How Moral are the Ten Commandments?

In America, there is a seemingly never-ending debate over displaying the Ten Commandments at government-run buildings such as courthouses and public schools--despite the constitutional mandate for a separation of church and state. Every time these displays show up in the news, I find myself wondering why anyone considers the Ten Commandments a universal moral code.

The Family Research Council asserts that the Ten Commandments are the "foundation of American society" and they have put together quotes from the founding fathers to support that claim. They also claim that 78 percent of Americans are in favor of public displays of the Ten Commandments, despite the fact that only 14 percent can name all ten. Apparently, more Americans can name the Three Stooges (74%), the six Brady kids (35%) and the seven ingredients in a Big Mac (25%).

While the FRC sees those numbers as a reason why we need more Ten Commandment displays, I see them as a sign that most Americans don't actually consider the Ten Commandments to be a useful moral code for daily living. It also makes me suspect that the 64 percent, people who want to display commandments that they can't name, may not have considered the reasons why we should not display the Ten Commandments.

Personally, I like George Carlin's take on the Ten Commandments:

When you stop to read the Ten Commandments, it's easy to see that they are a religious code, not a universal moral code that should be promoted by a secular government. In the Catholic version, the first three are specifically about religious practice (1. One and only god, 2. No taking god's name in vain, 3. Keep the sabbath holy).

If, like the FRC, you refer to the more common, non-Catholic version of the Ten Commandments, the first four talk specifically about religious practice (1. One and only god, 2. No graven images, 3. No taking god's name in vain, 4. Keep the sabbath holy).

In the remaining commandments, there are some good ideas for ethical living, such as not lying, stealing or killing. But the Ten Commandments are not the only set of rules to promote those ideas.

Other religions and philosophies offer principles for living which are arguably more useful than those in the Ten Commandments. For example, the first two limbs of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas, suggest approaches for ethical living that are useful regardless of religious belief.

These principles come from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which were written in approximately 400 CE. While there are various interpretations, this is how I learned them:

Yamas (moral code):
  • Ahimsa (non-violence) - Not harming any living thing in any way, including in word, thought or action 
  • Satya (truthfulness) - Telling the truth and striving for honest communication
  • Asetya (non-stealing) - Not taking anything from others, including objects, ideas or time
  • Brahmacharya (moderation) - Having control over your urges and being mindful of where you spend your energy (sometimes interpreted as sexual control or celibacy)
  • Aparigraha (non-greediness) - Only taking what you need, not being jealous of what others have
Niyamas (self-discipline and self-observation):
  • Saucha (cleanliness) - Cleanliness of body and mind, but also organization and removing distractions/clutter
  • Santosa (contentment) - Being content and appreciative of what you have
  • Tapas (heat) - Being enthusiastic about your passions, working toward goals
  • Svadyaya (self-study) - Discovering yourself through observation and study
  • Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to the divine) - Surrendering to a higher power (what speaks to you: god, fate, human connection, etc.)
These principals suggest positive ways to approach both the external world (Yamas) and your internal world (Niyamas). Are they a better guide for ethical living than the Ten Commandments? Maybe, depending on your personal views. Do they belong on a courthouse wall? No.

The United States is a country that supports freedom of religion. Instead of sifting through documents to decide what the founding fathers intended (or personally believed), isn't it more ethical for us to continue developing our country as a safe, accepting place for all people, regardless of their religious beliefs or cultural identity?

Through ahimsa, the Yamas promote not harming others or ourselves. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, and the Golden Rule instructs to do unto others as you would have done unto you.

Sharing your religious ideas with others may be an act of love, but forcing religion on others is not. Let's leave Ten Commandment displays in churches and make our government-run buildings inviting for all.

1 comment:

  1. YES, what you wrote: "Sharing your religious ideas with others may be an act of love, but forcing religion on others is not."