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A Secular Ten Commandments

Jerry Newcombe, who for decades was the Robin to D. James Kennedy’s Batman, has a Worldnetdaily column objecting to a statement from Lech Walesa, the courageous leader of the union movement in Poland, about the need for a secular ten commandments.

There was a story last week that got my attention. Lech Walesa, former president of Poland and a great hero in my book (but not on this point), said that what we need today is a “secular Ten Commandments.” He said this to a group of Nobel Peace Prize winners in Warsaw…

But now Mr. Walesa says: “We need to agree on common values for all religions as soon as possible, a kind of secular Ten Commandments on which we will build the world of tomorrow.”

Sounds like a very good idea to me, but Newcombe has a bunch of bad arguments against it.

But this idea of “a secular Ten Commandments” is really a type of oxymoron.

Any person, any nation, any group of united nations can come up with a list of rights and wrongs. The question is: How do you hold people accountable to abide by those rules?

The same way you hold people accountable to any set of rules. If those rules are ethical in nature, you enforce them through societal disapproval and social pressure. If they are legal in nature, you enforce them through the government. The actual Ten Commandments face the same problem. Some 80% of the world doesn’t believe them to be valid at all.

Perhaps, whatever your worldview is, we can all agree with the second part of the Ten Commandments: Honor your parents (well, maybe we don’t all agree). Don’t murder (but does abortion count?). Don’t commit adultery (in a pornography-plagued world, maybe we don’t agree on this one). Don’t steal (unless it’s from other taxpayers). Don’t lie (unless it’s convenient). Don’t covet (who cares what I think in my heart, but God alone?).

Maybe we don’t agree on these laws after all. Meanwhile, Jesus said, “Do to others, as you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.” Perhaps, even those who don’t believe in Jesus can agree to that point.

I think most atheists would agree that the Golden Rule, which is hardly exclusive to Christianity, is a good place to start. Philosophers sometimes call this the “law of reciprocity,” and I think it’s the basis of all moral reasoning. And it’s something that I think the overwhelming majority of people would agree on, at least in broad principle.

The religious parts of the Ten Commandments are clearly the controversial aspects. God says He is the only god. He says we should not make any idols and worship them.

He says that we should honor His name – adding that He “will not hold him guiltless, who takes His name in vain.” In a nation awash in profanity, is it possible we have forgotten this principle? He also says to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. Even the anti-Christian Bolsheviks, through experiments in work schedules, found that people can’t work seven days a week non-stop.

Why does God care about who or what we worship? We tend to become that which we worship. In my own Bible reading, I found this interesting statement the other day from 2 Kings 17:15: “They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless.”

Non-Christians are obviously not going to agree with those. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find some principles to agree on.

In 1980, the Supreme Court said that public schools can’t allow the posting of the Ten Commandments. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan said, “If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments.”

What would happen if our school children today would “read, meditate upon” and even “obey” the Ten Commandments? Perhaps, that might put a lot of security guards at schools out of work.

*yawn* That old argument. But the government simply cannot endorse a set of religious beliefs. It can’t. No matter how beneficial you mistakenly think it would be.

Want a secular ten commandments? Here’s a good place to start:

Comments

  1. Sastra says

    Any person, any nation, any group of united nations can come up with a list of rights and wrongs. The question is: How do you hold people accountable to abide by those rules?

    And the question to YOU, sir, is: How do you get everybody to agree about God? Because I’m assuming that this is your big reveal on how we can hold people “accountable” (despite the fact that God only smites by vague threats given through self-proclaimed proxies.)

    I think getting a consensus based on reason and evidence is a hard task. Sure. But we human beings have all got roughly similar goals and area to stand on, to see, to change and to compromise. Hard.

    Getting a consensus on the supernatural though is going to be impossible. It’s all arbitrary. How do you convince people to change their minds? Tell them that their revelation from God is no good but yours is the Real Deal?

    Yeah, that works.

  2. Loqi says

    I’ll take a swing at it:

    1) Stop reading this and think for yourself using your reasoning and empathy.
    2 through 10 are irrelevant and consist mostly of a recipe for strudel.

  3. John Pieret says

    Semi on topic, some time ago I realized that Justice Hugo Black’s eloquent explanation of what the Establishment Clause means in Everson v. Board of Education could be broken down into the:

    10 Commandments of the Separation of Church and State:

    1. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church.

    2. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.

    3. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will.

    4. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can force a person to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.

    5. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs.

    6. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious disbeliefs.

    7. No person can be punished for church attendance or non-attendance.

    8. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.

    9. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups.

    10. No religious organizations or groups can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of a state or the Federal Government.

  4. says

    The only moral rules of any religion worth keeping are those it shares in common with other religions and secular moral sources. In other words, the only moral rules worth keeping are not religious. They’re plain ol’ secular moral rules that hold up just fine without anyone with a big beard spouting them.

    Yes, the Golden Rule came from many other sources besides Jesus, and many before Jesus, both religious and secular. It’s not a religious moral rule, that is, it doesn’t require religion to back it up. No God to enforce or justify it.

    Which is, fundamentally, the problem with trying to write a secular set of commandments. Who is commanding them? And who the hell are they to tell the rest of us what to do? Secularists, if they even believe in objective morality, recognize that moral truth is not dependent on authority and can’t come from authority. The origin of morality is in empathy, and its legitimacy depends on logical justification. Not any “command.”

  5. texasjim88 says

    We don’t need commandments. Having a statement of values and priorities is fine but the secular movement should stay far away from imitating that list of arcane authoritarian edicts.

  6. matty1 says

    I’d like to know a bit more about the details of this speech given that Walesa is, as far as I know a practicing Catholic. I tried googling but the ‘Nobel for peace summits’ website doesn’t have a transcript and most websites that mention it seem to be regurgitating the WND article.

  7. Sastra says

    texasjim88 wrote:

    We don’t need commandments. Having a statement of values and priorities is fine but the secular movement should stay far away from imitating that list of arcane authoritarian edicts.

    “Should?”

    You mean “should maybe.”

  8. Moon Jaguar says

    I nominate Paul Kurtz’s “The Common Moral Decencies”.

    Personal Integrity: telling the truth, being sincere, keeping promises, honest.

    Trustworthiness: loyal, dependable, reliable, responsible.

    Benevolence: goodwill, lack of malice (do not harm other persons; do not kill or rob, inflict injury, be cruel or vengeful); in sexual relations: mutual consent between adults only; beneficent: sympathetic and compassionate, lend a helping hand, contribute positively to the welfare of others.

    Fairness: accountability, gratitude, justice (equality), tolerance of others, cooperation, negotiate differences peacefully without hatred or violence.

  9. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    I can think of people who would approve of Clough’s version:

    The Latest Decalogue

    Thou shalt have one God only; who
    Would be at the expense of two?
    No graven images may be
    Worshipp’d, except the currency:
    Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
    Thine enemy is none the worse:
    At church on Sunday to attend
    Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
    Honour thy parents; that is, all
    From whom advancement may befall:
    Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
    Officiously to keep alive:
    Do not adultery commit;
    Advantage rarely comes of it:
    Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
    When it’s so lucrative to cheat:
    Bear not false witness; let the lie
    Have time on its own wings to fly:
    Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
    Approves all forms of competition.

  10. Michael Heath says

    Moon Jaguar @ 11,

    Outstanding contribution to this thread. Thank-you, I’m definitely adding that to the file I keep on wisdom.

  11. says

    I dislike the Golden Rule. It might be a better start than nothing, but not by much.

    A fundamentalist Christian would say, “If I did not believe in Jesus, I would want someone to save me,” and so justify proselytizing. Another person of a certain sect might say, “If I am sick, my faith in God should be enough to heal me,” and so not treat their child.

    Instead, I would propose the Platinum Rule, which is shinier and harder than the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as they have asked you to do unto them. If they have asked nothing, then do unto them as you would ask for yourself.”

    But that’s not nearly as easy to remember.

  12. dingojack says

    Surely a secular commandments would be:

    0. A robot may not harm, or through inaction allow to come to harm humanity..
    1 .A robot may not harm, or through inaction allow to come to harm a human being , except when this conflicts with lower numbered laws
    2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except when this conflicts with lower numbered laws
    3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with with lower numbered laws

    :) Dingo

  13. vmanis1 says

    I hate to interrupt this sequence of comments each outlining which are the BEST 10 commandments (no sectarian divide here!), but really any such list is some sort of guideline. I really do like the Golden Rule as a good ethical guide. No, it’s not foolproof (`hey, it wouldn’t bother me if somebody stole MY jewelry’), but it does serve as a useful check on behavior: `no, Mummy, I wouldn’t like it if Billy peed all over me, so maybe I shouldn’t do it to him’ (c.f. empathy).

    My own preference for the Magic Rule of Life comes from the Bill and Ted movies, no, not the parody of The Seventh Seal where Death gets a wedgie, but the two rules the guys live by: 1. Be excellent to each other. 2. Party on.

    Some months ago, I posted here a translation of the 10 Commandments into non-religious language. I’ll do it again here (maybe slightly differently).

    1. `Have no other gods before me’ [Don't worship non-existent beings; atheists would abbreviate this to `Have no gods']
    2. `No graven images’ [this refers specifically to worshipping things such as temple sculptures: we might say `don't worship things']
    3. `Do not take the Lord’s name in vain’ [`GAWWWD curses abortions' or `Send me money and GAWWWD will heal your hernia'; we might broaden it to any false appeal to authority, also known as davidbartoning. This is not about (mis)use of religious words such as `goddammit'.]
    4. `Keep the sabbath holy’ [this is about resting one day in seven, i.e., maintaining a decent work/life balance]
    5. `Honor your parents’ [You might or might not love them, but respect them, and the previous generation in general, for having created a world in which you can flourish]
    6. `Don’t kill’ [Death-penalty defenders differentiate between killing and murder (killing is OK, murder isn't), but I'm tone-deaf to the difference]
    7. `No adultery’ [This is about not corrupting relationships by lying,not about `illegitimate' sex.]
    8. `Don’t steal’. [No translation needed.]
    9. `No false witness’ [I might mention here not just pleading in a legal case, but also Faux News, the National Organization for Marriage, and much of `Right to Life'. Again, lying is wrong.]
    10. `Don’t covet things, or people’ [`Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz/My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends']

    I’m not claiming that my bracketed comments are the `original intent’ of the writers of Leviticus or Deuteronomy. All I did was to use the commandments as a trigger to an ethical rule I consider important. One can add a few more, such as the Golden Rule itself, and an injunction to respect the world/environment/universe around us. I find it interesting that of the 10 commandments above, 3 refer to lying.

    Of course, supposed xtians who want to worship the Commandments totally misunderstand them, especially the one about graven images (at one point, Jerry Falwell was selling microfiche renditions of the Bible so that if you were in a plane crash, you—or maybe your soul—would be protected).

    Even though we might disagree a little bit about what should be on that list, it’s quite remarkable that most of our bedrock ethical principles can be captured in a page or so of text. Of course, that doesn’t handle all the grey areas that cause interminable disputes, ranging from end-of-life issues through killing in self-defence to whether we should compensate groups for wrongs done to prior generations. But it’s surprising how many ethical questions are actually simple, and can be answered by appeal to broad principles.

    So rather than arguing about exactly which rules are the best, isn’t it possible for people of good will to come together with a set of ethical principles we can all accept? It’s not even the first time this has been done: the UN Declaration of Human Rights tries to capture internationally-understood ethical principles in a legal code.

    I’m not sure I see any kind of project to produce an Official International Ethical Code, but anything that helps people see commonalities has to be a good thing.

    Unfortunately Mr Walesa’s homophobia, as already mentioned here, makes him an unlikely candidate to advance this.

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