Beyond Vassar

Ethics Without Religion? Jonathan Figdor '06

By Andy Faught
John Figdor '06
John Figdor '06

An atheist since childhood, John Figdor ’06 has long been defined by what he doesn’t believe rather than the personal principles he says form his moral center. Hoping to shift the conversation away from what atheists disbelieve and onto their positive beliefs and values, Figdor came up with a plan.

Last year, he and fellow Bay Area atheist Lex Bayer created the ReThink Prize, which encouraged participants to develop their own “non-commandments.” After receiving more than 2,800 submissions, the pair selected 10 final non-commandments as a secular update to the Ten Commandments.

“The first and most clear difference is that we did not carve ours into a stone block, and there’s a good reason for that,” says Figdor, a professional adviser to the Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics (AHA!) student group at Stanford University. “We think that our non-commandments should be subject to change over time, so if one of our suppositions proves to be incorrect or things change over time, then we think the commandments ought to change. People get to discover their own authentic beliefs and values, though they should be reasonable, logical, and compassionate.”

Prize winners received $1,000 each. The contest came after the release of a book cowritten by Figdor and Bayer: Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-first Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

A humanist chaplain, Figdor says the work is an attempt to “take readers on an inspiring journey to discover how to live a reasonable, ethical, and happy life without God.”
Figdor’s path to atheism began on a snowy Christmas morning in 1992. The then-eight-year-old Figdor crouched atop the stairway of his family’s Scarsdale home and waited, hoping to catch Santa in the act of delivering his seasonal bounty.

Instead, Figdor heard muffled voices and rummaging in a downstairs closet. With his heart beating in his chest, Figdor watched as his parents distributed presents under the Christmas tree. His dad completed the early-morning gift drop by taking a bite out of a cookie that his son had left for St. Nick.

The incident did more than dispel a stunned Figdor’s belief in Santa. It also sent him on a path of questioning that led him ultimately to renounce not only his upbringing in the United Church of Christ, but also the very notion of God.

“What I learned that Christmas was that you cannot believe everything people tell you,” he says. “You have to be skeptical and questioning, and apply those values to everything in life. I actually became an atheist when I was around 13 or 14 in confirmation class, which is probably not where they want that to happen.”

Figdor further explored deep questions as a philosophy major at Vassar. The book was a culmination of his experiences, an attempt to treat atheism rationally and respectfully.
Dudley Rose, associate dean at Harvard Divinity School, where Figdor earned his master’s in divinity, calls the treatise a “respectful and reasonable discussion of how a nonbeliever might engage the large questions that every human faces.”

One of the ReThink prizewinners was Jeremy Jimenez, a Stanford doctoral candidate who is a member of AHA!. Jimenez’s winning commandment? “Be open minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.”

After reading other books on atheism, Jimenez was struck by what he called Figdor’s even-handed treatment of the subject.

“The tone of the book is notably more positive, which is quite welcome,” he says. “Many earlier atheist-themed books often struck a vitriolic and judgmental tone, and I don’t think any movement that emphasizes the negative over the positive can appeal to a wider audience, nor last very long. The fact is, in many surveys, atheists rank among the least trustworthy people in the U.S.”

With that in mind, Figdor made it a point to adopt a more welcoming tone.

He says he has been happy to have had “wonderful colleagues like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, who have written great books questioning a belief in God, but people don’t know what atheists believe because all they have heard is Hitchens telling them that their faith in God is delusional and built on erroneous thinking.”

In 2012 Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey found that 32 percent of Americans under the age of 30 are nonreligious, and slightly more than 20 percent of all Americans are nonreligious.

Figdor credits the Internet with helping to invite new appraisals of atheism. As a gateway to information, the Internet makes it possible for people to explore their own religions and others.

Figdor is not antireligion—“Many churches are very reasonable, and I’m happy to have them as allies in solving social issues,” he says. His beliefs hew to the humanistic, a philosophical and ethical stance that favors scientific inquiry—with an emphasis on critical thinking and evidence—over doctrine and faith. While many Americans see morality through the lens of religion, Figdor says humanist reality is instead based on human need and human experience.

Armand Rundquist, a Stanford doctoral student and former president of AHA, says Figdor’s writing “strikes me as an introspective and careful look at how thinking through the things that we believe—and why we believe them—can allow us to arrive at a deep understanding of our own morality. This of course is true for both the religious and the nonreligious, but because the nonreligious lack a formal structure that encourages this kind of introspection, it can be a lot more difficult to sort through the nuances of our beliefs. John’s book is an excellent place to start, even if you disagree with some of its conclusions, because the authors provide a model for the process that can produce that kind of understanding.”

What Figdor wants people to understand is this: “When I became an atheist, it’s not like my beliefs changed. They basically remained the same about ethics and politics. What changed is I stopped believing that there was someone in the heavens watching over all of us and pulling the levers. Philosophically and intellectually, it was hugely beneficial being able to step outside of that framework and be able to start thinking, ‘What if this life is all you have?’” ­