Are Ten Commandments good moral guideposts?

By Janeen White on August 30, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Are Ten Commandments good moral guideposts?

It may look like another of David Letterman’s Top 10 lists, but the Ten Commandments are no laughing matter. They are seen as the foundation upon which morality is based, and there are numerous places in the United States where the commandments are prominently displayed, even here in La Crosse.

But the Ten Commandments should not be the yardstick upon which we judge the morality of others. There are a number of flaws with the commandments and, as a result, we should consider a new set of commandments, one that fits in with today’s diverse society.

One of the big problems is that the Ten Commandments are a list of “thou-shalt-nots.” As a parent, telling a child not to do something is nowhere near as effective as telling that child what to do. This is backed up by most parenting books. We also saw how well this worked in Genesis.

The first few commandments look specifically at worshiping God. While understandable in the process of setting up a very homogeneous nation of the ancient world, that’s not the case today. Not only is the United States rather diverse religion-wise, but the rest of the world is as well. Therefore, these three or four commandments — different religions have variations on the numbering of the commandments themselves — strike an us-against-them chord that is at odds with having a peaceful world.

In fact, many of these Ten Commandment monuments were erected during the Cold War, at a time of great discord when the United States was against anyone who might appear to be sympathetic to communism, even going so far as to say that atheists were a threat. This was not a time of peace. It was a time when differences were considered a threat, and one of those differences had to do with which god one did or did not worship.

Honor thy mother and thy father. Why the focus on them? Why not honor those who are older and wiser? Why not honor those in authority? Were mother and father chosen for a particular reason? Was God’s own failure in Genesis to get his children to honor him by not eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil the reason behind this particular commandment?

Thou shalt not kill. Why isn’t this the first commandment? This should be the most important commandment in any society. Not only that, let’s expand it to include respect for the Earth and for other living things in order to leave our planet a better place. As a species with the ability to change and affect our environment, this should be one of our highest responsibilities.

Thou shalt not commit adultery. I remember asking about this when learning about the Ten Commandments while attending Catholic school. My mother quickly said this was a grown-up thing and not to worry about it. While cheating can cause great pain in a relationship and a family unit, it’s something that, as a moral benchmark, has become largely ignored. Plus, the burden of the commandment itself was typically placed on women, which was horribly unfair.

Finally, we have stealing, lying and coveting. While there are laws for the first two, there’s enough of it going on inside the letter of the law that it has me thinking that many people don’t consider them commandments anymore, especially during election season.

And I have never understood the prohibition around coveting. Why is it bad to covet? Even God talks about being a jealous god. If humans are made in his image, then jealousy — and therefore coveting — would be natural human traits. I can understand why it would be bad if the coveting led to stealing, adultery or murder, but beyond that, coveting is almost necessary. In fact, it’s how our economy thrives.

Some people say morality comes from God, but I have a difficult time going along with commandments that focus primarily on worshiping a jealous deity and others that people find easy to get around. In order to have a better world and to get along better as humans, we need new commandments, or at the very least some amendments, that people of all beliefs can agree and follow for the betterment of humankind.
Janeen White is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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