I have always said, the ten commandments are basically pretty good rules to live by even if you are an atheist. - Kevin Sorbo
At first blush, that sounds like a perfectly reasonable statement, assuming your knowledge of the Ten Commandments is limited to "Well, they're rules we're supposed to follow, right?" Let's take a quick look at the Ten Commandments from the viewpoint of someone who doesn't believe in God and see if Mr. Sorbo is right.
To the Bible! Wait, There's More Than 10...
The first problem we encounter is that the Bible doesn't really contain the Ten Commandments as they're traditionally presented in Sunday School. The "Ten Commandments" that keep cropping up on courthouse walls and monuments on public land are an edited fusion of selections from Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the ordering and wording chosen varies from one religious sect to another. The Wikpedia article on the Ten Commandments has an excellent table showing the most common variations, reproduced here:
- S: Septuagint, generally followed by Orthodox Christians.
- P: Philo, same as the Septuagint, but with the prohibitions on killing and adultery reversed.
- T: Jewish Talmud, makes the "prologue" the first "saying" or "matter" and combines the prohibition on worshiping deities other than Yahweh with the prohibition on idolatry.
- A: Augustine follows the Talmud in combining verses 3–6, but omits the prologue as a commandment and divides the prohibition on coveting in two and following the word order of Deuteronomy 5:21 rather than Exodus 20:17.
- C: Catechism of the Catholic Church, largely follows Augustine.
- L: Lutherans follow Luther's Large Catechism, which follows Augustine but omits the prohibition of images and uses the word order of Exodus 20:17 rather than Deuteronomy 5:21 for the ninth and tenth commandments.
- R: Reformed Christians follow John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, which mostly follows Philo.
|S||P||T||A||C||L||R||Main article||Exodus 20:1-17||Deuteronomy 5:4-21|
|—||—||1||—||1||—||(1)||I am the Lord thy God||2 ||6 |
|1||1||2||1||1||1||1||Thou shalt have no other gods before me||3||7|
|2||2||2||1||1||—||2||Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image||4–6||8–10|
|3||3||3||2||2||2||3||Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain||7||11|
|4||4||4||3||3||3||4||Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy||8–11||12–15|
|5||5||5||4||4||4||5||Honour thy father and thy mother||12||16|
|6||7||6||5||5||5||6||Thou shalt not kill||13||17|
|7||6||7||6||6||6||7||Thou shalt not commit adultery||14||18|
|8||8||8||7||7||7||8||Thou shalt not steal||15||19|
|9||9||9||8||8||8||9||Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour||16||20|
|10||10||10||10||10||9||10||Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's house)||17a||21b|
|10||10||10||9||9||10||10||Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's wife)||17b||21a|
|10||10||10||10||10||10||10||Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's servants, animals, or anything else)||17c||21c|
That's 13 commandments!
The actual passages contain more than 13 between them, even when you account for similar commandments, but the sad reality is the Ten Commandments are an editorial study aid created by church and synagogue leaders, not a literal list of rules laid out that way in the Bible. Since Kevin Sorbo never specified WHICH religious tradition he meant when claiming the Ten Commandments were a good set of rules for Atheists to live by, we're left with the following options:
- Pick a tradition and run with it.
- Evaluate Exodus 20 AND Deuteronomy 5.
- Evaluate Exodus 20 OR Deuteronomy 5.
- Go through the pool of 13 proto-commandments traditionally used to fabricate a list of 10.
I am the Lord thy God
Already we have a problem. An atheist can no more acknowledge Yahweh as their God than a Christian could acknowledge Jupiter or pray to Hercules to act as an intercessor with Zeus. Fortunately for Sorbo, this Commandment is really more God stating how he views his place in relation to humanity. It doesn't give an actual command. This is probably why many Christian sects drop it from the list.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me
This is what most Protestants and Lutherans think of as the First Commandment. While its predecessor above allows for a pantheon compatible with, for example, Hinduism and many forms of modern paganism, this one encroaches on this territory, demanding Yahweh get preferential treatment over other deities a person worships. This is particularly problematic for someone whose pantheon doesn't even INCLUDE Yahweh.
Needless to say, this commandment is right out for an atheist, as they don't believe in God to begin with.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
Often combined with the rule that precedes it, this Commandment also fails as a guideline by which a non-Christian could live. Atheists are going to follow this rule in an incidental manner. Not believing in any god, an atheist is not going to be making an idol. If they made an idol, an object intended to be worshiped, they would no longer be atheists.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
This is one is bit more complicated than it appears at first glance. Most modern Christians see this as little more than a prohibition against using God's name while cursing. The older interpretation, and the one probably closer to what the original authors would have intended, is a prohibition against making oaths under false pretenses or that you didn't intend to keep. It takes the form of taking God's name in vain because it was common practice to swear in the name of your deity when you made a vow. Americans still do this by having people swear oaths on Bibles.
This commandment is the first one examined so far that is actually good advice. If you take it by the modern definition of "don't swear" it's a miss manners piece of advice. If you take it by the older, more accurate interpretation, it becomes a very foundational statement about maintaining your integrity and trustworthiness.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy
We'd have fewer arguments in this country about labor rights if this one was taken seriously by the allegedly Christian business leaders.The utility of this commandment to a atheist is going to depend upon what you mean by "keep it holy." If you mean "Go to Church or Synagogue" then the commandment is useless to an atheist. If you mean "rest and recuperate" then taking one day out of seven to relax is very good advice that will benefit most people.
Honor thy father and thy mother
After a long dry spell of ambiguous or useless commandments we finally get to one that has some undeniable value. This commandment is usually paired with a promise of long life if you obey it. Since Leviticus 20:9 and Deuteronomy 21:18-21 call for unruly children to be put to death, this was not an empty promise. In a Biblical context, the promise of a long life if you honor your father and mother is an unambiguous "Obey, or we'll kill you." In a more modern context, the promise is still applicable. A child who heeds their parents when they tell them to look both ways when crossing the street or advises them on good gun safety practices is generally going to live longer than a kid who discards that advice.
In general, honoring your Father and mother is a good idea. Sadly, there are plenty of abusive and negligent parents. Because of them, a disclaimer would be advisable to allow children to, for example, not honor a parent who sexually molests them. Aside from the absence of this disclaimer this commandment is good advice for atheists.
Thou shalt not kill
This is by and large, good advice for anyone to follow, unless of course they're a soldier at war.
Thou shalt not commit adultery
The rise of Polyamory, open marriages and the fact that many Millennials aren't feeling the need to get married before combining finances or starting families makes the essence of this commandment good advice, but the wording outdated. The real essence of this commandment is to not violate the relationship parameters you've set with your partners. In Biblical times this consisted of a man agreeing not to have sex with a woman who wasn't one of his wives or concubines, and the wives and concubines in turn agreeing not to have sex with anyone but him. That rather simple man / property arrangement isn't really applicable in modern times. Despite the fact that some rewording is needed, this is still good advice for atheists. Since monogamous marriage is still the most common adult relationship structure, "Thou shat not commit adultery" still covers the vast majority of cases.
Thou shalt not steal
Again, good advice for everyone. That's why the idea was in the Code of Hammurabi.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
Kevin Sorbo curb stomped this commandment with his shameful and dishonest portrayal of an atheist in "God's not Dead." With that performance, he bore false witness against about 20% of Americans, according to recent research.
The key problem with this commandment seems to be how many people are perfectly happy to lie about someone who is a member of a group they're prejudiced against. Jesus tried to clarify who our "neighbor" is with the parable of the good Samaritan, but that hasn't stopped even allegedly religious men like Kevin Sorbo from a performance as insulting and hateful as if he'd smeared himself in black-face and sung "Mammy" between bites of watermelon.
The commandment is a good one, but it needs some clarification.
Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's house)
Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's wife)
Thou shalt not covet (neighbor's servants, animals, or anything else)
I vividly remember a high school religion class where the teacher had us discuss why there were two "thou shalt not covet" commandments and why they were broken up the way they were. It's a shame he never had us go back to the actual bible. If he had, we'd have seen the division we were puzzling over was an arbitrary one. Instead of two commandments with a theologically critical division, the actual bible verses are just a few lists with formatting and presentation no different than elsewhere in the Old Testament. The Old testament authors LOVED going into detail. A reformed rabbi I spoke to explained that she suspected the "Stiff Necked people" Moses was contending with were real sticklers for detail, constantly looking for loopholes and exclusions. This lead to a LOT of elaboration. The example she used was in the convoluted and extensive listing of who you couldn't sex with without committing incest.
Because of this, I'm going to treat the three of these as a single unit and say that not coveting is generally good advice. I'm particularity fond of how Louis C.K. phrased the idea.
"The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them." - Louis C.K.
Kinda sounds like something Christ would have said, doesn't it?
The Commandments for Atheists
After all of that, we can cull the pool of 13 proto-commandments into a list that atheists can actually put to use in their daily life.
- Do not swear any oaths or make any promises you do not intend to keep. Do not break any oaths or promises you have already made.
- Take one day out of seven as a day of rest.
- Honor thy father and thy mother within reason
- Thou shalt not kill
- Thou shalt not violate the relationship parameters you've set with your partner(s)
- Thou shalt not steal
- Thou shalt not bear false witness against ANYONE
- Thou shalt not covet. The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them.
Getting back to Sorbo's original claim, "the ten commandments are basically pretty good rules to live by even if you are an atheist," we see 8 out of 13 proto-commandments are good advice for atheists, If you make a few edits to disambiguate and modernize a few of them. That makes Kevin Sorbo's comment 62% accurate, assuming you grant him the commandments that needed editing as whole commandments and not partial ones.