I am often flabbergasted by the assertion that the Christian "10 Commandments" are the basis of modern morality (I say "Christian" because Jews tend to not limit themselves to such a finite number of divine mandates). Throughout the United States, courthouses and government buildings are riddled with plaques and monuments advertising everyone's favorite imposing religious screed.
Perhaps my cynicism is kicking in, but it seems that the most vocal proponents of plastering the "10 Commandments" on publicly funded government buildings know very little about the commandments, or what they say. In fact, it is a common gag on late night TV programs to ask random people on the street who profess to be Christians and advocates of the moral superiority of the "10 Commandments" just how many they can name. As you may suspect, most people can't name very many.
Typically, the commands which most people get right also happen to be the ones which likely do not need to be spelled out (i.e. Do not murder, steal, lie, etc.). Few people get the ones which set up the Old Testament god, Yahweh, as a jealous control freak, or equate women with cattle. I wonder why?
I have heard theists claim that every law on the books can be traced back to one of the "10 Commandments." Think about this. They suggest that traffic laws and taxes and divorce suits with messy custody battles all originate from the "10 Commandments."
Before I get to the actual list of commandments, I should point out that not only do the "10 Commandments" say nothing about the things above, but they also fail to address issues like rape, genocide, slavery, and child abuse. Not to mention some of the commandments have absolutely no modern adaptation in US laws, such as keeping the Sabbath.
There is no reason to think that the "10 Commandments" would be so broad and all-inclusive. After all, they are only the first 10 of over 600 Jewish laws in the Old Testament, many of which speak favorably of things like rape, genocide and child abuse. And this is exactly what we would expect from a moral code devised by tribalistic, bloodthirsty, ignorant Palestinians in the Bronze Age.
On to the Big Ten:
1. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
Right off the bat, god shows his petty jealousy by at once acknowledging and dismissing the existence of other gods. This is consistent with the ancient Canaanite pantheon of gods, from which Yahweh originated. Conversely, this challenges the proposed omnipotence of Yahweh. Why would an all-powerful being care if mere mortals believe and worship him?
Also, none of the laws in the US constitution have anything to do with the idea that the Old Testament god should be the only god worshiped. Our pluralistic melting-pot of a society simply does not allow this totalitarian ideal.
2. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything 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 shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."
More tribalistic chest-puffing. Some people read this commandment to mean that nothing should be more important to a person than god. But the language indicates to me that Yahweh wants to set himself apart from the other gods of the pantheon. To do this he threatens a curse on those who do not accept him, which will extend at least four generations. Nothing says divine justice and mercy and sound moral reasoning like punishing children for the actions of their great great great grandparents.
It is also worth noting that many Christian religions, including Catholicism and Christian orthodoxy, proudly flaunt their "graven images" (i.e. "pics of dead people"). Such saintly iconography has created issues in the past, in some cases resulting in Protestant splinter groups, and as a result the Catholic Church (I'm not so sure of the Orthodox Church) has changed this commandment. I suppose they can get away with this since they are just making it up anyway.
Again, this command has no modern equivalent in our multicultural society.
3. "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."
This commandment has bred confusion for centuries. It seems that every denomination has its own interpretation of this verse. I was taught that it decries profanity in general by specifying an improper use of god's name, whatever that means.
Some Jewish sects go so far as to condemn the very utterance of god's name (which in Hebrew is super long and includes every letter in their alphabet). Not only does this have nothing to do with morality or US law, it creates a false sense of morality in much the same way Muslims view pictures of the prophet Muhammad. Some Muslims are willing to kill non-Muslim blasphemers, such as Danish cartoonists and French satirists.
A less common interpretation is that one should not make oaths on god's name which cannot be upheld, because this makes god look silly. Although this reading of the verse makes more textual sense to me than the anti-profanity gibberish I was taught as a child, I still find it absurd.
Oaths make little sense to me. Aside from oaths made in court, and a few other instances, they have been largely abandoned by society in favor of written contracts, which, let's face it, are more effective and easier to regulate.
4. "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy."
"Six days shalt thou labour, 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."
Further in the 600+ commandments in the Law of Moses it is specified that those who violate this command should be stoned to death. Nothing about this is moral. Not the law, nor the punishment. Whether a person works on Sunday (or Saturday, if they are Jewish or Seventh-Day Adventist, or Friday if they are Muslim) speaks nothing about their morals.
The reasoning behind this law is completely crazy anti-science woo. Because the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe created everything in six days and then took a break, we must follow the same pattern. Why does an all-powerful being need a break? Why don't those who advocate for the moral superiority of the "10 Commandments" work six days a week? It seems to me that they like their weekends as much as anyone.
Of course, there is no equivalent to this commandment in US law. Although, many areas in highly religious states frown on businesses simply being open on Sunday. So much so, in fact, that I know many people who refuse to go to businesses that open on Sunday, even on other days of the week. This is a major selling point for Macy's grocery stores in Utah, for example.
5. "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee."
As with the command to not do any work on the Sabbath, the punishment for breaking this law, as explained further in the Law of Moses, is to stone the unruly children to death.
While there is no shortage of troubled kids who disobey their parents, it is not the disobedience which is most troublesome, since it is often a manifestation of deeper issues. Typically, mental issues, substance abuse and criminal activity are the primary reasons kids may be deemed sufficiently troubled as to warrant intervention or disciplinary action from the state. In most other cases I can think of, the children are actually victims and any "acting out" is simply a cry for help. So, again, there is little to no correlation to US law.
Adding to the moral disconnect between the "10 Commandments" and our society, the promise that obedience to parents will extend one's life is simply untrue and more superstitious bull crap. Unsure? Ask the parents of a child who has passed away just how extra disobedient the child was before their death. I would be surprised if any such parents could utter a single word against their lost child. As far as I can figure, the only way the promise of a longer life for obedient children would hold true is if parents, as the Law of Moses commands, stone their disobedient children.
6. "Thou shalt not kill."
Simple and to the point, this commandment is one of the few on the list which actually has a modern equivalent in our laws. In fact, every society that has ever seen growth and civilization has had some form of this prohibition. As Christopher Hitchens points out, it would be hard to imagine that the ancient Jews would have made it as far as Mount Sinai had they been under a different impression.
The universality of laws against murder suggests that the "10 Commandants" are not the origin of such a moral position, and are not necessary to see the societal benefits.
Some people who question the veracity of the bible point to the apparent hypocrisy of god issuing the command to not kill, when he also commands the Jews to wipe out entire civilizations, killing men, women, children, and in some cases, livestock. Not to worry, though! Christian apologists have you doubters covered. You see, the argument goes that the Hebrew word used in this commandment is specific to unlawful or unjust murders between Jews. If you are killing heathens or apostates for god, you are morally unblemished.
7. "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
Although this is not explicitly in our laws (infidelity may lead to uncontested divorce, depending on agreements made in the marriage contract, but it is not illegal), I generally agree that cheating on one's partner is immoral. It could cause psychological issues and distrust, as well as putting the other person in harm’s way of STDs without their knowledge. If both parties are aware and agree to extramarital relations beforehand, however, I see no moral reasons to oppose it.
8. "Thou shalt not steal."
As with the sixth commandment ("Thou shalt not kill"), prohibitions on theft seem fairly universal. And such universality suggests that a pronouncement from god on this subject is neither revolutionary, nor necessary. In short, when people are allowed to set their own moral limits, they generally wind up agreeing that stealing is bad. There may be exceptions to this, such as a starving homeless child stealing food to survive, but it works as a rule of thumb.
The reason this works is because most people understand that things like theft and murder do real, demonstrable harm to others. This is the root of morality: levels of harm in social interactions. God need not enter in to the equation, especially if he can arbitrarily decide not to follow his own moral commands should it suit his purposes (or, rather, the purposes of self-proclaimed prophets speaking on god's behalf...).
9. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour."
Most people simplify this verse to say that one should not lie. I find this overly simplistic. As with theft, there may be situations in which lying is the most moral choice.
A well-known example of this is Jews during WWII pretending to be Christians in order to avoid the wholesale slaughter of their people by the Nazis (by the way, many Nazis believed that, since the Jews killed Jesus, they were killing for god).
Not all examples of acceptable reasons to lie involve saving one's life, however. Perhaps a young atheist cannot admit their position due to family pressures. Perhaps parents want to surprise their small children on Christmas and Easter with miraculously appearing presents and chocolate eggs. Perhaps one wishes to spare someone else unnecessary grief.
The point is that lying is not cut and dry. Generally, it may be advisable not to lie, but it is not universal. Of the commandments which do have some connection to modern laws, lying seems to have the most exceptions. Furthermore, most instances when a person might lie are not illegal.
Perjury before a court, breaking or lying about legal contracts, or pretending to be someone else to deceive a police officer are among the few types of lies which concern our legal system. Whether or not you say truthful things about a neighbor will not generally raise any legal eyebrows.
10. "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s."
So far, most of the commandments are either amoral (morally neutral) or morally obvious. This command, however, is explicitly immoral. It is tantamount to thought-crime. It tells believers that god not only knows what they think, but will judge them eternally according to their thoughts.
"Covet" is synonymous with "desire." Some add that it is an obsessive desire. If all a person does is desire, obsessively or not, and does not act on this, where is the harm to others? I don't see how wanting something can be implicitly immoral, much less punishable.
For instance, pedophilia (another issue completely missed by the Law of Moses) is pretty close to universally despised, yet simply finding children sexually appealing is not a crime. Only when an adult actively tries to seduce a minor is the criminality line crossed. It is the action which is criminal and immoral, not necessarily the thoughts.
I realize this may sound off-putting or morally questionable to some, and to be clear, I am not condoning pedophilia--even in thought. Such people need psychological help, because in most instances the condition is indicative of deep emotional issues, even mental underdevelopment. But needing professional help is not immoral and it is not criminal. And neither are disturbing thoughts or wanting the possessions of others.
Also, did you catch the subtle bit of sexism when god listed women alongside cattle as possessions of "thy neighbor?" Nice one god. Ancient Jews, like many patriarchal societies of their time, viewed women as property of men. Many Christians, Muslims and Jews today still follow this and treat women as second class citizens. Worst of all, the holy book to which they adhere and claim is the basis of their morality actually supports their misogyny!
If you take nothing else from this far too long post, please see that the bible does not make people more moral. It teaches them to surrender their conscience and accept an outdated moral authority. This is not morality--this is subservience. Hitchens asked, "Who, but a slave, would want this?"
Many atheists have addressed the "10 Commandments" by either deconstructing them and pointing out their immoral nature, as I have attempted here, or by submitting their own "atheist" or "secular" commandments.
The most entertaining of these which I have come across is from Bobby Henderson in his book, "The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster." This satirical take on religion is both more interesting than the original Commandments (aka "Condiments") and, somewhat ironically, more moral. See for yourself:
The eight "I'd Really Rather You Didn'ts"
1. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Act Like A Sanctimonious, Holier-Than-Thou Ass When Describing My Noodly Goodness. If Some People Don't Believe In Me, That's Okay. Really, I'm Not That Vain. Besides, This Isn't About Them So Don't Change The Subject.
2. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Use My Existence As A Means To Oppress, Subjugate, Punish, Eviscerate, And/Or, You Know, Be Mean To Others. I Don't Require Sacrifices And Purity Is For Drinking Water, Not People.
3. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Judge People For The Way They Look, Or How They Dress, Or The Way They Talk, Or, Well, Just Play Nice, Okay? Oh, And Get This In Your Thick Heads: Woman = Person. Man = Person. Samey-Samey. One Is Not Better Than The Other, Unless We're Talking About Fashion And I'm Sorry, But I Gave That To Women And Some Guys Who Know The Difference Between Teal And Fuchsia.
4. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Indulge In Conduct That Offends Yourself, Or Your Willing, Consenting Partner Of Legal Age AND Mental Maturity. As For Anyone Who Might Object, I Think The Expression Is Go F*** Yourself, Unless They Find That Offensive In Which Case They Can Turn Off The TV For Once And Go For A Walk For A Change.
5. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Challenge The Bigoted, Misogynist, Hateful Ideas Of Others On An Empty Stomach. Eat, Then Go After The B******.
6. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Build Multimillion-Dollar Churches/Temples/Mosques/Shrines To My Noodly Goodness When The Money Could Be Better Spent (Take Your Pick):
A. Ending Poverty
B. Curing Diseases
C. Living In Peace, Loving With Passion, And Lowering The Cost Of Cable
I Might Be A Complex-Carbohydrate Omniscient Being, But I Enjoy The Simple Things In Life. I Ought To Know. I AM The Creator.
7. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Go Around Telling People I Talk To You. You're Not That Interesting. Get Over Yourself. And I Told You To Love Your Fellow Man, Can't You Take A Hint?
8. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You If You Are Into, Um, Stuff That Uses A Lot Of Leather/Lubricant/Las Vegas. IfThe Other Person Is Into It, However (Pursuant To #4), Then Have At It, Take Pictures, And For The Love Of Mike, Wear A CONDOM! Honestly, It's A Piece Of Rubber. If I Didn't Want It To Feel Good When You Did IT I Would Have Added Spikes, Or Something.
Christopher Hitchens on the 10 Commandments: