In a recent philosophy class the topic of god, his/her existence, as well as the holy books and their ideals were discussed. To my surprise, on the first day of class, our teacher walks in with a big cross right on her chest…GREAT!
As you can imagine, the conversations tended to end with an emphasis on the case for god being highlighted. In fact, one of our papers was about the Ten Commandments, the most stupid set of rules a supernatural being could come up with (and that’s even before you can decide which set of ten you will use as the bible cant even make up its own mind about them).
The question, I believe, is quite futile and foolish to even be asked but I was forced to write a small paper on it. Excuse the grimy grammar and possibly underdeveloped points, but I wanted to post it to at least encourage conversation.
Here it is:
Would I follow the Ten Commandments if I did not know whether God exists or not?
Would I follow the Ten Commandments if I did not know whether God exists or not? This is a question that is of some importance as many people throughout the world believe these to be a cornerstone of exemplary behavior and morality. In fact, many people with religious convictions claim that the premises in the commandments are not only religious in nature but can represent the moral and legal values of society. The following is a list of the Ten Commandments.
1. ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’
2. ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image–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.’
3. ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.’
4. ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’
5. ‘Honor your father and your mother.’
6. ‘You shall not murder.’
7. ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
8. ‘You shall not steal.’
9. ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.’
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.’
After reading these, and even being unsure of the existence of God, I would not follow these commandments.
Blaise Pascal on the other hand might disagree with my decision. Pascal was a French mathematician, inventor, writer, but most importantly a Catholic philosopher. In his writing “Pensees”, he explains that as finite human beings, we will never be able to know if God exists. Therefore, we must make a wager and decide to believe or not believe in God, especially since there is no way we can avoid the choice. According to Pascal, if we wager on God’s existence and are right, assuming of course that we follow God’s moral codes like the Ten Commandments, we will be rewarded with an eternity of happiness. If we lose, we will not really have lost much, just the simple rewards of immoral behavior. On the other hand, if we wager against God’s existence regardless of the outcome, the results, although positive, are finite and minuscule when compared to the large and infinite rewards we could possibly receive. According to Pascal, we would be foolish if we were to not wager for God’s existence.
I’m afraid that although I can see the appeal for Pascal’s sentiment and logic, I have to differ in opinion. On the account of the specific commandments, I believe there is much to be said about such absolute commands. There is also something to say in regards to following Pascal’s wager and follow the commandments as an approach to a unknowable reward. If we consider the commandments from start to end, we see why following these might be objectionable.
To begin, we must consider the origin of these commandments. These principles were given, according to Jewish tradition, as part of a religious covenant with a specific group of people: the Jews. In fact, the basis for the commandments is directly from Jewish religious literature that was not meant for anyone else. It’s very obvious that these commandments, were part of a larger set of Hebrew laws for the “chosen” people.
Keeping that in mind, if we analyze the first three commandments, we can start to see how they really address the same item, which is loyalty to God. Being unsure of the existence of God, nevertheless of his specific traits and personality, the three initial rules prove to be a problem on a larger scale. How can I identify a specific god from other religions? How can I determine which exact commandments to follow? What if another God’s commandments super seed or contradict directly the Ten Commandments? If we move on to the fourth commandment, it is also based directly on Jewish tradition and history. The amount of people who currently withhold completely from all activities on Saturday is virtually non-existent in today’s societies. Because this commandment leaves no room for interpretation, it commands for a lack of action during a specific time. In fact if this commandment was to be followed by everyone, the consequences could be disastrous. If fire departments, emergency services, police and other vital services were to shut down, lives would be at stake and put in danger. We live in a society where following this commandment would cause serious damage for everyone.
The fifth commandment of honoring our parents is commendable and will most likely be used in the most positive of ways. In fact, respect for our elders and ancestors creates a strong family life and lays out a proper structure of society. The problem however comes when interpretation of what honor means is applied to specific circumstances. I personally have had irreconcilable differences with one of my parents, and to follow this commandment would prohibit my freedom and emotional health if I were to forcefully succumb myself to a relationship that will have negative results. There are scenarios where individuals cannot respect and honor their parents because, simply put, it is not deserved.
Similar things can be said about the next commandments. Although the principle of “do not murder” can be commendable, I am not sure I could uphold to that rule if my life, or those of my friends and family are endangered. I currently do no serve in the military or any other armed forces, however, this commandment is currently being broken daily for the protection of every nation and many people around the world. When it comes to adultery, and abstaining from it, this would be a commandment that would help with maintaining a happy family life. The realistic truth is, that in today’s standards, legalities and technicalities, married life and the situations that are encountered by it, do not always apply as smoothly as we would like. You shall not steal is another one of those that cannot, by any absolute standard be upheld. Although we can all agree on varying degrees that armed robbery or blatantly taking something that is not yours, the line that defines other degrees of what people can call stealing is blurred. To some, taking something from an employer when being abused as an employee can be justified. Stealing, especially food, to take care of and nourish someones hungry and dying family might be considered the right thing to do. Although the premise of not stealing is beneficial, a commandment by an ancient book to not do so in all circumstances might be considered trivial in such dire conditions.
Being honest has always been a virtue to be praised, therefore the commandment to not “bear false witness” towards others is a positive command. However, can we justify the millions of “white” or “innocent” lies that are necessary in our everyday lives to maintain order, government, peace and to save lives? How can we not justify lying to protect others in times of need? Finally, the last commandment talks about coveting for others property. This is something that I cannot agree with. In fact, I think its detrimental for a human to not covet. It is human nature in fact to covet no only the things around us and other’s possessions, but its a desire that drives us. Just like any other desire, when used inappropriately or left unbridled, it can cause harm and damage to others and oneself. The important point here is that to command the denial of something so absolutely essential to human nature is contradictory on so many levels. I cannot imagine what our society might be like today, what our technology, civil rights and other modern standards would be without that desire to covet. How could an African American not covet the same rights as a white in the early days of our country? Where would we be if we did not covet what our neighbors might have? We would not have drive, innovation and desire to possess those things for ourselves and to better our current situation.
After reflecting on how it is possible to not follow these ten commandments, it might come to the mind of some – what is there then to follow as commandments? And that in itself is the problem. That there truly is no need for commandments, especially ones that were brought up for a specific demographic, religion or mindset of a bronze age, that everyone should follow blindly and without question. It is not that I do not agree with being honest and true, virtuous and helpful, or that I want a happy family life and no violence and murder. The problem lies with the initial question, would I follow the Ten Commandments? If we are talking about virtue and honesty, then to honestly answer the question wold be no. We cannot pick apart some of the virtuous or decent commands apart from the others. These ten commandments are put together as one package of infinite morality and wisdom that everyone should follow, absolutely. If we do decide to not follow just one of these, such as performing activities on a Saturday, we are not following the Ten Commandments. I personally realize where these originally came from, to whom they were addressed and the framework in which they were conceived.
If we are to define and decide on true and moral absolutes, assuming this would be even possible, I think we could compile a better set of Ten Commandments. More important than what was listed, mankind would benefit more from guidelines that address more important issues. Lets consider an example of Ten Commandments that any moral minded human could compile:
Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
In all things, strive to cause no harm.
Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
Always seek to be learning something new.
Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
But where can mankind come up with such guidelines? Where can we find commandments that could be considered wise and moral? The answer lies in humanism, love and respect. One of the definitions of humanism is a “system of thought that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity”. When we consider that there are other ways that can use love and respect to approach the many difficult aspects of our lives, we realize that there are no set and specific number of commands that will encompass every scenario and apply in every decision we take. It is really important for all of us to live our lives inspired by compassion all while respecting the freedoms of others, even if it means letting them covet or work on a Saturday.
Therefore, would I follow the Ten Commandments if I was unsure of God’s existence? Definitely not. As mentioned previously, it is not out of a self proclaimed righteousness or arrogance, but simply because as a whole, as what the Ten Commandments stand for, what they are regarded as and the actual substance of them is not applicable for so many circumstances in my life. There are many good ideas and principles listed in them, and the original though of being good to others, to your wife by not committing adultery, by not murdering just to murder or steal are good principles to have. However, those same principles can be found elsewhere, they can be refined and even expressed in better manners. We have not just the capacity, but also the responsibility as a rational, civilized and modern society to come up with a new set of guidelines, not commandments. A set of principles for the good of mankind, for the good of all living things and for the good of our planet.