Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Ten Commandments

BoingBoing pointed to a video of Stephen Colbert and Congressman Westmoreland. Apparently, Westmoreland has co-sponsored a bill to require the display of the Ten Commandments in some public buildings, but when asked by Colbert to actually name the Ten Commandments, he can only come up with three: "Don't murder. Don't lie. Don't steal."

Setting aside for the moment whether the Ten Commandments say not to "murder" or not to "kill," which to me is a pretty important distinction, it seems to me that this is compelling evidence that this is all about religious/political pandering and judgementalism than it is about an honest respect for the original document.

I had a very similar experience several years ago. I was sitting in a room watching the news with someone who goes to a church that, to put it politely, doesn't see eye-to-eye with me on the value of the separation of church and state. At one point, she blurted out, "If people would just follow the Ten Commandments, this world would be a much better place."

Just as Colbert did recently, I asked her if she could name the Ten Commandments. To her credit, she got more than Congressman Westmoreland, but still fell far short of ten.

She was embarassed, but when you think about it, she shouldn't have been. Seven out of the Ten Commandments are not exactly the sort of things you should have to be told: Don't go around killing people. Don't diddle your neighbor's wife. Don't steal. Don't make up lies about other people. If you need to refer to the Ten Commandments to realize you shouldn't be doing these things, well, you need counseling, not a historical religious document. There's no reason to memorize these things if your moral compass isn't broken (unless you enjoy historical trivia).

And the other three Commandments are entirely dogmatic in nature, typically handled by convention and societal norms than by your own personal choice. Indeed, about the only place the Commandments really have a measurable effect nowadays is in whether or not you say "God, that hurt," or "Golly, that hurt."

What worries me about this renewed interest in turning to the Commandments document is only partially about keeping government separate from religion. My concern is that the Ten Commandments do not provide the reasons why you shouldn't be doing these listed things. It doesn't say why you have to take a breather on day seven even if day six would be more convenient for you; it just says "Don't do it!" In my view, a properly-developed moral compass cannot be built on a "because God said so" justification. Too many people have been killed (and continue to be killed) over stuff like that.

Morality is all about why. For responsible morality, you need to not only be able to elucidate the correct behavior for a given situation, but also why it is the correct behavior, because otherwise, you cannot apply your ethics to new and unforseen situations, nor can you be certain that you haven't got a bad interpretation of the divine rules. And if you are allowed to simply pass the buck to God, then you have no accountability for your own moral structure. (I have actually heard someone say that they are not responsible for their own unethical behavior, blaming God instead, because God did not give them the strength to resist temptation.)

Regardless of which documents are posted in public buildings, our moral compasses are our own to construct and follow. We can either defer to historical documents and hope that they cover all cases and legitimately apply to the challenges we face today, or we can educate ourselves about the state of the world and the human condition, and reflect on that knowledge with empathy and understanding, in order to form our own reasons for choosing our ethical structure. Only in the latter case do we take responsibility for our own morality. In the end, that is what will make the world a better place.

1 comment:

holly said...

good post... this makes sense to me. do you mind if i quote you?