I’ve heard it said many times that the Ten Commandments of Christian theology is the basis of morality and the legal system, at least in the UK. This claim has been made by all number of people, from friends to politicians to authors like Peter Hitchens, a man who appears to be constantly trying to work out if he recognises you. Though I admit he looks familiar himself.
The Decalogue actually has two full recitations in the Bible, owing to the fact that God carved the original set into stone tablets and gave them to butterfingers Moses whilst the poor bugger was trying to negotiate the climb down Mount Sinai. The second set, given in Deuteronomy 5, are effectively the same but I thought it worth mentioning because I like the idea that the origin of the supposed basis of our morality played out like a Mr. Bean episode. Since the claim to British law must necessarily pertain to our state religion, I’ll use the earlier Exodus 20 version used in Anglican canon as a reference to examine this assertion.
The first three (concerning apostasy, graven images and taking God’s name in vain) alone can lay waste to the claim, since these are not proscribed in English law nor would they be considered immoral acts by any thinking person. Punishment for apostasy (daring to “have other Gods before” the Abrahamic deity) is incongruous with the developed world in which prolific human rights laws guarantee the freedom of religion. The making of “graven images” is flouted by every believer choosing to wear a crucifix depicting a human being (ostensibly God incarnate) being subjected to horrific torture, and blasphemy is a victimless crime. Meanwhile, Islamic theocracies take these rule to their most inhumane (and, as it happens, most immoral) extreme by subjecting anyone who so much as hints at insulting Islam or depicting Muhammed to death via the most brutal means possible.
The next has long-since outgrown any practical utility: ‘Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy’, the fourth commandment, is vehemently debated between mostly Christians and Jews as to which day of the week God took his snooze on; though this is not an argument we need concern ourselves with. Regardless, a prohibition against any kind of exertion during that particular rotation (punishable by death, no less, in the days of antiquity) have been discarded. Whilst we still have Sunday trading laws, these have become more out of concern for worker’s rights than out of deference for some desert God’s sleeping habits.
Number Five (Honour thy father and thy mother) is poorly worded in my opinion since the implication that the mere act of being a progenitor automatically entitles you to respect and honour is a horridly short-sighted edict. Though I rather suspect that its inclusion by the desert scribbler who wrote the Book of Exodus some two centuries after Moses lived (if indeed, going by what scant historical evidence there is, he lived at all) is more a subliminal way to coax loyalty to the patriarchal church. But I’m just theorising, after the Machiavellian stuff is nicely dealt with, shit gets real…
Eventually, more than half-way through Yahweh’s Top 10, we finally get something that remains illegal to this day: Thou shalt not kill. To be a bit more specific, the passage actually refers to “murder”, defined as the unlawful killing of another human being, which frees up those in attendance to snuff out anyone they wish provided the Holy law-giver says that it’s gravy. Good thing too, since in Numbers 31, at God’s behest, Moses orders his men kill all the Midianites and sternly admonishes them when they show even a modicum of compassion in leaving alive the women and children. He subsequently orders that all the surviving boys and defiled women be killed, but allows his men to “save for [themselves] every girl who has never slept with a man.” Convenient for them (almost to the point of being suspect) that God’s commandments don’t say anything about rape.
If I seem like I’m dwelling on this point more than the others, it is to show how superficial and condescending the argument for Biblical morality is. Before this Heaven-sanctioned massacre occurred (though historical record indicates that it most likely didn’t), the species Homo Sapiens had survived what anthropologists debate to be anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000 years, since reaching what could be described as more or less our current state in evolutionary history. Even if we’re generous and take the lower end of that range, there are still epochs of time throughout which religious apologists would have us believe we were under the misapprehension that murder (and, as I’ll come to later, theft and deception) was perfectly acceptable. The evolutionary advantage of altruism and aversion to killing members of your own species (or tribe) is well documented as being vital to the development of all social species, humans included. If we hadn’t figured this out for ourselves already then, to quote Christopher Hitchens, “we wouldn’t have got as far as the foot of Mount Sinai or anywhere else”. I could turn this point around and accuse religions of providing a cheap excuse to murder, ostensibly on divine command, and bypass the normal psychological hurdles it requires, but that would go further off-topic.
The point is this, that to say human morality and the legal system that mediates it is predicated entirely on divine edict (let alone the half-remembered anecdotes of illiterate goat herders passed down the centuries) fundamentally undermines our species, reducing us to infants in need of a cosmic rulebook rather than the result of a long, protracted evolutionary struggle.
Moving on, we have the seventh commandment warning against committing adultery, and once we again we come across something that is not against the law in the UK. Once again, we can identify several distinct evolutionary and social benefits in monogamy that pre-date and supersede the “because God said so” reason. Once again, we have a tenet that is far too myopic in describing a complex issue. I risk repeating myself so I won’t linger too long on what I hope should be a fairly self-explanatory point. However, I will say that in Matthew 5:28 Jesus tells his followers that to so much as lust after another person is adultery, showing the contempt God has for his own creations, which I’ll come to later on.
The eighth commandment (concerning stealing) is a commandment that every known civilisation, including our own, has had a prohibition against. Whilst at a very basic level you would expect the biological imperative to lean more towards stealing as a means of survival (who would admonish a starving animal for seizing food from another animal?), in a tribal scenario the tendency towards a shared division of resources carries the greater advantage. Why, then, do we feel an injustice when property surplus to basic survival is taken from us, so much so that we commit it to law? It opens a philosophical and psychological can of worms regarding the nature of ownership and our attitudes towards it, something I am far from qualified to speak on. But suffice to say that its historical recurrence shows that aversion to theft came long before its inclusion in the Decalogue.
Bearing false witness (Number Nine) has attained a strict definition regarding wilful deceit when giving legal testimony, but is debated amongst theologians as to whether or not it forbids lying in general or just instances of subterfuge. Either way, this has clearly been discarded since, though many courts still expect you to swear on scripture, the previous forfeit of one’s soul for perjury (“…so help you God”) has since been replaced with worldly punishment. Conversely, in a less liberal interpretation, this commandment is flouted by every creationist organisation that wilfully ignores or misrepresents contrary evidence.
Yahweh rounds off his list with an injunction against coveting your neighbour’s possessions or, in short, jealousy. But what the all-wise God seems to not understand is that jealousy is a good thing! Seeing what other people have motivates anyone who aspires to it, and the aforementioned prohibition of stealing will stop anyone from obtaining it by fraud. What’s more, the feeling of jealousy is not a conscious act but an impulse, yet you are guilty of it regardless. It seems downright sadistic for the perfect creator-of-us-all to have imbued us with emotions over which we have no control and then condemn us to eternal hell-fire for using them. It’s thought-crime of Orwellian magnitudes.