Ten Secular Non-Commandments
M Dolon Hickmon reviews Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the 21st Century by Lex Bayer and John Figdor.
Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart (2014, Rowman & Littlefield) attempts to answer two questions: “What should one believe after abandoning faith?” and “What are the positive principles of atheism?” The authors’ solution to both is suggested by the book’s subtitle: “Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the 21st Century”.
I was drawn to this book by its subtitle, which to my mind suggested a set of universally applicable humanistic moral standards. However, rather than striving to serve as a complete secular replacement for Moses’s tablets, this book functions best as a manual for chiseling out a summary of your own core beliefs.
The authors do arrive at their own set of “non-commandments”, but readers are always encouraged to treat these as mere examples. A slick co-branded website, atheistmindhumanistheart.com, expands on the build-your-own-belief-system concept with web-based tools and a collaborative community off of whom you might bounce your newly-minted philosophies.
Once I caught on, Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart became a fun and sometimes fascinating exercise. It even led to a rare discussion of ethics with a colleague who happens to be both a doctor of- and a professor of Philosophy. Therefore, as an impetus to further discussion, Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart was a success, for me.
Unfortunately, it took more than a few chapters to apprehend the book-as-workbook concept. An explicit one-sentence introduction to the do-it-yourself concept does appear in chapter one:
After we walk you through our process, chapter 12 will guide you through the process of committing your own beliefs to paper.
However, the anticipated level of reader co-involvement (which is abundantly evident on the website) was easy to overlook amid numerous statements such as:
Our goal is to provide a clear and comprehensive framework of secular beliefs about life, human behavior, and ethics.
Co-authors Lex Bayer and John Figdor met at Stanford University. Bayer is culturally Jewish. He spent his childhood in South Africa, and was formally educated in engineering and technology entrepreneurship. Figdor, a New York native, was raised in the United Church of Christ and studied at Harvard Divinity School.
Because the authors used themselves as the test cases, their book is jam packed with biases, stipulations, and conclusions that seemed peculiar, tortured, and occasionally ridiculous to me. But given that divergence is encouraged, the net effect was simply that I had to consider what I would have stipulated, argued and concluded if somebody had asked me instead.
That said, if you are the kind to get emotionally worked up about philosophical disagreements (I’m not) you might find it aggravating (or infuriating) to be walked step-by-step through another non-theist’s rationale for behaving decently. This is especially liable to be the case if you (like me) accept that having no faith in God (or fairies, unicorns etc) is the default position, rather than a conclusion that rigorous logic and evidence allow people to reach.
Another potential irritation would be certain shakily substantiated claims that the authors make, especially about ethical subjectivism – which holds that moral standards are inherently arbitrary because they are subjectively derived. As someone with no formal philosophy education, I don’t feel qualified to disagree; yet I did have the distinct feeling (later confirmed by my philosopher pal) that their ethical arrangements were overlooking some important considerations.
But again, in the context of framing one’s personal “non-commandments” it is not necessary to prove anything beyond the point where you consider the matter settled enough to call it your own belief.
In conclusion, I enjoyed Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart. I could especially see it as a book to share among a group of similarly-inclined individuals, particularly those who are in the phase of re-examining inherited cultural and familial beliefs. As a bonus, the book’s website offers readers online tools and a community of interested non-believers.
It’s true that this book was written by a couple of guys who have little, philosophically, in common with me. However, considered in light of what the book actually claims to be, the authors have fulfilled the most important promises that they’ve made. My one real criticism is that there was not nearly enough early emphasis placed on the all-important aspect of audience participation. Still, Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart is sure to get people thinking and talking about ethics and why they believe what they believe.
• M Dolon Hickmon is a freelance columnist for the Freethinker and OnFaith. He explores the intersections of religion and child abuse in essays published around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed novel, 13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession. You can follow his writing on Twitter @TVOS1324.