Are the 10 Commandments Still Binding? 12

When all else fails, just stick to your talking points

Hitchens and Fry obviously were not ready for this one. They had their typical talking points down, as usual; but this time, they talked right past Ann Widdecombe’s question.

Not only did she get her point across, but she also got Hitchens to contradict himself: according to Hitchens, the 10 Commandments are both the mandate of a tyrannical regime and something everyone holds to be true as matter of natural law. Nice one!

The next question Ann could have asked, if Hitchens stuck around a little longer, might have been, are the 10 Commandments binding? If he would just stick to the question asked, I don’t see how he could argue that they are not.

12 comments

  1. “the 10 Commandments are both the mandate of a tyrannical regime and something everyone holds to be true as matter of natural law. Nice one!”

    I can’t watch the video at the moment, but this doesn’t sound like something Hitchens would say. If he did, then he’s wrong.

    Of the 10 commandments, only 3 are really of any use. And those three existed long before the Decalogue came into existence.

    • Just to be fair, he did not say it exactly the way I put it. However, you can watch for yourself, and see if the way I put it is not a fair assessment. I should also add, for fairness sake, that a large portion of the video consists of segments of a one on one interview. I don’t have the whole interview for analysis, and I am also aware of the types of manipulations that can occur in these instances (e.g., the Ben Stein “Expelled” documentary.

      Based on what we can see in this video, it looks like Hitchens was caught off guard and didn’t play his best game here. His talking points didn’t work this time. In fact, they made him look reactionary and foolish (IMHO).

      • Perhaps. Neither Hitchens nor Fry are perfect, and I doubt I agree with everything they’ve said.

        If the question asked of them is literally the question that titles your post, my answer would be ‘binding to whom? And in what way?’

      • The question asked in the interview was not the question in my title. I mentioned at the end of the post that it would have been an interesting question that I find partially implicit in the question Widdecombe asked, namely, “What is wrong with the 10 Commandments.”

        It is definitely an altogether different question, but if there is nothing wrong with them, then why should we not also live by them. If we should live by them, then what is their moral significance and weight.

        These are not necessarily religious questions but nor are they religiously indifferent questions.

  2. “I mentioned at the end of the post that it would have been an interesting question that I find partially implicit in the question Widdecombe asked, namely, “What is wrong with the 10 Commandments.””

    Okay.

    Should I take a swing at answering, or would you prefer I didn’t? Because a few things do jump to mind.

      • There are a few problems with the 10 Commandments.

        The first is what it leaves out. If we’re to think that these Commandments are the 10 most important things EVER…it’s a pretty bad list. What about ‘thou shalt not own human beings’ or ‘thou shalt not abuse children’? Two commandments that would make it a much better list, in my humble opinion.

        Secondly, as I said before, only 3 are of any significant use as commandments to the non-religious.

        Let’s look at them (or one version of them):

        1. You shall have no other gods before me.

        2.You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or 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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

        3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

        4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

        5. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.

        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 manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”

        ———————–
        1 thru 4 are completely religious and not usable to someone like me.

        5 is a good general rule of thumb, but given the fact that bad parents exist, shouldn’t be a commandment.

        7, again, is a good general rule of thumb, but I wouldn’t make it a law or a commandment.

        6, 8 and 9 are great…but they aren’t unique to Christianity or even Judaism. They existed long before either, and are pretty easy to come up with provided you aren’t a sociopath. (Luckily, most of us aren’t.)

        10 seems, to me, to be silly. It’s essentially a commandment against thought crime, which I will always oppose.

        How’s that for a start?

      • All points well made and well taken.

        First a question. Have you ever read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on the commandments? I’m not saying that it is a must read in everyone’s case. However, I do think it would be helpful for anyone who would want to understand the Catholic Church’s position (perhaps, one position among many possible others) on the issue. For instance, child abuse would be a grievous infraction against commandments 6, 7, & 10, depending on the type of abuse. Furthermore, in cases of parental child abuse, the scandal causes the types of problems with the 5th commandment that you pointed out.

        Slavery is contrary to the 7th commandment: taking ownership of something which you have no right to that belongs to another person.

        So why isn’t it a contradiction that Jews were permitted to own slaves? That is certainly a good question. If we want to entertain that tangent, we can. But I suggest taking one thing at a time.

        Each of your points is a separate can of worms. I’m just going to open two of them for now. First, is covetousness a silly thought crime or is it a simple matter of human integrity? For example, is man just when he appears just but on the inside he’s a calumniating scandal monger? Assuming the existence of God (as these commandments do) the 10 commandments can extend beyond things that are empirically observable to everyone else or criminally imputable. Besides, our thoughts generally tend to influence the way we deal with people. So we really ought to exercise control over our thoughts — easier said than done.

        Second, I agree with what you say about 6-9. But maybe I’m missing your point. They’re great! There’s nothing wrong with them, but…” Is it that no one group has a claim to these principles? I don’t think that claim is being made. If I’m not understanding you, could you state your point more clearly?

  3. “However, I do think it would be helpful for anyone who would want to understand the Catholic Church’s position (perhaps, one position among many possible others) on the issue.”

    I have not read the Church’s position.

    However, it’s simply a matter of the ease of communication. if you’re an intelligent person who stops and studies it, you may be able to see that child abuse or slavery could be interpreted in such ways to be prohibited by the 10 commandments…but isn’t the point of the 10 to be simple and easy to understand and follow? Or am I wrong about that?

    If I were a deity, at the very least I would throw together the things about belief in other gods and golden calves and combine it into one commandment to make room for ‘don’t torture’ or ‘don’t rape’.

    “Each of your points is a separate can of worms. ”

    I do bring lots of worms wherever I go.

    “For example, is man just when he appears just but on the inside he’s a calumniating scandal monger?”

    What are his actions?

    I don’t care what he thinks. What he thinks doesn’t matter to me at all, provided they don’t directly impact his actions. When they impact his actions, it’s the actions that are the problem…not the thoughts.

    “Second, I agree with what you say about 6-9. But maybe I’m missing your point. ”

    My point is, the question implies ‘the 10 commandments are awesome, don’t you think everyone should follow them?’ when the reality is ‘a few of the 10 commandments are pretty good, but they were around before the 10 commandments were written, so if you want credit for your religion then I’m not going to give it.’

    I think a more honest question would be to break down the commandments one by one and ask ‘what’s wrong with this?’. Where the answer is ‘nothing’, then the follow up is ‘so what?’

    • Allow me to respond in a haphazard order, for this reason:

      B: “Each of your points is a separate can of worms. ”

      NS: “I do bring lots of worms wherever I go.”

      There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. From a sort of practical standpoint, in framework we’re dealing with it can result in a lopsided discussion with a lot of loose ends untied at the end. There’s really not a lot that can be done to avoid that sort of thing other than just being mindful of it and accepting the minor risks involved. E.g., questions are tend to be more analytical and aim at comprehensiveness; to expect as much from every response in a combox forum might be asking a little to much, depending on the number of questions involved.

      “…but isn’t the point of the 10 to be simple and easy to understand and follow?”

      It certainly is, but to understand the aim, we also need to recognize some specific problems it addresses within it’s specific context. When you see it as a simple code of law of conduct for a people who need to agree on a certain moral order after being held under an oppressive regime for numerous generations, the teaching needs to be simple, easy to promulgate, and easy to teach to children (so why not teach them we don’t own slaves and abuse children — one thing at a time). In the Book of Exodus, the Hebrews are self-described as a stiff-necked people. So the exhortation:

      “Hear Oh Israel!”

      Can be otherwise stated as:

      “Alright, listen up, Boneheads! We need to get a few things straight. Some of these are going to come across as understatements because they are pretty obvious. But let’s start with some really basic things for now, see how you well handle that, and once you’re ready, we can build on that.”

      The ten commandments do not say “thou shalt not vandalize,” but with just a little reflection, the wiser ones understand the implicitly of the matter and instruct the less wise that it falls under the category of stealing, because property damage assumes the right to do what you want with other people’s stuff, and you don’t have the right to do that.

      In other words, the 10 commandments can be unpacked. Rabbis unpacked their meaning on the Sabbath (a good use of the Sabbath rest). They can also be simplified: Love one another (hence the thinking well of others clause implied in the 10th commandment).

      “When they impact his actions, it’s the actions that are the problem…not the thoughts.”

      We will probably have to agree to disagree on this one. If actions follow upon thoughts, then the thoughts are the problem, as far as I can see it. Of course a person can have nasty thoughts without carrying them out as actions. But if the heart of the Law (i.e., 10-C) is love, and love is in the heart, then certain types thoughts are not compatible with that law. The 10th commandment is pointing that out so as to say, if you want to be an upright person, start from within. I see that as the heart of the Law; otherwise, the law is just meaningless convention and practicality. If you see it differently and think the 10 commandments should be reduced to pure legal positivism, I’m not sure we’ll be able to convince each other differently on this point, because those are two radically opposing worldviews.

      “If I were a deity…”

      Pardon the aside, but… There are a lot of people that I am glad are not the deity. Hitler, for instance, would have made a bad one. So there’s a problem with assuming human judgment can measure up to what is supreme by definition. It seems safe to assume, however, that a good deity would exercise prudence, concerning time, place, circumstance, and the people he’s dealing with, depending on the deity’s overall plan, assuming he has one and assuming that he’s not under any compulsion to reveal all of it to everyone all at once. But when you add:

      “At the very least I would throw together the things about belief in other gods and golden calves and combine it into one commandment to make room for ‘don’t torture’ or ‘don’t rape’.”

      It seems that we are in agreement here, because as I already pointed out, the 10 Commandments do that. E.g., rape is against the commandment not to commit adultery. Bear in mind that, the people of Israel had more laws than just the 10 recorded in the Book of Leviticus, for example. The 10 are just the quick and easy summary that everyone can remember. Does this include spousal rape? In essence it does.

      “A few of the 10 commandments are pretty good, but they were around before the 10 commandments were written, so if you want credit for your religion then I’m not going to give it.”

      The kind of credit I’m seeking depends on certain points that you may not be willing to concede. They were around long before the commandments were written. They were around, from my standpoint when people started realizing that people were people and needed to be respected as such, even before any laws were written. They are all principles of natural law, which is a charged term that can be understood in various ways; so I need to define the term, at least according to the way I understand it.

      Natural law human reason correctly understanding moral principles that hold for all people of all times.

      I can see why you would call it a stretch to suggest (1) that that’s even possible; (2) that all 10 fall under that category; (3) that any religion should claim it for itself, if that is the case.

      My partial answer would be that the determination of positive law follows from the necessity to make natural law specific and clear to ensure that communities of people are all can agree on what’s to be done and what’s to be avoided. We begin with general laws, and from there, we stipulate those laws more specifically according to circumstance (e.g., you can only drive so fast in a school zone because if you drive to fast there, you run the risk of killing innocent children).

      The 10 Commandments are a simple code for a determinate community of religious observers. That code has become a reference point for legal code in Western tradition, undeniably. The Hitchenses of the world tend to suggest that religion has contributed nothing positive and that religion is at the root of evil in the world — it has been said.

      Maybe we deserve a little more credit than that. Thoughts?

  4. “If actions follow upon thoughts, then the thoughts are the problem, as far as I can see it.”

    The thoughts are only a problem if they are acted upon. If they are just thoughts, and remain that way, then they are not a problem,

    Look at (for example) Stephen King. If you’ve read any of his books, you’d know that he has had some very disturbing and disgusting thoughts. Has he acted on them? No. Which is why I have no problem with him.

    “rape is against the commandment not to commit adultery.”

    Not really. If neither the rapist or the person being raped is married, then no adultery is taking place. It would be against a rule prohibiting sex before marriage, but that is no hit on unless one uses an incredibly broad definition of the word ‘adultery’.

    Also, by calling the rule ‘do not commit adultery’ and you include rape, you’re implying (whether intentional or not) that if there is a rape then it is less important than the fact that it’s adultery. Which I find morally abhorrent, quite frankly.

    “I can see why you would call it a stretch to suggest (1) that that’s even possible; (2) that all 10 fall under that category; (3) that any religion should claim it for itself, if that is the case. ”

    I could see that, particularly looking at the fact that chimpanzees (our closest relatives in the animal kingdom) have a type of morality that is quite similar to ours. Though the rules about not worshiping other gods is not something I see as being a part of any natural law.

    “That code has become a reference point for legal code in Western tradition, undeniably.”

    Again, I heartily disagree. One need only look and see that only 3 of the commandments have any equivalent in our legal code. The other 7 are nowhere to be found, and the legal concept of religious freedom specifically contradicts some of them.

    “Maybe we deserve a little more credit than that. Thoughts?”

    People deserve credit for doing good things. But I see nothing to suggest that they wouldn’t do the same good things had religion not existed, just using different reasoning to do so.

  5. Covetousness: Your Steven King argument is a straw man argument. That way of thinking would make parables, whose aim is to teach a moral lesson, morally objectionable. Covetousness has the connotation of desire and/or envy. Steven King does not necessarily have to desire or intend his the thoughts of his imaginary characters in order to make his stories believable enough to convince his readers and write a compelling story.

    Here’s a parallel example. My personal opinion is that FBC mixed martial arts is immoral, because the aim is basically to torture your opponent into surrendering even if you might cause him permanent physical injury. I won’t watch it. However, I thought the movie Warrior was an excellent movie. I can distinguish between the story where fighting is only representational, on the one hand, and two guys who are actually trying to pummel one another, on the other. Story uses real life conflict, and representing brutal realities serve to catalyze deeper interior conflicts and deliver a very strong message. Warrior did this very well and it gave me a huge catharsis. FBC does not. I also distinguish between Hollywood and real life. The actors on the screen were not really trying to injure one another. But if you extend “covetousness” to mean simply “imagining bad things” in every scenario, then you might as well throw out storytelling altogether.

    Here is what we mean by covetousness as distinct from, say, stealing and why it is wrong. A potential bank robber who recognizes at the last minute that his plot has a flaw and decides he’d better walk away from the bank is no less a corrupt individual, since he intended to rob a bank and would have doen it if he thought he could get away with it. He did not commit the crime of stealing, but his cunning mind is still a faulty one and he continues to be a hidden threat to society unless he overcomes his desire to plot and steal.

    There may be no imputable law in this case, but that does not determine the immorality of the intention. Again, it’s not all about civil law, but rather moral sense. Envy, per se, is natural and can have greater or lesser weight, as in the case of the girl who hates another girl because she secretly wants to have the other girls boyfriend — that’s petty. But someone needs to tell that girl she needs to cut it out with those thoughts and go find her own boyfriend, because she’s probably hardening herself into a bitter person. We would not put a her in jail for that, but we would not call that her a nice person either. The teaching element of the law serves a role for the betterment of individuals and society. It’s not all about codifying principles of illicit outward behavior. The aim is to instruct people to live virtue and avoid vice. Why is that silly?

    Adultery:You would be right if we reduced the meaning of adultery to the narrow sense you are using. It’s a licit and precise use of the term, but not the only legitimate use. What was the Hebrew word that English translators translated as ‘adultery’ — I don’t know either. It just might have meant exactly and exclusively what you are taking it to mean. But seeing as how words have wider and stricter ranges of meaning in human language, and the ranges of those meanings grow and shrink over time, if we are going to quibble over the semantics of terms, it seems far less reasonable to adopt your interpretation, which suggests that rape is fair game but don’t fool around after you are married even if both partners consent to it. It just does not make sense to take that perspective. That’s why, traditionally, rape is prohibited by this commandment (I have not looked at the Catechism lately, but it documents that tradition).

    Do chimpanzees allow rape? Are they capable of rape?

    The word adultery should be understood broadly as fornication, sexual intercourse outside of marriage (another whole can of worms).

    It is hard to make the case “if religion had not existed” because it’s hard to find a case in recorded history where religion has not played a role in the development of human society. Communism, as atheistic as it aims to be, assumes and builds upon the traditions of previous societies in very many ways.

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