The Ten Commandments Rationally Examined

by Edward Cline

One of the most infuriating things about conservatives who claim that the U.S. was founded on Biblical morality and the Ten Commandments is that, like Muslims, their minds are closed to any arguments to the contrary. They slam shut so hard you can feel the draft.  So, let’s examine the Ten Commandments and see if any one of them has anything to do with our vanishing freedoms. I have used the Commandments as published by the ultra religious conservative group, Politichicks, in Lydia Goodman’s December 18th column, “How Many Laws Does One Country Need? God Says Ten.”  Their exact wording is not as I remember them, my having been exposed to them in the Catholic Church in the 1950′s, but that is a minor point.

The 10 Commandments

1 –  And God spoke all these words, saying: “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.

No problem. There are no other gods before him. Not even God. There’s no queue outside my door.

So,  Moses parted the Red Sea and talked to a burning bush, and suddenly hefted a pair of very heavy stone tablets on which were chiseled the Ten Commandments and which he had to lug back down the mountain. These are apocryphal fairy tales akin to Mohammad riding a winged horse to have a personal huddle with Allah and having an angel whisper into his ear Allah’s own fifty dozen commandments.  There really isn’t any reason why any rational person should take this Commandment literally. Especially if he doesn’t subscribe to the notion of the existence of a supernatural entity that knows all and can do all, and knew what you would do billions of years before you were even born, but still imbues you with the “freedom” of choice. Which doctrine should believers believe in: Predestination, or volition? I’ve never heard an argument that made any sense, because, among their other faults, fast-talking preachers and priests all try to reconcile man the hapless pawn of God, with man the being of volitional consciousness.

But, theologians and believers will retort: God is above human understanding, beyond reason, except in his heart, and in his faith. To know God, one must suspend one’s mind, because an inquiring mind is an obstacle to belief. And that retort is largely a legacy of Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, who wrote reams and reams of paragraphs in an attempt to save religion from the Enlightenment. (Kant wasn’t the only one, just the best known.) Trying to defend religion from reason, he invented a “pure” reason that would explain and justify the unreasonableness of religion, or why it was so reason-proof and rebuffed the evidence of our senses in his Critique of Pure Reason, by which we have an a priori grasp of God that has nothing to do with mere, mundane reason. Here it is from the horse’s mouth:

HUMAN reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.

That’s just in Kant’s 1781 preface. It more or less encapsulates his theme and subject. He could be brief when he wanted to. Read the balance at your own risk, but be sure to have a bottle of Tylenol handy. His oft-interminable sentences are sure to give you a throbbing headache.

2-  You shall not make for yourself any carved 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; 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 on 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.

First off, this sounds too much like the Islamic prohibition on representations of Mohammad. However, artists of the Judeo-Christian creeds have played fast and loose with representations of God. Witness Michelangelo’s rendering of God. It’s an old fellow with an untrimmed beard and garbed in a nightgown.

Secondly, I’m guessing that God exempted himself from his own Commandments, because jealousy is a venial sin, a minor misdemeanor, and forgivable. Very big of him. “Do as I say, not as I do”? This Commandment is particularly extortionate, because reads like a Mafia curse. His iniquity will be visited on the guilty, and on the guilty’s descendents. The notion fits right in with the doctrine of Original Sin, in which one is burdened with sin before one is even born. Adam originated the sin, and we’re his heirs. Spiffing.

When I was a young, ignorant kid, I thought that a sin manifested itself as a black spot on one’s belly. I was continually looking for one, or what resembled an ink stain, because I was constantly sinning. One never appeared. I have a mole there, but it’s brown. It’s just a collection of chemicals.

Now, was God “born” old, or did he “age”? Has anyone ever attempted an image of God as a Young Man? But, how could he “age” before he invented time? According to the Big Bang theory, it was just him and that dimensionless ball of glop that he caused to explode. Was that the beginning of eternity, or the end of infinity? Go figure. Picture a consciousness, form and gender unknown – or was there a gender? – floating in a void in immeasurable time, with only the ball of glop for company. It’s a prospect and a premise that puts all the recent CGI-rich science fiction films to shame.

And whoever said God was male? The feminists have had problems with that presumption. They have been busy subjecting the Bible to Critical Theory analysis, trying either to find a semantic or linguistic loophole in Genesis which claims that God made man in his own image and likeness, or to deconstruct it to shreds in a revolt against patriarchic sexism and producing some very vitriolic screeds.

Finally, to return to Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, what has God got against art, that is, against making likenesses of things on earth and in the sea? Some of the greatest art was created in his glory. Surely he couldn’t object to that? (Off-hand remarks here about Michelangelo, or “Big Mike,” are not meant to be deprecatory of his greatness as an artist.)

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.

Well, why not? It’s just about the only time an atheist or even a steadfast Christian will remember God, by taking his name in vain, or in anger, or in frustration, and curse like a sailor. Further, unlike God, I wouldn’t be offended if people began taking my name in vain. If anything, I’d be flattered. Please, take my name in vain, as often as you wish.

4 – Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

I remember the Sabbath only because my bank and favorite restaurants are closed.

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 can’t honor my parents. They always voted the straight Democratic ticket, and for Obama, twice. Further, it’s a confusingly worded Commandment. What exactly had God given me? Democratic parents, or the land and the long days? Will honoring my parents add years to my life?

6 – You shall not murder.

Well, why not? Give me a reason. Is it because another person’s life isn’t another’s to take – that is, the person owns his own life – or is it because it’s assumed he’s God’s property, and taking his life would amount to really serious larceny and put the kibosh on God’s own plans for the person?  God notoriously does not tolerate interference with his divine plans. He can be very, very wrathful.

7 – You shall not commit adultery.

Again, why not? If your spouse has turned into a prune-faced anchorite utterly hostile to divorce and about as romantically exciting as Norman Bates’ mummified mother or Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, where else is there to turn?

8 – You shall not steal.

And not steal what? The limelight? The scene? The ball? Someone else’s real property? Commit plagiarism? Please, someone give me a reason other than God’s officious, persnickety say-so. This and the other Commandments come out of literal nowhere, from the void of faith and belief. Has the Federal government heard of this Commandment?

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

I guess this is God’s dictat against lying. But why limit it to neighbors? How about unneighborly tax collectors, criminals, and feminists? I say bear as much false witness against them as the traffic will carry. Has Barack Obama heard of this Commandment? There are forms of this Commandment in the Koran, but maybe he just skipped over them in Indonesia.

10 – You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.

Envy doesn’t necessarily lead to covetousness, or even to theft or illegal appropriation or pilferage or shoplifting. Some dyed-in-the-wool Christians argue that this particular Commandment is the sole foundation of capitalism. No wonder Karl Marx was dead set against it. He was wrong, too. The foundations of capitalism – indeed, of freedom of speech and of thought and of property – can hardly be the arbitrary assertion of a ghost or even of a genuine mortal.

Of course, Christians won’t give up trying to wed freedom and religion. A case in point is a column, “Ayn Rand and Jesus: Do they teach opposing viewpoints about economy?” on BeliefNet, in which, incredibly, the writer asserts that there can be a moral “overlap between an atheist and a Christian.”

Among other things, there can be overlap between an atheist and a Christ follower in discovering truth.  Jesus would disagree with Ayn Rand that there is any morality outside of God. He might tell her that she hasn’t traced her absolutes back far enough to an objective reality.

I would like to have seen Jesus say that to Rand’s face and leave the room in one piece. On the other hand, she was such a formidable and persuasive debater that perhaps Jesus might have wound up an atheist.

Religion, she noted, was (and remains) a primitive form of philosophy. In her March 1964 Playboy interview, she said:

Faith, as such, is extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason. But you must remember that religion is an early form of philosophy, that the first attempts to explain the universe, to give a coherent frame of reference to man’s life and a code of moral values, were made by religion, before men graduated or developed enough to have philosophy. And, as philosophies, some religions have very valuable moral points. They may have a good influence or proper principles to inculcate, but in a very contradictory context and, on a very—how should I say it?—dangerous or malevolent base: on the ground of faith.

By way of illustration, religion can be compared with the stick men children first learn to draw; a fully rational philosophy, absent any form of mysticism and reliance on unsupportable assertions, should then lead them to create the likes of Michelangelo’s “David.” But modern philosophy has so failed men in their search for a “coherent frame of reference to man’s life and a code of moral values,” that they are doubling back to the primitive form of it because it seems to make more sense than, say, Existentialism or Nihilism or Marxism. One can’t really blame them. Look at what Existentialism has produced in the way of a representation of man: there’s Rodin’s “Walking Man,” and Giacometti’s. Not much of a choice. One can sympathize with them, but not ally oneself with them, except on an ad hoc basis.

Faith in the existence of the supernatural, and even in the “extra-rational,” has been a stumbling block all throughout man’s history. And it has proven dangerous. Faith in a supernatural giver of laws has become faith in a statist and totalitarian system that promises paradise on earth. But it can only attempt to deliver that paradise by employing faith’s necessary partner: force. And, as Rand so well put it:

I have said that faith and force are corollaries, and that mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding are possible….And more: no man or mystical elite can hold a whole society subjugated to their arbitrary assertions, edicts and whims, without the use of force. Anyone who resorts to the formula: “It’s so, because I say so,” will have to reach for a gun, sooner or later.

No, there is no “overlapping” possible between reason and faith. Any attempt at it will result in the triumph of faith, as exemplified in the porous, virtually tongue-in-cheek rationalizations one can read on BeliefNet, which is no defense of freedom at all. Faith can give one the illusory comfort of a comprehensible universe – or, more often than not, lead to the horrors in history and those taking place in our own time.