Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ethics, Part One: The Ten Commandments

      This post is the first in a series of five on ethics. 

     When the more reasonable among the faithful acknowledge that all of the natural evidence points towards the existence of a god intimately concerned with our lives and well-being as being highly unlikely, they often ask, “Shouldn’t we retain our faith, since it is the only moral guide we have?” 

     Besides the obvious fact that self-deception is never good, as will indeed be explored a great deal in a later post, the assumption that without magically infallible books or people we have no means by which to guide our lives is simply false. The third post in this series will explore just how we can construct a morality minus magic, miracles and revelation. This post will examine just how poor a job one particular morality based on magic and revelation does of actually guiding a well-lived life.

     The judeo-christian faith is the one in which I was raised as were the majority of Americans, so this will be our primary focus, although others will be touched on. The primary fault of supposedly divinely revealed morality is its pretensions of perfection. If god says, 'Thou shalt not..." then thou shalt not. Period. If he is perfect, his word is perfect, there is no room for interpretation, everything is black and white. People who claim otherwise, who try to pretend that the word of an eternal, perfect being would ever be subject to interpretation by mortals are kidding themselves. This is one thing fundamentalists of all faiths get right. IF this is THE WORD OF GOD, then you'd better follow it, EXACTLY. However, no one still follows the overwhelming majority of the commandments in the books of moses, such as (picking at random) "And on the fifteenth day of the seventh month ye shall have a holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work, and ye shall keep a feast unto the lord seven days: And ye shall offer a burnt offering, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the the lord; thirteen young bullocks, two rams and fourteen lambs of the first year; they shall be without blemish..." (Numbers 29:12-13). There doesn't seem to be much room for interpretation there. On July 15-22, god expects you to burn for him 13 bulls, 2 rams and 14 year-old lambs, because he likes the smell. Rabbis have all sorts of ingenious ways for explaining this away, and christians say jesus absolved them of these obligations, but again, I fail to see how the word of god can be perfect and eternal and simultaneously subject to human interpretation, but this is a minor point and I needn't dwell here.

     The claim against non-revealed morality is that without god, there is no absolute right and wrong. From god all goodness comes, and without him, to emulate and obey, we have no moral compass. The notion of emulating god comes from the fact that we are supposedly made in his image (this made a lot more sense the Bronze Age when all gods were just really powerful uber-people hiding in the elements and nature, such as yahweh, who was the sky-god before taking over the pantheon after the Isrealites picked up monotheism from the zorastrians during the Babylonian captivities, as I have mentioned). Since we are made in his image, he is the embodiment of ethical perfection towards which we are supposed to strive. The unquestioning obedience, I don't really get that, but if it suits you, fine, it matters not here. So let's examine what emulating and obeying god really entails.

     The original crux of morality for these faiths is of course, the ten commandments, handed down at Mt. Sinai to moses on stone tablets after being inscribed by a finger of light. All the other ethical directives theoretically derive from these, so we will start here. 

The Ten Commandments (from the King James Version, Deuteronomy 5: 6-21)

1. Thou shalt have none other gods before me. 

2. Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments. 

3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. 

4. Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day. 

5. Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. 

6. Thou shalt not kill. 

7. Neither shalt thou commit adultery. 

8. Neither shalt thou steal. 

9. Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour. 

10. Neither shalt thou desire thy neighbour's wife, neither shalt thou covet thy neighbour's house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is thy neighbour's.
     It isn't really that some of these aren't good advice, at least in the second half where they get down to the business of how to treat other people, which is the concern of ethics. Why an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal being needs to be treated in a certain way by his own creations of dust is quite beyond me. Essentially, it is because he is a "jealous god," (the third) which already complicates the whole business of emulating him, since jealousy is forbidden by the tenth. It is particularly interesting that he is so jealous of beings that he simultaneously claims don't exist, like me being jealous of my wife's crush on Tim Riggins. But essentially the first three boil down to the same thing, no other gods, which makes historical sense, given the Israelite's long-running inability to make a firm commitment to monotheism (would you, when your neighbors had sacred prostitution and you had unleavened bread?) In the fourth he spends quite a long time telling you how to take a day off (this remains a major , major concern in judaism), which again, I fail to understand, since when my boss tells me to take the day off, I don't really need much more instruction than that. I jest, but let's move onto the second half, where we learn how to treat one another.

5. Honor thy father and mother. Sure, I might add unless your dad happens to rape you on a regular basis, or your mother beat you, but god doesn't seem too concerned with that. 

6. Thou shalt not kill. Ah, what most societies consider to be the most heinous of crimes, we finally get to at number six. The Isrealites surely felt pretty guilty and confused when they heard this one, since they had just been told by moses, god's divine mouthpiece, after they had finished slaughtering the Midian men, "Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill everyone woman that hath known a man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves." (Numbers 31:17-18) Hmm. Kill all the fatherless sons, and all of the widowed wives, but save the little girls who are still virgins, so you can rape them later. Maybe god was still working out the details of the ten commandments, since he didn't issue them until a book later. Yeah, that must be it. There are other examples too, "And the lord our god delivered him (King Sihon) before us; and we smote him, and his sons and all his people. And we took all the cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain: Only the cattle we took..." (Deuteronomy 2:33-35) Well, PETA would have been pleased. More genocide and ethnic cleansing, but at least this time the little girls were spared debauchery, by virtue of being put to the sword. The Isrealites must have been all full-up on virgins, though future suicide bombers probably would have been willing to work out a deal. This goes on and on through the whole march into the promised land, first led by moses, then joshua, who shows a little more restraint, but I can't write about it here anymore, since it all kind of turns my stomach.  

Ugh. Okay, 7. Adultery. I guess raping virgins doesn't count against this one. (Rape, of course, didn't even make the cut.)

8. Thou shalt not steal. Unless it is someone else's land, cattle or daughter.

9. Lying. This is a bad one. But it's okay if it is about the means which the universe, life and humankind came into being.

10. Don't covet. Unless it is the worship your chosen people are devoting to a non-existent competitor, or it is their land, cattle or daughter. 

     So in emulating god, we run into contradictions such as not being jealous while he makes a point of showing how jealous he is, and in obeying god, we really have to decide which time we ought to obey, here where he says, Don't Kill, or here, where he says, Kill, Kill, Kill.

     Let's be honest. This is garbage. It's not that there aren't some good points to the ten commandments, it's that if they are such a big deal, why is god then instructing his people to break pretty much everyone of them on their holy march into the promised land? The reason this gets glossed over, at least among christians, is that people don't bother to read, really read, cover to cover, the bible. The eternal, holy word of the creator of the universe, handed you in a magical book which contains the infallible, perfect truths of creation, upon which the salvation of your immortal soul depends, and PEOPLE DON'T BOTHER TO FRIGGIN' READ IT!!!!! FFS! When I was still christian, about 15 years ago now, I had read it twice before I had my driver's license.

     Of course christians skirt all this by claiming that the revelations of jesus of Nazareth absolve them of a lot of the more complicated rules and regulations, except that he said,  

     "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Sermon on the Mount, Mathew 5:17-19)

     So really, they aren't off the hook at all, either for failing to offer sacrifices of one year old lambs which are pleasing unto the lord, or for all of the complications  of the ten commandments and the history of their ideological progenitors. For really, if the creator of the universe speaks, especially as a directive, isn't that always pretty much a must-do imperative? So while the ten commandments are supposedly the summary and the crux, all of the commandments of the books of moses must be upheld if one is truly a god-fearing christian or jew. 

     Let's talk about what we really have here. A decent attempt by a Bronze Age culture to lay down some ground rules for how to live together. Many of the commandments and lesser directives only really applied to members of the tribe, such as it being forbidden to take fellow Isrealites as slaves, to lend to them at interest, etc. But they ran into the same problem everyone else had, from Hammurabi before them (where a lot of these rules actually historically came from, again, since they lived in the shadow of one of the world's most powerful and advanced civilizations at the time, the Babylonians and later Assyrians) to what every society deals with today; ethics, and the business of turning it into laws, is complicated. Killing is bad, unless it will save many more innocent lives. (But murdering Canaanite children is always bad, since that never saves lives.) Lying is bad, unless it also saves lives, or does greater good. Being jealous is bad, unless it pushes you to make self-improvements. Swearing false testimony, whether you used god's name or not, is bad, unless you are hiding Jews under your floorboards from the Gestapo. Taking a day off is good, but spending centuries figuring out elaborate ways around the arcane rules your predecessors made up is just dumb. Adultery is bad, if it involves lying to your spouse, but if your spouse doesn't care, or is a part of it, then who gives a shit?

     Where do we go from here? In the next post, we'll take a look at all the different incarnations of the "Golden Rule," that supposedly guiding principle of christianity, including all the versions that came before jesus was born, and discuss how a widely used concept attests more to human origin than divine.

     (If you don't have the time or patience to read the bible, but are curious just how contradictory and depraved it really is, I couldn't recommend more highly Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. Written before Darwin, Einstein and quantum mechanics, a man with a pen, a ream of paper and a brain, in the space of hundred-odd pages, manages to single-handedly dismantle pretty much everything about the judeo-christian revelation, from its authorship and history to it's contradictory morality, of which we just looked at a very small sample. And he accomplishes this without ever once needing to reference anything outside of the bible itself. Truly a remarkable work from one of history's great men.) 

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