This post is a re-edit of one I wrote years ago for my other blog. As would be obvious to any of my readers who have hung about for a while, I’m a religious agnostic who is intensely curious about others religion and welcome an open discussion of same with anyone who cares to have it. Unlike many who claim the moniker of agnostic or atheist, I’m respectful (hopefully) and appreciate the views of others. In this spirit, I’m putting this post up to prompt my Christian friend Grant Dawson to begin the project we’d agree upon that pits us both head-to-head in a discussion of modern Christian faith. Help me in motivating him by visiting his blog. He has a lot of great posts but he has one in particular that I consider his writing “hook”. Read that, follow his blog and let’s get this party started.
Firstly, it should be noted that while the Christian faith is keen to claim the Ten Commandments as their own invention, the concepts embodied in those rules predate Christ by tens of thousands of years. The Christians are certainly the best known codifiers of these somewhat obvious laws of behavior but by no means did they invent them. Just for grins though, let’s look at each one in detail.
#1: I am the Lord your God
This one is rather obvious. In order to have a religion of any merit whatsoever, you have to have a cohesive leadership. It also establishes the speaker as GOD and lends weight and influence to the other commandments. It’s a good start, though somewhat predictable.
#2: You shall have no other gods before me
Somewhat redundant with #1 really and undermining of the speaker’s position. It seems to admit to the existence of other gods and attempts to subordinate them. A real king of kings doesn’t need to do this. He stands on the mountain and says, “I AM KING, tough cookies”. This commandment seems like a throw away. The speaker’s position would be stronger without it. If you must say something, say I am the ONLY God or depending on your position on the trinity question, say that you’re God, father of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Either way, this one doesn’t work.
#3: You shall not make for yourself an idol
Alright, this one bugs me. As I would understand this, the speaker is forbidding his followers from creating anything which constitutes a stand-in for him. In other words, you can’t make a physical representation of God and worship that instead. You must worship the unembodied idea of god but you can’t construct a golden cow or anything else in an attempt to give him a material representation on this earth. If that’s the case, then isn’t the cross itself a violation of this? Isn’t this a physical representation of the holiness of god that is treated with veneration? Similarly, what about graven images? I see a lot of portrayals of Jesus in churches. This seems like a violation of that commandment. Even worse, I’ve seen people dressed up as Jesus for various reenactments and that seems like it would violate the spirit of the commandment entirely. I’d be interested to have someone explain this one to me. As commandments go though, not a bad one.
#4: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of your God
This is your basic, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain or use it to sell vegetable choppers on late-night television. I get this. If you’re the boss you don’t want people sullying your good name. Does strike me as a tad vain, however.
#5: Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
Well, this is certainly open for interpretation. Personally, I like the Jewish interpretation of this commandment. Jews can’t even turn on a light switch during the Sabbath because it would be considered ‘starting a fire’. I really respect that because they go to a LOT of trouble to keep this. I can’t help but admire anyone who goes to a lot of trouble to obey such a rule. I like the Jewish faith. From a commandment perspective though, this says, “dedicate a day to me and me alone.” Not a bad idea, especially if that day is also a day of leisure.
#6: Honor your father and mother
This one isn’t all surprising considering that the promulgation of religion primarily from parent to child. Even if it wasn’t in the Bible per se, I suspect an enterprising parent would add this commandment themselves just to keep the young people in line. It’s also worth noting that this commandment represents a transition from the previous ones which were designed to establish the authority of God and those which are intended to confer a competitive advantage to the adherents of the religion. From an evolutionary standpoint, this has a lot to be said for it. Previous generations are invaluable to the child-rearing process. It would be a distinct evolutionary advantage to foster those relationships. Say what you will about the Bible, it has a fairly good grounding in simple practicality.
#7: You shall not murder
Continuing in the vein of practicality, we have the prohibition on murder. I can almost hear a primitive man, millions of years ago talking to a friend around a roaring fire: “You know Both, me no like Gorth. Me want kill Gorth but if kill Gorth, Gorth no hunt, no bring food. Me think not good kill Gorth.” And thus was this commandment was born. The simple fact is that we all do better when we get along and don’t slaughter each other. Again, simple practicality.
#8: You shall not commit adultery
This one is actually an oddball in that in strictly biological terms, it works AGAINST the group. Promiscuity is actually a POSITIVE trait from an evolutionary perspective. Males and females of the species are likely to bear more healthy offspring if they have several sexual partners. The only problem, of course, is that possessive males, when they find their brides violated, tend to violate the previous commandment.
#9: You shall not steal
Similar to murder and adultery, there’s an advantage to cooperating and not filching each other’s stuff. Adultery is actually a subset of the concept of theft in this case and it’s simple good sense to get along, keep your hands off other people’s stuff and not subject yourself to the potential for murder.
#10: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
As with #9, we have to just find some way to get along. More than that though, we have to be honest with each other. Of all the commandments, this one is probably the deepest and most meaningful for me. It’s a lot of wasted energy to be anything BUT truthful so the optimal and most efficient state is to just start out that way. When we’re all straight up with each other, we all benefit.
#11: You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife
#12: You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor
These two are merely subsets of one another, recognized as separate, according to Wikipedia anyway, only by the Catholic faith. This seems to simply say that you must not even CONTEMPLATE breaking commandment #9. If you covet, that will inevitably lead to theft. So the origin of this falls directly in line with the idea that we have to get along and not get ourselves murdered.
Looking back over the list in general, it’s really somewhat disappointing. Everything that God has to say to us in these 10(12) snippets of wisdom is obvious to any school child. There are variations to these (cannibalistic, polygamist tribes) rules but in general all societies that live in groups adhere to these laws quite naturally. Sure there’s an occasional primitive tribe that shares wives between all the males but in general they don’t go around killing each other for no reason. The rules are basic common sense even to the most unrefined.
The fatuousness of these rules makes me question the very motives of any God who would hand them out. Why proclaim with such formality something which is so obvious? Is this is the best that God can do with all the forces of omniscience on his side? How about some rules about which berries to eat and which are poisonous? Something we can use but not pick up on any street corner? Further, why is God so insecure that he spends nearly half of the commandments trying to solidify his own position? If I’m God, omnipotent and omnipresent, I might spare one commandment to say, “Look, I’m watching you. I see everything so don’t even THINK about breaking my commandments” but *5*?! To me this indicates a certain level of narcissism on god’s part. He spends half the time talking about himself and only after he’s done telling you why he’s the only god you’ll ever need does he get down to the business of telling you anything useful. Frankly, it’s a disappointment.
If anything, I’d say this is just more evidence that god, if he existed, had nothing to do with the commandments at all. A real god wouldn’t bother. He’d tell us something useful rather than spouting obvious truths. If this is God’s best work, then I’m sadly disappointed. Of all the things to be promulgated among the mass of humanity, this is a poor effort. Perhaps he’ll do better at the second coming. Not that anyone would care at that point, of course.
Now that you’ve suffered through that, read Grant’s response from the Christian perspective.