I used to be an atheist. Sometimes I wondered what should guide the behavior of non-believers like me. Author Alain de Botton did more than wonder—he composed a list of 10 virtues for atheists.
The list includes empathy, patience, sacrifice, and forgiveness—laudable virtues regardless of your beliefs. (Read the full list, and de Botton’s definitions, below)
Christians will recognize the biblical roots of many of de Botton’s commandments. Pointing this out doesn’t seem to bother him, however. Unlike more-strident atheists, de Botton praises the positive contributions of religion to human society: “The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed.”
Selective reabsorption is what his list of virtues is all about. “There’s no scientific answer to being virtuous,” de Botton says. “The key thing is to have some kind of list on which to flex our ethical muscles. It reminds us that we all need to work at being good, just as we work at anything else that really matters.”
Two things are lacking, however, from de Botton’s list—and any other list you might make. All moral to-do lists lack external power and accountability.
Consider New Year’s resolutions, which are similar to de Botton’s virtues in these ways:
1) Origin—A resolution to lose weight, quit smoking, or exercise originates within us. We feel these things are important, so we promise ourselves to do them.
2) Motivation—We often make resolutions for self-centered reasons. We desire to exercise and lose weight so we will be attractive and healthy. We are motivated by those benefits.
3) Power—It sounds impressive to say that we resolve to do this or that. Reality is less impressive. Self-help has a dismal track record, because we lack the power to do even the things we promise ourselves to do.
4) Accountability— Left to ourselves, we are quick to rationalize or excuse our failings. Since we typically don’t want accountability partners, who do we answer to if when we fail?
Anyone who attempts to obey de Botton’s list will discover what all resolution makers know—we lack the power to do what we want to do, and we need accountability.
These problems of power and accountability—3 and 4 on my list—can be addressed by items 1 and 2. When we find the correct origin and motivation for virtuous actions, we also discover the power and accountability to do them.
To demonstrate this, let us consider the limitations of our power. We each have a supply of internal power to do what we want. But our power is limited by our motivation. When the motive dries up, so does the power to keep the resolution.
Let’s say you have resolved to eat better and exercise to lose weight. If your weight remains the same, where do you find the power to press on? Or, where do you find the energy and compassion to care for a dying relative, when you know your service cannot prevent death?
When we don’t have tangible benefits to motivate us we discover the limits of our own power. That’s when we seek accountability.
I’ve run two marathons. Both times I depended heavily on a buddy. Every mile or so I struggled to keep going. I wanted to quit because my inner power was tapped out. But I wasn’t alone. Keith ran next to me shouting: “Come on, you can do it!” He provided accountability, because giving up would disappoint us both.
Back then I had the physical ability to finish those marathons. But as an atheist, I soon discovered my lack of moral ability. I could run 26.2 miles but I could not keep the resolutions I made. Those failures drove me to find a new running partner.
I think it’s great that Alain de Botton made his list. I hope he, and many others, try hard to follow these 10 virtues. Because they will fail—and that’s a good thing. When human beings fail at list-keeping we discover how powerless we are—even to do things we want to do. Then we are ready to receive God’s help.
Any list—even one from the mouth of God—is powerless in itself. God knows this, so he “has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” (Romans 8:3)
What did God do? He sent Jesus to obey the law perfectly. Then Jesus died to absolve us of our failures. (Galatians 3:10-13)
Jesus is the only running partner worth having. He alone provides the power and accountability to do what is right, through the Holy Spirit and the encouragement of fellow believers. He also offers forgiveness for our inevitable failures at list-keeping.
Chris Sicks is the author of Tangible—Making God Known Through Deeds of Mercy and Words of Truth (NavPress—Fall, 2013). Once an atheist who rejected the existence of a merciful God, Chris now serves as Pastor of Mercy at Alexandria Presbyterian Church in Virginia.
Alain de Botton’s list of New Virtues for Atheists
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 by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.
4. Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.
6. Humor. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.
7. 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 to the world.
8. Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.
9. Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
10. Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.