Sunday, 11 December 2011
The Ten Commandments
Catholics often justify their faith with reference to the Ten Commandments. They believe that the instructions Moses dragged down from Mount Sinai are words directly from the mouth of God and that they provide the moral framework required to ensure that one lives a ‘good’ life. For me, this list of imperatives does anything but.
Instead, the Ten Commandments absolve people of individual responsibility and remove the application of sound judgment in ambiguous situations. Rather than assuming that individuals can arrive at their own decisions regarding right and wrong, these dogmatic instructions prescribe black and white solutions to problems which are rarely so clear cut.
The Commandments also hint at a God so insecure in his position that he needs to provide a self-justifying self-defence mechanism to ensure that his subscribers’ heads are not turned by more attractive moral codes, other gods or the following of their own free will. It’s a stance which stinks of paranoia rather than love and heavily suggests that the Commandments were devised by a ruling elite keen to preserve the status quo via propaganda and fear.
Tackling the Commandments in order, it’s very easy to dismiss/destroy/denigrate the majority of them. ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods before me?’ What a load of self-serving nonsense. It’s an order which screams of nothing more than self-preservation – and removes the possibility of free-will, exploring alternatives or having doubt.
The second Commandment is perhaps even more absurd. '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.' No carved images of heaven or earth? No artistic commemoration or celebration of the beauty and diversity of the natural world? God created the world and didn’t want us to produce joyous reproductions of it? Bullshit. We should all revel in the wonder which surrounds us – and a benevolent God would surely encourage us to do so. This Commandment has no place in a world where art, in its many forms, is celebrated.
'You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.' Why not? Is a deity who allows war, famine, disease and death one who is above criticism? He ought not to be. Of all the Commandments this is almost certainly the easiest to pick apart. If God did exist it would be self-evident that even such a great designer ought to be subject to criticism and ridicule for his many mistakes, acts of cruelty and mismanagement of his great world.
'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.' It’s easy to see the logic behind this order. Sadly, it’s far too dogmatic to be useful. We all need a rest. Everyone should strike a useful balance between work and leisure. But surely we ourselves are in the best position to decide when we need to kick back and relax. And if our love for God was pure, would we really need to set aside a day to worship him? Is the omnipotent, omniscient one really that insecure?
The fifth Commandment is entirely admirable: 'Honour your father and your mother.' What it fails to recognise, however, is that honour and respect must be earned. Not all parents have earned that privilege. Our ancestors might have given us life but that does not automatically make them good, worthy people. Our elders are not necessarily our betters. Respect must be earned, not given.
'You shall not kill’ is difficult to refute. Murder is rightly frowned upon. But euthanasia? At best this is a grey area. And a hugely hypocritical one given the amount of smiting, massacring and murdering God himself got up to in the Bible. Not to mention the religious crusading which has taken place in the last 2000 years.
'You shall not commit adultery.' Fair enough.
'You shall not steal.' Agreed.
‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.' Essentially, you shouldn’t tell lies. Again, this is difficult to dispute. But it’s very similar to the previous two Commandments: they all prohibit dishonest behaviour. Is this something that needs legislating against? And if it is, can we not just be more general and produce one catch-all Commandment: Thou shalt be honest.
'You shall not covet your neighbour’s house you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.' So you should just accept your lot in life? You shouldn’t strive to improve? You shouldn’t try to better yourself? What nonsense. It’s certainly true that society can sometimes be alarmingly materialistic, but coveting goods, services – even people – is what keeps most societies functioning. It’s also pretty damning that in Biblical times slavery seemed to be de rigeur. We wouldn’t accept it now – a sure-fire indicator that the world has moved on.
Perhaps the Ten Commandments were more applicable when they were initially devised. Even so, the arguments I’ve made above suggest that they were always too dogmatic and inflexible. Certainly they seem to be the product of a defensive, jealous mindset. There are no orders to behave positively – just commands not to do certain things. It’s a prescription of prohibitions rather than any form of proactive or positive advice. It’s a joyless list.
It’s also an unnecessary list. Apologists for Christianity defend the Ten Commandments on the basis that it provides a moral platform or framework for the human race. But that’s simply untrue. Other religions (and the non-religious) have also arrived at their own moral frameworks which are pretty similar to ours in the western world. Diverse religions and unrelated societies have all decided that murder is wrong and that honesty is desirable. That they arrived at those conclusions independently indicates that such behaviour does not need to be legislated: humans are inherently humane.
If it is really necessary to have ten commandments, maybe it’s time they were updated to provide a more relevant guide to life in the modern world. These should reflect a more permissive, accepting and understanding society which preaches enlightenment and understanding rather than prohibition and intolerance. My (very simple) ten are below...
• Think for yourself and make informed decisions.
• Respect the world around you.
• Be honest.
• Treat people as you’d like to be treated: harm no one.
• Do your best.
• Avoid violence.
• Take responsibility for yourself and your actions.
• Enjoy life – you only get one.
• Never stop learning – and learn from your mistakes.
• Do not judge on the basis of ethnicity, gender or sexuality.
We can't always obey them all. But it makes more sense to try and follow these than to have every Sunday off work to worship a jealous God who has banned art and doesn't want you to use swear words.