Monday, October 20, 2008

Regarding the Ten Commandments, American Laws and Evil Atheists

Since I’m a bit of a science nerd I frequent a lot of science websites, discussion forums and blogs. In the comment sections of such websites there is often a bit of antagonism from a certain type of religious people.

I have no problem with religious people in general, but there is a group of religious people that seems to think that science is an enemy of religion and that all scientists are atheists (which is very far from the truth) that I do have a problem with. They come to those scientific sites for nothing but to spew hate. They usually just tell us that atheists are all evil.

When they occasionally opt to explain why they think atheists are evil, they often claim that atheists persecute Christians, especially in the United States. As an example of this supposed persecution they often mention the matter of the Ten Commandments in court houses.

They say that Christians are being persecuted in this matter. Because, according to them, US laws in general, and the Constitution in particular, are all based on the Ten Commandments and this should be reflected by placing them there. Apparently those stupid atheists don’t agree.

I honestly don’t know all that much about the reality about the controversy regarding the placing of the Ten Commandments in court houses. I strongly suspect that most of the people involved, on both sides, were being nothing but silly. But whatever the real issue was isn’t the point. The point is their argument that they are being persecuted.

You can probably guess what my standing on that issue is, since I am an evil, godless atheist. I am also a fan of the US Constitution, since I think that it is a beautiful, great document (even though I do not exactly agree with everything in it) and I think that it is being attacked and belittled by these people.

Let’s look at a common list of Commandments that people want in court houses because “US laws are based on them.”

1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Not only is this one not in any way a basis for any US law that I know of, such a law would in fact be in direct conflict with the first amendment of the constitution.

The first amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Saying that people are only allowed to have one particular God really seems to limit the free exercise of religion. At least to me, but perhaps I’m being picky there…

2. 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.

No matter how you interpret this commandment it is in conflict with US laws. It is not illegal to make “likenesses” such as paintings or sculptures, even if they depict supernatural entities. This is generally considered a part of freedom of expression, which is a right in the United States. A law based on the second commandment would be in conflict with that.

Some people have told me that the second commandment is really about forbidding the worship of those graven images, more than the making of them. But we’ve been over that point already. Saying that you’re not allowed to worship whatever you want would interfere with the free exercise of religion.

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain

Strike three. Again in direct conflict with the first amendment. American censorship laws might regulate what you can say on broadcast TV, but in general freedom of speech is liberally protected in the United States. And I don’t think that blasphemy is banned even on TV.

And no, as far as I know, this commandment hasn’t inspired a nationwide crackdown on people who shout “Oh God” in the heat of sex.

4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

What, can’t we get past the first amendment? Still not one commandment that isn’t in violation with it.

There is to be no laws respecting an establishment of religion, so there should never be any law that requires people to keep a sacred day of some particular religion holy.

5. Honour thy father and thy mother

Finally. This one isn’t in direct violation with the constitution, as far as I know. It’s however not in there either. As far as I know this isn’t really in any American law, and I think that’s good. A law that orders people to honor their father and mother would be a rather stupid law.

I for one honor my father and mother. I honor the hell out of them, because they deserve it. They are great parents and great people.

But we all know that not all parents are great. Many hurt their children, physically and mentally. I think that a law requiring all children to honor their parents, regardless of what their parents do to them, would be rather barbaric.

6. Thou shalt not kill

Getting better! This one is actually sensible and more or less in accordance with US laws.

Of course that is a matter of interpretation of the word “kill” though, since US laws aren’t as simplistic as the Ten Commandments. In the United States killing people is sometimes legal; in justified self defense and executions for instance.

And even if we do interpret “kill” in a way that makes the commandment in accordance with US laws, then so what? If there are laws against killing people, and there is a commandment about killing people, should we then assume that the laws are built upon that commandment? I don’t think so.

Seriously, do these people believe that before the business at Mount Sinai, people didn’t understand that it is a bad idea to kill each other? Do they think that before the age of those fragile stone tablets, people were total morons?

Of course it’s stupid to go around haphazardly killing each other. You can’t build a stable society without realizing that. All through the ages, societies of every religion have understood that. Laws against murder do not need divine inspiration; it’s pretty obvious that murder is a bad idea.

7. Thou shalt not commit adultery

This is a pretty good commandment too. Adultery isn’t good.

And there actually are some US laws prohibiting adultery, at least in some states. And I can see those laws having a religious background. So I’ll actually give you this one, this commandment might actually be the basis of some US laws.

Not that any remaining adultery laws are actually seen as important today, but it’s still at least a partial win for the proponents. Six commandments too late, but still.

8. Thou shalt not steal.

Again, this is a rather good idea, but that’s not proof that the Constitution or any other document was inspired by it. If you try to build a society it is easy to understand that stealing isn’t something that contributes to peace and stability, no matter what holy book you believe or don’t believe in.

9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Like most of the bible, this one is very open to interpretation. Some say that it about lying while testifying and some say that it is just about lying in court.

Of course, perjury is a crime, so if you interpret the commandment that way it is in accordance with the law. And, again, this isn’t something you can figure out on your own… Of course people who have never heard of the Ten Commandment think that courts work well if people lie while testifying…

No, wait, maybe not.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

Now, there is an obvious joke about sodomy laws here, but we all know that “ass” here refers to donkeys and nothing else. And I really don’t think that there are any laws against coveting at all, no matter if it is donkeys or asses.

In fact, I would like to say that the entire concept of a capitalist society is built on the concept of coveting. If you want a donkey (or a car, as a modern equivalent) that is as good as your neighbor’s, then you go out and work to get it.

And more importantly, trying to restrict what people covet is a serious breach of human rights. No government should tell you what to think and feel.


So, out of ten commandments, at least five are in violation with the American constitution and/or basic human rights. Only a few have any clear equivalent in US laws, and only one of those feels like it would need religious inspiration to make it into a law.

Some commandments are border-cases, but all in all it looks pretty clear that in general the laws of the United States are not based on the Ten Commandments.

Not that saying this keeps that particular group of people from crying “Persecution!” at the drop of a hat though. But I still feel the urge to write stuff like this every once in a while, when I have heard some particular untruth once too many. At least it helps me vent.