Last Updated on 2022-07-08 by Joop Beris
In 1956, director Cecil B. DeMille treated the world to his epic interpretation of the story of Exodus, where God leads the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt. Even if you’ve never seen the “The Ten Commandments“, most people will remember the iconic scene where Mozes, played by Charlton Heston, comes down from Mount Sinai holding the stone tablets that gave the world the Ten Commandments. Even to this day, most Christians consider these commandments God’s law and standard for behavior. As an atheist, I don’t believe that a god gave us these texts but are the Ten Commandments moral?
What do we mean by moral?
To see if something is moral or not, we first have to agree on what basis to judge an action. Many secular humanists consider an action moral when it increases well-being or decreases suffering (or both). An action is immoral when it does the opposite. This view is based on utilitarianism and it is an influential view on the topic of morality. The foundation of this view has everything to do with well-being and judging actions by their consequences.
It is possible to use a different foundation for morality. Christians might say that something is moral when it is in accordance with God’s will or law, a view sometimes referred to as Divine command theory. As an atheist, I am not convinced that anyone can say anything with certainty about what a god wants since we can’t even be sure a god exists.
I think the only basis for morality that works in the real world Is a basis that considers the consequences of an action, like utilitarianism does. We can discuss for hours whether or not a god would want something or not. Agreeing on well-being is a much more straightforward process most of the time.
With that in mind, let’s examine the Ten Commandments and see if they are moral or not.
Are the Ten Commandments moral?
I know I’m not the first atheist to notice that there are some problems with the Ten Commandments. I also blogged about my problems with them here before but for this post I want to focus on them because many Christians believe they are the foundation of our morality. I’ll be using the New King James version of the Bible to examine the commandments as listed in Exodus 20. Let’s go through them verse by verse.
1. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.
Is this a moral statement? No, it doesn’t say anything that pertains to human well-being.
2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.
First we get some prohibitions on what kind of art we can make as people, and next we have an utterly immoral threat from the all-loving creator: “If you don’t like me, I won’t just take it out on you but on your children to the fourth generation”. Children who are probably not even born yet, but the creator of the universe will punish them because one of their ancestors didn’t like God. Some fine morality there.
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
Is it just me, or is this God person a little insecure? For a supposedly omnipotent being, he certainly seems to be. We’re at the third commandment and we’ve yet to see anything that has anything to do with human well-being.
4, Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
We’re onto time management now. Apparently, because God had a rest on the seventh day (why would an omnipotent being need to rest?) we all need to rest on the seventh day. Fine…so when do we get to the bits about well-being?
5. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
This could be moral, could pertain to well-being unless your father is an abusive prick, your mother is a crystal meth addict and both of them neglect you. Are children supposed to honor parents like that? Doesn’t seem like good advice to me there, oh lord. Honor even the most rotten parents imaginable and you’ll have a long life apparently. Which is nice. Commandment number 5 and we’re still not talking about well-being.
Of course we need to consider that the Bible prescribes the death penalty for stubborn or rebellious male children, so this may just have been good advice. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
6. You shall not murder.
Wow, all of a sudden we are talking about morality! But wait, you shall not murder…like absolutely never? Under no circumstance? What if I have a chance to assassinate an evil dictator? I’d say that under certain circumstances, murder can be moral if it prevents a much greater evil. If I can save the lives of thousands of people by ending the life of one person intent on killing them, one would almost be morally obliged to do so. So yes, murder is mostly wrong but sometimes it isn’t.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
If you’re in a monogamous relationship, yes, cheating on your partner is a bad idea and it would not be moral. However, things are a bit more problematic. Jesus meek and mild comes along and has a very different take on what adultery is. If you divorce your wife and take a new wife, you’re committing adultery (Matthew 19:9). Even looking at another woman with lustful intent is adultery, according to Jesus (Matthew 5:27-28). This is thoughtcrime, where people are convicted for the private thoughts in their head. That’s not moral, that’s ridiculous. If no one ever looked at another person with “lustful intent” our species would have disappeared a long time ago.
8. You shall not steal.
Under normal circumstances, yes absolutely. In general taking something that doesn’t belong to you would be an immoral act. However, there are certainly cases where it is morally defensible to steal. In terms of well-being, dying is one of the worst things that could happen to you. If the choice is between stealing and surviving or dying of hunger, I think most people would agree that stealing is morally defensible at least.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
I think here is finally something the Bible and I could agree on. Falsely accusing or lying about another human being to get them into trouble, is not a moral action.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.
Here again, people get in trouble for toughtcrime. There is nothing wrong with wanting the same things your neighbor has. If a bit of jealousy makes your work harder so you can afford the same thing, that might even be a good thing. It’s only a problem if you try to take things from someone else, i.e. stealing. But we already covered that in commandment number 8.
Is this the best God has to offer?
Out of all the possible things God could have said to Moses when he gave him the laws, these are the ones he chose? Is this the best God has to offer? This is such a poor guide to morality and has so little to do with human well-being that it makes you wonder if God had a bad day. Perhaps it was Monday morning.
If we sum this up, commandment 1 – 4 are the demands of a petty and jealous god. Commandment 5 – 8 (skipping 7) are generally good moral principles but not as absolute as stated here. Number 7 is basically thoughtcrime. Commandment 9 may be the only really moral commandment and 10 is again thoughtcrime. In addition, the tenth commandment includes your neighbors’ wife among his possessions, as if it is moral to own another human being.
Worse still is what the commandments do not say. There is no commandment that says “you shall not rape”, no commandment that says “you shall not have slaves or take other people as slaves”, no commandment that says “you shall not increase the suffering of another person” and no commandment that says “you shall treat animals well”. Not a word about “You shall take care of your environment and act like good custodians”. What about “you shall not wipe out other nations or people”? Or “you will strive to solve your conflicts without resorting to violence”? It may have been good to include something like: “you will stand up to inequality, injustice and discrimination and treat each other as equals”.
I think it’s safe to say that anyone of the people reading this article could write a better set of commandments than the supposedly omnipotent and all-loving creator of the universe. Which commandment do you think God should have included? Let me know in the comments below!