What's So Bad About The Ten Commandments
Thomas Ash

This essay was originally written in response to the events described below for the Council for Secular Humanism's newsletter, the Secular Humanist Bulletin. Moore's grandstanding occurred way back in 2003, but I have put this piece online because the issues covered are as relevant today as they were then.

On August 27th, workmen finally hauled away the 4-foot high, 5,820-pound granite Ten Commandments that Roy Moore had installed in the Alabama Supreme Court at dead of night 2 years before. By this time, the Chief Justice had raised a few eyebrows - even among his supporters - with his refusal to obey orders from federal courts, and the eight other justices on the Alabama Supreme Court, to remove the monument. This was what eventually cost him his job, in November.

The unconstitutionality of "Roy's Rock" was easy to demonstrate. Not only is the "establishment of religion" prohibited by the First Amendment - which Moore objected applies only to acts of Congress - but the state constitution he was sworn to uphold states "That no religion shall be established by law; that no preference shall be given by law to any religious sect, society, denomination, or mode of worship; that no one shall be compelled by law to attend any place of worship; nor to pay any tithes, taxes, or other rate for building or repairing any place of worship..."[1] The Founding Fathers, many of whom were deists, rejected amendments which merely forbade preferential treatment for one denomination over another in favour of a ban on any established religion[2].

However, the reason that four in five Americans agreed with Moore[3] is that most, like John Derbyshire of National Review, still fail to understand why anyone but "dedicated polytheists, idolaters, blasphemers, and so on should take exception to the Ten Commandments".[4] To convince them, humanists should show that there is something wrong with the ethics of the commandments themselves, not just the legality of placing them in courts and classes across the land.

Critics of Moore, like Katha Pollit of The Nation[5], have already picked away at the nits of the Old Testament. Why is slavery encouraged, not forbidden? Are wives, but not husbands, really property? Doesn't Leviticus 19:19 forbid nylon stockings? They could also have pointed out that moral laws were only taken to apply among Hebrews, and not to what Kipling would call "lesser breeds without the Law". But atheists should show that we can be for a more enlightened ethics, rather than only being against things - the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ten Commandments, belief in God. Only then will people realize that abandoning religion does not mean abandoning morality.

There are three versions of "the Ten Commandments" in the Bible, and the only set to bear that name contains nothing but Jewish purity laws, such as "You will not boil a kid in its mother's milk".[6] Even among the Commandments that Christians use, the first four are of a purely religious, not ethical, nature. The first commands the creed of belief in "Yahweh." The second forbids not only the worship of other Gods but also any representational art - which Christians have been known to produce (cf. the Sistine Chapel.) The next prohibits blasphemy, taken to mean any profane use of the divine name, the theologically suspect phrase "God bless America" certainly included. And the fourth commands respect for the Sabbath. Again, those Muslims and Christians unfortunate enough to work on a Saturday are inadvertently sinning, thanks to the phenomenon of the shifting Sabbath.

These four form a statement of Judaeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs, and give the lie to the claim of Reverend Rob Schenck, a prominent defender of Roy's Rock, that the Decalogue is "the most rudimentary level of agreement on moral issues"[7]. Any American who does not follow the Western monotheistic tradition is violating them. Yes, the government is permitted to promote morality, but not religion - and belief in Yahweh is clearly religion. But are the purely moral Commandments more worthy of our support?

Certainly, few humanists are in favour of children dishonouring their parents, killing, adultery, theft, dishonesty and covetousness - like the comically evil unbeliever in Cecil B. DeMille's silent epic The Ten Commandments. Moore, and many more, may claim that religion is indispensable to morality, but atheists tend to be decent, law-abiding citizens just like their religious neighbours. And perhaps someone should point out to Joe Lieberman that it is devout believers, not humanists, who fly planes into skyscrapers and blow up Israeli teenagers in pizza parlours.

However, humanists are not simply people who follow the ethics of the Old Testament without believing in its God. This is why we can object to the moral content of the Decalogue, not just its religiosity, or its unconstitutionality in public courts and classes.

'The Affirmations of Humanism' found at the front of every issue of Free Inquiry, the humanist 'house journal', state: "Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance ... Moral principles are tested by their consequences." As the name humanist suggests, our morality flows from a concern with human beings. Killing is wrong because of the harm it does to people, not because God forbids it. As Socrates argues in Plato's Euthyphro, if that were the case morality would be reduced to the arbitrary whims of a God or gods. Ethics, if it is to be genuine, must be independent of religion.

If the concern of morality is humanity, right action should be based on whether the good consequences outweigh the bad. A doctor should surely save a child who is dying on the Sabbath. Sometimes, as in the war against Hitler, killing sadly becomes necessary. When lying to an axe murderer about the whereabouts of your children would save their lives, the strict legalism both Kant and Moses recommend is revealed as inhumane.

Despite such exceptions, few humanists doubt that lying and killing are generally wrong. But the Old Testament offers a morality concerned more with strict obedience to laws than their impact on humankind. Humanists can offer something better - and when asked "What's so bad about the Ten Commandments?", we should.


1. Alabama State Constitution, Article I, Section 3.

2. "What the Founders Believed About Separation of Church and State", Tom Peters et al

3. According to a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll of 1,009 Americans on August 28, 2003, 77 percent disapproved of U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson's order to remove the monument.

4. "Affronts and Provocations", National Review Online, August 25, 2003

5. "Stacked Decalogue", by Katha Pollit, The Nation, September 22, 2003

6. The three versions are found in Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:10-26 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21; Exodus 20 contains the most commonly used set. I am using the widely respected New Jerusalem Bible, and following the ordering of the Greek Church Fathers and Orthodox and Reformed Churches.

7. "For Christian right, rallying cry rises from Ten Commandments", Birmingham Sun, August 24, 2003

© 2003

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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