By Steve Jeffery, 05 Feb 2013
Atheist writer Alain de Botton has come up with Ten Commandments for atheists, designed to "promote overlooked virtues such as resilience and humour." They're worth a closer look, since a moment's thought shows that they are unlikely to have the impact their author hopes.
Here they are:
1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.
2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.
3. Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.
4. Sacrifice. We won't ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don't keep up with the art of sacrifice.
5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can't avoid.
6. Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it's disappointment optimally channelled.
7. Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one's troubles and moods; to have a sense of what's going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
8. Forgiveness. It's recognising that living with others isn't possible without excusing errors.
9. Hope. Pessimism isn't necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
10. Confidence. Confidence isn't arrogance, it's based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.
One obvious feature of these commandments is that they don't have a narrative framework. This is a serious shortcoming, for it makes it very hard to figure out what they would mean in practice. For example, when does patience start becoming pessimism, lack of resilience, or lack of confidence? Without a real history in which these commands are lived out, with examples to follow and avoid, they end up as vacuous truisms. Everyone would agree with them superficially, but everyone would interpret them in their own way, so they provide no real guidance for life.
This is one feature that makes the biblical commandments so distinctive. The biblical story, with its built-in positive and negative self-appraisals, tells us how the commands should be applied and nuanced in the rough and tumble of daily life. So, for example, the biblical examples of people telling the truth and lying show us how the ninth commandment, which looks superficially very simple, should be applied to the complexities of life when sometimes withholding the truth or even telling lies is the right thing to do.
Another way of saying the same thing is that you can't make people good by just telling them what to do. People aren't toy soldiers. You need to show them. The Living God has done this for us by sovereignly superintending human history and providing his own commentary on the narrative which tells us how to interpret it, and by stepping into the narrative in Christ to lead us by the hand.
No disrespect intended, but it seems unlikely that Alain du Botton will manage to accomplish a feat of quite such a magnitude. I would be very surprised if these Ten Commandments last much longer that our current Prime Minister, who, judging by today's events in Westminster, seems determined to pursue the Bottonesque virtues of "resilience," "hope," and "confidence" in a somewhat self-destructive direction.