10 commandments for atheists

IDEAS MAN: Philosopher Alain De Botton.  PICTURE: CRAIG ABRAHAM
IDEAS MAN: Philosopher Alain De Botton. PICTURE: CRAIG ABRAHAM

The writer, philosopher and pillar of the Fourth Estate, Alain de Botton, has just published a set of 10 commandments for virtuous atheists.

Of course, the doctrinaire and the devout might argue that the term "virtuous atheist" is an oxymoron, but the less zealous among us are surely curious to know more about the (un) Holy Rule of de Botton.

How could he possibly upstage seven stern "Thou Shall Nots", two stirring decrees to Honour our parents and Keep the Sabbath and the thunderous edict to recognise the Lord our God and none others?

Surely the author of Religion for Atheists couldn't better Charlton Heston as Moses in Cecil B DeMille's 1956 classic, The Ten Commandments?

Well, he hasn't bettered him, and nor has he attempted to capture the Biblical cadences that make the original flow satisfying. But here's the thing: de Botton has done a marvellous job of summing up what it is to be a nice human being.

Where the Old Testament diktats were a potent form of social control, this manifesto for atheists is a 21st-century guide to pleasant coexistence with which no one could argue - except perhaps Richard Dawkins, because this list is all about the Unselfish Gene.

De Botton's commandments are an easily digestible roll-call of solid, indeed old-fashioned, virtues: resilience, empathy, patience, sacrifice, politeness, humour, self-awareness, forgiveness, hope and confidence.

Most of them are self-explanatory, but several provoke thought. Sacrifice, for example, is not a fashionable concept, being more evocative of the knights' Code of Chivalry at Camelot than our brash Age of Entitlement.

We much prefer to insist on Having It All, even at the expense of our mental and physical health, rather than acknowledging that sometimes tough decisions - tough sacrifices - must be made. But sacrifice should be celebrated, not regretted.

De Botton says: "We won't ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don't keep up the art of sacrifice."

Politeness he equates with tolerance for the "otherness" of people whose views do not chime with our own. As for self-awareness: "To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one's troubles and moods; to have a sense of what's going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs in the world," he says.

Lent is coming up, when the emphasis will be on sacrifice, self-restraint and contemplation. And de Botton's insanity clause will doubtless give many Anglicans and Catholics pause as they decide whether to wear the thumb print of ash on their foreheads outside of church.


1 Resilience: Keeping going even when things are looking dark.

2 Empathy: The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.

3 Patience: We should grow calmer and more forgiving.

4 Sacrifice: We won’t ever manage to raise a family or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

5 Politeness: Politeness is closely linked to tolerance – the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, cannot avoid.

6 Humour: Humour springs from disappointment, but it is disappointment optimally channelled.

7 Self-awareness: To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods.

8 Forgiveness: It’s recognising that living with others is not possible without excusing errors.

9 Hope: Pessimism is not necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10 Confidence: Confidence is not arrogance – rather, it is based on awareness of how short life is.



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