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If You Want a “Secular Ten Commandments,” Don’t Forget to Include Atheists

If You Want a “Secular Ten Commandments,” Don’t Forget to Include Atheists

Polish human rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa recently spoke at a summit of Nobel Peace Prize winners. In his speech he called for a “secular Ten Commandments.” Specifically, he said, “We need to agree on common values for all religions as soon as possible, a kind of secular Ten Commandments on which we will build the world of tomorrow.”

Hold on just one minute. I can get on board with a generally accepted secular Ten Commandments. In fact, I really like the idea. It would be great if we could all get together and really commit to principles of fairness and equality. However, I must object to how Walesa framed the need.

Walesa doesn’t say that we as humans need to agree on common values, he said that religions do. I find this perplexing. Why should it be the responsibility of religion to find common values on which the world will be built?

As a non-believer, I get this all the time. People assume that atheists, agnostics and non-believers are inherently immoral. Oprah thinks we can’t experience awe and wonder. This is essentially what Walesa assumes when he says that religions should set the world’s pace.

Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, but like I said, I get this all the time. Surely non-believers can have nothing to contribute to a discussion of values. All they care about is science and empirical evidence! They don’t want to make the world a better place; that’s the job of religions.


Atheists have every right to be in on that discussion, and if it’s a secular Ten Commandments you want, then atheists should be at the table. Religious organizations do some incredible work around the world, but they don’t have a monopoly on good deeds. It’s perfectly possible for atheists to believe in justice and equality. There is nothing inherently religious about that. It would be nice if, once in a while, atheists weren’t discounted as a source for good in the world.

This isn’t to say that I disagree with Walesa’s larger point. As far as we know, we’re alone in the universe, stranded on this blue orb. It’s not impossible to come up with a set of values on which to build a better world. In fact, we have a pretty good start. It’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it was adopted by the UN General Assembly 65 years ago.

If you are unfamiliar, the UDHR was written in the aftermath of World War II. It enumerates all of the rights that human beings are entitled to by virtue of being human. It attempts to balance culture and religion with the right of every person to be autonomous and practice self-determination. It doesn’t care where you live or, what religion you are (or aren’t), or your gender. If you’re a person, you are entitled to certain human rights.

You may argue that we’ve had this list of rights for six decades and we haven’t made a lot of progress. I’d argue that the fact that human rights are even a concept is a coup. The global community came together to decide that these were the rights we need to invest in to guarantee that every person has the opportunity to live full, productive lives. We don’t always succeed, and progress has been uneven. However, my grandparents lived in a world without human rights, and I can’t imagine a world without them. That’s not bad for two generations. Give it two more and we’ll see where we are.

What’s even better is that these values are truly secular. The UDHR doesn’t depend on believing in the right god. They can be justified with religious, as well as non-religious, reasoning. I guess that’s why it’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Maybe we should all recommit to these goals. It’s counter-productive to divide the religious and the non-religious when the betterment of the world is at stake.

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Photo Credit: Franklin D Roosevelt Library via Wikipedia

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1:48AM PST on Jan 11, 2014


4:01PM PST on Nov 18, 2013

I love this article. Spot on! 100%

10:51AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

First, Jesus was just a politician who was executed among criminals in his day.

Second, Even assuming your claims are true, that Jesus DID sacrifice himself in an attempt to redeem humankind, what good did it do for anyone? Particularly for the truly innocent and downtrodden, i.e. animals, children, disabled people? They continue to be victimized. Jesus didn't make one whit of a difference.

Why would an "all powerful" god provide just one utterly ineffective solution to the problem he created, then do nothing at all?

Once again, why does your god never help animals? Obviously jesus's job was not to help animals, but to die for no reason. Sounds rather stupid to me.

5:49AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

Alfred's's brought out the PROSELYTIZERS who seem determined to ''rack up" heavenly "brownie points" through their harangues.

When will religious people understand that NOBODY BUT YOU cares about your beliefs?

Keep them to yourself and we'll all get along. OR....get up in your church and tell them to people with the same ideas.

Proselytizing does NO good and just gets really boring for the rest of us.

5:36AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

Our societies find it difficult to follow the 1st 10 commandments and now we want to give the world the 2nd 10 commandments, which will be similar to the 1st 10 minus 2. So, just because we delete 2 commandments dealing with God, there are those who think that this will make it clearer and easier for humans to coexist more peacefully.

Quote: That which is unpleasant to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole law and the rest but it's exposition.

2:43AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

When I read this article I thought it very thought provoking and I looked forward to reading the comments.However instead of intelligent conversation and discussion it seems to have brought out the religious freaks who don't or will not listen to others point of view,

2:36AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

Gandhi was as compassionate as Jesus.

2:09AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

His giving up His life and crucified by the very people He came to save shows what complete unconditional love is.And as God the Son ,He created those people ! Does He not care about what is happening on earth ? We are His greatest creation and yet many still deny and reject Him all for the sake of pride and selfishness.

2:05AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

We will never find anyone more compassionate,loving,caring and willing to help the most abused,downtrodden forgotten and simple person than Jesus was.He was always ready to show compassion and help for those in need no matter what it cost Him . He gave His all wherever He was needed and to demonstrate His character and His purpose He revealed who He was. In ALL ways He was perfect and that showed what we have lost because sin has cost us .He NEVER SINNED and yet He faced the same conditions and problems that all mankind faces from day to day. God demanded perfection as the only sacrifice acceptable because imperfection is NOT a sacrifice.Jesus willingly gave His life as our sacrifice and because of the great love He has for humanity.He was GOD THE SON BORN IN THE FLESH AS WE ARE TO ENDURE EARTHLY TRIALS AS WE DO and to be TESTED as we are.But He NEVER SINNED !!! It had to be that way because no perfectly created being would be a sacrifice.Above all.He was our Creator .Before His sacrifice He said.." No greater love has one man for another than he who lays his life down for him " It was prophetic. and He knew what was before him.But He also said.." He who has seen me has seen the father .The father and I are one " In other words .He was saying .." I am representative of God the father .We both are the same in all ways " His giving up His life and crucified by the very people He came to save shows what complete unconditional love is.And as God the Son ,He created those peo

8:27PM PDT on Nov 1, 2013

Ten commandments is too many. You only need one: Be excellent to each other. If you need more than that, you have a problem that no "holy" book can remedy.

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