The Moral Obligation To Be Rational September 16, 2011Posted by John Salerno in Religion.
Tags: morality, rationality, reason, religion
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A rational person rejects faith-based beliefs and demands evidence for the beliefs. But a religious apologist may not be disturbed by the lack of rational explanations for his beliefs, and he may fairly ask, why should reason be valued over faith as a basis for belief? This question should not be immediately dismissed by the rational thinker. If rationality is important for the establishment of belief, then we should be able to give a rational explanation to account for its importance. This article will attempt to establish the rational basis for rationality itself, as well as make the claim that we have a moral obligation to make rational decisions.
But before I can offer my argument, I will propose a definition of what it means to be rational. My definition is based on the following description of “rational inquiry” by A.C. Grayling:
The word “rational” has as its first component “ratio,” which means “proportion.” So a rational inquiry is one in which the judgments reached, the conclusions drawn, are proportional to the evidence – the strength of the evidence – for them. We mean something quite serious by “rational inquiry.” We mean that we are looking very, very carefully at how far we are licensed to think something on the basis of all the reasons and all the evidence that we have for sustaining it.1
Thus, when I speak of a “rational basis” for belief – or “reason-based,” as opposed to “faith-based,” belief – I am referring to a situation in which a person has enough evidence available to her that she can draw a conclusion based solely on that evidence. Her belief is not necessarily true, but it is nonetheless supported by the evidence. A reason-based belief makes claims that are in direct proportion to the available evidence; that is, the available evidence is the only criterion by which she is “licensed to think something,” and any conclusion that goes beyond what the evidence supports is no longer a rational belief.
So why should we value reason-based belief over faith-based belief? Our beliefs affect our perspective of the world, and our perspective of the world determines the actions we take, and our actions affect the lives of other people. Simply put: our beliefs translate into actions that affect other people. Morally speaking, the effects of our actions should be beneficial (or neutral), but not harmful to other people, and only real-world evidence allows us to determine what is beneficial or harmful to other people. Furthermore, a rational basis for belief is the only way to ensure that our beliefs are founded upon the reality (evidence) of our world. Therefore, only through reason-based beliefs can we be assured that we are making the best decisions for ourselves and others. And because rational inquiry is the only process by which we can reach informed opinions that are relevant to our existence and behavior in the world, I conclude that we are morally obligated to base our beliefs on rational thought.
The religious apologist may likely disagree with the claim that only real-world evidence allows us to determine what is beneficial or harmful to other people, instead citing Scripture as the final authority on the value of our actions, despite evidence to the contrary in the real world. But those who would make this objection are not only enemies of reason but are also enemies of reality itself, and there is no common ground on which to continue the debate with this person. Faith-based reasoning is disconnected from reality, and this person has accepted the proposition that the reality that surrounds him cannot determine the value of an action better than the words of his holy book. To attempt to convince this type of person that he should use reason instead of faith, when reason is itself reality-based, is futile. But perhaps there is some comfort to be found in Sam Harris’ suggestion that not many of these people exist:
What is the argument against reason? It’s true that certain people will bite the bullet here and say that reason is itself a problem and the Enlightenment is a failed project, but the truth is, very few people are comfortable admitting to being enemies of reason . . . Nobody wants to believe things on bad evidence. The desire to know what is actually going on in the world is very difficult to argue with.2
1 A.C. Grayling
Oxford ThinkWeek (2011)
http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2011/02/23/richard-dawkins-ac-grayling-%20discuss-evidence-for-the-supernatural-at-oxford-thinkweek/ (quote begins at 15:03)
2 Sam Harris
Atheist Alliance International conference (2007)
Notes on Creation August 23, 2011Posted by John Salerno in Christianity, Religion.
Tags: Christianity, creationism, religion
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I had originally intended this blog post to be a side-by-side comparison of the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 in order to show that there are two separate versions of the creation narrative in the Bible and that they contain significant differences that make them mutually exclusive. However, as I began working on it I found myself writing comments after nearly every verse or group of related verses, and I decided to post my commented version in its entirety. My comments are italicized below the related verse(s). Any italics within a verse are part of the original translation (NASB) and are not my own.
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
The first verse of the Bible is technically incorrect. If it is referring to God’s activity on the first day of creation, then it is wrong because God did not create the heavens on Day One. As stated in Gen. 1:6-8, God created the heavens on the second day.
It may also be argued that God did not create the earth until Day Three (Gen. 1:9-10), which would again make the first sentence incorrect. It is true, however, that the earth as a general body was created (or already existed) on Day One (Gen. 1:2 refers to the “earth”).
If, on the other hand, this first verse is meant to be taken only generally – if “the beginning” simply refers to the beginning of time but not strictly to Day One – then it is correct but trivial. In this case, the verse could have said just about anything, since everything was created “in the beginning.”
3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
These verses are confusing because there is no explanation of what this “light” actually is. God does not create the Sun or the stars until Day Four (Gen. 1:14-16), even explicitly repeating the command “let there be light” two days after light had supposedly been created.
It should also be noted that our concept of day and night only exists as a result of the time it takes the Earth to make one rotation around its axis in relation to the Sun. Without the Sun present, as is the case for the first three days of creation, there would be no concept of day or night. There would be no possible way to refer to “one day” (Gen. 1:5), “a second day” (Gen. 1:8), or “a third day” (Gen. 1:13) without the Sun in its place.
6 Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. 8 God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.
On Day Two God finally creates the heavens referred to in the first sentence. What apparently happens here is that God separates the formless void of earth, which was all water as of Day Two, into two distinct bodies of water, one (which would become the ocean) below the newly-created sky, and one (which we know does not exist) above the sky. Some fundamentalists believe that God used this second body of water – the one over the sky – to flood the earth, and claim this as the reason for its absence now.
9 Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. 10 God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them”; and it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. 13 There was evening and there was morning, a third day.
On Day Three God creates dry land and distinguishes between the land and the ocean. The most important point to note here is that Day Three marks the first instance of creation on a smaller scale (i.e. not the earth, ocean, or sky). The very first thing God creates is vegetation (plants, trees, fruits, and vegetables). Contrast with Gen. 2:5-9 in which it is specifically stated that “no shrub” and “no plant” had yet sprouted from the earth before God created man, after whom vegetation was created.
14 Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years; 15 and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so.
Oddly enough, it is specifically stated here that one of the purposes of the “lights” (i.e. the Sun) is to account for days and years. Yet somehow we have gotten to Day Four without the Sun.
This passage is clearly wrong. It states that God made two separate lights, one for the day (the Sun) and one for the night (the Moon). Yet, we know that the Moon is not itself a light. It is, essentially, a big rock that only reflects the light from the Sun. So for the creation story to claim that the Moon is a “great light” is wrong. Note that it cannot be argued that the “great light” for the night is the stars, because the creation of the stars is specifically mentioned in a separate sentence.
17 God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 and to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. 19 There was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
What is the difference between the creation of light on Day One and the creation of light on Day Four? Furthermore, God had already separated the light from the darkness on Day One (Gen. 1:4), so it is unclear what further separation is occurring here.
20 Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” 21 God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarmed after their kind, and every winged bird after its kind; and God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 There was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.
Day Five provides the next instance of creation on a smaller scale. Following the creation of vegetation on Day Three, God creates ocean life and birds on Day Five.
24 Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind”; and it was so. 25 God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.
Day Six, the final day of creation, begins with the creation of land animals and insects.
26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Following the creation of land animals and insects, God creates humans. It should be noted that humans are God’s final act of creation and both man and woman are created simultaneously. Contrast with Gen. 2, in which man is created before all plant and animal life, and woman is created after all plant and animal life.
29 Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; 30 and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. 31 God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
The most important fact to note in this passage is that God specifically grants to humans all plant life for food. There is no mention of a tree from which man and woman are forbidden to eat.
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. 2 By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
Though part of Gen. 2, this is the final passage of the creation narrative from Gen. 1.
Of note here is the phrase “in the day,” which suggests that this creation story occurs in the span of a single day. While not all translations contain this phrase (e.g., NIV), and while it may be argued that the phrase is meant figuratively, the creation narrative itself does not distinguish between days and seems to occur in a single day.
5 Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. 6 But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.
There does not appear to be a special creation of land, as in Gen. 1:9-10. Rather, references to the land (“earth” and “ground” above) are made as if either land already existed along with the water, or land and water were created simultaneously. Contrast with Gen. 1:2 in which the “earth” solely consists of water, and Gen. 1:9 in which land is specifically created.
Also note that plants do not yet exist.
God’s first act of creation, aside from the earth itself, is man. Contrast with Gen. 1:11 in which God creates plant life before anything else, including humans. It should also be noted that man and woman are not created simultaneously as in Gen. 1:27.
8 The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. 9 Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
After man was created, God created the vegetation in the garden of Eden. Contrast with Gen. 1 in which God creates vegetation on Day Three and man on Day Six. Also note that this creation narrative contains a reference to the tree forbidden to the man and woman, though no strictures have been mentioned yet.
10 Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 The gold of that land is good; the bdellium and the onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris; it flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
Just as the garden of Eden is referred to in Gen. 2:8, this passage gives more details about the layout and location of the garden. This may have been done in part because the author of this particular creation narrative (the “J” source) portrayed God as an anthropomorphic being, and details such as these would allow the author a “setting” in which to place his “characters.”
Gen. 2:8 already states that God placed the man into the garden, so it is unclear how the action of verse 15 differs.
16 The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; 17 but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
At this point man is forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Contrast with Gen. 1:29, in which God gives man and woman all plant life to eat. Another point to note is that woman has not yet been created and thus does not directly receive the command not to eat of the tree.
18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” 19 Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.
After the creation of man and plants, God creates land animals and birds. There is no mention of ocean life or insects being created. Contrast with Gen. 1:20-21, in which God creates ocean life and birds on the same day, and Gen. 1:24-25, in which God creates land animals and insects on the following day.
21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. 22 The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23 The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”
God’s final act of creation is woman. Contrast with Gen. 1:27, in which God creates man and woman simultaneously, after all other life had been created. In the creation narrative of Gen. 2, man is created before plants and animals, and woman is created after plants and animals.
The Tragedy of Being a Christian June 23, 2011Posted by John Salerno in Christianity, Religion.
Tags: atheism, Christianity, religion
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While looking through a couple of my old journals, I found this entry in one of them. It still seems true to me after all these years, so I decided to post it here. I’ve quoted it exactly as I wrote it, despite the fact that I would probably change a few things if I were writing it today. For example, I wouldn’t refer to an atheist “cause,” because I don’t believe that atheists necessarily have one.
It seems to me, rationally speaking, between a Christian and an atheist, the atheist is in a better position. Each believes his own cause to be the correct one, but it is only the atheist who will be able to discover if he was wrong. For if a Christian dies and goes to Heaven, it is nothing more than he expected; if he dies and there is no God, he will never know the folly of his life – that, to me, is a tragedy. I would rather be an atheist who dies and learns that he was wrong, for even in death he has bettered himself. If the atheist is correct, he’ll never know – but what does that matter? He already believed himself to be correct! The difference between a Christian and an atheist is that a Christian is in the unfortunate position of never being able to discover that he was wrong.
Paradise Found: Why We Should Thank the Serpent of Eden August 22, 2010Posted by John Salerno in Christianity, Religion.
Tags: Christianity, creationism, religion
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The subtitle of this blog is taken from the first two lines of John Milton’s work Paradise Lost and refers to the story of Genesis 3 — that of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God’s command not to eat the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9). Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this story is literally true, it is meant to depict man’s “original sin” and the means by which corruption and death entered the world. However, it is questionable whether the actual act of eating the fruit (or even the act of disobeying God) was the cause of this corruption and death. Rather, God itself actively introduces corruption and death into the world because of the disobedience:
To the woman He said,
“I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.”
Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;
Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
“Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:16-19, NASB)
Notice the language used by God: “I will greatly multiply…” is declarative language of an action that God will personally perform. “Cursed is the ground because of you” is a curse being placed upon the earth by God, and the rest of the passage is full of further conditions of the curse that God inflicts upon humans. In other words, there is no reason, based upon the text, to believe that the actual, physical eating of the fruit or even the conscious decision to disobey God’s command not to eat of it is the cause of the suffering that subsequently entered the world. The sole cause of corruption, decay, pain, labor, death, etc. is God itself — God actively inflicts these things upon Adam and Eve and their descendants. God is not a bystander to the consequences of the disobedience; rather, God is the cause of the consequences.
But the above discussion is more or less a digression from the main point of this post, which is to question whether the disobedience of Adam and Eve was really a bad thing. First off, why was eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil considered bad in the first place? Apparently two reasons exist:
1.) Upon eating the fruit, one would die:
The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Gen. 2:16-17)
2.) God’s command not to eat the fruit automatically makes eating the fruit a bad thing:
Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;
Cursed is the ground because of you… (emphasis added)
I will dismiss the first reason based upon the grounds given in the argument above, i.e. the actual eating of the fruit or the act of disobedience itself did not bring about the consequence of death, as is obvious by the fact that Adam and Eve did not die that day. As I argued above, it was God itself that introduced death as a punishment for the disobedience, which entails the conclusion that the act itself was not bad because the act itself did not have negative consequences.
It may be argued that the act had the negative consequence of making Adam and Even ashamed to be naked:
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.” (Gen. 3:7)
But the association of nudity with evil is rather repulsive and I reject the idea that what made eating from the tree a bad thing was that they would realize that they were naked. This is a rather juvenile position to take, considering that the consequence was supposed to be death instead.
So that leaves us with the second reason for the disobedience to be a bad act: because God said so. God specifically forbade Adam and Eve (although in Gen. 2 God creates Eve after having told Adam not to eat from the tree, but I suppose we can assume the message somehow got passed along to Eve since she’s aware of it in Gen. 3) to eat from the tree but did not explain why. God told them what the consequence would be (death) but did not tell them why eating the fruit of the tree was a bad thing; therefore, it seems only natural to assume that God simply did not want Adam and Eve to have knowledge of good and evil.
However, this is something quite different than claiming that evil did not exist until Adam and Eve ate from the tree. Indeed, the very fact that the tree is called the tree of the knowledge of “good and evil” suggests that evil was already an entity present in the world. And although Satan is often identified with evil, it is important to notice that the serpent in Gen. 3 is never associated with Satan. In fact, it seems quite clearly to be a snake of God’s own creation: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made.” (Gen 3:1) We must then assume that God purposely created evil, or at least deceitful, creatures — thus, even before Adam and Eve ate from the tree, deceit was present in the world. The eating of the fruit could not have been the means by which evil entered the world.
Therefore, it is not the case that God wanted to protect humans from unwittingly unleashing evil into the world; it is simply the case that God did not want them to be aware of it. At the very least, God is guilty of suppressing knowledge and attempting to keep humans in a perpetual state of ignorance. This must be why God wishes no one to eat from the tree (though it introduces the simple question of why create the tree at all, if it poses such a threat), and a rather ignoble desire it is.
Furthermore, there is also mention of another tree from which Adam and Eve are not allowed to eat:
Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 2:9) (emphasis added)
The “tree of life” is also present in Eden, and although God does not specifically forbid Adam and Eve from eating from this tree, God states later:
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”–
therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. (Gen. 3:22-23)
This passage is interesting for two reasons: 1.) God is not pleased that humans have gained knowledge and thus have become “like one of Us, knowing good and evil,” and 2.) it appears that eating from the tree of life may reverse the effects of God’s curse, i.e. humans would “live forever,” but that God does not want this and so banishes Adam and Eve from Eden.
Ultimately, what the disobedient act amounts to is the choice to live in a state of God-ordained ignorance or to embrace knowledge of the workings of the world, no matter if that knowledge may have negative consequences. I suppose there are those who would be happy to claim the former choice if it meant obeying and pleasing God, but without reservation I align myself with the choice of knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and the ability to be free to use those things in my own way.
Therefore, I consider man’s first act of disobedience to be a good thing. It was a rejection of a God who wanted to keep its supposedly free creation ignorant and subservient; it was an embracement of freedom and knowledge and the dawning of a world in which we could use this new-found knowledge to destroy the shackles that God had created for us.
But let me be clear — I don’t believe that the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is true, of course. And to highlight that belief, I’ll end this post by reminding the reader that the book of Genesis contains two different and incompatible creation stories, one found in Genesis 1/Genesis 2:1-3 (attributed to the “P” source) and the other found in Genesis 2:4-25 (attributed to the “J” source). Genesis 2 is where we find reference to the tree and God’s admonition not to eat from it. Genesis 3 continues the story by depicting the serpent tempting Eve, the eating of the fruit, God’s curse, etc. It is important to note that Gen. 3 is also attributed to the J source, meaning the author of these two chapters is the same and thus remained consistent with the details of his/her storytelling.
However, Genesis 1/Genesis 2:1-3 is a complete creation story that does not make reference to the tree:
Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them”; and it was so.
The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:11-12)
In fact, this creation story specifically states that man is free to eat from any tree in Eden:
Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you;
and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food“; and it was so. (Gen. 1:29-30) (emphasis added)
Until discrepancies like this can honestly and sufficiently be answered by creationists, it seems silly to take sides over Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God, but given the imaginary consequences at stake, I will continue to proudly support the imaginary disobedience.
The Problem with the Ten Commandments August 2, 2010Posted by John Salerno in Christianity, Religion.
Tags: Christianity, morality, religion
The problem with the Ten Commandments – as I see it and as I believe most other people express it – is rather simple: what is taken to be the moral foundation of the Jewish and Christian religions is really a list of amoral (and perhaps in at least one case, immoral) directives. Granted, my point of view presumes an independent consideration of what constitutes moral behavior rather than assuming, as many religious apologists seem to do, that whatever directives are found in the Ten Commandments are moral by virtue of their being in the list at all. In other words, there should be no argument about whether these commandments are moral because they are being defined by God as being moral.
However, a rational person cannot help but wonder whether these are truly the moral guidelines by which a society should live. It is only reasonable that we should take a look at these commandments and assess their value in our lives, as well as consider whether other, just-as or more appropriate moral guidelines could or should be included in the list.
In undertaking this endeavor, the problem that faces us is how to define moral behavior. At the very least, I think it is a fair starting point to assume that the morality of an action can be measured by the action’s effect on other sentient creatures – specifically, creatures that can suffer either physically or psychologically. But I will not attempt to define morality in this discussion. It would be a rather trivial argument on my part if I simply defined morality in such a way that purposely excluded many or all of the Ten Commandments. Rather, I simply want to take a look at the commandments as given and conduct a common-sense assessment of their moral value in our lives. In doing so without a strict definition of morality, I am hoping to appeal to our innate sense of what is and what is not moral.
Let’s begin by quoting Exodus 20:1-17 (New American Standard Bible):
1Then God spoke all these words, saying,
2  I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
3 You shall have no other gods before Me.
4  You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.
5 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,
6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
7  You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.
8  Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
10 but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.
11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.
12  Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.
13  You shall not murder.
14  You shall not commit adultery.
15  You shall not steal.
16  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
Between Judaism and different denominations of Christianity, the commandments are divided differently, so I will use the general Protestant division, which I have indicated above via the alternating shades of text and bracketed numbers.
The first four commandments can be considered together, as they all deal with humanity’s relationship with God. This particular theme already presents a problem because it has removed nearly half of the commandments from the discussion of how we should interact within human society. As far as I can tell, the directives not to worship other gods, not to create idols, not to profane God’s name, and not to work on the sabbath day have no moral content. Again, we have not strictly defined what it means to be moral, but if we operate with the basic assumption given above (that a moral or immoral action is defined as such by virtue of how we interact with other sentient creatures), then the first four commandments do not seem to have any moral value. Does it really make sense for us to say that it is immoral to speak the words “God damn it”? Whether you feel it is disrespectful to one’s religion or to one’s god to say such a phrase is a separate matter that should not in itself determine whether an action is immoral. It makes as little sense to say that it is immoral to work on a Friday/Saturday or a Sunday (whichever day happens to be the sabbath day for your particular religion). In order for these actions to be immoral, it would be necessary to say that humans have a moral relationship with God. But what does this statement mean? It seems rather obvious that to commit an act against a fellow human that physically harms him or her in some way would be an immoral act, but how do we define what constitutes an immoral action against God? For a rationalist I suspect the question does not make much sense or suggest an obvious answer. For the religious apologist I would imagine the answer is as simple as the suggestion with which I began this discussion: by virtue of the actions’ appearances in the list of Ten Commandments, they are immoral actions. In other words, they are immoral because God has declared them to be. But this argument presents a problem: what if God had included in the Ten Commandments the directive to sacrifice a family’s first-born daughter? Would this action be moral simply by its appearance in the list? If you make the claim that these ten commandments are moral by virtue of them being the Ten Commandments, then you would have to accept that newborn sacrifice could possibly have been a moral action dictated by God. The response that “God would never have given such a commandment” only leads to further problems. If morality is what it is because God made it so, then God could have made any action moral or immoral on a whim. To say that God would never have made newborn sacrifices a moral action is to imply that morality exists independently of God’s decisions. In other words, if God would not have made newborn sacrifices moral because it is immoral, then by what standard are you calling it immoral, if not by the standard of God’s own preference?
I also feel it is important to single out the first commandment and highlight the very substance of the commandment itself. I won’t make much significance of the wording of the commandment, as the issue of translation may factor into that discussion. I will simply note that it says “You shall have no other gods before Me” as opposed to something along the lines of “There are no other gods besides Me.” It seems to be an important difference in the message being conveyed. The latter statement asserts that there is but a single god; however, the commandment as written seems to confirm that there are, in fact, multiple gods, and that the directive being issued is simply to worship the Judeo-Christian God more than, or perhaps instead of, any other gods. Yet the fact remains that polytheism seems to be validated in this commandment.
If we consider who wrote the commandment, this point will become almost trivial. Let’s first assume that the commandment was spoken and/or written by God himself, as the Bible asserts. In that case, it seems fairly self-evident that God would have said something like the latter phrase above (i.e., “There are no other gods besides Me”). It would have been a simple but firm declaration that the God of the Bible is the only god there is. It is also interesting to note that a declaration of this sort, rather than the directive that the commandment is, would not have made sense as a “commandment” for how to behave. It would need to be reworded as “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall worship Me.” It would make no sense even to say “You shall worship only Me,” because the use of “only” in that context still implies that there are yet more gods that could possibly be worshiped.
The other possibility for authorship is simply a man (or multiple men) writing with his own bias and agenda, without divine inspiration. Biblical scholarship refers to the source as “E” (although “J” also occupies some of Exodus and other parts of the Torah/Pentateuch and frequently tells the same stories as E, with differences). If it had been this man’s agenda to establish Judaism as a monotheistic religion in competition with the polytheism of the day, what better way to begin a list of the most important tenets of the faith than to assert that its followers are not allowed to worship any other gods. Implicit in this assertion, as mentioned above, is the understanding that there are other gods to worship, or at least that the belief in other gods was dominant at that time and needed to be immediately addressed. I don’t know what it says for a god that needs to demand singular worship, but it seems rather obvious that the best way for a human to enforce that kind of monotheistic worship is to list it as the first commandment. In other words, when viewed as a commandment from God, the first commandment (and indeed the following three) seem rather trivial and pathetic as far as moral directives go, but when viewed as the writings of a man who had the interests of his people and his religion in mind, it makes perfect sense to begin with the command to worship no other gods.
The next five commandments offer better guidelines for how to live, but it seems questionable to call most of them “moral” behavior. Is it really immoral to disrespect your parents? That is an irresponsible use of the word, and it essentially puts disrespecting ones parents on the same level as murder. Furthermore, I have my doubts that adultery, stealing, and lying are necessarily immoral actions. They are certainly dishonorable and disrespectful actions that in most cases do not need to be done, but I would at least argue that it depends on the severity of the action as to whether it should be considered immoral. Lying and stealing are repulsive to me, but perhaps a determination of how the particular action relates to my tentative definition of moral behavior would help decide whether it is truly an immoral action. Lying to your parents about going to a party or stealing food to feed a starving family are most likely amoral actions at worst. As far as murder is concerned, I will certainly grant the proposition that murder is an immoral action. Unless you specify such a situation as killing enemy combatants during war, then it is valid to make the claim that murder is immoral.
As far as these nine commandments go, I have written off four of them as being irrelevant to moral behavior. The remaining five are generally good guidelines by which to live, but I have my reservations about calling most of them moral or immoral. However, when considering the tenth commandment, it seems fair to make the claim that the commandment itself is immoral! Read it carefully and you will notice that while the other commandments direct one’s behavior, the tenth commandment directs one’s thoughts! It is, essentially, a law against thoughtcrime. Moreover, it is both sexist and provincial to the point of revealing the very human origins of these commandments. It specifically forbids the coveting of one’s neighbor’s wife, not husband or spouse in general. It was clearly written by a man, for men, in a patriarchal society. I’d like to think, had God issued the commandment “himself,” that he would have been more inclusive. Furthermore, the commandment forbids the coveting of one’s neighbors’ “servants” (most likely referring to slaves) and their “ox” and “donkey.” These are supposed to be the words of God issuing the most important moral directives by which humanity should live? God is telling us not to covet our neighbors’ oxes and donkeys? I don’t suppose a religious apologist sees any problem with the fact that almost none of us today have oxes and donkeys in our backyards. This commandment was clearly written in an agrarian society by people who had a vested interest in keeping their farming equipment safe from the hands of others. In no way does it reveal any wisdom or authority from a divine being, and as I stated above, it does not even offer a moral directive by which to live – it forbids the mere thought of wanting something that someone else owns.
I will now briefly turn to the point I raised at the start – that of deciding whether there are any other moral directives that could have been added to this list. As has been mentioned by others, why does the Ten Commandments not forbid slavery? That is easily answered by the fact that these people did have slaves and were certainly dependent on them for their living. In several places in the Bible God endorses slavery – a simple example is the tenth commandment itself. Rather than forbid slavery, God simply declares that people should not covet others’ slaves. More importantly, why is there no commandment forbidding the abuse of children? Either God didn’t find that rule important enough to include, or the very human authors of the Bible simply did not see that as a priority. Either way, the absence of such fundamental guidelines (and the inclusion of such trivialities as not working on the sabbath) degrades the very claim that these commandments are the most important moral guidelines by which humanity should live.
Finally, I feel a clarification of the title of this discussion is in order. Whenever criticism is made of the Ten Commandments, invariably a religious apologist will use the tired argument of “So you think ‘thou shall not murder’ isn’t a good rule to live by?” It is an ignorant and dishonest question that does not deserve an answer. I suppose the point of the question is to get the critic to admit that at least one of the commandments is a good one, but it certainly does not follow from that admission that the other nine are just as moral (or are moral at all). To say that we should not murder is not an endorsement of the Ten Commandments, and to say that we should reject the Ten Commandments is not an endorsement of murder. To reject the Ten Commandments is to reject the belief that humans would have no basis for morality if God had not defined moral behavior for us.