In order to determine whether we can know anything with certainty,
we first have to doubt everything we know.
I was standing in my high school synagogue in South Africa, waving my clenched fist in a circle above my head. Seven times we were supposed to wave a coin above our heads while chanting a special prayer.
I was fulfilling the Jewish practice of Kapparot. On the morning preceding Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, tens of thousands of Jews perform this ceremony. The ritual is supposed to transfer one’s sins from oneself to the coin.
There I was, performing this ritual, surrounded by nearly nine hundred other students all twirling our hands above our heads and loudly chanting the same ancient prayer. Peering around at all those waving hands, my own twirls began to slow. What am I doing? I asked myself. Why am I doing something so weird?
I slowly lowered my hand. I just couldn’t do it anymore. The school was a secular Jewish day school. Science and literature were as much a part of the syllabus as Jewish studies. What had caused me and all these other well-educated, rational young adults to do something so strange, simply because we had been told to do so? As it turns out, the ritual is even more bizarre in its original (and still practiced) form—the believer swings not a coin but a live chicken. Yes, the picture in your mind is correct—the more religious Jews swing a live chicken above their heads to rid themselves of their sins. The coin is just a modern alternative for those without ready access to live poultry.
I can still picture myself standing in the synagogue, staring in disbelief at all those waving hands. That wasn’t the first time in my life that I had questioned my religion. But on that day I crossed an invisible line, one that would change the way I acted and believed for the rest of my life. I decided from that moment forward that I would formulate my own beliefs and not just blindly adopt those of others.
Over the next several years, I tried to make sense of my religious doubts. What began with questioning Judaism soon expanded to questioning all religion and ultimately to questioning the very existence of God. This last conclusion didn’t come easily. I analyzed the arguments in favor of a belief in God, as well as the arguments against it, and wrestled with the ramifications of both for some time. In the end, I arrived at the only rational conclusion: God does not exist. I had become an atheist. My acceptance that God does not exist didn’t result in despair or anguish, as religious people often assume. Rather, like most new nonbelievers, I felt an initial wave of relief and liberation. Satisfaction, too. I
had earnestly analyzed this mighty metaphysical question and arrived at a conclusion that I both understood and could rationalize. I felt the weight of thousands of years of religious belief lift from my shoulders. The comfort of knowledge remained.
Sadly, the comfort didn’t last long. Soon I found myself facing an even bigger problem. I had figured out what I didn’t believe, but I didn’t know yet what I could believe. I discovered that while atheists are steadfast in denying the existence of a God, we often lack a strong assertion of the alternative—what exactly do atheists believe? Without a comprehensive system of assertive beliefs, I felt that any criticism of God and religion was spurious. The practicality of life requires that we each believe something.What is it that I believe?
When a colleague heard I had abandoned my belief in God, he challenged me to respond to the assertion, attributed to Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton, that “when a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes in anything.”
I’d like to say I fired back a witty response, but that wasn’t the case. The claim brought me up short. I still had precious values, of course, but once the familiar religious foundations were stripped away, I didn’t quite know how to ascribe any sanctity to those values. I was in effect living my life according to anything. Historian and author Will Durant, himself an atheist, offered a similar concern when he declared that “the greatest question of our time is not communism vs. individualism, not Europe vs. America, not even the East vs. the West; it is whether man can bear to live without God.”
The more closely I looked at the values I’d acquired during the course of my life, the greater my awareness of the weakness of their foundation. I didn’t know what I thought I knew. Without a belief in God—an almighty deity who decides what is right and what is wrong—how could I know why any value should be more or less valid than any other? How could I justify the continued importance of morality in my life? Should I even be moral?
I was eight years old. It was snowing heavily in Scarsdale, New York, in the earliest hours of December 25, 1992. The light outside the window was casting a faint yellow glow on the frosted glass, but I wasn’t focused on the still beauty of this Christmas night. Instead, crouched at the top of the stairs like a cat burglar, I peeked through the banister toward the living room. Muted conversation filtered up the stairs, along with some rustling in our downstairs hall closet, just out of view.
I crept down one step, two steps, three steps, like a ninja in footie pajamas, until at last the hall closet came into view. I saw my mom and dad chatting quietly as they retrieved the Christmas presents from their secret hiding spot in the closet and placed them under the tree in our living room. I crouched in the shadows, my heart beating out of my chest. I’d just caught my parents in flagrante delicto putting presents under the tree! I gloated silently. I had definitive proof I could share with my friends. As I watched, my dad took a bite out of one of the cookies I’d left for Santa before returning to the hall closet to collect a few more presents. I wouldn’t say that disbelieving in Santa made me an atheist, but it did make me realize three things: first, things aren’t always what they seem or what people say they are; second, supernatural explanations are suspect; and finally, if you want to find out the truth, you can’t just go asking other people—you have to investigate for yourself.
That Christmas night episode was the first of a long series of insights that slowly transitioned me from a believing Christian to an atheist. What began with belief in a naïve version of Christianity (often referred to in divinity schools as “Sunday school Christianity”) was irrevocably damaged that night with the discovery that Santa wasn’t real.
My faith in Christianity continued to diminish during high school, especially during confirmation class in the United Church of Christ, the church in which I was raised. Confirmation class was required for all fourteen-year-olds who wanted to become members. The class was led by a wonderfully progressive Christian minister who didn’t shrink from addressing the controversial parts of the Bible. We would have Bible readings and discuss them, talking about what we found compelling and what we found suspicious.
As the class progressed, I realized that I found most of the book tedious and the rest of it morally and factually suspect.
It was in this class that I abandoned my faith altogether. The occasion was a discussion on the problem of evil—or why bad things happen to good people. As it happens, I was studying the Holocaust at the same time in my social studies class at school. During the discussion, my faintly Christian beliefs were utterly unable to explain why a benevolent God would allow the radical evil of the Holocaust to happen. Worse, I discovered apologists arguing all sorts of insane things, such as:
I was appalled. The absence of intellectual rigor in the arguments, the transparent lack of real compassion for the victims of the Holocaust, and the inability of the apologists even to consider the possibility of God’s culpability in the world’s horrors opened my eyes to the lack of serious answers to this critical problem. The deeper I dug, the worse it became. Not only did I discover a foundational problem with Christian theology (the assertion that God is omnibenevolent, or “perfectly good”) but, worse, I found myself turned off by a church that seemed more interested in preserving the dignity and moral purity of God than concerned for the systematic murder of millions. But in turning away from one problem, I found myself facing another. I had discarded my religious faith but found myself asking the question, “Now what?” After all, realizing that there isn’t an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity watching over the good and punishing the wicked is just the first step. Having figured out what I didn’t believe in, I now had to investigate what I should believe in. I found myself faced with a whole new set of questions:
I dived into these questions as a philosophy major at Vassar College, then volunteered in a domestic violence shelter in Butte, Montana. But the big questions continued to rattle around in my mind, and after a year in Montana I enrolled in Harvard Divinity School. Before long, I was serving as president of the Harvard Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists society. I began to notice that students were less interested in debating the question of whether God exists than in discussing what to do and how to live. I recall a conversation with Harvard’s humanist chaplain, Greg Epstein, in which we agreed that while the question, “Does God exist?” was pretty well covered in books, articles, and blogs, the question, “What should one then believe?” was more important and more interesting for young nonbelievers. Helping to answer that question, I decided, was the best way I could help my fellow nonbelievers.
In 2010, I was appointed the humanist chaplain serving Stanford University. Being a humanist chaplain, I interact with lots of students and so am confronted with the most significant questions and concerns facing young nonbelievers. Just as at Harvard, at Stanford the negatives are already well established. These students reject blind faith, whether in God, prophets, or the government. They reject creationism and its rebranded doppelgänger, “intelligent design.” But despite all that, there is still a real need in the young atheist community to answer the question of what nonbelievers do believe in.
* * *
And so, in pursuing very different lives, we, the two authors of this book, having abandoned our faiths, found ourselves confronted with the same question: What do we believe now?
Partial answers to this question abound—a book chapter here, a blog post there. But we’ve yet to find a book that comprehensively answers this simple question in an intuitive and nontechnical way. It is a challenge for all nonbelievers, but it is an especially unfortunate gap for college students during the years when many first begin to seriously ask the big questions and to challenge their faith.
It was in part to help answer this question that coauthor John Figdor became a humanist (or atheist) chaplain. To some, especially believers, the very idea of a humanist chaplain is a contradiction in terms—after all, why would students who do not believe in God want or need a chaplain? John posed this very question to Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard, while he was a student there. As is his habit, Epstein answered the question with a series of questions:
Don’t students who are nonreligious deserve to have a nonjudgmental person to talk to about problems such as adjusting to life away from one’s parents, coping with the intense academic environment, and coming to terms with sickness or death in the family? Don’t nonreligious students deserve to have a person on campus organizing interesting education programs and charity drives? Don’t nonreligious students deserve a representative to ensure that their perspectives are welcomed on campus?
When John found himself answering “yes” to all of these questions, he knew that he was on a path to becoming a humanist chaplain himself. But even then he knew the title “humanist chaplain” wasn’t ideal. After all, “chaplain” is generally understood to be a fundamentally religious word, meaning a priest or minister. The term doesn’t really describe him. He is neither a priest nor a minister but a community organizer, friend, and advocate for nonreligious students. But the term chaplain is so ubiquitous in our educational system that nonreligious advocates such as John are forced for practical reasons to accept the title, however awkward it may be. If a special term were invented like “councilor” or “advisor,” that name would be given second-class status. Chaplaincies tend to have a special status and administrative privileges within most university structures, so adopting the chaplain nomenclature creates an equal and alternative voice to that of traditional religions on campus.
As an interesting aside, the history of the term “chaplain” has been one of expanding definitions. In the beginning, only Christian chaplains were allowed on the Harvard campus. But as time passed, Jews were eventually welcomed into the fraternity of college and university chaplains, followed much later by Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh chaplains. Now colleges such as Harvard and Stanford have more than thirty chaplains, representing a vast diversity of religious and nonreligious beliefs. As the biographies that opened this book underscore, we grew up on different continents with very different upbringings. John trained as an analytic philosopher, religious studies scholar, and college chaplain, while Lex was educated in engineering and technology entrepreneurship. When we met at Stanford, we quickly found that, despite our different backgrounds and perspectives, our ways of thinking were surprisingly similar. We both have an interest in philosophy, debate, rigorous logic, and skepticism—classic characteristics of the atheist mind. We also both care deeply about compassionate ethics, personal integrity, society, and morals— our humanist hearts. Between the two, as our own stories show, lies a gap that still remains to be filled, not just for our own lives but also for the atheist and humanist community.
This book is the result of our combined efforts to fill the void of disbelief that remains after a rejection of God by answering the questions, “What should one believe after abandoning faith?” and “What are the positive principles of atheism?” We have decided to answer these challenges in an unorthodox way—by updating the Ten Commandments to a version for the twenty-first century, a version that reflects modern secular thought, science, psychology, and philosophy. A version that is intellectually rigorous but easily understandable, reflecting both the atheist mind and the humanist heart. Our goal is to provide a clear and comprehensive framework of secular beliefs about life, human behavior, and ethics. We call our version Ten Non-commandments for the Twenty-first Century.
Why “non-commandments”? Because a defining difference between our version and the original is that ours are amendable. Our non-commandments are not written in stone, nor do we pretend that these are the only valid answers to the challenge of meaning without God. Rather, they are our best attempt to answer these questions as we see them today, at this point in our own atheist and humanist lives, and to be as transparent as possible in our explanations of our arguments.
In writing this book, we encountered something that will be familiar to many readers: the difference between an idea in thought and an idea in words. Just as we often realize something makes no sense only after we say it aloud, thoughts that seemed lucid and strong in our minds often showed their flaws once they were committed to the page. The exercise of writing down our beliefs helped us truly discover our beliefs and how they all tie together. We enthusiastically invite the reader to join us in this conversation. This is not a sermon from two guys with all the answers, but a dialogue by two questioning, flawed individuals about the most important questions we face as human beings. We hope that our thoughts may serve as a useful reference for the many nonbelievers out there. But even more important, we hope to encourage you and others to reflect on your own beliefs. We hope that you will add to our work and discover your own personal noncommandments, and that together we might all attain a deeper understanding of our innermost beliefs.