code of ethics:
1. I will not kill anyone unless I have to.
2. I will take cash and food stamps – no checks.
3. I will rob only at night.
4. I will not wear a mask.
5. I will not rob mini-marts or 7-Eleven stores.
6. If I get chased by cops on foot, I will get away. If chased by vehicle, I will not put the lives of innocent civilians on the line.
7. I will rob only 7 months a year.
8. I will enjoy robbing from the rich to give to the poor.
These were this thief’s ethical rules for his unethical behavior. Perhaps to his surprise, when he stood before the court, he was not judged by the standards he had set for himself. Instead, he was judged by the laws of the state of South Dakota.

I taught Christian Ethics at Kansas Newman for a number of years. Most of my students were young adults, who were still somewhat idealistic. Most of them had a very strong sense of what was right and wrong and were judgmental about those who broke the rules. They said that they believed in the 10 commandments as the ultimate system of morality. But, when I pushed them with a variety of real-life scenarios, with conflicting moral questions, they quickly folded and didn’t have a system to discern the best choice. Part of their final exam was to outline their ethical system and how it worked in times of crisis.

Most Western people have at least a vague understanding of the ancient Hebrew code commonly called the Ten Commandments. What we may not realize is that the Hebrew Bible has many, many commandments – not only 10. There are at least 613 commandments, according to Jewish teaching.

There is much emphasis on the commonly known 10 commandments in our society. We have etched them in stone and placed them in important places and some people say the list is the best moral code we have. The Vegas and television magician, Penn Jillette, offered his “ten suggestions” from an atheist’s point of view. They are side-by-side in your bulletin with the common list from Exodus.

Jillette clearly used the 10 commandments as his guide for his own 10 suggestions since most of them echo the sentiment of the Hebrew Bible. For example, honor your parents, don’t kill, don’t cheat, don’t lie, are all basically the same on both lists.

Jillette also made his focus more individualistic than the Bible’s more social list. Penn’s concern is: How should I behave in order to do right by myself and the people I deal with? The Bible’s concern is: What will help to insure a successful society. Remember too that the biblical authors lived in a pre-scientific time. They had no word for nature; instead they said God. Modern people think of ultimate reality as consisting of the material universe and its laws; the ancients thought of ultimate reality as being an enormous person living outside the sky.

I did an un-scientific poll on FB this week to see what you and others might claim as the ultimate moral code. I received some great answers! Among them were:
1. Do unto others… treat others as you want to be treated…
2. Love God and neighbor
3. Live life with honesty, integrity, compassion, respect, forgiveness, and love.
4. Do no harm
5. Seeking goodness = seeking God
6. If I err, may I always err on the side of grace!
7. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

And then my smart aleck son wrote, “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”! Later, however, he redeemed himself with “Be who your dog thinks you are”. I like that one.

Let’s take another look at those well-known commandments, one at a time. I am using as a reference another article from the Jesus Seminar magazine, The Fourth R. This article was written by Richard Trudeau and gives some context for each of the commandments. I am also evaluating the commandments within their context of other Hebrew and Christian writings to try to understand the essence and meaning of these words.

Have no other gods before me. The text from Exodus is represented as having been spoken by Yahweh. What you may not realize is that Israel, at the time these commandments were written, was not yet monotheistic. What is interesting in this commandment is that Yahweh isn’t claiming to be the only god… just that Israel was to treat Yahweh as second to none. About the 6th century BCE, when Israel did limit belief to one god, this commandment began to be understood as asserting God’s absolute uniqueness.

Do not make idols. The wisdom of this commandment is that it declares all images of God to be wrong, says Trudeau. If we imagine God as a person with human traits, we are wrong. God is unimaginable. This was the reason when I talked last week about whether or not there is a real god, I suggested that experience is how we learn about God. Whenever we think with our brains about God, we fall short of the totality of what ultimate holiness is. When we experience it, we know God in our souls.

Do not take God’s name in vain. So many people simplify this commandment and talk about cursing. Originally, this commandment had another meaning. In ancient times, the name of a god was thought to have magical power. This commandment reminds us not to treat God as a magician – give me this or heal me from that, God. To ask supernatural intervention from God is to take God’s name in vain.

Keep God’s day holy. Oh my! People have been second guessing this commandment for millenniums! This really isn’t about taking time away from work or spending all day honoring God. Those might be good ideas, but they are not the essence of this command, according to Trudeau. He notes that the first English version of these commandments was Shakespearean. What was translated here is a commandment to keep the Sabbath whole. To keep this day whole means to keep it uncontaminated by the way we spend the other six days of the week. It is a day of re-creation. It is a day of putting back together that which has been fractured during the week. It is a day of bringing life back together and celebrating the wholeness God intends. In other Biblical texts, the principal of Sabbath includes putting back to right-ness financial debts, giving land back to original owners, including people who have been excluded from society, and so on. We are to be re-distributors (wholeness makers) for ourselves and society.

Honor your parents. This command was essential to the ancient culture system. People’s very lives depended on how their families treated them. The oldest generation was dependent (physically and socially) on their younger family members since there were no social institutions – like Meals on Wheels or Sr. Services, or nursing facilities, or hospitals. That is why this commandment ends with the phrase “so that their days may be long on this earth”. So many people today who have difficult relationships with their family members feel guilt when they hear this commandment. It really isn’t about honoring the parents who hurt you. It was a social agreement to prevent the elderly from becoming a burden to society. Again, the Bible’s emphasis here is about social obligation… not necessarily an individualistic obligation.

Don’t kill. Well, duh. That’s a universal idea – except for a few exceptions. In other places, the Biblical writings allow killing to protect one’s self or family. It also allows killing in war when the war is just. When I was growing up, my mom taught me that “do not kill” was not only about taking someone’s physical life away. She said it was wrong to kill a person’s will to live. She probably taught me this when I was a teenage girl! Don’t take away someone’s dignity; don’t take away someone’s reputation; don’t take away someone’s determination; don’t take away someone’s purpose. Don’t kill their hope.

Don’t cheat on your spouse. The Bible is against breaking promises in general. This one is more specific because it focuses on the most likely to tear the fabric of society. Breaking a promise usually has a victim. Breaking your promise to your spouse sets at least two families at odds and hurts multiple people in the most sensitive and cruel way. You could also say that this command has at its root: don’t rip apart and destroy trust with those closest to you.

Don’t steal. Again, this is a universal truth. The Bible includes this command because stealing tears the fabric of society apart. I know people who would never think of snatching an elderly woman’s purse but who do not mind at all tricking their insurance company. No name, no face? Who will it hurt? Someone who works occasionally at our home wanted to get paid in cash. She isn’t in need or without documentation. And she is a flag waving American citizen. She just doesn’t want to pay taxes. Stealing tears the fabric of society apart.

Don’t give false testimony. Often, this command is translated as “don’t lie.” Interestingly enough, that is not a correct understanding. This commandment doesn’t prohibit all lying, only false testimony in a social context – for example in a court of law or by way of gossip. As far as the Bible is concerned, it’s okay to say “What a beautiful baby!” when you’re looking at a homely kid. This commandment is specific to the kind of talk we use in regard to our neighbors. When we use our words to degrade, hurt, or lie about another person, we are breaking this command. When we say judgmental things that are hurtful to others and meant to demean and exclude them, we are breaking this command.

Don’t covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. This may be one of the simplest and most difficult of the commands… don’t wish to have what you don’t. To do so disrupts the harmony of your neighborhood. Comparing what we have to what another has is not productive. You know the saying “the grass is always greener”? This command gets at that truth – what is not ours should not be our concern.

You know, dog trainers teach us that the dog kennel or crate is not to be used for punishment. A dog should consider his crate to be a safe place… a place of quiet and peace. And a trained dog will not mess up his crate for the life of him – like use it as a bathroom or tear up the contents – because it has become his holy place. It strikes me that the 10 commandments tell us this very truth. Don’t mess up your world or the people in it. This place is to be enjoyed; these people are holy; this creation is lovely. When you mess with your neighbors and your surroundings, you destroy your own best life. And treat what is holy, well, holy and sacred.

Resources Used:
Trudeau, Richard. “The Ten Commandments and an Atheist’s Ten Suggestions”. The Fourth R. volume 30 number 4. July-August 2017.