“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” ― Christopher Hitchens
Quite often in debate with the religious, especially of the Christian persuasion, various passages in the Bible will be brought up as examples of wonderful moral insight far beyond the common wisdom of the time. That these passages reveal morality beyond human capacity is very rarely true, to the extent that even the most cursory look into these passages will reveal their crudeness and hypocrisy. Today we will be looking at the Ten Commandments which are often held up above all moral proclamations.
Background on the Ten Commandments
The Ten Commandments are mentioned in the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, which feature in both the Hebrew Bible (The Tanakh) and the Old Testament of the Christian Bibles. The Ten Commandments have a few different names- translated from Hebrew they are called “The Ten Words/ Sayings/ Matters” and are also referred to as the Decalogue from the Greek Deka Logous or “Ten Words”. Keep in Mind they are referred to as “ten” by the people writing them down time after time… Many believe that these 10 are the groundwork and basis for living a moral life and must have been divinely inspired.
The story goes that when the Children of Israel (God’s chosen people) arrived at Mount Sinai they started experiencing thunder, lightening, clouds on the mountain, and a very loud trumpet. Most of the people gathered were scared and kept their distance, but Moses went to talk to the trumpet and he wrote all of the trumpet’s proclamations into The Book of the Covenant (The trumpet was God). When this book was presented to the people gathered at the foot of the mountain they all agreed to obey. Eventually Moses and a few other people went up the mountain and spent 40 days and 40 nights with God, who gave unto Moses two stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God. The people at the base of the mountain got a bit worried about Moses being gone so long and so decided to create a statue of a golden calf and worship it by dancing around, as you would. When Moses returned he was so miffed at the chosen people of God dancing like loons around a cow statue that he threw a hissy fit and slammed the holiest of divine gifts, the tablets, on the floor causing them to break, as you would. Instead of fixing the broken tablets or conjuring up a couple more, God told Moses to make two new tablets and then re-wrote his commandments upon them.
And thus, the most essential moral foundation for all peoples (according to Christians and the Jewish) was delivered to us. Not at all Suspicious?
What are the Ten Commandments?
Below is an abbreviated list of the Ten Commandments (there are subtle variations between the Commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy). I will be referring to the commandments by their respective numbers below. To look them up in more detail you can find them in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21 (King James Bible).
1. I am the Lord thy God (who freed you from slavery in Egypt)
2. Thou shalt have no other gods before me
3. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
4. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
5. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy
6. Honour thy father and thy mother
7. Thou shalt not kill
8. Thou shalt not commit adultery
9. Thou shalt not steal
10. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour
11. Thou shall not covet your neighbour’s house
12. Thou shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or slave, or animals or anything else belonging to your neighbour
Why each of the Ten Commandments is Immoral
Below I provide a little of my own perspective on the relative morality and goodness of each commandment. If you should so wish you could skip ahead right to the conclusion and get the gist.
Commandments 1-5 (aka Love, Obey and Honour Me!)
Of all the topics that this divine moral work could have covered, the first 5 of the “Ten Words” pertain to worshiping the dictator of this particular belief system. Whenever a moral system focuses so much on honouring its creator it should be a clue that it ain’t all that! The first two make very clear who the boss is, and that you must not listen to anyone else, reminding them of the debt they owe and that they should stay loyal. Commandment 3 not only prohibits any possibility of satire against God it is also very prohibitive of science and art (as the 3rd Commandment actually says you mustn’t make any likeness of anything in heaven, on earth or under the sea). As Commandment No. 4 points out you must not use God’s name for anything else but praise; essentially this means no criticism or lessening of the name’s impact through over usage. As Commandment 4 limits expression of language, God is insisting on a type of thought policing found in Orwell’s classic 1984, and as Commandment 3 limits artistic or scientific communication we find a type of thought policing explored in the 2002 Christian Bale film Equilibrium. As for Commandment 5, very few earthly dictators set aside a special day every single week for their own worship and praise.
In essence, replace references to God with the appropriate terms, names and deeds and you find this to be a moral system eerily akin to the worst dictatorships humanity has ever known. It might not surprise you to know that soon after reminding his chosen people of his own import in this way, God commands the Israelites to commit acts of war, genocide and nightmarish cruelty.
Commandment 6- Honour thy father and thy mother
On the surface this is not a terrible commandment- it is a good thing to respect and love the people who have raised, cared for and loved you all your life; our parents often have the wisdom of experience which they are happy to impart and will support us in many endeavours. For all their flaws I love my parents dearly and am proud to honour them; I have been lucky. Not everyone is as lucky as I however. As Christopher Hitchens so powerfully argued how could we ever expect Elizabeth Fritzl to honour her father Josef? How can God ask any innocent victim of sexual, physical or mental abuse to honour those people who harmed them? Why should neglected children or those whose parents unnecessarily exposed them to harm when they we so utterly vulnerable ever, EVER, be expected to love and praise and give thanks for those who should have protected them? As a divine and universal commandment this one stinks!
Where in the Commandments are parents told to be good to their children? Where does it say that parents who rape or torture or starve their young should be reviled as the worst of society’s sick and criminal? It does not. Doubtless you will hear from Apologists and believers that these are covered elsewhere in the Bible- why not here written in Stone? Why not in the foundation of Christian morality? Clearly there was not room as God had to spend the first 5 commandments blowing his own horn. This commandment is another example of teaching the Children of Israel to obey; obey your parents and believe as they do and God will always have a following.
Commandment 7- Thou Shalt not Kill
One of the most well known and misquoted commandments this. As with the previous commandment this one seems pretty decent on the surface, and very few would argue with it. For the most part I wouldn’t either- except for this is supposed to be the word of an eternal being. Not killing is fine in general, but it is in the particular instances of compassion and desperation that one finds flaw with this eternal law; maybe this is why Christians like to remind us that the Devil is in the details. I happen to be a strong believer in euthanasia for those who want it, which I know even amongst secularists is a controversial topic, but still it is worthy of discussion- and when people dying slowly in extraordinary pain with no hope of recovery, happiness or human dignity wish to be allowed to chose an alternative shouldn’t we at least consider their request? Unfortunately this is not up for discussion as the Religious often spout this particular commandment as the final word on the matter- God wants our fellow humans to die the way he planned.
“Thou shalt not kill” is also something of a dishonesty- the actual words used are “Thou shalt not murder”. Apparently war crimes, which God commands his chosen people to commit soon after giving them these rules, do not count as murder. War crimes are not murder, but euthanasia is. What kind of divine eternal moral being gives us such ambiguous rules?
In Nazi Germany the Jews were rounded up and exterminated but murder between Aryans was still a crime. Before anyone invokes Godwin’s law I’ll move onto the next commandment.
Commandment 8- Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
What the ruddy heck exactly is adultery in an Old Testament context? This could cover cheating on your spouse, having sex outside of marriage, homosexual sex, masturbation, thinking about any of these things etc etc… Basically you should only have sex with your spouse. Don’t get me wrong, cheating on a sexual partner is very poor form, but this is hardly as important as murder!
Many believers claim that this commandment is a revelation about sexual health, God helping to prevent the spread of venereal diseases by eliminating their infection vector, but why this particular health concern here instead of “Thou shalt boil your water before you drink of it” or “Thou shall not shit where you sleep”? This probably isn’t about health. Some will claim that it is just a proclamation of the natural order… but it seems in humans that promiscuity, wanking and dirty thoughts are very natural whereas monogamy and abstinence are less so.
No, in order to understand this commandment in context we must understand the institution of marriage for the Ancient Jews. Women are property; human beings of the female sex are things to be owned by their fathers until they are sold to their husbands. I’m not saying this is a current mainstream Christian view, but it is relevant to an analysis of the Commandments, especially as commandments 8-12 would seem to all pertain to property and civil disputes. If you are a woman and sleep with someone who does not own you then you are giving something away which is not yours to give; your body. If you are a man and sleep with a woman who is not your wife then you are defiling another man’s property. This is why in so many Abrahamic cultures rape victims must marry their attackers; so that the man can pay a dowry for the property he has taken.
John Stuart Mill said it better than I ever could “Over body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Why does God make this proclamation a few chapters before telling his chosen people to take sex slaves as spoils of war- surely God is speaking on the institution of marriage? Why is God so concerned with sexual health and no other health in the Commandments? Why is God covering such minor discrepancies as hurt feelings or self-pleasure when really important moral conundrums have been ignored? God isn’t, God has just started discussing civil property law.
Commandment 9- Thou Shalt Not Steal
See, I told you God had just got onto property law. In essence this is one of the better commandments, theft is pretty bad form. As an ultimate moral law this does open us up to some awkward dilemmas; should you steal food to prevent starvation when deciding not to steal would be deciding to kill?
As I’ve said, not a lot wrong here but it is pretty weak- could God not have shared the perfect ultimate economic system rather than this? Maybe the tablets were two small for him to cover everything…
Commandment 10- Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbour
Brilliant! Probably one of the best Commandments! Don’t lie to convict your neighbour of crimes they didn’t commit! The only weakness is that it is quite specific. Couldn’t this apply to everyone, not just your neighbour? Also, couldn’t we have had something about not lying to get your friends off the hook? Couldn’t we have just had “Be Honest whenever you Can”? Again, probably too much information to expect from God on two stone tablets, especially having to go into all that “love and honour me” stuff he did at the beginning.
Not bad, probably the best commandment since don’t kill.
Commandment 11- Thou Shalt Not Covet Your Neighbour’s House
More property stuff here. This is fairly philosophical really, be content with what you have and don’t pursue materialistic goals. However without a well laid out economical system this commandment could suggest “do not aspire” or “know your place and be content with your lot.”
This is however an incredibly evil commandment- one of the ultimate moral laws of this universe is not to think in a certain way. Violating this law is thought crime. Without acting on your feelings or thoughts, you can still be in violation of God’s word. Emotional response to injustice is often uncontrollable; a natural response to economic injustice is Sin. This is a commandment that keeps the poor from desiring wealth, thus leaving more wealth for the wealthy.
Commandment 12- Thou shalt Not Covet Your Neighbour’s Wife, or Slave, or Animals or Anything Else Belonging to Your Neighbour
Here we have it, the final commandment and sure to leave a bad taste in your mouth if you believe in freedom of thought, human equality or personal freedom. This commandment has all the same problems as the previous commandment but with the added bonus of confirming wives are property on par with cattle and condoning slavery. What a way to finish.
It should be said that of the few commandments which are not absolutely disgusting there is no evidence for divine inspiration, let alone the absolute word of God. Don’t steal, don’t kill, and don’t lie are moral principles which most societies eventually come to themselves- and which the very human Greeks and Chinese had already written a great deal on much more beautifully and thoughtfully.
The Ten Commandments are in no way a good foundation for any moral system. Commandments 1-5 are the megalomaniacal ramblings of a tyrant imposing their own authority and suppressing anything that might challenge it. Commandment 6 espouses devotion to one’s parents regardless of abuse whilst saying nothing of parental responsibility to children; only that one must obey. Commandment 7 tells the Israelites not to murder each other, even out of compassion, but is left so ambiguous that if God commands it then killing for war or genocide is fine; it also fails to prohibit physical or mental abuse to each other. Commandment 8 tells us that we are not free to explore sex and pleasure with consenting adults- we should only shag those to whom we belong or those that we have paid to own. Commandment 9 says we should not steal, but provides no economical framework to further explain fairness and remove the desperation that might lead to someone stealing. Commandment 10 forbids lying in order to frame another of a crime but again is ambiguous enough to allow for other dishonesties. Commandments 11 and 12 tell us not to commit thought crime by envying those who have more than us, we should not aspire to have more but know our place; and it does this whilst lumping women and slaves in with other property. There are so many more obvious moral issues The Ten Sayings could explore and provide answers for, and still so much detailed advice within that we find disgusting 2000 years later with the application of our human reasoning and compassion.
The Ten Commandments, or “Ten Words”, from God are not a good basis for morality. They are a brilliant edict from a dictator intending to strike fear and awe into the foolish, prevent rebellion from the sceptical, and appease the powerful wealthy men who own things. Why do this? So that it has a humbled society, a willing army and gold to fund its campaign of world domination (a tale told in following chapters). This deity exposes itself as a fraud in using the utterly human method of politics to assume power, the cruelty with which it goes on to wage war, and the flawed ambiguity of supposedly divine messages. I’d sooner worship Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot than this disgusting galactic despot.
And one more thing; who could follow a moral system called “The Ten Sayings” when there are clearly at least 11? No believer in 2000 years picked up on this mistake, and perhaps those who did were too afraid to mention it; Bravo God!