Ten Commandments have no Role in Public

Apologetics and freethoughtSome Christians have no patience with a separation between church and state and want to display the Ten Commandments in the public square—the state-supported public square.

Judge Roy Moore is an example. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore installed a 2.5-ton granite monument in the Supreme Court building showing two tablets holding the Ten Commandments in 2001. He said, “Today a cry has gone out across our land for the acknowledgment of that God upon whom this nation and our laws were founded. … May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land.” A lawsuit was filed, Moore lost, he was ordered to remove the monument, he refused, and he was removed from office.

And now he is the leading candidate for getting his old job back. We live in interesting times.

A 2007 poll compared Americans’ knowledge of the Ten Commandments with the seven ingredients in a McDonald’s Big Mac hamburger. More people remembered “two all-beef patties” from the TV commercial than remembered “thou shalt not kill” from Sunday school. Even among churchgoers, 30% didn’t remember “thou shalt not kill,” and 31% didn’t remember “thou shalt not steal.”

One atheist wit observed that the Big Mac had an unfair advantage—it had a jingle. Solution: set the Ten Commandments to music. “Only God, no idols, watch your mouth, special day, call your mom … on a sesame seed bun.”

How big a deal is this? Does poor recall of the Ten Commandments correlate to poor morals? I say no, and I think Americans’ poor memory in this case isn’t a shocking oversight; instead, it reflects the irrelevance of the Ten Commandments in modern life. We don’t need the Commandments to remind us that killing is wrong, and they’re not an especially complete or relevant list for secular America. “Don’t enslave,” “don’t rape,” and “no genocide” are glaringly absent, and “have no other gods before me” has no place in the state-supported public square.

(Sorry, pro-lifers—abortion was obviously not top of mind for God when he dictated the Commandments, since he included “don’t covet” but omitted “no abortion.”)

To wiggle out of uncomfortable baggage, some Christians try to play the “Get out of the Old Testament free” card. They do this when they want to talk about slavery and genocide being a product of that foreign culture. Okay, but then haven’t you shed the Ten Commandments as well, since that’s also in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is relevant today or it isn’t—it can’t be both ways.

As ancient legal codes go, the Mosaic law isn’t all that groundbreaking. It is predated by not only the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi but Mesopotamian law and Egyptian law. In fact, the pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court building, which many history revisionists claim holds the Ten Commandments, is actually a frieze of Moses along with two other ancient lawmakers, Solon (Athens) and Confucius (China). This artwork is shown in the photo above. And no, Moses isn’t holding the Ten Commandments but rather blank tablets. Moses is also depicted on a frieze inside the courtroom, but he is simply in a procession of 18 great lawmakers.

What if all people followed the basic conventions that society agrees are its moral foundation? That would be great, but if this happened, why give the credit to Christianity? That is, why point to morality and say, “Aha! That’s the good ol’ Ten Commandments they’re following!” No, morality comes from society. The Ten Commandments are a reflection of some of the best traits from society, not the other way around.

What if we discarded the religious baggage—important within Christianity but irrelevant to the secular, all-inclusive society—and distilled down social wisdom into a secular Ten Commandments? Here’s a version from A.C. Grayling’s Secular Bible.

1. Love well
2. Seek the good in all things
3. Harm no others
4. Think for yourself
5. Take responsibility
6. Respect nature
7. Do your utmost
8. Be informed
9. Be kind
10. Be courageous

At least, sincerely try.

NYC Atheists has an excellent version here (search for “Atheist Freedoms” on page 4). And here is Christopher Hitchens’ version (skip in the video to 6:30)

The Ten Commandments is nothing more than a fragment of an interesting historical document. An example from Georgia shows the problems with treating it as if it’s more than this. Poverty in that state has recently increased so that it is now the third-poorest state. What is its legislature spending time on? Getting the Ten Commandments in all public buildings, including schools.

I guess it’s easier than actually solving problems.

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully
as when they do it from religious conviction.
— Pascal

Photo credit: djv2130

Related posts:

Related links:

  • “National Capitol,” Snopes.

MS-DOS and Objective Truth

Jesus, atheists, Christians, and apologeticsBack in the character-based Stone Age of the personal computer, all IBM-compatible MS-DOS PCs started up with a C-prompt, the “C:\>” text with a blinking cursor.  At least, all PCs that weren’t broken.

Can we conclude anything from that?  That “C:\>” is a reflection of some supernatural or transcendental truth?  That it is an insight into God’s mind?  No—it’s just a useful trait shared by this class of PCs.  There’s no objective meaning behind these characters.  This text is useful (it shows the directory in which any typed commands will take place), so it was selected.  There’s nothing more profound than this behind it.

Human morality is like this.  Almost all humans have shared moral instincts, not dissimilar from instincts in other animals.  Through instinct, honeybees communicate where the nectar is, newborn sea turtles go toward the ocean, and juvenile birds fly.  Training or acculturation can override human instincts, of course, but in general we have a shared moral sense—a shared acceptance of the Golden Rule, for example.

We think our moral instincts are pretty important, and that’s understandable, but there’s no reason to imagine that they are objectively true—that is, based on some supernatural grounding.  Said another way, we think that our morality is true because it tells us that it’s true, but we can’t infer from this that it is grounded outside us.

We must not confuse universally shared moral instincts with universal moral truths.

Human moral instincts are what our programming says they are—it’s no more profound than that.  There’s as much reason to imagine that they are a window into the transcendent as that the MS-DOS C-prompt is.

Related posts:

Understanding Morality—It’s Really Not that Hard

Does God exist?  Maybe not.Greg Koukl tries to hold atheists’ feet to the fire to show how they misuse moral thinking. His analysis provides good instruction in poor argumentation, but not quite in the way he hopes.

The podcast is “Making Sense of Morality” (3/6/11). As I quote Koukl below, I will use approximate time markers from the audio stream.

He starts by claiming that there are objective moral values. He didn’t define them, but William Lane Craig’s definition works: “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.”1 That’s a big claim—these are moral values that are somehow grounded supernaturally or transcendentally. Never having seen evidence for supernatural or transcendent anything, I was eager to hear Koukl justify their existence. Here he goes:

Virtually no one believes the opposite. (3:23)

And that’s it. Apparently, Koukl has no argument besides, “You believe that … right?” We’re not off to a good start.

From this flabby grounding, he proposes to dismantle what many Christian apologists have admitted is the most challenging problem they face, the Problem of Evil. There is no Problem of Evil, Koukl says, unless there are objective moral values.

Such a problem could only exist if morals were objective, not relative, because we can only complain about the existence of a good powerful god with regards to the existence of evil in the world if there is actually objectively, really evil in the world, not just “evil” in our own preferences. (4:20)

No. The Problem of Evil simply points out a paradox: the Christian imagines (1) a good god who (2) tolerates a world with plenty of evil in it. How is this possible?

This is quite simple: you, Greg, would not be called good if (for example) you had the power to diffuse the tectonic energy that caused the Haiti earthquake that killed 300,000 people but didn’t—this is the Word Hygiene argument. The words “good” and “evil” are defined in the dictionary, and we don’t change the definitions when we talk about God. No objective anything is required—the Problem of Evil simply assumes that your god exists for the sake of the argument, and then it takes this idea for a drive and runs it off the unavoidable logical cliff.

Koukl continues, noting that atheists often say that evolution can explain morality. But:

[Evolution] is not going to get you a genuine, bona fide objective moral obligation; it’s just going to get you maybe the feeling of morality when morality doesn’t actually exist. (6:03)

Koukl is saying that morality is either objective or it’s nothing.

So let’s check the dictionary. “Moral” is defined as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior; ethical” or “conforming to a standard of right behavior” (Merriam-Webster). And what are these principles and standards? I suggest that they’re the laws and customs of society. The dictionary mentions no objective, supernatural, or absolute anything. Evolution programs us with moral instincts; Koukl’s imagined concern vanishes.

Next, Koukl talked about listening to an interview with professor and author Steven Stuart Williams. Williams rejected objective morality and said that we should minimize suffering. But why does he say this?

Because that’s the way I like it. (10:15)

(Note that this is Koukl’s paraphrase of Williams’ answer.) This seemed to be a bombshell to Koukl, though I don’t see why. That could be a clumsy paraphrase of my own thinking: that we strive to minimize suffering because our programming (our conscience) tells us to. This conscience punishes us with guilt when we resist it—when we didn’t stop to help someone or when we took an action that caused harm.

Why is this shocking? Greg, isn’t this the way it works for you?

The interviewer next asked Williams how he would counter a Stalin or Pol Pot.

By what standard does [Williams] say that his preference is a better morally speaking preference than those other preferences that are opposite his? And for this he had no answer. (12:30)

That’s okay—I have an answer. This is just the moral relativism fallacy. Koukl apparently imagines a dilemma: you must accept either

  • objective morality, with a supernatural or transcendental grounding for morality, or
  • relative morality, where I have my moral truths and you have yours, and I have no ability to criticize.

The problem is that this doesn’t define all the options. I see no evidence for objective morality (and Koukl doesn’t provide any), but I’m quite happy to criticize moral claims with which I don’t agree.

I think we have a shared (not objective) grounding in the programming common to all humans. That is, we aren’t seeing God’s universal moral truth but rather universally held moral instincts. Wouldn’t that explain the facts?

And now it’s time to get in a dig at the New Atheists. Koukl says that the “old time atheists” were much more intellectually honest. They followed their thinking to its logical conclusion and took their medicine, whatever that was. He cautioned his Christian listeners about slippery atheists playing games.

The old style guys would bite the bullet and they’d say, “Nope, no morality, no right and wrong, all personal preferences, just emotions … no meaning in life.” (14:50)

If you want to debate the “old style guys,” Greg, go ahead, but this doesn’t describe me. I have plenty of morality and meaning in my life, but thanks for asking. It’s just not supernaturally grounded … but then there’s no reason to think yours is, either.

So what you’re saying is, there is no transcendent morality, it is just a matter of personal opinion, and when you are put up against Mao Tse-tung, you can’t give me a reason why one person would choose one rather than the other. (15:50)

Can Koukl have never had an argument about a moral issue? Each person makes a case using the shared moral ideas of our species and culture—that’s how it’s done. Or look at a legislative debate for a more formal example.

Bizarrely, the interviewer then asks,

Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to have God ground [morality] on a purely pragmatic basis? (16:25)

Do you hear what you’re saying? You’re wondering if reality is satisfying? As if we have a choice! It’s reality—we’re stuck with it! The focus should be on figuring out what reality is and working with it.

Williams argued that he could live a good life, but Koukl accuses him of playing word games:

What exactly do you mean by “good” here? I know what he meant by “good”; he meant by “good” the same thing his theistic interviewer meant by “good.” The problem is, he has no right to those terms because they aren’t at home in the worldview he was arguing for. (18:20)

And we’re back to consulting the dictionary. Show me the objective part of the definition of “good” that would make it inappropriate if said by an atheist. We have a common definition for words; that’s how communication works. Where’s the problem?

When we say we can punish people for doing bad, [Williams means] that we could still punish people for doing things that are contrary to [his] personal preference. (20:45)

Duh—doesn’t everyone want laws to be in accord with their own views of right and wrong? We make compromises as members of a society, but obviously we’d like the laws to be as in line with our personal morality as possible.

Koukl ends by encouraging his listeners to listen carefully to make sure the other guy is using moral language and concepts correctly.

Finally—something we can agree on.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

1William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 17.

Related links:

  • “Morality 1: Good without Gods,” QualiaSoup (video, 13:25), 6/23/11.
  • “Morality 2: Not-so-good Books,” QualiaSoup (video, 14:10), 7/28/11.
  • “Morality 3: Of Objectivity and Oughtness,” QualiaSoup (video, 17:12), 11/6/11.

An Inept Attempt to Defang the Problem of Evil

The pale figure of Death rides a pale horse and holds a scytheIn an article titled “Turn an Atheist Objection to an Opportunity,” apologist Greg Kokul attempts to turn the Problem of Evil, often admitted by Christians as their biggest challenge, into a selling point for Christianity.

The Problem of Evil is this: how can a good and loving God allow all the bad that happens in the world?  The simplistic answers fail to explain the woman who dies leaving young children motherless, the child that dies a lingering death from leukemia, or the Holocaust.

Kokul begins by saying that he’s found a debating technique that turns this problem into a benefit.  Instead of being solely a problem for the Christian, he turns the tables on the atheist.

Evidence of egregious evil abounds.  How do I account for such depravity?

But, I am quick to add—and here is the strategic move—I am not alone.  As a theist, I am not the only one saddled with this challenge.  Evil is a problem for everyone.  Every person, regardless of religion or worldview, must answer this objection.

Even the atheist.

Of course evil is a problem for everyone, but that’s not what we’re talking about.  Kokul made clear that we’re talking about the Problem of Evil.  We’re talking about how a good and loving God can allow all the bad that happens in the world.

What if someone is assaulted by personal tragedy, distressed by world events, victimized by religious corruption or abuse, and then responds by rejecting God and becoming an atheist (as many have done)?  Notice that he has not solved the problem of evil.

The atheist hasn’t solved the Problem of Evil; he’s eliminated it.  A God who loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves and who stands idly by as rapists or murderers do their work is no dilemma for the atheist.  But, of course, the problem still remains for the apologist.  Kokul can’t simply Continue reading

Confused Thinking About Homosexuality

A church sign says "I kissed a girl and I liked it then I went to Hell"In an article subtitled “Christian defense against Homosexuality,” the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) attacks homosexuality.  I’ve pulled out claims that need a response.

Homosexuals want others in society to think like them (and behave like them?).

Is this the fabled Gay Agenda® where homosexuals will make all Americans homosexual to weaken the country for an eventual Communist takeover?  Or something?

“If you have to ask, you are probably already under its pernicious influence and blithely hop-scotching your way straight to Hell.”  Thank you, Betty Bowers.

They want others to accept them.

Well, yeah.  Is that a problem?

What gives them the right to try and change society into what they want it to be?

I’m pretty sure that’s what they said about African Americans during the Jim Crow period.

Saying that homosexuality is natural because it occurs in the animal kingdom does not mean it is morally correct. Animals also eat each other alive, devour offspring, etc. Should we imitate those things as well because the animals do it?

So then do we at least agree that homosexuality occurs in nature and then is, by definition, natural?

As for morality, let’s not get cocky.  For barbarism, no one beats humans.  Only humans have invented Continue reading