Saturday, January 23, 2016

Are the Ten Commandments the Best Way to Determine One's Morality and Ethics?

This was an article I had published in the local newspaper for the monthly Freethinker's Perspective. Sadly, the paper has decided to end the monthly column. Still, I'm grateful for the chance to step a little outside of my comfort zone and get something published for people to read.

It may look like another of David Letterman’s top 10 lists but the Ten Commandments are no laughing matter. It is seen as THE foundation upon which morality is based and there are numerous places in the United States where the commandments are highly displayed, even here in the city of La Crosse. But should the Ten Commandments be the yardstick upon which we judge the morality of others? I don’t believe so. I think there are a number of flaws with the commandments and as a result, we should all strive to look at a new set of commandments, one that fits in with today’s diverse society.

First of all, one of the big problems is that the Ten Commandments is a list of “Thou Shalt Nots”. In my experience as a parent, telling a kid not to do something is nowhere near as effective as telling that child to do something instead. Most parenting books these days will tell you that as well. We also saw how well this worked in Genesis.

Next, let’s look at the first few commandments that specifically look at worshiping God. While understandable in the process of setting up a very homogenous nation of the ancient world, that’s not the case today. Not only is the US rather diverse religion-wise, but the rest of the world is as well. Therefore, these 3 or 4 commandments (different religions have variations on the numbering of the commandments themselves) strike an ‘us against them’ chord which is completely at odds with having a peaceful world. In fact, many of these Ten Commandment monuments went up during a time of great discord: The Cold War, a time where the United was strongly against anyone who might at all agree with the ideas of communism even going so far as to say that atheists were a threat. This was not a time of peace. It was a time when differences were considered a threat. And one of those differences had to do with which god one worshipped or did not worship.

Honor thy Mother and thy Father. Why the focus on them? Why not honor those who are older and wiser? Why not honor those in authority? Was mother and father chosen for a particular reason? Was God’s own failure in Genesis to get his children to honor Him by not eating from the tree of knowledge the reason behind this particular commandment?

Thou shalt not kill. Why isn’t this the first commandment?! This to me should be the most important commandment of all in any society! Not only that, let’s expand that to include respect for the earth and for other living things in order to leave our planet better than we found it. As a species with the ability to change and affect our environment greatly, this should be one of our highest responsibilities.

Thou shalt not commit adultery. I remember asking about this one when learning about the Ten Commandments in Catholic school and my mother quickly saying that that was a grown up thing and not to worry about it. While cheating can cause great pain in a relationship and a family unit, it’s something that, as a moral benchmark, has become largely ignored. Not to mention, the burden of the commandment itself was usually placed on the female which was horribly unfair.

Finally, we have stealing, lying, and coveting. While there are laws for the first two, there’s enough of it going on inside the letter of the law that has me thinking that many people don’t consider them commandments to go by anymore, especially during election season. And coveting I have never understood. Why is it bad to covet? Even God Himself talks about being a jealous god. If humans are made in His image, then jealousy and therefore coveting would be natural human traits. I can understand where it would be bad if the coveting lead to stealing, adultery, or murder. But beyond that, coveting is almost needed. It’s how the economy thrives! Maybe God was thinking of Cain and Abel when He came up with this one?

People say that morality comes from God (which is apparently why atheists can’t be moral) but I have a hard time going along with commandments which focus primarily on worshipping a jealous deity and others that people find easy to get around anyway, especially when their god tells them it’s okay to as He does many times in the Bible. I believe in order to have a better world and to get along better as humans, we need new commandments, or at the very least some amendments, commandments people of all beliefs can agree on and follow for the betterment of humankind.