Reviews

Ten Secular Non-Commandments

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.

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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.

Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart is available at Amazon and other fine retailers.

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.

4 responses to “Ten Secular Non-Commandments”

  1. John Figdor says:

    I still think you misunderstand our position on subjective ethics. We don’t believe that moral standards are arbitrary, we believe that they are derived from subjective experience. This doesn’t make them arbitrary, but rather grounds them in subjective data. The only thing that is arbitrary is the natural lottery of where we happen to be born, and with what attributes.

  2. John says:

    I think some misunderstand the relationship between morals and ethics.
    To my mind, morals are average values that are subscribed to – to varying degrees – by all in a society. They represent essentially bottom-up values.
    Ethics are more top-down in nature and are usually subscribed to by members of professional groups, at least initially. They are often values which emerge in response to new forms of techmology and new forms of moral dilemmas.
    The ethical values that become developed may eventually become accepted and adopted as moral values by the wider society.
    One example of where they differ is the death penalty.
    A majority of the civilian populace almost certainly back restoring the death penalty, whereas the ethical minority almost certainly oppose it.
    On the other hand, ethical leadership is clearly leading to a situation in which abortion and voluntary euthanasia are now morally acceptable.
    These instances raise an interesting dilemma as to whether or not moral values should trump ethical values – or vice versa.

  3. gedediah says:

    This relates to the ongoing debate (or, more accurately, exchange of abusive online posts) about whether atheism ought to be about more than simply a lack of belief in gods. The dictionary atheists do have a point. However, there is a problem here that atheism covers a wide range of positions from a lack of belief in gods to a belief in a lack of gods.

    Ahherents of the former tend to get there by questioning authority of all kinds and are therefore more likely to have embraced a number of progressive positions such as feminism and marriage equality. Proponents of the latter have a positive belief not altogether dissimilar to those held by the religious. It is hardly surprising that they find the expectation that they should also accept the other stuff annoying.

    And so the debate goes on, getting nowhere, with neither side able to see the validity of the other’s position, given their respective starting points.

  4. Dioniogi says:

    Gedediah
    I think the problem is that dictionary atheists do not want to be dictated to as to what their beliefs in life must be. There are a very vocal group of people who say that you cannot be an ”atheist” if you are not a militant feminist, or you cannot be an ”atheist” if you are not pro abortion, or you cannot be an ”atheist” if you are not vegetarian, or you cannot be an ”atheist” if you like cats.
    This is obviously garbage, atheism is a non belief in god and nothing else. I for one am heartily sick and tired of anybody telling me how I have to believe or I cannot be a member of their little in group. That is why I hate religion, now I have so called atheists telling me the same things. When will ”atheists” start to burn people for their non belief in in the same things, they are already heading in the same direction.