Rewriting the Ten Commandments

Atheist Mind, Humanist HeartHere’s some good advice: get some good advice.

The Ten Commandments are often cited in our culture as the best words to live by. But they may present some challenges for secular humanists.

Or so, it would seem, was the thought process of Lex Bayer and John Figdor when they co-wrote Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century.

Lex, a secular Jew, and John, a lapsed Christian, each share some of their own personal experiences in the book with the loss of faith, and their search for meaning in a world without God. Over the course of the book they explore and craft a set of ten new “non-commandments” reflecting their own beliefs.

The book ends with a call to action for each reader to create his or her own list of ten non-commandments. They recommend all would-be authors to consider “the nature of existence, truth, and facts, and human behavior, morals, and ethics” in their own lists.

An important thing to keep in mind, the authors point out, is that none of these guidelines are (literally or figuratively) set in stone. We should allow ourselves to modify or edit our beliefs at any time, in the face of new evidence.

With all of that being said, here’s my list for now. Thanks for reading and please leave a comment if you feel so inclined.

  1. You are a unique individual. No one quite like you has ever lived before, nor will again. Strive to understand and celebrate what makes you “you.”
  1. Our senses and our reason may be imperfect, but they’re still probably the best resources we have for understanding the world and our place in it. Do your best to keep both in good working order.
  1. Gods are human creations. Perhaps in this sense they can be said to exist, like so many other human creations—art, money, systems of belief—but if you’ve got a problem that needs solving, you’re better off putting your trust in yourself and other human beings like you.
  1. Make it a point to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” when you can. Try to understand where the other person is coming from, to the extent possible.
  1. Revere and protect nature.
  1. Honor your family, even if you’ve had your differences with them.
  1. Carve out “alone time” for yourself when you need it, but don’t remove yourself from your community or from society completely. Work in your own way to try to make both better.
  1. Remember your past successes and failures without dwelling too much on the past. Plan ahead without worrying too much about the future. Seek to live in the present more of the time.
  1. Avoid excessive drug or alcohol use, and other unhealthy obsessions.
  1. Strive to be tolerant of other people, even if you disagree with their life choices. Feel free to try and persuade them of your own ideas if you like, but respect their right to live their lives their way, as long as they don’t encroach on your rights or anyone else’s.
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“Where Does Your Morality Come From?”

ethics1It’s a good question.

And not one that necessarily has tidy answers. At least for secular humanists.

For the religiously-affiliated, the answer is often simple: “My morality comes from God.” But whether they admit it or not, what they are really saying is that their morality comes from religious authority and tradition.

“Thou shalt not murder,” “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” are all perfectly human values that come from these sources. They are rendered no less valid by virtue of this fact.

But, as we all know, some sources of religious authority and tradition also offer some far more challenging positions with regard to many contemporary issues. This includes women’s rights and LGBT rights, among other things.

Those who want to hold onto this religious authority and tradition, while at the same time espousing contemporary values such as feminism and LGBT acceptance, sometimes have their work cut out for them. They may have a hard time explaining Bible passages such as, “Thou shalt not tolerate a sorceress” (Ex. 22:17) or “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22).

Secular humanists don’t need to try to fit the square peg of traditional religious teaching into the round hole of contemporary values. But then, where does our morality come from as secular humanists?

In his Living the Secular Life, Phil Zuckerman explores this question:

The bald truth is, secular morality doesn’t have a simple, observable, obvious origin. Secular men and women don’t get their morals from some singular, readily citable source or supernatural deity. Rather, our morals are complex creations. They are the outcome of numerous forces, factors, and influences working simultaneously— many of which we aren’t even fully aware of, at least most of the time.

He cites findings from psychology, sociology, anthropology, criminology, and history as evidence that human morality is a complex question. Then, using a conversation with Gwen as a point of reference, he summarizes his findings:

…if I could offer a suggestion to Gwen, or any other secular individual out there who’d like a pat, simple answer to the question at hand, I’d offer the following: “I get my morals from the people who raised me, the culture within which I live, the kind of brain that I have, and the lessons I have learned from things I experience as I navigate life.”

At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I’m prepared to offer an even more succinct answer: as secular humanists, our morality comes from usWe are the ones who know and decide what is right and what is wrong. And since we don’t accept the validity of accounts of supernatural revelation, we acknowledge that this is where theists’ morality comes from too.

Who Wrote the Bible?

who-wrote-the-bibleSpoiler: it might not be who you think it is.

The story of the authors of the Bible, as best we can understand it today, is the story of the Jewish people from their earliest times to their return from the Babylonian exile. Richard Elliott Friedman offers us some answers, along with some beautiful textual analysis and history in his 1987 book Who Wrote the Bible?

Biblical criticism begins formally in the 19th Century, but some of its impulses can be traced back much earlier. Arguably it can be said to begin with the 17th-Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who dared to suggest that Moses was not the author of the Torah and suffered excommunication for his heretical ideas. The documentary hypothesis, taking shape in the 19th Century and codified by Wellhausen, forms the foundation of Friedman’s analysis. It holds that the Bible, as it came together in its final form, is primarily the work of four separate authors known as J, E, P, D. They are differentiated from one another by a handful of distinctive factors, including style, syntax, and names for God.

J and E are the earliest, perhaps dating from the time of the split of the unified kingdom of Israel into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. J is from the south (Judah); E is from the north (Israel). These sources include the second of the two creation stories (Gen. 2:4-4:26), stories of the patriarchs, and other portions of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. Wilhelm Vatke, a nineteenth century pioneer of biblical criticism, argued that these sources date from a time when Hebrew religion was concerned primarily with nature and fertility.

D was composed after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom and during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. The D text includes nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. D represents a spiritual/ethical phase in the evolution of Hebrew religion.

The last major source, itself almost as long as the other three sources combined, is the P text. The first creation story in Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”) comes from the P source, as well as the entire book of Leviticus, and numerous other stories from the Torah dealing with covenants and ritual sacrifice. The P source represents a priestly stage of Hebrew religion.

Friedman devotes a good amount of space to discussion of when the P source was most likely to have been composed, and he presents evidence suggesting it was probably written much earlier than had at one time been thought. He references passages from the books of the prophets suggesting that they were familiar with the P text and that it therefore, too, must have been pre-exilic in its formation. He places its creation during the reign of Josiah’s grandfather, Hezekiah.

Friedman also devotes some time to a discussing of the fifth author of the Bible: the redactor. It seems there was another separate individual who took the four sources and skillfully and artfully combined them into the unified text as we know it today. This text is not without its own internal contradictions and inconsistencies, but it is one which has nonetheless occupied a place of central importance in world culture for thousands of years.

Friedman concludes by asserting that the Bible is “more than simply the sum of its parts” and issues a charge to different kinds of readers:

For those of us who read the Bible as literature, this new knowledge should bring a new acquaintance with the individuals who wrote it, a new path to evaluating their artistry, and a new admiration for the book’s final beauty and complexity.

For those of us who read it in search of history, this enterprise continually opens new channels to uncovering what was happening in various historical moments, and new sensitivity to how individuals in biblical society responded to those moments.

For those who hold the Bible as sacred, it can mean new possibilities of interpretation; and it can mean a new awe before the great chain of events, person, and centuries that came together so intricately to produce an incomparable book of teachings.

And for all of us who live in this civilization that the Bible played so central a part in shaping, it can be a channel to put us more in touch with people and forces that affected our world.