An objective look at the Ten Commandments
Reprinted from www.ebonmusings.com
Only 30% of the Ten Commandments coincide with American law. More notably, the three moral instructions are found in every law code in the world, including Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Secular governments. There is absolutely nothing inherently Christian about them. As a final kick in the teeth, murder, perjury, and theft are covered by the criminal law code, not the Constitution. So, what does that leave for the Constitution to take from the Ten Commandments? Not a single thing. Not one.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)
Those who say it does not violate the separation of church and state to post the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms and courthouses clearly have never read the Ten Commandments. The very first one explicitly commands us to worship the god of the Bible, the Judeo-Christian deity Jehovah, and no one and nothing else. How can this not be considered the most blatant violation imaginable of the First Amendment? Imagine the fit of apoplexy Christian fundamentalists would have if Hindus demanded to be allowed to post in public places sections from the Bhagavad Gita declaring, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Brahma"? This sort of intolerant exclusivity is the antithesis of the principles of civilized society, and stands opposed to every enlightened government's policy of neutrality toward religion. Right out of the gate, the Ten Commandments prove themselves to be a religious document, not a secular one, and as such, have absolutely no right to be displayed in public places with taxpayer money. To do so would be to give the unmistakable appearance that one religion was favored over all others and that religion in general was favored over non-religion. Just who does the Religious Right think they're fooling when they argue that they should be allowed to post them in schoolrooms?
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)
The second commandment is essentially a continuation of the first one. But in its prohibition against making images of "any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth", it shows again how Western democracy is not built on the Ten Commandments; just the opposite, the Ten Commandments are fundamentally opposed to the individual rights and freedoms that must form the basis of any true democratic society. The first commandment is against religious freedom, while this one opposes freedom of expression. This commandment also says much about the personality of the Biblical god. In the space of one verse, he identifies himself as jealous, cruel and unjust, a tyrant unable to stand competition who harshly punishes the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. This absolutist decree contradicts yet another founding principle of modern democracy, the free-market economy - a plurality of schools of thought, a bazaar of ideas that have won out because they proved themselves worthy, not because of fiat on the part of a higher power. The Bible contains many contradictions (www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/biblecontra.html) in general, but if ever there was a candidate for a contradiction within the space of one single verse, this one is it. If children are to be punished unjustly for their fathers' sins, how can Jehovah then turn around and protest that he shows mercy to whoever keeps his commandments? These two statements simply cannot be reconciled.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7)
And we continue with the religious commandments. This one contradicts yet another of the inalienable rights granted to the citizens of progressive nations - this time, the freedom of speech. For God to threaten punishment for those who use his name in vain (i.e., in ways he arbitrarily determines it should not be used) would be like the US Congress passing a law that made it illegal to criticize the government. This commandment is not in accord with the principles of democracy; like all the others so far, it is against them.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)
Like the first three, the fourth commandment has no secular purpose whatsoever. It is, instead, a rule about how a specific god is to be worshipped within the context of a specific religion. The hypocrisy of those who would claim it does not violate the separation of church and state to post this on public property is breathtaking. And, again, this commandment contradicts the principles of capitalism and the free market that have made America and the other First World nations the economic powerhouses they are. Why shouldn't people be able to work whenever they choose to?
Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. (Exodus 20:12)
After four commandments that are purely religious in nature and intent, serving no purpose other than dictating how to worship a specific god, we finally come across the first one that has anything to say about matters of civil order and justice. But it's not a very good one. "Honor your father and mother" is too broad, too absolute, to be a good guide for behavior. Should we honor absentee, neglectful or abusive parents? Should we honor parents who simply aren't prepared for the responsibility of parenthood and do a poor job raising their children? Should we honor parents whose religious beliefs cause them to beat their children, deny them an education or withhold needed medical treatment from them? Loving, caring, competent parents certainly deserve to be honored. But no one automatically becomes worthy of respect merely by having a child. Being a parent is a great responsibility, and respect comes from living up to that obligation. As one of the Ten Commandments, this one hardly seems worthy. There are much better laws that could take up this space. How about "Honor your children"?
Thou shalt not kill. (Exodus 20:13)
Some theists say Western society's laws are based on the Ten Commandments, but the sixth one is the very first that could reasonably be taken as substantiation of that claim. As general moral advice, it's not too bad, though it strains credulity for anyone to claim this is in any way evidence of divine origin. Humans had it figured out that it was bad to kill each other long before the Bible was written, and it doesn't take a lawgiver descending from the mountain with stone tablets to make us see the wisdom of this principle. But the problem is this: as a general principle to live by, this isn't bad, but as a law such a brief dictate cannot stand on its own. It needs elaboration. Does this mean we're not allowed to kill animals and plants for food? Does this mean we're not allowed to kill in self-defense? What about justifiable wars, abortion, euthanasia, or capital punishment? If the law is to be understood literally, as a blanket order forbidding all killing, then the Bible clearly breaks its own rule numerous times. The Old Testament prescribes death as the penalty for even the most trivial offenses - blasphemy, disobedience in children, picking up sticks on the Sabbath, mocking a prophet for his baldness - and most notably, Yahweh himself orders the Israelites to wage war on their enemies on many occasions, often even explicitly instructing them to wipe out entire foreign tribes to the last man, woman and child - a crime which today we would call genocide. If such actions do not fall within the boundaries of the Sixth Commandment, then what actions can it be understood to forbid?
Thou shalt not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14)
The claim that civilized society is built on the Ten Commandments grows increasingly farfetched. How many civilized countries hold adultery to be a criminal offense today? The answer, and with good reason, is none. Whatever one might say about adultery as a violation of marital trust, a cruel thing to do to someone who loves you, unfair to one's family, etc. - it is still, in the end, a consensual act between two adults. It hardly seems worthy of inclusion in what is supposedly the most important list of laws ever codified. Why not a prohibition on the much more serious crimes of rape, or child sexual abuse? The Bible's stance on both of the above is also worth examining. According to this Good Book, when a rape is committed, if the woman does not already have a husband, the worst punishment the rapist faces is being forced to marry his victim. (The woman is apparently not given a choice in the matter.) And in many circumstances, when a rape is committed the woman faces punishment. The situation for pedophilia is even worse. While chapters such as Leviticus 20 give long lists of sex-related crimes, prohibiting incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, having sex with a menstruating woman, and so on, nowhere - not once - does the Bible ever explicitly say that sexually molesting children not related to you is wrong. This seems a serious omission on Jehovah's part, to put it mildly.
Thou shalt not steal. (Exodus 20:15)
Stealing in almost all cases is indeed wrong. I will therefore only note that in several verses (Exodus 3:22, Exodus 12:35-36, Ezekiel 39:10) God instructs his chosen people to steal from and plunder their enemies, and move on. And again, this ethical principle predates written history - even Paleolithic man had similar social rules in place to keep social order.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. (Exodus 20:16)
A commandment against lying is, in general, a good moral principle. But like the commandments against stealing and killing, this one is too absolute and not detailed enough to be a comprehensive standard for behavior. What if one can prevent a greater crime by lying - such as the Germans during World War II who hid Jewish families from the Nazis, or Rahab the harlot who did something similar with Joshua's spies in Jericho? Or, is it right to lie in situations where the truth would needlessly hurt a person's feelings? And again, few if any Western nations have laws forbidding lying (except in certain restricted circumstances, such as perjury). However wise such a principle might be, democracy is not built on it.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's. (Exodus 20:17)
The final commandment is a little puzzling. Unlike all the others, which prohibit actions, this one apparently is attempting to forbid a state of mind. Isn't a commandment against coveting redundant? Didn't "Thou shalt not steal" take care of this already? And how can you obey this one, even if you want to? You choose to steal, but no one chooses to covet. Thought cannot be outlawed; and why should it be, as long as you can control your actions? As Dan Barker has pointed out, the free-enterprise system that forms the basis for the Western economy is fundamentally dependent on coveting. If people didn't covet, capitalism wouldn't work! As a final aside, it is revealing to see what this commandment says about the mindset of the authors of the Bible. Within the space of one rule, it reveals that they had no problem with slavery (the Hebrew words used for both "manservant" and "maidservant" carry that connotation) and saw wives as the property of their husbands. Female spouses are included along with slaves and cattle on the list of things "that [are] thy neighbor's."
So, what do we have?
Of these ten laws, four are purely religious in nature - they serve no purpose except to dictate how to worship a specific god, and in their exclusivity they contradict some of the most fundamental individual rights that modern democracy takes for granted. Three are generally good moral principles, but they are too vague to stand on their own, and they are not among the laws of behavior that Western nations use. Two more make good general rules for behavior that Western nations do use, but they are too broad and not detailed enough to be comprehensive laws, and in any event they are moral principles so simple and obvious that people and societies came up with them and knew to abide by them long before the Bible was ever written. And one is apparently redundant, duplicating the effect of another commandment, yet in a way that could never be enforced.
Three of them stand in opposition to the principles of free-market capitalism that have made First World economies so successful. Two forbid freedom of religion; one forbids freedom of expression; one forbids freedom of thought; one prohibits free speech. And for what is supposedly the most important list of laws ever created, the Ten Commandments fail to prohibit several very serious crimes that all progressive nations do have laws against. And the Bible contains many instances of divinely sanctioned breaking of these laws with impunity. These laws are not pillars of Western society. In fact, it is just the opposite; humanity had to break away from these absolutist decrees before it could establish free societies where people had rights. (Nowhere in the Bible does it say that humans have any inalienable rights at all.) Where these laws are original, they are entirely religious in nature; where they are not religious, they are unnecessary. People knew not to steal from and kill each other long before the Old Testament was written, and we don't need it now to know not to do those things. The Ten Commandments simply have nothing to do with the laws and order of modern civilization, and being a religious document, they deserve no place on public property; to do so would be a clear and blatant violation of the vital principle of separation of church and state.
Why does the Religious Right want to post the 10 Commandments?
Do they really believe that the mere sight of the words "Thou shalt not kill" will prevent further school violence and cause defendants in trials to break down in tears and repent on the spot? Is anyone really that naive? The most likely answer is that they are not. The fundamentalists know full well that their religious dogmas are powerless to prevent what they see as the decay of society. Their reasons for doing it are political, a power play; they want to destroy freedom and rework America and other nations to be theocracies where their power will be absolute. Their lofty platitudes are a sham, a smokescreen to hide their true ambitions for Christian dictatorship. (Some do not even bother to hide them.) For the sake of humanity and our descendants yet to come, we must all fight the cancer of religious fundamentalism and ensure that the human race will never sink back down into the darkness of mental and physical slavery it only so recently began to escape. We must all work together in the spirit of Jefferson and Madison (both Deists who denied the syncretic superstitions of their day) towards the day when we, as a species can leave theocracy and superstition behind us and step into the light of democracy and reason together for all time.
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