Last Updated on 2022-08-22 by Joop Beris
I am not that impressed by the morality of the Ten Commandments. Yet we often hear that the Ten Commandments are the bedrock of our morality. Without these texts, supposedly written by the finger of God himself, we would not know how to live together. I reject that claim. However, I thought it would be fun to contrast the morality of the Ten Commandments with doctrines which most Christians would probably object to. Which is more moral: the Ten Commandments or the Seven Fundamental Tenets of The Satanic Temple?
Before we dive into what is more moral, I want to make an important point. Members of the Satanic Temple do not worship the devil. The organisation is firmly non-theistic and rejects supernatural claims. In short, they do not believe in any gods or devils, as is clearly explained in the FAQ page.
If we want to make a fair comparison, we should look at texts which are widely accepted. For the Ten Commandments, I choose the New King James version (NKJV) of the Bible to examine the commandments as listed in Exodus 20 for this lists the best known version (there are at least four versions of the Decalogue, all slightly different1). For the Seven Fundamental Tenets, I refer the reader to the website of the Satanic Temple, where the tenets are published.
We also need some criterium to decide if a statement is moral or not. For that, I will use a utilitarian definition because it’s a well known approach to morality and fairly straightforward. It’s also not based on anything supernatural. For an action or statement to be moral, it should increase well-being or reduce suffering (or both). An immoral action or statement reduces well-being or increases suffering (or both).
At first glance, The Satanic Temple has a disadvantage because there are only 7 tenets versus 10 commandments. However, more is not always better so let’s not write them off just yet. When it comes to morality, quantity does not equal quality.
Examining the texts
We’ll go through the lists one by one and compare the commandments and tenets side by side. After each entry, I will give you my opinion if the statement is moral or not.
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.
1. One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
This is an easy start because the first commandment says nothing about well-being or suffering, it’s just an admonition not to worship other gods. The first tenet on the other hand, is a moral statement. Showing compassion and empathy increases well-being and decreases suffering.
Ten Commandments: 0, Fundamental Tenets: 1.
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.
2. The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
The second commandment gives us some prohibitions on what kind of art we can make. Essentially, God is advocating against free expression, which reduces well-being. Next, God adds that he will persecute future generations for the crimes of their ancestors, which seems perfectly immoral. The second tenet on the other hand, again sounds more benign. Justice entails giving people what they deserve, which normally increases well-being for society as a whole. In addition, the Satanic Temple says that justice is more important than laws or institutions. In other words: no one should be exempt from justice or be above the law.
Ten Commandments: 0, Fundamental Tenets: 2.
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.
3. One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
The third commandment? Jesus, it’s like we can’t even utter a god-damned curse! Limiting free speech, like limiting free expression, is generally something that reduces well-being. I’m not a huge fan of cursing but that’s personal taste. However, I swear and curse and the well-timed uttering of profanity can be healthy even. So again, no points for the commandments, I’m afraid. The third tenet declares that people are masters of their own body. They alone determine what happens to it. No one is allowed to touch, hurt, rape or injure your body. Seems to me that is very good idea to reduce suffering and increase well-being!
Ten Commandments: 0, Fundamental Tenets: 3.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour 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.
4. The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To wilfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
While giving people a day off might at first seem to increase well-being, I am forced to make an observation here. This fourth commandment gives of the distinct impression that the day of rest is not for the benefit of the people involved. Instead, they must do as God allegedly did so that the Sabbath might remain holy. This motivation seems suspect to me. But since it does mean people get a day off, I will grant them half a point, for effort. The fourth tenet admonishes people to respect people’s freedom because in doing so, you preserve your own freedom. Freedoms should only be restricted if there’s good reason to do so. This allows everyone the maximum amount of freedom with the minimum amount of inconvenience and restriction. This seems like an honest approach and one that increases well-being.
Ten Commandments: 0.5, Fundamental Tenets: 4.
5. Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
5. Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
Honouring your father and mother might seem like a good idea, but what if your father is an abusive alcoholic? Or what if your relationship with your mother is a Mommie Dearest situation? It seems bad advice to honour parents like that. Also, honouring your parents so that you yourself can live a long life, seems a little selfish as a motivation. Since this commandment is an absolute statement with no caveats offered, it’s not a moral statement. Regarding Satanic tenet number 5, that’s also not a moral statement for the most part. Distorting scientific facts sounds an awful lot like lying but people can also distort facts by accident. Tenet 5 is good advice but not a moral statement.
Ten Commandments: 0.5, Fundamental Tenets: 4.
6. You shall not murder.
6. People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.
Finally, the Ten Commandments have a statement that is clearly about morality. Murder, the act of planning to kill and then actually killing someone, clearly decreases human well-being and increases suffering. Notice we are not talking about self defence here because killing someone in self defence may or may not be unfortunate but can be morally justified. However, I can imagine situations where murdering someone would serve the greater good. Imagine you have a chance to murder an oppressive dictator. Would you not have a moral obligation to do so if that could decrease the suffering of an entire nation? Half a point for the general principle, I suppose. Satanic Tenet number 6 is clearly a moral statement. It recognizes that we are all fallible and that we should try to mend the harm our mistakes have caused, thus reducing human suffering.
Ten Commandments: 1, Fundamental Tenets: 5.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
7. Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.
Adultery is generally understood as voluntary sex between a married person and someone other than their spouse or partner. Obviously, this can be a source of suffering if the spouse or partner finds out and can irreparably damage the relationship. However, adultery according to the Bible is a much broader idea. I refer the reader to Matthew 5:28: “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. This is Jesus, explaining that even looking at a married woman and appreciating her looks and perhaps having a sexual fantasy about her, is adultery. This is thought-crime. While actually committing adultery in the modern understanding can be a source of human suffering, having a sexual fantasy about someone may actually increase human well being while causing no actual suffering.
The seventh and final Satanic Tenet tells us that the tenets are not dogma but rather that compassion, wisdom and justice are considered more important than the literal texts. Clearly, acting out of compassion, wisdom and justice would increase well-being and decrease suffering.
Ten Commandments: 1,5, Fundamental Tenets 6.
8. You shall not steal.
Generally speaking, yes. Taking something that doesn’t belong to you, can increase human suffering. But again, this commandment has no caveats. Is it absolutely always wrong to steal something? What if someone depends on stealing to feed themselves or their starving family? Or what if someone steals from the super rich to feed the poor? I agree with it as a guiding principle but there clearly are situations where stealing something may increase human well-being and decrease human suffering. Again, half a point for the general principle.
Ten Commandments: 2, Fundamental Tenets: 6.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
In ancient Hebrew law, people could be convicted on the testimony of witnesses who were deemed reliable. Bearing false witness basically means lying in order to get someone convicted of a crime. It can also mean to slander someone. Both are morally reprehensible so yes, forbidding this one reduces human suffering and increases human well-being.
Ten Commandments: 3, Fundamental Tenets: 6.
10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbour’s.
Let’s ignore the fact that it’s quite clear that Exodus was written by (and for) an agricultural society. Again, we see that the commandment forbids a case of thought-crime. To covet something means nothing more than to want really badly. Let’s say I really want to have my neighbour’s motorcycle. Does that fact increase or decrease human well-being? Does it increase or decrease human suffering? Well, personally I might suffer from having the desire but as long as I don’t take the motorcycle for myself, there seems little harm in wanting something. In fact, maybe it will motivate me to finally get my motorcycle license and buy my own motorcycle. Desiring things or people in itself is not a problem, only the actions we take as a result of the desire can be a problem.
Ten Commandments: 3, Fundamental Tenets: 6.
So we arrive at the end of our little dive into the question: which is more moral, the Ten Commandments or the Seven Fundamental Tenets of the Satanic Temple? The answer is fairly conclusive. Even though the Satanic Temple only has 7 tenets, they score a total of 6 points because 6 out of the 7 tenets are clearly sound moral principles. The Ten Commandments, often cited as the bedrock of our society, score only a measly 3 out of 10 points. There are many problematic statements and prohibitions on thought-crime that put the Ten Commandments at a serious disadvantage when looked at through the lens of utilitarianism.
For me, it is an open and shut case. I’d much rather live in a society that uses the 7 Fundamental Tenets of the Satanic Temple as its foundation than in a society that picks the Ten Commandments. Because as problematic as they are when you look at what they say, things are even worse when you consider what the Ten Commandments do not say, as I mentioned before.
What’s your view on this? Which would you pick? Leave a comment below!