The book Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century by Lex Bayer and John Figdor has generated concern and misunderstanding from those who rely on commands rather than reasons for moral principles. Going beyond the title and giving more careful consideration to the book’s arguments could relieve some concerns.
Those relying on Ten Commandments overlook a number of difficulties with their choice. Careful reading of the Bible shows that the traditionally chosen ten commands in Exodus 20 differ from those called the Ten Commandments in Exodus 34. For example, Exodus 34 advises worshipers not to “cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” In all, the Jewish law contains 613 mitzvahs creating a challenge for those would want to choose ten. Meanwhile, the stories of Jesus have him humanizing the commands saying “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” advising love, and summarizing the law as “do to others as you would have them do to you.” Without offering good reasons for a moral principle, there would be no way to establish that any particular source or interpretation is a good one.
Those trying to offer reasons for the traditional choice of Ten Commandments could have further difficulties. The traditional ten has demands of worship mixed with only a small list of things that add to human well-being and good society such as not lying, murdering, or stealing. To demand worship in any particular religion would violate both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and international standards recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a result, some of the traditional ten do not fit for modern society, and many other life enhancing principles were not included such as prohibitions on rape and slavery.
Rather than giving anti-blasphemy rules and a narrow list of prohibitions, Bayer and Figdor suggest a framework for determining what’s true and reaching conclusions about what’s good. Their recommendations go into a list of non-commands and are backed with detailed reasoning. Bayer and Figdor’s list shows a Humanist approach to life where people check the evidence, think carefully, and offer reasons for moral conclusions.
Humanists see we have lives to live, a world to enjoy, and people to share those with. If we use our heads and treat others well, this world and its people may reward us. Checking the evidence, thinking carefully, caring about others, and respecting human rights goes a long way to making life here and now good for ourselves and others.