Can You Be Good without God? - An Excerpt from A Doubter's Guide to the Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments are perhaps one of the most well-known and vexed verses of the whole Bible. They have found their way into our art, monuments, literature and culture.
But whether you are a believer or a doubter, this book will provide more than an interesting account of the influence of the Ten Commandments over the millennia. In today’s excerpt from A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments, John Dickson demonstrates how the first commandment is actually the foundation for the way of life envisioned for all humanity.
The first commandment is a call to take God seriously.
At the heart of biblical faith is monotheism, the conviction that there is one God over all things. Some ancient cultures held to polytheism, the acceptance of multiple deities worthy of worship. Others expressed what is called henotheism, the belief that one deity rules as chief of the gods — in the Greek pantheon this status was held by Zeus. Monotheism is strikingly different, and quite rare in antiquity, and it has huge consequences for one’s view of the world and one’s approach to ethics.
Debate continues over whether the Israelites were pure theoretical monotheists, believing that only the God of Israel exists, or whether they were theological monotheists, holding that, while other spiritual beings or gods may be said to exist in the world, only Israel’s Lord was the source of everything, standing alone over creation as the ground of all things.
Whichever kind of monotheism is the more accurate description of Israel’s God, the first commandment insists that no other “gods,” whether real or imagined, are to be given any airtime. No gods “before me” does not mean given priority over me, as if God were just asking for preferment! It literally reads, “on or against my face,” an expression meaning “in my presence.” Since the God of Israel was thought to be present everywhere, this command is absolute. Having “no gods in my presence” is really an emphatic way of banishing all notions of deity, save the God of Israel.
Monotheism is not simply the Bible’s first command; it is its very first subject. The opening line of the first book of the Bible reads: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). This is not merely a sensible way to start a holy book. It is a swipe at all ancient notions of deity. In the ancient Near East it was commonplace to believe that many gods were involved in the production or fashioning of the created order. Divine status was given to
thunder, sea, sun, moon, and so on. These things were reverenced not just as majestic physical features of the cosmos but as spiritual powers in their own right which need to be placated. (See my Doubter’s Guide to the Bible [Zondervan, 2015] for more details on this and on how to read the controversial early chapters of Genesis.)
Genesis 1:1 proclaims an emphatic No to all ancient cosmologies. By giving the production of “heaven and earth” to a single actor, God, the author of Genesis leaves nothing in the universe for any other deity to do. Monotheism is not just the Bible’s first commandment, it is its first thought.
CAN YOU BE GOOD WITHOUT GOD?
Devotion to one God is more than a rarefied theological vision. It is the foundation of biblical ethics. It grounds the way of life the Bible envisages for humanity. Monotheism and morality are intimately linked. Only if there is a coherent, ultimate reality imprinted on the world can there be objective moral principles — a way of life that aligns us with reality and a way of life that does not.
Before we turn to atheism, think for a moment of the widespread polytheism common when the Bible was written. If the world is the result of a potpourri of different forces, as polytheism holds, we may be able to placate the individual deities, but there is no way to align our lives to a coherent, ultimate reality — for in polytheism there is no such reality. This is partly why in ancient Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman religions, there was no direct link between spiritual beliefs and practices and moral beliefs and practices. It was left to the philosophers, particularly people like Aristotle, to try and work out what our ethical obligations might be. And Aristotle’s great work Ethics has surprisingly little reference to the formalities of Greek religion. Religion was a separate category of thought for him. Today, we take for granted that religion and ethics are intimately associated, but this is one of those deep — and therefore almost imperceptible — cultural influences that comes from Judaism (and which Christianity and Islam inherited).
Atheism likewise cannot provide a rational basis for objective morality, and for pretty much the same reason as polytheism. If there is no coherent, ultimate reality imprinted on the world, there can be no way to align your life to a coherent, ultimate code of behaviour. This is dangerous territory, I realise. It is nearly impossible to talk about the logical link between God and ethics without people, sometimes my own friends, anxiously putting a stop to the conversation: “You can’t possibly be saying you need religion to be good. Many atheists are as kind as the best Christians!”…
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