Since The Ten Commandments Don't Work
How About We Fix Them?
Some who follow Abrahamic religions say their God wrote commandments for us to follow, and this is often followed by a fuzzy claim about Western society being founded on these precepts.
Is it though? Let's took a closer look at that.
To be honest, I don't actually believe them. By which I mean, I don't really believe most Christians actually believe God wrote those commandments. You'd have to be extraordinarily good at denying the obvious.
For one thing, as rules to live by, they're rubbish. I can, and have, done better at devising a moral framework in a ten-minute chat over a glass of cider.
I would never insult God by blaming the ten commandments on her. If you honestly think the ten commandments are the work of an eternal, almighty, omnipotent and omnipresent God you have not been paying attention. Or you have a low opinion of the Almighty.
The ten commandments read exactly like they were written by a) A bunch of nomads who thought the earth was flat or: b) Your dad in a bad mood "because he said so".
Once I'm done decimating the commandments, I'll give you my thoughts on more useful edicts and you can see what you can come up with, if you'd like. We may as well give it a go since there's nobody better qualified.
So let's take a critical look at the ten utterances that some people uncritically believe are useful as the basis for the morality of entire societies:
Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. First out of the starting gate we have controlling jealousy. This sounds a lot like a couple of my long-ago ex-boyfriends and nothing whatsoever like an eternal, omnipotent loving God. Almost like this was written by a dude. Either God exists, in which case he has no challengers anyway and can afford to smile benevolently on his idiotic children, or he's in a cage match with a bunch of other Gods and has to fight for his right to party, which somewhat which disrupts the whole monotheistic belief system. Either way, just let it go God, they'll all be yours for all eternity soon enough, why do you care if they read and write fan fiction?
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Super vague. Does that mean sculptors are all doomed to the eternal flames? Do you mean no graven images of God? If so, say so. And if so, don't be daft, there's nothing wrong with a bit of creativity. Just do what the majority of parents do when confronted with artwork that resembles a hellscape drawn by Picasso on a bender, stick it on the fridge or put it on your desk and tell them how nice the colours are.
Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD your God in vain. Needy desperation writ large in stone. Whoever penned this was a validation sponge. Plus he sure enjoys LORDING it over people doesn't he? Imagine being concerned more about language than about morality. Ugh.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Wut? We're four commandments in and THIS is what we've got so far? Nothing that might actually assist humans to behave like ethical people, nothing relevant to a functioning, equitable society, no moral guidance. Whoever wrote these needed to examine his priorities.
Honour your father and your mother. Now we're getting somewhere. I can fix this one with just a tweak. Honour your father and your mother as they honour you. There, I've sorted out fair treatment for all the rapist, abusive fathers and tormenting mothers, all the venomous, sociopathic parents worldwide justly rewarded with just four extra words.
Thou shalt not kill. Balderdash. If you have to kill someone to protect your family it might even be immoral not to try. If you have to kill in self-defence that's perfectly ok. Don't kill for entertainment, if it's unnecessary, for malevolent purposes etc. etc.
Thou shalt not commit adultery. Ok, but considering large chunks of the human race do just that, it's probably a bit of a time waster. I'm generally on board with the concept, though instructing your worshippers to simply not be lying turds would probably have more of an impact.
Thou shalt not steal. Poppycock. Written by the haves for the have nots. It's immoral NOT to steal if your family is starving and that's the only way you have to feed them. Thou shalt not steal unless it's critical to survival. Better.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbour. Why not a simple Thou Shalt Not Lie? Covers a lot more bases, and includes false witness.
Thou shalt not covet. This is, frankly, idiocy. You might as well instruct people not to breathe. Thou shalt be aware of covetous thoughts, get help if they're intrusive and do not act upon them.
Bizarrely, God also seems to have accidentally misplaced "Thou Shalt Not Rape". A horrific, terrifying violation and widely practised crime which needs to be specifically addressed, not vaguely hinted at or included in conversations. Just a flat "No raping" would have been a good start.
I don't believe in the concept of sin, as such, but if there is such a thing as a sin, it's the deliberate malevolent harming of another person. Not sleeping in for church.
So, of the ten "commandments" we've got two that might be useful with a bit of tweaking and a complete failure to address the rape issue. Not a great start, really.
Let's have a look at what a few other folk have had to say on the subject of human ethics and morality.
The Golden Rule
Also called the rule of reciprocity, it's often associated with Christianity, though its origins can be found with Confucius, who, several hundred years before Christ opined: "Do ot impose on others what you do not wish for yourself." The Christian version states: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." These are both worthy thoughts. In the first formulation we are instructed what not to do. In the positive version we affirm positive behaviours, rather than focusing on prevention of negative behaviours. Bound together, these make a good base line.
So, our first rule.
1. Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. However, if someone else breaks that rule first, it's ok to temporarily suspend the rule for yourself so as to prevent them causing you harm.
But, we need more nuance than that. We need a policy to insist that humans consider their own ethical choices and think for themselves, because otherwise we quickly degenerate into escalating domineering and oppressive behaviours enforced by the "I was just following orders" brigade. Without individual critical thinking we soon find anyone who offers any sort of dissent, however fair and logical, is grouped under the umbrella of "isms and phobias", which then become mainly meaningless slurs thrown around to try to shut down debate and enforce group dominance.
So, we need some words to guide people towards understanding the reality that just because someone disagrees with you or doesn't chant your mantra loudly enough for your approval, that doesn't necessarily make them your enemy, or wrong.
What words might exist to encourage people to engage their own brains and avoid Manichaean thinking?
Fortunately, The Buddha already has us covered:
2. In the words of the Buddha, who never declared himself a deity:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
And with those two rules we've already gone quite a long way to cementing some useful, ethical guidelines for living.
The third rule we could all benefit from is:
3. Mind your own business. Assuming it's not harming anyone else, just don't worry about it.
And finally, to quote the late great Bard of Scotland, let's remember that self-awareness can be a useful tool:
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An foolish notion."
Wise words from my favourite poet. We're all, including me, good at checking out the beam in other people's eyes while pointedly ignoring our own.
I do NOT say don't judge. We should judge. We MUST judge. But once you've done your judging - refer to Rule 3 and when possible, walk away from and simply remove from your life anyone who you judge to be wanting.
So, that's my Saturday afternoon roundup of Ethical Guidelines For An Ethical Society. What do you think? If you've finished being offended by my monstrous blasphemy - a truly victimless crime - feel free to chime in. Though you should know I have one other personal rule I live by - if you're going to argue non-sequiturs, straw men and other logical fallacies, you may well end up muted.
Alison Tennent, Queensland Australia, July 2021
Copyright Alison Tennent 2021, all rights reserved. Scottish by birth, upbringing and bloodline, Australian by citizenship. If you’re reading this anywhere but The Garrulous Glaswegian, Vocal+ or Medium, this work may have been plagiarized.