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The 10 Commandments: Monuments and Memories

Sunday July 26, 2015

Some Christian lawyers—some eminent... judges—have said and still say, that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of all law.

Nothing could be more absurd. Long before these commandments were given there were codes of laws in India and Egypt—laws against murder, perjury, larceny, adultery and fraud. Such laws are as old as human society; as old as the love of life; as old as industry; as the idea of prosperity; as old as human love.

All of the Ten Commandments that are good were old; all that were new are foolish. If Jehovah had been civilized he would have left out the commandment about keeping the Sabbath, and in its place would have said: “Thou shalt not enslave thy fellow-men.” … He would have left out the one about graven images, and in its stead would have said: “Thou shalt not wage wars of extermination, and thou shalt not unsheathe the sword except in self-defense.”

If Jehovah had been civilized, how much grander the Ten Commandments would have been.

All that we call progress—the enfranchisement of man, of labor, the substitution of imprisonment for death, of fine for imprisonment, the destruction of polygamy, the establishing of free speech, of the rights of conscience; in short, all that has tended to the development and civilization of man; all the results of investigation, observation, experience and free thought; all that man has accomplished for the benefit of man since the close of the Dark Ages—has been done in spite of the Old Testament.

Robert Green Ingersoll


The Ten CommandmentsThe 10 Commandments strike me as archaic, unhelpful and ill-fitted to the 20th century, let alone the 21st. Still relentlessly promoted by the Religious Right, a modicum of objective scrutiny suggests it’s time for a new and improved edition. If I were pope, head of a Protestant sect or a televangelist, I’d lead the way for major changes. I’d upgrade from ten negative, general and bossy “shalt nots” to a set of positive, specific and helpful common decencies. The decencies would be commitments from within, not commandments from without.

Since I’m a bit elderly and probably not in line for a leadership role in any religion, I’ll not rush to print with my suggested common decency commitment suggestions. I’ll wait a few days, until it’s time to post another essay. For the moment, a discussion of religion in modern life seems in order. This will set the stage for the commitment suggestions to follow. This essay will review a few legal controversies related to church/state separation and the nature of religious freedoms versus the rights of those who wish to enjoy freedoms from religion. In addition, I’ll summarize my early experience with religion, focused on the 10 commandments. With all that out of the way, an essay entitled Time for a Commandments Upgrade: From Negative, General and Bossy “Shalt Nots” to Common Decency Commitments that are Positive, Specific and Helpful will follow.

But first, an overview.  

Religious Liberty?

Many religious people get quite irate when articles of their faith are questioned or when secularists object to intrusions of religion on public life. Consider, for example, the situation in Oklahoma concerning the placement of a 10 Commandments monument, by a religious group with the endorsement of state officials, on state capital grounds. This display led to protests and legal challenges, which culminated on June 30, 2015 in a ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court directing removal of the monument. The Court held that its location violated a provision in the state's constitution that no public money or property can be used either directly or indirectly for the "benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination or system of religion. As concerns the 'historic purpose' claims by the defendants, the Court found the Ten Commandments to be “obviously religious in nature and an integral part of the Jewish and Christian faiths." The governor of Oklahoma immediately declared her intent to defy the order. Not long ago, Alabama’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was ordered to do the same by a federal court, refused and was removed from office. The monument was then removed from the state capitol steps where Moore, in the middle of the night, had directed the monument’s placement. (The same Roy Moore, re-elected to his old job, is currently defying the U.S. Supreme Court' by encouraging county clerks in Alabama not to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in defiance of the Court’s ruling granting equal rights to same sex couples.)

Setbacks to public piety of this kind are the lifeblood of Religious Right organizations, leaders and commentators, particularly national media hosts, such as those on the “fair and balanced” Fox News network. The latter were quick to declare that the Oklahoma court decision was an assault on religious “freedom.” Similar protests have been heard when devout shopkeepers discover that there are limits on their rights to deny service based on faith claims. Also, many Christians are flummoxed when secularists challenge tax exemption of church property, the granting of public funds for chaplains and the inclusion of a god reference in our currency and Pledge of Allegiance. Christian politicians who insist on prayers at government meetings and public schools feel victimized by secular objections to such practices.

History or Evangelism?

In the Oklahoma case and elsewhere, religionists claim that their religious icons, such as the 10 Commandments, are historic, not religious. Such claims make one wonder: Do those making such statements understand the nature of the 10 Commandments? Polls have shown that most people asked to name the commandments can’t recall more than a couple, usually the ones forbidding stealing, murdering and coveting. Yet, Christians assert that every one these ancient rules is a foundation element of our modern laws and the U.S. Constitution.

Therefore, It seems time for another look at the 10 Commandments. In the 1940’s, I had to memorize these rules. Let me tell you about my early experiences in this regard.

My Early Years

I was raised in Southwest Philadelphia in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood. All of us little Catholic devils soon learned that we faced ghastly retribution in the afterlife if we died with a mortal sin on our souls. Mortal sins were (and probably still are) the Catholic equivalent of capital crimes, though most are punishable only in the next life. Preparing for that “life” while trying to do the right Catholic things in this one is the focus of being Catholic. Every believer discovers soon enough that he wants to go to heaven; no Catholic who takes the faith seriously wants to end up in the alternative destination.  

We Catholic children at St. Barnabas learned that breaking a commandment was a “mortal” sin. We also learned that we had to get mortal sins off our chests (souls, actually) before perishing—die with one on your soul and you’re hell-bound. Period. No appeals, no clemency, no pardon—only everlasting doom! The nuns made it their business to remind us on a near-daily basis how important it was to avoid committing or, more practically, having these dreadful spiritual crimes forgiven, while alive, via the confessional box. Otherwise, we’d spend eternity in hell. Sister deChantel forecast a high probability that this was precisely where I was headed, unless I reformed my ways. She seldom resisted adding this zinger: “And you won’t like that one bit, young man, I can tell you that.”

As children, we of course believed everything the nuns and other adults led us to believe—about angels, devils, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, goblins—all of it. If I'd been brought up in ancient Greece I might have believed in Greek gods, but there I would have known they weren't real. Not so with the god described by his agents at St. Barnabas. In the 40’s and 50’s, the Inquisition may have been over, but the nuns had not gotten word. Amongst my friends, non-conformity to religious norms, rituals, beliefs or traditions was not an option. In my neighborhood, nobody liked a “wise guy.” We went along with what we were told. And yet, we didn’t think about god very much, not even when marched into church on Sundays or during religion classes throughout the week. Church services and religion classes were times for fantasies, daydreams or planning fun things when church or school let out.

In my case, once a modicum of brain development and independent thinking came into play, parts of the religion were questioned, doubted and eventually challenged, tentatively at first. Soon enough, I decided things might not be quite as represented. I gave it all up for Lent—and never started up again. That was nearly 70 years ago.   

Despite the fearsome consequences of an afterlife writhing in the fires of hell, commandments were broken. However, no worries, for confession was a readily available Catholic guilt resolution mechanism. After violating a commandment, all you had to do was tell a priest about it on a Saturday afternoon in a “confessional box.” All would then be forgiven and you would have a clean soul slate. There was a small price to pay, a punishment designed to motivate us little sinners not to transgress again. That was “penance,“ which usually consisted of being assigned x number of prayers, depending on the number and type dispensed by the priest confessor. That was it. Once the prayer sentence was recited, all was forgiven, hell no longer loomed and I was seemingly heaven-bound (though I might have to suffer third degree burns in Purgatory for an indeterminate spell). The problem was it seemed impossible not to screw up again and again, given the nature and interpretation of the commandment prohibitions. This uncertainty, combined with my curious and somewhat rebellious nature, led to weekly offenses. As mentioned, the key to staying out of hell was not dying before seeing a parish priest or any priest, but preferably Father Doyle, who everyone knew doled out the least punishment (i.e., three “Hail Mary’s”). Then I was sin-free to go on about my business, which soon enough included falling off the hell-proof wagon.

So, that’s a short overview of my early experience with religion in general and 10 commandments in particular.

The 10 Commandments

Let’s put aside the fact that displaying of 10 commandments on government property violates an established tradition of separating church and state. Another reason not to do this is because they are non-functional and unpleasant. They are medieval proscriptions; they are quite simply useless in most cases and self-evident in others. They don’t work as guides to morality on the issues of our time. To secularists, the 10 commandments are nothing if not bizarre.

Consider each of the following ten from the point of view of a secular citizen—and about a third of Americans are secular. (The version cited is found in Exodus 20:2-17.)

  1. I am the lord your god, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.

    What? Who are you again? Not my lord, not my god. I don’t believe in a lord, or a god. Egypt? What’s that got to do with me? No worries about other gods before anybody. They are all make believe.

    Even as a small child, this did not apply. I had no clues about other gods. If I heard of one, it’s unlikely I would have violated this commandment. I was led to believe that this god was all-powerful, all-knowing, all this and all everything. Why shop around if you believed that, which before age ten or so I certainly did. Keeping this commandment was never a problem. Besides, I wasn’t brought out of Egypt by anybody, nor was I aware of anyone in my family being held in bondage. (Kids take things literally.)

  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the lord your god, am a jealous god, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love me and keep my commandments.

    As an adult freethinker, this comes across as crazy talk. As a small child, it was confusing, and easily put out of mind. Even then it made little sense, as there were images, which looked sort of carved, all over the place. The church itself was loaded with them, as were our classrooms. There was one in my bedroom and the dashboard of our car. Priests and nuns carried them around in processions and during assemblies. I didn’t get it, so I didn’t think about it. As with the first commandment, this was never mentioned in confession, for there was nothing to tempt a violation. I did wonder why a god that was so super would brag about or proclaim himself a jealous god. What did he have to be jealous about? And what about that threat to harm my children and grandchildren and even great grandchildren if I were bad. That didn’t seem very nice.

  3. You shall not take the name of the lord your god in vain, for the lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

    Being lord-free as an adult, this is senseless, but it was an issue in my early years. 

    I was not sure what the “in vain” phrase meant, but I assumed that it was not a good idea to say things like “Goddammit” or “Jesus” or lots of other words that got a rise out of grownups. I heard many such words, though. I was surprised that the lines of sinners waiting for confessional boxes were not a lot longer on Saturday afternoons.

    I also thought, then and now, that commandments two and three were similar, pretty much the same thing.

  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the lord your god. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. therefore the lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

    Oh boy, as an adult I have to wonder, “Who would put up with this kind of bossiness? Why would anyone want to display such a statement anywhere, let alone a public place?

    We had to go to Mass on Sunday—that seemed to satisfy this commandment. We could do what we liked the rest of the time without “unhallowing” the day, though a lot of stores were closed. I didn’t mind that so much and was not affected by the details of commandment number four. We owned no cattle (I lived in a row house in a big city), had no servants and I was too young to have a son or daughter. We had no strangers within our gates. We didn’t even have gates. And if they say God did all that in six days, well, he certainly seemed entitled to a day off, no doubt of that. But even then I failed to see what any of it had to do with me.

  5. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the lord your god is giving you.

    I’m in favor of being respectful to all, appreciating sacrifices, treats, love and all the rest of a positive nature. Kindness would be invaluable even if it did not lengthen the day or whatever that phase attributed to honoring parents was about. I used to wonder about the the forms that honor was supposed to take, and whether there were exceptions for fathers and mothers (not mine, of course) who did awful things. Did they still have to be honored?

    Yes, I tried to honor, not to mention “obey,” my parents. However, this was usually the “mortal sin” I’d mention in confession. I needed material, so number five became my bread and butter, go-to sin that I would confess to breaking several times a week. But, I was guessing if not inventing data—it could have been more or fewer transgressions, depending on what counted and what didn’t.

  6. You shall not murder.

    In my nearly 70 years as a non-Catholic, I did not murder anyone. Honest. Never even tempted. I was good without a god, and without respect for the commandments. After all, I wouldn’t want anyone to kill me, so this is just a self-interest thing, in addition to a fundamental decency. Who really needs to be commanded not to kill? I wonder: Did this commandment ever deter a homicidal maniac? I mean, think about it—a murderous mate could eliminate his spouse, go to confession (priests can’t rat a sinner out to authorities) and, three Hail Mary’s later, be in good standing with god and heaven-bound.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.

    See five and six, above.

  8. You shall not steal.

    This depended. Was it stealing to sneak treats before dinner? In any event, most of this admonition was not a problem. I had what I needed and wanted, for the most part. 

  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

    No problem. 

  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.

    No problem. Our house was about the same as everyone else’s, and the ladies in the neighborhood were old, some were kind of cranky and I had no idea why anyone would covet any of them. As already mentioned, neither our family nor anyone I knew had servants, male or female, let alone an ox or a donkey. 

Doubt  and Skepticism Are in Short Supply

Adults raised without religion and others who, for varied reasons, came to question and eventually reject their childhood indoctrinations generally view the 10 commandments as antediluvian bromides, useless as a moral guide or code of conduct. Certainly the list of “shall and shalt nots” are self-evident to anyone with an ounce of good sense. The rules or admonitions are hardly practical. The secularist is not likely to elevate “false” gods when he holds none to be real. How can believers be confident they’ve chosen or, more likely, been taught to adore the true god?  Who needs a religion to know that it’s not OK to steal or, for God’s sake (just an expression!), murder people? All civilized societies forbid such crimes and punish (in this life) those who violate human rights. And why forbid “coveting” when it’s actions that matter? Why the big deal about your neighbor’s wife, which almost implies that other forms of “coveting” might be just dandy? Where would the advertising profession be if we did not covet stuff? Could there be a free enterprise economy?   

Millions of people have been led to believe in deity-dictated commandments. Millions also believe religious leaders who proclaim that the commandments inspired the U.S. Constitution, were the foundation of Western laws and even morality, that they safeguard our liberties, secure our civilization and constitute revelations from the wisdom and love of God to the heart and brain of man. Millions go along with faith leaders who say they must be revered, obeyed and proclaimed. In short, millions of people remain respectful of these antiquated dictates. What are they thinking?

Maybe instead of ignoring the 10 commandments, secularists should remind believers what the commandments are all about, and encourage discussions about each one and note all manner of things not mentioned at all that would be good to discourage and, more important, encourage. How long could these follies stand up to a little objective scrutiny before the faithful realize that erecting monuments that promote them in public places might not be such a good idea?

In the next essay on this theme, I’ll offer a ideas about a commandments upgrade toward common decency commitments that are positive, specific and helpful.

Stay well and look on the bright side of life.

Signed Don Ardell

(Ed. Note: Views expressed in this and other columns are those of the author and not necessarily those of the SeekWellness Editorial Board.)

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