Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Ten Commandments

When discussing/challenging a persons belief in christianity especially when the morals of the church come into question, the most common come back is to say something along the lines:

"But what about the ten commandments? don't you agree 
they are a really good basis for a moral life?"


I don't agree.

The ten commandments are a thin and flawed set of rules to live by that falls far short of the precepts of most other systems of ethics (including those around prior to Jesus).

Most of the people who cling to them can't even remember all the ten commandments. When I challenge those who claim to live by them, they are able to list only a few like: "Dont kill, dont steal, dont lie, dont covet... um..."  This is not made any easier by the fact there are several different "official" versions depending on what church you follow. But even so, if it is such a great and simple moral code, why is it so hard to remember?

Because the first four commandments have NOTHING to do with morality... They are all concerned with enforcing religious observance, (I'm using the ten commandment read from the King James Bible because its a very common translation easy to recognise by people who dont read the bible regularly).
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Religious practice and ceremonial dogma - none of that is morality. The fifth commandment is not strictly religious but still entirely about authority:
5. Honour thy father and thy mother.
This is not a moral precept, but it is perhaps a worthwhile value if your parents deserve it. However it is hardly something requiring devine inspiration. It is also a one way respect, it does not say that a parent has a responsibility to their child or must treat their child well. And given the many examples of children in the bible being mistreated by parents I would think that this commandments biased nature disqualifies it from being a good moral tenant.

That leaves us with only FIVE commandments that directly relate to how humans deal with other humans on equal terms rather dealing with religion and authority figures.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house [wife, servants, ox, ass, etc].
I will grant that killing, stealing, and being unfaithful are all things that should be included in any moral code.

So this is not a bad start... but it's just a start. For example, killing and harming are two different things, so these laws say you could beat people if you like. Threats and intimidation are still ok in the right circumstances. In fact domestic abuse, rape, child abuse, and slavery are all acceptable under the commandment of "thou shalt not kill".

Outright theft is condemned but not manipulation for gain. The bible, for instance, talks about slavery (even of other followers of god), and says that after 6 years you must set them free... however Exodus 21:4-6 actually includes a loophole, give the slave a wife and let him have children! That way he must leave his family or agree to be your slave forever. Not really theft, blackmail perhaps?

And for all those who say the example is poor because "slavery is wrong", please notice the commandments dont say that. The people who followed the commandments didn't think it either. The commandments failed to prevent it, even for a people who took them far more seriously than most people do now.

Adultery is an interesting one because it is so specific "sex with someone other than your spouse". This gives no guidance against sex outside of a relationship, or other commitment. It also does not include anything about the conditions under which marriage may be established or dissolved. Nothing to stop a young woman being given as bride against her will, nothing allow the dissolution of a marriage if one side becomes abusive.

The truth is that these commandments are pretty poor representations of these ideas, in fact they are all stated much better by the Five Precepts of Buddhism.

Not killing is replaced with not causing harm (to humans and animals), simply not stealing is replaced by not taking what is not given (covering theft but also slavery because the service is taken not given), adultery is broadened to sexual misconduct in general (not too much, no rape, dont cause offense with it, etc) and finally do not lie is replaced with avoiding false speech, which would include unwarranted gossip, and deliberate omissions, promises you intend to break...

So what little the ten commandments do say about morality, they don't say very well.

Of course it's worth pointing out that there is no commandment saying thou shalt not lie... You'll notice that commandment nine only talks about bearing "false witness". It is not a general commandment, they actually went to the trouble of narrowing it down to a specific case of law and left other lies un guarded. Although elsewhere in the bible this is corrected, you again would think a commandment from god would be a little clearer.

So we come to commandment ten. This is not an ethical or moral value, it's a thought crime. This commandment is all about suppressing the "yearn to possess what others may have", lets be generous and call it a commandment against jealousy. But it does not censure any action, only the desire. This is telling you what not to want. Do not desire what others have.


Thinking about what others have or at least what you do not have, has been one of the driving forces behind our development as a species, a culture, and as individuals. My desire to learn got me through school, my desire for a nice house got me on the property ladder, my desire for love helped me get up the courage to ask the most wonderful woman in the world if she would marry me (she said yes :).

Desire is not an evil itself - you only have to talk to christians to see that they all desire to do the right thing, they all desire to have gods love, and interestingly they all desire you to have it to.

This cannot in and of itself be wrong, and telling people not to want something others have is going to fail. Full stop end of discussion. The only way to live with number ten would be to not desire anything, not just anything worldly, but anything at all.

I'm not saying desire and jealousy cant and doesn't lead to other crimes, but I'm saying it also leads to some great ideas and great achievements. In fact most people in the US would claim that competition between peers is one of the things that drive innovation and contributes to the power of their economy.

A better statement would be "Feel no ill towards people who have what you do not", it's still a thought crime but at least this is one people can strive towards. It lets people keep their drive and ambition but not at the expense of others.

So now we come to the elephant in the room. When people talk about the commandments, they always seem to skirt around whats missing. The bible is full of horror stories and christianity/the new testament seems, at least in part, to be an attempt to correct or extend the moral/ethical framework into something more workable.

It's interesting to reflect that in the century or so prior to Jesus coming onto the scene, Stoic ethics were well travelled and established. There are a great deal of similarities between the "christian" ethics and that of the stoics. In fact the people who actually write the gospels lived mainly in lands dominated by stoic ethics. Some people have claimed that christianity was basically a revision of an existing belief system to be more in line with the accepted ethics of the time - replacing stoic fatalism with a God who would no longer be swayed by burned offerings...

However the ten commandments are still considered the core value

So what is missing from the ten commandments?
1.  Thou shalt not keep slaves
2.  Thou shalt not beat children
3.  Thou shalt allow that when children come of age they may leave their parents house without debt of any kind
4.  Thou shalt respect women and men equally
5.  Thou shalt not let another suffer for any sins but their own
These are basic and obvious to anyone. and none of them are contradictory to the ten commandments. The last one however is a problem for christians, because the basis of their faith is that we are all guilty for the sins of our fathers and mothers all the way back to Adam and Eve. We are also to be forgiven for these sins we did not participate in, by accepting the sacrifice of Jesus.

I cannot accept that.

I will not punish someone for something they did not do. I will not blame a child for the crime of their parent, I will not send a man to prison for the crime of his brother, and I will not allow someone else to suffer for my mistakes. It is unjust by definition, and even if it is allowed by law, to actually accept such a generous offer is a morally bankrupt act.

So I say again: No.

The ten commandments are not enough, they are poorly phrased, they contain omissions, they are full of dogma and ceremony, they are biased towards authority and most importantly... they failed. The people god gave his commandments to were not good by todays standards, they were not moral, or kind, or generous. They were cruel, they kept slaves, and they sacrificed animals, using the blood of others to wash their hands clean of sin.

Only someone who has never considered the question of how to improve them would think it could not easily be done.

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