Religious codes began as cautionary precepts…Christianity used to have list of seven key virtues that it believed all its followers should heed. Who knows how many virtues a non-believer might choose to be guided by…and that this is why people are especially tolerant of, and afraid to complain about, misbehaviour.
Alain de Botton, February 2012
If you haven’t already read them, these are the 10 commandments Alain de Botton recently suggested atheists might choose to live by.
1) Resilience - The art of keeping going
2) Empathy - The courage to become someone else and look back at oneself with honesty
3) Patience - The ability to live and judge progress and success by realistic means
4) Sacrifice - To forgo your own advantage for the benefit of another
5) Politeness - To live alongside another with whom you can’t avoid and will never agree
6) Humour - The ability to channel disappointment positively
7) Self-awareness - To know yourself and not blame others for your own state of being
8) Forgiveness - To acknowledge life is not possible without excusing errors.
9) Hope - The ability to curtail your sense of dispair
10) Confidence - A constant awareness of how short life is. NOt to be confused with arrogance.
The overarching principle? Being kind.
I have, for various reasons, been instilled with the belief that kindness is a principle that must begin within. Often the hardest, most challenging brand of kindness is the forgiveness of yourself. Then, perhaps in order, might come kindess to your intimate friends.
I say this because kindness is nothing but a display of forgiveness. To be kind to yourself, you must be forgiving. In fact to be forgiving I believe you require resilience, empathy, patience, sacrifice, politeness, self-awareness, hope, humour and confidence, from which, comes kindness. And in order to offer these to those around you in the humblest, purest and most direct form, they must come from a foundation of solid belief.
By belief, I mean a sense of trust in the principles that inform the ultimate act of faith, really.
What’s the point in not believing in god, but still having commandments?
These are not commandments, they are principles. And principles are available to everyone, of every religion. Perhaps you might go as far as saying that the principles of an atheist place him or her in the position of power – the ultimate ruler in control of the direction of kindness. And so for the atheist, faith is much more about trust in one’s own capacities to direct and divide the power of kindness, than the will of a greater being. Even if the argument that the presence of a higher power is present in all living beings, choosing principles to live by, must therefore result in desirable ideals being realised at the level of the individual, and not at the will of an external energy.
Perhaps, then, it is a fair assessment to suggest that our tolerance of bad behaviour – or behaviour that once would have not been tolerated – is not really a question of variety of choice, but rather one of accountability. To what extent these principles might be reliably interpreted acros cultures is an unknown factor but the reality is, we are all of the same blood and the same family. And that makes each one of us equally as responsible for the things we do, and the way we choose to live our lives – the fundamental problem is not the choices we make, but the assessment of where the responsibility for those choices will lie once they are made, and the actions carried out.
Providing resources and skills to bring that attribution of responsibility back to the level of the individual, centering the whole process around the people who make decisions, can only result in forgiveness.