On March 2nd, 2005, the Supreme Court heard a case about whether the Ten Commandments monument should be removed from the Texas state capitol grounds and a host of other government properties throughout the United States. We in the Atheist Community of Austin would like to educate readers as to the history of the monuments and why we think that there is reason to remove them from government property.
Around 1750 B.C.E. the Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest known legal codes, was cast in stone in Mesopotamia. This remarkable stone exists today in the Louvre museum in Paris. The code has elements of contract law, various human rights and was considered so fundamental that they even applied to the king. The code included prohibitions against lying, theft and murder, which are so universal that there are few cultures without them.
Roughly a thousand years later, Yahweh, the tribal god of the Israelites, is claimed in Biblical lore to have created a list of commands on stone tablets for Moses to give to his people. Perhaps the writers of the Torah coveted the power of the Babylonian stone tablets and created a story about stone tablets of their own in response. Upon returning to his people, Moses found his followers worshiping a golden calf and in a dramatic huff he smashed the tablets and they were never mentioned again. (Yahweh clearly didn't foresee the event nor did he use a more suitable material for the tablets, such as diamond coated titanium.) After 3000 people were immediately killed and a plague sent for their transgression, Yahweh dictated a second set of commandments to Moses that were clearly meant to replace the first set and the only ones called his commandments by Yahweh. The second, undamaged set was placed in the mythical Ark of the Covenant. Strangely, the contents of the second set are largely ignored today. You might be surprised to learn that the real tenth commandment is a prohibition on a method of cooking kid goats. There are many more problems with the Exodus story and the reader is encouraged to explore skeptical criticisms of it.
Out of the rather strange Biblical story of Exodus various Abrahamic religions have found Ten Commandment listings. Perhaps due to the lack of any physical evidence from the story, these various religions have come to disagree on what the most important instructions from their god actually say. Is it "thou shalt not kill" or "thou shalt not murder"? Is Yahweh really so insecure that he deems representative art a threat in his prohibition on graven images? Is the Sabbath on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? How do the fifteen statements become ten commandments? These questions are not trivial if your eternal soul is at stake. In contrast, there is no disagreement about what the Code of Hammurabi says.
A host of other questions come up when one critically examines the commandments. If Yahweh is the only god, then why is he so concerned about the worship of his competitors? If you're not supposed to kill, who will carry out the death penalty proscribed for breaking most of the commandments? Why does Yahweh do so much killing in the Old Testament if it is immoral? Should his wives really be treated as a man's property along with his farm animals and slaves (whitewashed in most versions as "manservant" and "maidservant")? Is it just for Yahweh to punish the great grandchildren of someone who takes his name in vain? Why are the Ten Commandments usually taken out of context, translated to English and the questionable parts whitewashed? Weren't Yahweh's original words sufficient? Only six of the ten commandments deal with how one human should treat another. Is this really sufficient for a moral code? Why are the moral concepts of equality, freedom and personal responsibility in conflict with the Decalogue? Why are the concepts of responsible use of power, nurturing of children, friendship and fairness omitted from consideration? The commandments carry the unmistakable theme of arbitrary orders enforced by threat of divine retribution.
The 613 total commandments contained in the Torah are unquestionably the foundation of Jewish law. Early Christians had little need for moral laws as their religion was primarily about the afterlife and the new order that Jesus would establish on his return within the lifetime of the Apostles. When his promise was broken, Christianity was left without an explicit moral system of its own and co-opted parts of Jewish law, including the Ten Commandments. Showing their obvious lack of respect for the commandments, Christians then went on to systematically kill Jews through the centuries in retribution for the transient death of their Messiah, a demi-god whose alleged purpose on the earth was to die. More recently, Christians have worked to promote the Ten Commandments outside of their religion.
Christians often make the claim that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of American law. Not true. This fraudulent claim is so old that Thomas Jefferson felt obliged to refute it in an 1814 letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper. U.S. law draws its foundation from the common law of England, which was firmly in place two hundred years before Christianity arrived there. Only the three seemingly universal human prohibitions of perjury, theft and murder are part of U.S. laws, but not because of the Ten Commandments. Yes, the Ten Commandments have been the source of blasphemy laws, heresy laws, blue laws, and ownership of humans as slaves in several of the colonies. We have come to our senses and eliminated these laws. If anything, U.S. law contains the foundational concept of freedom of religion, the antithesis of the jealous god Yahweh's intent in his first four commandments.
Christians base their claim of the Christian founding of the U.S. primarily on the term "creator" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. The term is a generic reference to the Deist "god of nature," not to Yahweh. Readers are encouraged to read Thomas Payne's "The Age of Reason" to understand Deist attitudes toward the Bible. The Constitution and Bill of Rights are the foundational documents of our country and contain no religious references. Though the authors of these documents, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, were Deists, they understood the dangers of mixing church and state. They deliberately and thoughtfully made this country secular, favoring no religion. There is no democracy or constitutional law in the Bible. Solon (b. 638 B.C.E), the founder of Western democracy, is the one we should credit for these foundational concepts of U.S. government and whose creed we have yet to outgrow. (See "The Real Ten Commandments").
In the 1950s, a group of Christians concerned with juvenile delinquency combined forces with Cecil B. DeMille, director of The Ten Commandments movie. The result was the creation and installation of thousands of Ten Commandments monuments across the United States through the Fraternal Order of Eagles. The monuments, many of which are identical, contain an amalgam of Jewish, Catholic and Protestant versions of the Decalogue that were created by a committee and are not faithful to the versions of any religion. This is the reason the monuments contain eleven statements, not ten. Many of the monuments were installed with great fanfare and the celebrations were used to help promote the movie. The Texas State Capitol received its monument gift in 1961. Isn't it ironic that the Eagles would use the State of Texas to violate the U.S. Constitution in an effort to stop juvenile delinquency? As if to say, "stop with the little kid stuff; here's how to really break the law." If the monuments were really magic talismans promised to slow the rate of juvenile delinquency, why did the delinquency rate rise in the 60s with the sexual revolution? And why weren't they removed when they clearly failed to work? Thankfully, Ten Commandments displays were prohibited in schools by the Supreme Court in 1980.
Christians who promote the Ten Commandments don't seem to have much respect for them. They have repeatedly compromised the message of the Ten Commandments in an attempt to make them more palatable for public consumption. You'd have to look hard to find a Christian today who would advocate the death penalty for earning money on Saturday, demanding the right to sell their daughter into slavery, or feeling it just that their great grandchildren should be punished for a slip of their tongue. Ironically, all such monuments are graven images prohibited by their own text. As was previously explained, the intent of the founding fathers has been mischaracterized in an attempt to garner official sanction for the Ten Commandments. You'd also have to look very hard to find one of these monuments, especially with the committee wording, in any church or synagogue. If it's not good enough for them, why should the State of Texas display it? If Christians don't respect these laws they're promoting, why should the rest of America?
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has said that the Ten Commandments monument on the state capitol serves a "historic and secular role as a foundation text for Western culture and legal codes." The Ten Commandments have precious little influence on U.S. laws, however, unless you want to tout our unfortunate history of slavery. One could legitimately claim it's a secular monument to hypocrisy, given all the blasphemy, lies, killing, stealing, dishonoring the founding fathers and coveting embodied in the one ton graven image. The government shouldn't be promoting hypocrisy, disrespect for the Constitution, or specific movies, however, even if they are part of our history or culture.
The familiar arched tablets, even without writing, have become an idol unto themselves. The real purpose of the Christian promotion of the Ten Commandments is as a symbol of the supremacy of the Judeo-Christian god over U.S. law - clearly an establishment of religion. Its promotion is nothing less than a power grab favoring the Abrahamic religions over rivals. Roy Moore, the most visible advocate of the Ten Commandments, has even gone so far as to claim that Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are not recognized as religions under the first amendment to the Constitution. The Ten Commandments promoters in 2003 showed their true colors with the failed "Ten Commandments Defense Act of 2003" that would have made the monuments immune from Constitutional court challenges and thus sabotaging the checks and balances of our government. The monuments clearly have no legitimate secular purpose, are an affront to the U.S. Constitution and principles of government and represent a system of morality that we've long outgrown. It's time to remove them from public property.
March 3, 2005
© 2005 Don Baker