The Ten Commandments and Morality

( updated May 08 )

The FAQ pages will provide various Questions and Answers I have wondered about myself, been asked about, come up in conversations, or come across on the net. I’ll provide my views on the questions, answers I’ve found elsewhere on the net, and, where possible, provide references and links. Due to the size of these FAQs I will present each one on it’s own page.

Note on the use of Wikipedia as a reference.

Whilst some people have a problem with the veracity and 100% correctness of its articles, I believe it works as an excellent background reference and often cites actual references at the end of the article. If you doubt the accuracy of any claims made on this page please do your own research first then provide me with factual, peer reviewed, cited references to any errors or omissions I have made.

Q1. What about the Ten Commandments, don’t they provide us with a good moral background.

A1. In part, perhaps. But, what have they really got for us and where do they come from?

Point 1 – The History

Some people believe that the Ten Commandments were the first documented codes or laws, but this is definitely not the case. The first documented codes or laws are believed to be The Code of Hammurabi [1] which was written circa 1760 BC; whereas the Torah (the first four books of the bible) was written circa 850 – 600 BC [2] and the Old Testament was put together about 350 AD. Moses [3] was believed to have lived between 1393 BC and 1273 BC. However, there is no actual evidence (apart from various religious texts) as to Moses ever having existed. Which I find odd considering the supposedly very important role he played and reasonably good records kept by the Egyptians, even at that time. However, there is actual evidence of The Code of Hammurabi as a version carved in stone is located in the Louvre.

There are several similarities between The Code of Hammurabi and codes/commandments throughout the Old Testament. So it is possible that the writers of the Bible used laws that were commonly in use and just added all the god bits.

There is further information on, and a translation of, The Code of Hammurabi at Yale Law School.

Point 2 – The Ten Commandments

The following is taken from Deuteronomy 5 (King James Version), I have written the whole text from paragraph 7 to 22 and highlighted the actual commandments in red.

7 Thou shalt have none other gods before me.

8 Thou shalt not make 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 waters beneath the earth:
9 Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto 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,

10 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.

11 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.

12 Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.

13 Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work:

14 But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.

15 And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day.

16 Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

17 Thou shalt not kill.

18 Neither shalt thou commit adultery.

19 Neither shalt thou steal.

20 Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour.

21 Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour’s wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

22 These words the LORD spake unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice: and he added no more. And he wrote them in two tables of stone, and delivered them unto me.

So the first four are all about god and don’t really help at all in living our lives. Of note in paragraph 9 is that if one doesn’t obey this commandment you and three and four generations of your descendants will suffer.

Now the rest of them seem fine, but there are various other passages in the Bible that relate back to some of these that indicate the punishment for them is death (see Leviticus 20:9, 20:10 and Deuteronomy 24:7)

As Australia, and a lot of other countries, don’t have the death penalty for any crime; then it is a bit much to ask that we should base the way we behave on these ten commandments.

What about number 5? In principle it sounds good, but should you still honour your father if he is a violent alcoholic that beats his wife, or a father that molests his daughter?

So the bottom line is: four out of ten are irrelevant, the penalty for five of them is death and none of commandments 5 to 10 are very original.
So why is this given as the basis for all our morals?

Sure ‘the masses’ may need some sort of simple set of guidelines, but I’m sure we could update these ancient texts to something more suitable for today.

Point 3 – Moral Code

So is the Bible really relevant in providing a moral code as some suggest? The consensus by many, including myself, is that its not.

Society developed a reasonable moral code long before the Bible came along (many societies developed and lasted for thousands of years without it), this was due to many reasons including the fact that societies would have self destructed if every one went around killing, stealing and abusing each other.
As has already been stated others came up with similar codes long before the Bible. In fact The Code of Hammurabi went 272 better than the Bible by having 282 laws, none relating to god or worship and some very detailed (unlike the Bibles). Obviously we couldn’t use many of these rules today as a lot of them relate to servants, whilst others have the death penalty or dismemberment as punishment. But they were applicable for the time, which is why we need new rules applicable to our time.

The Ethic of Reciprocity

The ethic of reciprocity or the Golden Rule is a fundamental moral value which simply means “treat others as you would like to be treated.[4]

This moral code is oft quoted by Christians who often cite it as having been invented by Jesus. For example Mathew 7:12

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, …

or Luke 10:27

He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.

However, the Golden Rule is first mentioned in the bible in Leviticus 19:18

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. …

(with another variation at Leviticus 19:34), long before Jesus turned up on the scene. Leviticus being one of the first four books of the Old Testament which were copied from the Torah.

The Christian faith are not the sole arbiters of this moral code either. Several Greek Philosophers espoused variations over 500 years before Jesus came along. Most other religions also have a variations in their teachings, and Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE) said in The Analects:

Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.

So whilst this is an excellent moral guide it is difficult to accept that it is just a Christian thing, or that Christians invented it.

No Bible = No Morality

Some people imply that if you don’t believe in the Bible or God then somehow you will be less moral. This is untrue and there is no evidence that nonbelievers are more likely to commit crimes.
What about others who have no particular allegiance to the Christian God or Bible, such as Hindus, Islamics, Buddhists etc, should they be made to rule their lives by one groups beliefs?
Why should the bible get any preference over any other codes?

The Bibles Morality

After all the Bible isn’t all sweetness and light, and there are some very dubious moral codes within it. For instance did you know that Jesus said slaves should be beaten? No, then read Luke 12:46-48

12:47 – That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.

How about cruelty to children? Psalm 137:9

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

I don’t care what the naughty little brats did, dashing them against stones is a tad harsh.

Further Reading

Rethinking the Ten Commandments by Jon Nelson

The Ten Commandments are no longer valid

The Real Ten Commandments or here by Richard Carrier

What’s Wrong With The Ten Commandments? ffrf

References

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_of_Hammurabi

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosaic_Law

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethic_of_reciprocity


In a response to a response to a faithworks blog

I was asked this by the blogger:

Hi Oz-Atheist,

Do you really believe when it comes to morality that the majority rules?

What about human sacrifice in communities where most people thought it was a good idea to appease the gods?

Was it wrong then, if the majority thought it was ok? Is it wrong now because you and I think it is?

Or is it wrong in our minds and not wrong in theirs, so the morality is flexible?

Bryan P (Reply)

The following was my reply:

Do you really believe when it comes to morality that the majority rules?

I’d like to think so, but I’m not that naive, and it’s not that simple.

In most cultures and societies laws have been made generally on the consensus of the majority of the population. However, in a democratic society just because the leaders have been elected by the majority, doesn’t prevent them from making laws based on their own ideals or beliefs. In non-democratic societies its generally the rule of might that makes the laws.

However, basic morals will still exist, and if laws are made that conflict with those morals, eventually the majority will want their say. In democracies the ruling party may lose the next election. In non-democratic societies there will often be rebellion (eg; Burma as we speak)

Additionally there will always be enlightened people, or groups, who devise a new moral zeitgeist, which if reasonable and viable will be taken up as a new moral. (see example about slavery below)

What about human sacrifice in communities where most people thought it was a good idea to appease the gods?

As I said in my original post “It evolved as societies evolved”.

So back then the majority thought it was ok to conduct human sacrifice (though I’m sure some didn’t), but over time the society evolved and realized it was not ok.

A classic, slightly more contemporary, example is slavery, particularly the American example. The majority of people (well, the white ones) thought slavery was ok. In fact some cited the bible as validating slavery, so they had both law and god on their side. Then in the 1680′s the Quakers condemned slavery because they thought that it was unjust and it was against their morals (for this the Quakers were discriminated against). Later, Patrick Henery and Thomas Jefferson spoke out against slavery and then eventually President Abraham Lincoln did. Over the years various leaders and the majority of society had come to realize that slavery was not ok and it was eventually abolished. A new morality was created!

Was it wrong then, if the majority thought it was ok? Is it wrong now because you and I think it is?

So it may not have been wrong then, but we today in our more enlightened and evolved minds know that it is wrong now.

Or is it wrong in our minds and not wrong in theirs, so the morality is flexible?

Let me ask you a question Bryan? What religion are you? I’ll guess Judeo-Christian of some variety. What do you base your morals on? I’ll guess again, the bible. So am I right in assuming that in Judeo-Christian minds anyone of any other religion, and non-religious people, have different morals to you. Does that make their morals wrong and yours right? I’m sure that Islamics who believe in the Koran think that their morals are right and yours are wrong. So who’s is right?

Morality is not so much flexible as geographic, just because a person is born in a predominately Judeo-Christian region they are more likely to have morals based on the bible. Whereas someone born in an Islamic region is more likely to have morals based on the Koran.

However, I believe there are some universal morals that have very little to do with religion and were defined long before the bible, Koran or similar religious texts came along.

To answer another one of your posts:

It’s not my moral code. It’s God’s.

But which god?

If He exists, then there is an absolute moral law. No matter what anyone says.

But again, which god / which law?

Are you implying if god doesn’t exist then there are no absolute moral laws?

I’d like to think the human race was above that, and am sure the majority of us are, and always have been. Basic morals such as don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, look after each other, etc have been around in some form or other as far back as societies go. Otherwise the societies would never have flourished. The Bible, Koran and various other religious texts tried to put some of these moral codes into one book, but in general, I don’t think they did a very good job of it.

PS: I know there are a some generalizations and guesses in this comment, but without being able to converse directly I had to make a few assumptions for my argument. This comment is already very long and if I had to be absolutely specific and annotate every exception I’d be writing this for days, and bore you all rigid in the process (as if I haven’t already zzzzzzzzzzzzz.)

—————————————–

Stolen from A Daily Dose of Doubt

Many ask, “How could people act morally without the guidance the Bible provides?” Perhaps they would be totally at a loss as to whom to stone to death for what.

7 Comments to “FAQ 1”

  1. ed says:

    I think you all might like this repley to a comment on the herald sun’s “faithworks” blog

    I have no concern whether people are atheists or not. It is for one to decide what one does or doesn’t believe in. However, I have noticed in recent years that Atheists seem to preach their atheism with all the fervour of an Evangelist preacher. It seems to matter to them that others believe when, if they feel secure in their own “lack of belief” belief, it shouldn’t concern or worry them. They become loud, angry and virulent in their attacks on believers by calling them “intolerant” etc,. as they display arrant intolerance I have also noticed that they leap on any fault exhibited by Christians and damn Christianity (I never hear them condemning other faiths) as being flawed. Yes, there are flawed “Christians” who fail to live the way they are supposed to but that does not make Christianity a failure.It makes some Christians a failure but we have the chance to redeem ourselves. I hope Atheists all have happy lived because this is all they have to look forward to.
    Jack of Kingston. of Cheltenham,Vic. (Reply)

    Quincy Dent replied to Jack of Kingston.
    Sat 06 Oct 07 (09:09am)
    Greetings Jack !
    That was a superb piece of writing and I enjoyed it very much. It was an outstanding parody of idiotic thinking, hypocrisy and double standards, and I applaud your exquisite skill in capturing the essence of all this in so few words. Whilst we laugh along together, spare a thought for the tragic souls who might writesuch a piece and actually mean it.
    The sly way you slipped in the a priori assumption that belief is a decision was brilliant and the subtle manner you heaped scorn upon evangelical preachers by using them as the template against which strawman atheist “preaching” may be measured was a masterstroke. Well done, old boy! Oh, and it was excellent how you condemn a rant, all the while employing rant vocabulary yourself – “They become loud, angry and virulent in their attacks on believers by calling them “intolerant” etc,. as they display arrant intolerance”. Superb irony; you’re a genius! Personally, I would love to see an atheist “preach with all the fervour of an Evangelist preacher”; it would be very entertaining – a text-book thumping palaeontologist waving the jawbone of an ass about like a crucifix. Imagine the sight! If you ever get some footage of any, please send me the link.
    As scornful and caustic as they can be, the measured and dignified delivery of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins just doesn’t measure up to the fire and brimstone froth of the aforementioned preachers. I know, I know, it’s disappointing, but there you have it. Naturally, we both know that in addition to various contributors to this very blog, these two guys get stuck into Muslims & other faiths as well as Christians, making that “they only pick on us Christians” bleat especially risible. At the same time, you managed to draw attention to the fact that it really can be difficult to hear atheists when they attack faiths other than Christianity because they are being drowned out by all the Christians banging on about how their particular belief system is the one true faith, revealing Christians to be the loudest, most strident and bigoted atheists of the lot. You don’t miss a trick!

    I especially liked your ‘ “lack of belief” belief ‘ twatism. This ludicrous oxymoron delightfully mirrored the contradiction-riddled “holy books” such as the bible and the Koran – the inerrant (ha ha) and infallible (ha ha) word(s) of “god” (ha ha). Wonderful, wonderful. Artfully, you then highlighted the appalling hypocrisy of Christians who squeal that “they leap on any fault exhibited by Christians and damn Christianity ……… as being flawed” yet at the same time, they smugly assert that the bad behaviour of an individual rogue scientist (only ever exposed by other scientists) somehow invalidates science. This gleeful barb did not go unnoticed.
    Forgive my presumption, but I would like to allow myself one small criticism of your work. I thought your closing joke – about atheists only having this life to look forward to – was pretty weak. You could have used a much wittier jibe, to wit: What do you call an atheist in a coffin? A person all dressed up with no place to go.
    Otherwise, I have naught but admiration for you; you are a satirist of the highest order. I remain in your thrall and long for your next post.
    P.S. What is that Jack of Kingston of Cheltenham business? Is that a kind of anglicised Jack von Kingston, Jack de Kingston or even Jacque de la Ville du Roy? Way too posh for me.
    You’re amazing.

  2. Richard says:

    Hey Oz-A,

    Well I guess I am a couple of months late on this one. Still, I thought I’d still suggest that this article is essential reading on The Ten Commandments. They are utterly fisked to bits, and deservedly so!

  3. Richard says:

    But Quincy,

    Quincy wrote:
    “What do you call an atheist in a coffin?
    A person all dressed up with no place to go.”

    I must contest;
    Tho nicely dressed,
    The religious go
    As atheists go!

    _____________

    Atheists need Reason. Dawkins, Hitchens, and their ilk, do not have enough. Abstract reasoning is something that must be learned and exercised cautiously. It is NOT the simple concrete bound logic one learns in academia. What academia calls abstract reason is largely Reason’s antithesis.

    An atheist morality needs a proper epistemological base, such as Ayn Rand used as the basis for her essays in The Virtue of Selfishness.

    She then applied that morality in economics and politics in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. The epistemological base she uses is available in An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. However, if you want the Metaphysical foundations for all of the above, study Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.

    In some respects all of these ideas are evident in her fiction work Atlas Shrugged but many readers get so distracted by the plot that they miss the significant elements pointing them to the underlying reasons (principles) behind the actions that drive the plot. Others deliberately evade those principles, because they do not wish to think through their real world significance properly.

  4. tenquid says:

    What is it about an evil act that makes an “evil act” evil?

  5. tenquid says:

    Are there some actions that at all times and in all places are (were) evil?

  6. ozatheist says:

    tenquid, I’ll consider writing a post about evil in the near future, you’ve got me thinking.

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