In 2009, blogger Keith Akers asked a question about the a popular internet meme which is commonly attributed to Gandhi: ‘Be The Change You Want to See in the World’. Akers has subsequently concluded that the likely original source of the aphorism was a high school teacher from Brooklyn, New York, named Arlene Lorrence, who popularised the saying in the 1970s.
Akers acknowledges that Lorrence was agnostic and that she popularised the aphorism within a larger initiative, The Love Project, as a way of seeking ‘her own spiritual revelation, unconnected with any specific religion… a conscious affirmation that she was open to the next level of her unfolding…’
Some atheists and humanists might find the concept of ‘spirituality’ to be problematic, because it deals with a term describing a realm of existence that lies beyond the measurable, observable universe, and is therefore subject to question. After all, how do we prove that we have a soul? Leaving aside such ephemeral questions; as a humanist, I see the quest for spirituality to be more in line with the basic human aspiration of self betterment and striving for higher goals. In our human quest for significance, we seek to make a difference and to somehow leave the world a better place for our having been in it; and one does not need a ‘soul’ for this – merely a conscience – and so the adage to ‘be the change’ touches a primal and universal human desire.
Alternatively, I do have a problem with the common assumption that religions somehow hold a monopoly upon morality. While social evolution continues to update and supersede religious philosophies – such as the concept that racial segregation could be justified by some conservative interpretations of religious thought (a popular idea within living societal memory), or the idea that women or LGBT people were somehow inferior – humanity continues to improve as humane, critical thought is applied to traditional philosophies. To me, one does not need a religion to be a good person – one only needs a conscience.
One example of outdated religious morality might be found in the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue (Greek: deka logoi [“10 words”]), a set of religious precepts from Judaism that have also been adopted by Christianity and Islam as comprising a set of divinely mandated rules by which humans should live. It is worth noting the similarities and differences between the Decalogue and the earlier Code of Hammurabi, which appears to be more complex and nuanced but still equally archaic.
This is no mean-spirited bashing of religious precepts nor some attempt to bully Christians out of their religious assumptions. Any objective examination of the 10 Commandments shows that humans can rationally deduce much better precepts for living – and we do every day. It is no wonder that – despite the fervent claims of some Christians to the contrary – the 10 Commandments are not the basis for civil society nor for our modern moral precepts. The Decalogue has long been superseded by humanist principles in everything from civil governance to family life; from the abolition of slavery to the implementation of human rights; from legal jurisprudence to international relations.
The 10 Commandments – Carved in the Stone (Age)
Others have critically reviewed the 10 Commandments and found them to be lacking – so I will not go into my own extensively detailed critique, except to point out what I believe to be their most obvious deficiencies. After all, even a cursory examination of the Ten Commandments reveals their inadequacies, omissions and skewed priorities.
The first three Commandments concern God demanding total and unshared worship – “thou shalt have no other gods before me” etc (an interesting perspective from religions that subscribe to monotheism claiming that only one god exists). This deity devotes three whole commandments (30% of his whole moral code) to demanding that his followers worship only him. In a moment of embarrassing candour, I must admit that this insistence upon his own wants and needs actually reminds me of a schoolkids’ club that I tried to run when I was between the ages of 11 to 14. I drew up a list of club rules, and, impatient that my friends would not drop everything else in their lives and attend every meeting, I insisted on absolute attendance and compliance. OK, that was my immaturity and childhood inability to fully empathise with others (something that I hope I have left behind in my more mature years) – but this is a perspective that any omniscient deity should surely have outgrown.
Only one Commandment really touches upon family issues, and it instructs children to honour their parents. It says nothing about honouring children, ensuring that marriage is a joining of equals, providing a safe family space, banning family violence, or even defining whether a family is a nuclear family or otherwise. Do we help others in our extended family, or all members of our human family? Apparently God does not care about these other matters.
The Commandment banning killing is problematically vague. Does this include banning abortion? (elsewhere in the Bible suggests not) – War and genocide? (the Bible is full of these) – Does it permit execution of declared criminals (such as children who disrespect their parents) or people from other religions, or witches, or LGBT people? (Leviticus is full of it). Or can we kill others in self defence? And does this prohibition endorse the sanctity of all life and imply that we should all become Vegan? Hmm. God seems a little bit vague here.
Andrew McArthur points out the problems with the Commandment banning adultery:
Okay, but what about rape? What about child sexual abuse? What about polygamy? Again, this God fellow seems rather limited in his understanding of the human ability to behave in absolutely vile ways when it comes to sex.
Indeed, this commandment is the only one that mentions any form of sexual morality, so its scope for regulating all human sexual behaviour seems rather naïve and inadequate. Aside from child abuse and rape as mentioned by Andrew McArthur, the Commandments say nothing about banning armies from committing mass rape of conquered peoples and the sexual enslavement of conquered women and children – as frequently happened according to the purported history of the Old Testament. Marriage itself (the subject of this Commandment) is seen in this same religious culture as a form of indentured sexual servitude for women – which, when combined with the Commandment not to covet thy neighbour’s ass or wife or any other of his possessions, makes the intent of the Commandment about adultery clear: adultery is merely an extension of the Commandment not to steal: do not steal a man’s female sexual servant nor his honour.
We can do better. This is, after all, the twenty-first century CE and no longer the Stone or Bronze Age.
The 10 Countermandments – Principles for the Space Age
In order to encourage critical thinking and freethought inquiry, it seems easy to write a better, more balanced and (frankly) more civilised set of 10 Countermandments for our modern world. For example:
THOU SHALT respect the planet, its environment, its many vulnerable biospheres, and all species. This includes recognising and protecting the fragile nature of our solitary blue dot in space.
THOU SHALT respect all sentient life and ensure that societal rules governing life and death are are predicated upon grounds that are rationally deduced and enacted; and are designed to minimise suffering, prolong the value and nobility of all dignified life.
THOU SHALT honour human rights and ensure that all behaviours, cultures, religions, political/economic systems, and laws uphold those rights.
THOU SHALT ensure that all people have access to free education, medical care, employment opportunities, housing, and welfare.
THOU SHALT uphold full equality of all people, regardless of cultural or racial background, sexuality, gender or gender identity, age, employment status, nationality, financial status, physical and mental ability, or other means that have traditionally been used to discriminate and disempower.
THOU SHALT provide special assistance to those who are disadvantaged or oppressed, in order to ensure that they are fully enabled to exercise their human rights and individual potential alongside everyone else. This includes protecting women, children, economically deprived populations, war victims and refugees, people living with disability, older populations and others who are especially vulnerable.
THOU SHALT actively work to abolish inequality, poverty and oppression in all its forms; and rigidly enforce a ban on slavery, torture, violence, war, and entrenched political/institutional inequality.
THOU SHALT encourage opportunities for education, critical thinking, sciences and arts, and the self empowerment of all people.
THOU SHALT love all human and sentient life as much as oneself, and behave accordingly.
THOU SHALT use one’s life and abilities to maximise opportunities for individual and communal fulfilment of potential, happiness, life and love; creating a better world for having been in it.
OK, so these countermandments sound a bit like simplistic platitudes, and I daresay I have accidentally left out important principles, but this list was cobbled together quickly in order to demonstrate that it is easy to find better ethical principles than might be found in dusty old theologies and mythologies. Thinking of such possibilities can be fun.
But what is even more fun, beautiful, challenging and awe inspiring is a willingness to be the change we want to see.
©2022 Geoff Allshorn