I’ve been reading a book called The Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments. The author looks at each of the commandments in more depth than we usually do and makes some interesting points. One is that the first set of commandments, the ones about God, make the second set reasonable. If we don’t believe in God, if we don’t believe that there is a special relationship between God and human beings, then there is no logical reason to behave well toward human beings.

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

To me, the existence of a conscience which makes us feel that it is logical not to do harm to others is the strongest possible evidence of God. It’s a gift given to us, not a reasonable product of evolution. But it hadn’t struck me before that the love of God is the basis of our belief that we should be good to other people. The author, John Dickson, points to Nietzsche, who did not believe that all humans are equally valuable. He thought that some humans were worth more than others and deserving of more care. The weak, he believed, should be allowed to perish in the service of the strong.

This viewpoint is just as reasonable for an atheist as a kind belief in fairness and goodness toward all. But if we love God, then we have to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And that includes loving and forgiving them even when they are in the wrong, because we ourselves are so often in the wrong.

The ten commandments, if you are not a doubter, are the few laws given to God’s people, far fewer laws than just about any other code of behavior you can think of. If they were created for us just as the universe was created, then it makes sense that following them gives us a better chance at happiness. They are, as our pastor says, part of the fabric of the universe. They allow us to fit happily into the universe.

Feminist Margaret Fuller famously proclaimed, “I accept the universe!” as a statement of her philosophy, and I think this is in many ways the atheist viewpoint. We can accept the universe as it appears without demanding logic, or a creator, or explantions (except that we can’t, because quantum physics). But Thomas Carlyle responded to Fuller’s statement, “Gad, she’d better.” 

The universe is bigger than us. But not bigger than God. It doesn’t really matter to the universe whether we accept it or not. Fuller had a grandiose view of her own importance, as we know from other writings of hers. Following the 10 commandments, those that tell us to love God and those that tell us to love our neighbors — and the tenth, which Dickson argues is the one that says that our internal life is as important as our actions — is a better blueprint for life on earth than we may realize.