Atheists Lobby to Change the Definition of the Word Commandment

Currently, Christians use the word “commandment” to refer to a rule set down by God that one must follow or risk the fiery pits of hell. The ten most popular commandments include prohibitions on wanting things and preferring some other god to Yahweh “Capital G” God. A new proposal hopes to change the definition of “commandment” to “one of hundreds of mostly outdated suggestions that should not be foisted upon others or carved into marble and displayed on government property.”

Also on the table: changing all portraits of Jesus to look more Middle Eastern.

In related news, theologians successfully lobbied the National Association of Biology Teachers to change their definition of “evolution” to eliminate language that suggests the process works without divine intervention.


Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. Gah. I’ve written sarcastic points and deleted them without hitting submit about four times now. It’s just gross that any group of scientists would bow down like that.

    Let me say it clearly. THERE IS NO EVIDENCE OF DIVINE INTERVENTION IN EVOLUTION. That could just as easily be shortened to THERE IS NO EVIDENCE OF DIVINE INTERVENTION. Stupid jerks.

  2. What atheist group is doing the lobbying? Is there a link to the proposal?

    Without having read it yet, and assuming it’s not a joke, sounds to me like PETA’s antics with pointless aesthetic protests (like trying to get the name of the town Fishkill changed). Aren’t there about a zillion other important things that atheists should be working towards, like combating exactly what you mention about changes in evolution’s definition? Are more pictures of Jesus looking Middle Eastern going to do anything for atheism/humanism/secularism? I don’t see it.

  3. There’s just as much evidence that evolution was guided by divine intervention as there is that there is evidence that humans lived on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, which was highly advanced, as much, if not more, than today, but was sank. I think they should therefore start teaching the Theory of Atlantis.

  4. I like to use Commandment in relation to my requests for what I would like for dinner. This rarely works out well for me.

    Jesus should be represented as a typical jewish person would have looked at the time. Lets see how many westerners want to praise hime now.

  5. “Um,” thanks. I didn’t click the second link as it’s taking 10 minutes to load sites on my phone right now.

    Apparently Poe’s Law applied to your post as those atheist activities don’t sound any goofier than some of the stuff they’re actually doing.

  6. Well evolution is not necessarily unsupervised, impersonal, or unpredictable is it? Can’t things evolve by artificial selection?

    It looks like Eugenie Scott’s post on the subject squares with my opinion. Those parts of the definition sound like they were written specifically to annoy religious people, rather than to define evolution by its necessary elements.

    Removing those parts of the definition seems right to me.

  7. I can’t wait until the theodiots lobby the American Association of Physics Teachers to eliminate language that suggests the process of planetary motion and gravity works without divine intervention.

  8. My rabbi taught me that the Hebrew word that has been translated through the ages as commandment (as in 10 commandments) is more closely translated as “utterances”.

  9. @banyan: ‘The diversity of life on earth’, which is a historical statement, includes but expands beyond “artificial selection”, hence the definition ‘an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.’

    The lack of a goal is a necessary element of evolutionary biology…a “supervised” process would necessitate that there is an apparent “plan” or desired end product for which evolution is occurring, which is the province of artificial selection. If you imply there is a personal supervision, might as well get rid of the word “natural selection” as how would you make such a distinction otherwise?

  10. @banyan: I agree, and I think Genie’s post explains it very clearly.

    @scribe999: No, that’s not true at all. For instance, what does “apparent” mean, in your statement?

  11. @BubbaRich: I don’t have to define an “apparent plan”. Someone claiming that there is direction or a purpose would.

    This is a distinction of logic that creationists and theistic evolution proponents seem to ignore…if “natural selection” can be described as having a purpose, how does one discern anything “natural” from anything “artificial” at all? Such “planning” is the stuff of Paley’s blind watchmaker…when finding a watch in the middle of the natural setting, the argument is that we can tell that the mechanism is artificial, thus a matter of design. Of course, we only know this because we are already familiar with how such a mechanism could come to be and what its purpose is. However, if you claim that the natural world was designed by an artificer itself, then how does one distinguish a watch from a mountain lake and forest as being “designed” by comparison?

    The evidence for evolution by natural selection shows that life reproduced and diversified in so many differing ways to fit an indescribably large range of ecological niches, and conversely most species failed to meet such challenges, that to state that any kind of specific purpose requires the positive claimant for controlled evolution to produce extraordinary evidence. I mean, after all, we now know from the data that the common banana was controlled to be the way it is…what is the purpose of the paramecium, or the butterfly, or the mountain lion?

    Now, is it possible a deity of some sort could have begun the process like some windup toy and let it go on its merry way? Sure (though, again, not supported by evidence), but that is still not the same as directed evolution.

  12. @spurge:

    Dr. Coyne commits the same logical error, here, so I’ll include that in my response. He and scribe999 create an odd, and false, dichotomy: a plan that THEY can perceive, or complete randomness.

    And @scribe999, you certainly do have to define your plan, since you positively declare it does not exist.

    There are better arguments to be made about this. I’m curious why Coyne is making this argument, but it’s a similar bad argument to those made by him and other gnus against Hume’s guillotine.

  13. The basic point is that evolution occurs. Whether it is natural, directed or is forced by some supernatural entity is irrelevant. The only thing, if one brings a directed idea into evolution, it leaves the realm of science, and becomes religious dogma.

  14. @banyan: I too agree with you (and Eugenie) here. If I’d been presented with the following definition:

    The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

    and then asked to find flaws with it, I wouldn’t be able to. I see no need to alienate the semi-rational* when there’s still a fight to be won against creationists and their ilk.

    *Beyond calling them “semi-rational”, a childish semi-joke I’m regretting already.

  15. @original post: Rebecca, you’re brilliant. Made me do a double take and then laugh out loud. Thanks, I needed that.

    @Bjornar: Here’s a flaw: I don’t like the “unpredictable” bit, makes it sound like we can’t make ANY predictions when it comes to evolution, which just isn’t true.

  16. @Bjornar:

    Why do you feel the need to coddle the “semi-rational” as you call them?

    Are they going to take their ball and go home if the NCSE does not placate them?

    If so are they really allies of science or just trying to use the NCSE to prop up their particular take on religion?

  17. @Felicia: Good point…unpredictable isn’t really accurate. I still think “unsupervised” and “impersonal” definitely are.

    @banyan: So you’re problem isn’t the definition itself, it’s the political implication of alienating people who philosophically disagree, the same as Eugenie Scott. However, the NOMA point that Scott makes, respectfully, is incorrect, as she is allowing the theistically inclined to dictate what is essentially an accurate description of the process with their own supernatural beliefs…something that she claims science doesn’t speak to. But surprisingly, apparently, religion can speak to science in her case.

    To use her own words, this kind of self-censorship gives “aid and comfort to extremists in the religious right” by providing a hole in which they can inject their ideas of “design” as an element of the mechanism. If the process isn’t “impersonal”, then why is the concept of Intelligent Design incorrect?

    Since there is no evidence of directed evolution, and plenty of evidence to suggest a mindless process (an estimated 90% extinction of species during Earth’s existence).

    I’m sorry that the facts don’t fit most theists’ preconceived notions, but that’s not my problem, any more than it is to positively state that the world is round to flat earthers.

  18. @scribe999: I’m sorry, but you’re not responding to what I’ve written. Genie’s point is accurate, and you are inaccurate in your claim. You are claiming knowledge you do not have. You decide (on no basis) that something is evidence for your point. But your argument is more evidence free as anything you’re arguing against from Genie.

  19. @spurge: There’s a difference between fighting to keep creationists from mandating statements of “It’s only a theory, there are alternatives” in all biology classes and fighting to mandate they start with “You can’t believe in God and evolution at the same time”. An exaggeration, yes, but that’s how those two words were interpreted.

    I don’t find it likely religion will vanish any time soon, it’s too big a part of culture and too much a natural way of thinking, and I don’t find it likely alienating absolutely everyone with a religious belief will a) make religion go away any faster or b) make my life better. Call that coddling if you will.

  20. @Bjornar: One can believe in God and that statement at the same time, the same as one could believe in God and not astrology, or physics and homeopathy at the same time…cognitive dissonance happens all the time. However, as we have shown time and time again for all other topics in skepticism, if the science accurately describes something, then the facts should win out over the beliefs. If someone has to squeeze their “god of the gaps” into smaller gaps, so be it, but it is intellectually dishonest to censor the appropriate description for evolutionary biology because of this consideration.

  21. @Bjornar:

    I don’t care how theists interpret it.

    They don’t get a say in science without presenting evidence.

    I for one am not going to kowtow to threats that they will stop fighting creationism if we don’t all pretend that science and faith are compatible.

    If they get to do it then why not the full on creationists?

    What right does the NCSE have to claim that one group of Christians have it right and others have it wrong?

    This is bigger than just evolution. The fact that they will mouth the words “I believe in evolution” does not matter if they do it for the wrong reasons.

    If they will throw evolution under the bus because they can’t deal with reality they were never friends of science in the first place.

  22. @BubbaRich: Hume’s “is/ought”? Seriously, this is not a question about morality, but the distinction about what makes a natural mechanism versus artifice or design. It is a descriptive statement to say that 90% of species dying out and failing to send their genes into following generations and each surviving species filling and adapting to ever changing ecological niches with varying rates of success, mathematically is an unsupervised flow to equilibrium…water flowing to the lowest point. To ignore that is to outright lend credence to the prescriptive: it ought to be that God makes it all happen. In other words, to claim that there IS direction or purpose would be a violation of the is/ought divide.

    I’m sorry, but you’re not responding to what I’ve written. Genie’s point is accurate, and you are inaccurate in your claim.

    No, I did not say a plan does not exist…I say there does not appear to be one we can perceive, thus we can ignore it in science. Like the question of God or gods, or anything else that does not have positive evidence, science does not make a proclamation about it. But not making a proclamation about unprovable claims is not the same as avoiding making descriptive observations about the natural world in order to placate those who DO make claims. Science: Tigers are just animals who act on natural instinct to eat meat and procreate. Some Believer: They are demons who purposely seek out the wicked to consume. Was the first statement wrong for, accurately, disputing the religious consideration of the believer even though science could never 100% refute that supernatural forces might inhabit a tiger?

    You are claiming knowledge you do not have. You decide (on no basis) that something is evidence for your point.

    Sorry, could you elucidate that point? It’s tough to respond to such a “withering critique” without some specifics. I stated, clearly, that the burden of proof is on the claim that implies direction to evolution. The only ones who ever seem to attempt to supply that are creationists. I don’t see why any believer needs to get into a snit about defining the naturalistic mechanism considering they don’t need evidence to believe what they want anyway. Furthermore, I don’t see why you insist that I provide evidence for what is the default position of biology…unless you have a problem with the word “natural” as well. If there’s evidence for evolution not being natural, let the theists provide it first since the process has been well-described for 150 years.

    Yes, bluescat48, but by the same token, it also becomes religious dogma if you specifically exclude it.

    Is it dogmatic to state that the wind on the sand creating striking patterns and shapes is a natural and undirected process? Is it dogmatic to state that tides going in and out are regulated by the moon’s gravitational pull, an impersonal and unsupervised force? There is no evidence for direction, thus “impersonal” is an accurate description, not because I say so, but because lacking other data, this is what science goes with, not “maybe the wind and gravity is pushed and pulled by some guy, you decide for yourself.”

    For example, how do you think Genie is letting religion “speak to science”?

    How about:

    As one Christian said to me, defining evolution as “unsupervised” and “impersonal” implied to many Americans that “God had nothing to do with it and life has no meaning.”

    emphasis mine

    The original definition doesn’t explicitly state anything of the sort. It just says that the process is directionless from what we can ascertain scientifically. If God is behind it, he has hidden it so effectively, that scientists currently don’t see it. That is should be the only implication for a believer. If there is anything else to it, it would be nice of them to provide the evidence so that we can call it artificial selection from now on. For a theist to say that the statement implies “God has nothing to do with it and life has no meaning” is him/her inferring their own interpretation based on their belief system, not a scientific or logical argument, and asking the NCSE to remove it is effectively injecting religious belief into the science.

    Let me use another analogy since it doesn’t seem to be getting through. If detectives come across a corpse, and there is no sign of foul play, and there’s ample evidence of, say, a slip and fall down some stairs or a heart attack, the cause of death is either Accidental or Natural Causes. Some family member or loved one may insist that they believe it was murder, but until such time as evidence can produced, the police will label it as it was described in the investigation.

    Science is not speaking to any specific religion or belief by representing reality as it can best describe it, but you seem to think that it has to refute every single ‘god of the gaps’ argument before making the rather simple claim that diversification through modification over time is as purposeless as water flowing over a landscape, filling the low-lying areas and running down inclines following gravitational force.

  23. @spurge: I agree…how can the NCSE make that reversal allowing for the possibility of the supernatural in science, and have the credibility to deny the possibility that a magical unseen being could be making species diverge because they are too “complex” to have occurred naturally on their own, much as the old earth ID creationists like to claim…irreducible complexity, why is it wrong if evolution COULD be directed and have a purpose?

  24. Let me rephrase.

    Which definition of natural crystallization is better?

    (1) Crystallization is the process of formation of solid crystals precipitating from a solution, melt or more rarely deposited directly from a gas.

    (2) Crystallization is the unsupervised, impersonal process of formation of solid crystals precipitating from a solution, melt or more rarely deposited directly from a gas.

    Don’t you see that sticking in a bunch of negative statements is unnecessary? The only reason anyone would do that is specifically to rebut claims by others that the process is supervised or personal. But scientific definitions are not the place to have a debate, and certainly not a theological debate.

  25. I don’t see it as unnecessary at all.

    If the NCSE is going to defend science they have no choice but to tell people who claim that evolution is supervised or personal they are wrong. From a scientific point of view.

    The NCSE should take no sides in theological debates but they have.

    They claim some forms of religion are compatible with science and others are not.

    They have no business doing that.

    I don’t think they should say anything at all about beliefs.

  26. @banyan: That is an excellent rephrasing that makes the issue very clear.

    Spurge, scribe999, you cannot say that there is not purpose in any specific thing. You cannot say that any specific instance of a process is “unsupervised” or “impersonal.” Your arguments are exactly as bad as the caricatured (but definitely real) “religious” arguments you are putatively opposing.

  27. @spurge: @scribe999:

    I should be more specific. You cannot say those things rationally, using scientific tools and meanings for those words.

    And scribe999, how would YOU deny the “possibility” of those things? I can’t think of a way to do that in science.

  28. @spurge: The burden of proof is yours, since you are making the strong, positive assertion. THAT’S THE POINT, that’s what’s wrong with your assertion. You’re holding the people you (and Rebecca) are mocking to a higher standard than you are holding yourself.

  29. Evolution is able to explain what we see in the natural world without resorting to any outside force.

    It is unguided.

    You have the burden to prove otherwise.

  30. A little late to the party, but Bubba commented less than 3 hours ago, so here goes.

    The statement is that the diversity of life is due to evolution. (Not separate creation, so the YECs are out right there.)

    There are 4 adjectives in the original statement that describe evolution: 1) unsupervised, 2) impersonal, 3) unpredictable and 4) natural. The change was to remove the first 2.

    Starting at the end, “natural” to me means in accordance with the laws of nature, that this is a process that can be understood in the context of the real, physical universe, without external (i.e. supernatural) intervention. This is an essential prerequisite of science. Without this, the universe is not understandable. Anything can happen at any time.

    “Unpredictable” seems to me a poor word. I think “stochastic” would be better, because while the individual events, mutations, recombinations that happen (what Gould called the contingent), are unpredictable and random, the results are far from that. From the existence of Archaeopteryx, one could not predict the existence of penguins, but the evolution of some sort of waterfowl would be quite likely.*

    “Impersonal” I take to mean that the whims, needs or goals of some individual or group of individuals does not direct the evolutionary process.

    And finally, “unsupervised” means there is not an overriding goal or direction constantly pushing or restraining the process.

    The retained adjectives, “natural” and “unpredictable” are essential to the process of natural selection. Large numbers of combinations of traits are created (at random) and those most capable of surviving do, and reproduce. Without them, we would lose Darwin’s essential insight.

    The removed adjectives, “unsupervised” and “impersonal”, are not essential or contradictory to evolution (they are exactly what happens in the evolution of dogs or pigeons), but are conclusions drawn from applying evolutionary theory to the diversity of life: supervision and personal intervention are not necessary assumptions, and so must, by Occam’s Razor, be excluded.

    Is that an important distinction? In a discussion of evolution, yes it is, because it is important to understand how science comes to the conclusions it does, and what assumptions are needed. “Natural” and “unpredictable” are assumptions and “unsupervised” and “impersonal” are conclusions.

    For a discussion of the diversity of life, maybe that is not an important distinction, because the important point is that the diversity is explained by evolution without any external force or direction (as opposed to guided evolution or kick-starting or shiny black monoliths sticking their fingers in the works.)

    If the statement is intended to be about evolution, then leaving the words out doesn’t really hinder it, because they soon become conclusions. However the statement, even though it is described by Sean Carroll as being about evolution, has “The diversity of life on earth” as its subject, and these two dropped adjectives are essential to it.

    I’ve been organizing my thoughts as I wrote this, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that the NABT was wrong to go along with the religionists in this case. If they want to believe that a god or aliens or whatever had a hand in evolution, they have to accept that there is no evidence for this in biology or paleontology and they are flying on belief, not on science. I’ve known lots of religious people who accept this, so I see no reason to cater to those who don’t.

    [*] I wanted to include in this paragraph some reference to the contingency of one particular clown fish egg surviving a barracuda attack, just because it would be cool to mention both SJG and Finding Nemo in the same paragraph.

  31. @Buzz Parsec: Excellent analysis. I couldn’t put my finger on either what I thought about “unpredictable” or what would be better. “Stochastic” would be a good, precise replacement for what I tend to think of as “unpredictable” as an engineer, but after re-reading your analysis I think they may have been shooting for something like “unplanned.” Though that aspect is covered elsewhere, so they likely just meant “contingent.”

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