There are plenty of bits about the 10 commandments, none less famous than George Carlin’s attempt to slim them down to size.
There is no shortage of atheists and liberal Christians who hold up the bible and its commandments as a work of great, secular moral teachings, while eager to defend or apologize for the parts of the bible that are… less good.
Let me take this a step farther than “the bible is imperfect, but valuable”. The commandments and central teachings of the bible are immoral. Let’s take them one by one.
First, each of the 10 commandments:
I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
First, no you’re not. At best, you are a person writing down stories that have been passed by word of mouth for hundreds of years. Your stories have negligible basis in natural history and lack evidentiary support. Even if such a god existed and literally wrote the copy of the bible that was in my hand, this would not be a moral proposition. I ought to hold all beings, god or mortal, in the esteem that they deserve. Thou art a jealous god, and according to your memoir, a dick.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing 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 showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
First, thou art wordy and paranoid. No being of any kind deserves worship or servitude. This is too absurd a commandment to warrant much of a response, but in short: We’ll make whatever art we want thank you very much. Furthermore, does anyone think that it’s moral to punish ones offspring for the crimes of their parents, let alone their great grandparents?
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.
Though art redundant. This is a goddamn commandment against free speech. Even the UN considers freedom of expression a natural right. So, Jesus Christ, get a grip!
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is…
Ok, ok we get it, I’ll save you from how long this one is. First of all, which day is the seventh day? The various sects can’t seem to agree. Furthermore, why is this commandment important? Rest is fine, and holidays that mark important occasions are fine. However, this commandment doesn’t say “chill out and rest once in a while”. The Old Testament actually prescribes punishment by death to those who dare to work on the unspecified Sabbath day. I fail to see how anyone’s wellbeing is incumbent on my staying home from the lab on each Friday… I mean, Saturday… Sunday?
Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
First of all, not all parents deserve honor or respect. Many were not given the choice to become parents. Many are incompetent and some are abusive. That being said, this is the first commandment to be less order-driven, suggesting that there are consequences for the extent for one’s respect for their parents. If there was any evidence to suggest that loving your parents made you live longer, this may be a decent bit of advice to take or leave, but it is immoral as a commandment.
Thou shalt not kill/murder.
Let’s take this commandment on its own despite the clear contradiction with the entirety of the bible. I believe that capital punishment is immoral, but you don’t have the choices on a battlefield that you have in the judicial system. Are there people who think that it would be immoral to murder Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden? It is almost always preferable to imprison such people for life, but if bringing them in would result in the death of scores of special forces, isn’t a bunker-busting missile the most moral course? What if you are a sniper, and you have a suicide bomber in your sights, about to detonate himself in a crowd of children? Show him love and compassion? No. Murder the motherfucker.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
I will again be generous and ignore the bible’s hypocrisy and the obviously immoral aspects of this commandment with respect to women, divorce, and rape. Let’s pretend that this commandment is ok with non-monogamous relationships, masturbation, and porn. (ha!) I am being quite generous.
Consider that you are in a monogamous marriage, and you have several young children with your partner. Your partner has no libido, and you have not has sex in years. He/she is unwilling to make accommodations. You could separate or divorce (if the bible allowed it) tearing apart your family. You could live on like this in a bitter household, a relationship doomed to fail, and a bitter day-to-day lifestyle that may do equal damage to the family as a divorce. On the other hand, you could have an occasional, discrete affair, continue to care for your family and companionate partner, and get your needs met elsewhere, saving your marriage. What is the most moral course to take? Is one of them clearly immoral? It’s not always an easy decision, but an iron age commandment is certainly of no help. Any commandments that require absolute, exception-free obedience are bound to be immoral in some contexts.
Thou shalt not steal.
The easy argument here is the same as the commandment against murder, as there are always extenuating circumstances one could imagine that require theft: Stealing medicine or food for a sick or starving child, stealing weapons or liberty from a dangerous individual, etc.
However, this commandment goes farther, infringing on the foundation for our civilization: Collective action. Taxes can be considered theft. The draft can be considered theft. As social creatures, a libertarian view of property is untenable.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
It’s a damn good thing that Anne Frank’s hosts knew this to be an immoral proposition.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, not his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbors.
Seriously, God, if you are going to be writing timeless laws for all human kind, take a technical writing class. Cut out the specifics if you are going to end with “any thing”.
Not only can I not steal, I can’t even desire. First, this is impossible. This is the classic “made sick, and ordered to be well” commandment against thought-crime. As George Carlin says so well, this is the foundation for capitalism, the sort of property-based economy that earlier commandments required. Thy neighbor would not own an ox, ass, or gendered servant if he had not already coveted those of his neighbor’s.
Moving on from the Old Testament to one of the most secularized commandments, the Golden Rule…
“Love thy neighbor as thyself”, or as it is better known,
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
Commandments of love are fine with me as long as they don’t prioritize that love or prescribe specific actions. The goal of this commandment is to make followers empathetic for others. It could be restated, “do good because you want people to do good to you”. The problem is, your personal interests are not good standards by which to measure the interests of others.
The obvious tarnish on the Golden Rule is that it fails for sadomasochists. I don’t want them following the Golden Rule around me. In a more general sense, this rule betrays the value of our neighbors’ diversity, a boon to humankind.
My neighbor doesn’t want to be treated the same way that I want to be treated, and we all intrinsically know that. However, flawed, unbending rules like this give us excuses to act in ways that we otherwise could not defend. “I like getting my ass grabbed by strangers, so why is Katy so mad when I do it?”
The sermon on the mount
This contains lots of immoral Christian mantras and pronouncements, but this could be a very long post if I started in on it here. You can check out Iron Chariots for a verse-by-verse breakdown
John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This is rarely claimed as a secular moral, but it is rarely challenged on moral grounds, only that it is factually flawed. Let me take the former here, clause by clause…
If we are all god’s children, and Adam was created by god… why is Jesus his only son? Also, couldn’t he make another if he wanted to? The verse hangs on the point that God gave his only son, and I fail to see why either “only” or “son” is significant in God’s case. This verse is artificially inflating God’s sacrifice.
Eternal life may not be the sort of reward that is implied here. An eternity of worshiping god doesn’t seem so great to me. An eternity of anything would trouble me, so I’m not sold on this reward. Furthermore, this verse doesn’t specify the type of eternal life I would have, and there’s far too much talk about hellfire in the new testament for me to be all that eager.
The main point of this verse, and modern Christianity, is commanded belief. This is both an impossible and immoral commandment. We cannot choose our beliefs without significant and harmful brainwashing, hypnosis, or torture. Our beliefs are the result of personal experience, argument, and evidence. Is there any reward that could motivate you to believe that your given name was “Jerry”? (assuming that it isn’t) I don’t mean professing that your name is Jerry, or being convinced by argument that your name is Jerry, but actually changing your belief, motivated merely by reward. Beliefs don’t work that way. Either God is looking for a dishonest declaration of belief, or he is only interested in followers that are subject to delusion.
We do, however, suffer from confirmation bias among our many cognitive biases. Compensation can skew our otherwise objective considerations of arguments and evidence. This is an immoral practice to engage in willingly. It takes advantage of credulity, a dishonest and cynical practice by a Machiavellian god. The only moral way to change one’s beliefs is to offer sufficient evidence and honest argument. Bribery is immoral.
John 8:7 – He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”
A secular version might be that only perfect people may judge others. The obvious implication is that no one is perfect, so no one is allowed to judge anyone else. We are social and interdependent creatures. This is a commandment that shuts down communication and ends conversations about morality before they begin. Humans require a social contract, laws, and enforcement of those laws. None of this is possible if we require perfection from everyone before anyone can be held accountable.
In reality, this is a transparent way around the immoral commandments of the old testament. Jesus cannot denounce the laws calling for the stoning of adulterers since it is this same law that gives him any authority as the messiah. He therefore upholds the laws, but refuses to enforce them, like the White House turning a blind eye to Marijuana sales where it is legalized while spending billions on an un-winnable drug war… sorry. I got carried away.
All in all, morality cannot be expressed in commandments. Life is complicated, and building a just society is difficult. The bible works in sound bites about right and wrong. No prescription for human wellbeing can be written, and trying to do so, by starting with conclusions, impedes moral progress.
Creationists betray their foolishness by concluding that the bible is Truth, and forcing all other data to fit that conclusion. Even the most liberal Christians betray the same foolishness in forcing biblical interpretations to fit the conclusion that the bible is Good.
Even if it was possible to prescribe human morals, the bible does a piss poor job of it. I wouldn’t expect much more from an Iron-Age myth. I do, however, expect much more from my neighbors today, and shame on those who describe the bible as a moral guide of human values.
In a post where I quote a crackpot book, let me end with a quote from a crackpot, C.S. Lewis:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”