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Religious Tolerance logo

 The Ten Commandments

What they are and who they are for

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What are the Ten Commandments?

The Ten Commandments is an ancient set of instructions for living. They are also called the "Decalogue" or "Decalog." There are three versions of the Decalog in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), in Exodus 20:2-17, Exodus 34:12-26, and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Exodus 20 is the most commonly used grouping. They are accepted by Judaism, and Christianity as a summary of some of the important rules of behavior that God expects of humanity. Muslims believe that modern versions of the book of Exodus and other books in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) have been heavily modified from the originals. However, there are passages in the Qur'an -- the Muslim holy book -- that agree closely with each of the Ten Commandments.

Religious conservatives generally agree that the Decalog:

bulletWas written by God.
bulletWas given by God to Moses more than 3 millennia ago.
bulletIs still binding on everyone today.

Religious liberals generally agree that:

bulletThe Documentary Hypothesis is valid. i.e. the first five books of the Bible, including Exodus and Deuteronomy, were written by a number of anonymous authors:
bulletThe Exodus 20 version was written circa 922 to 722 BCE, by an unknown author who is traditionally referred to as "E."
bulletThe Exodus 34 version was written by "J," sometime between 848 and 722 BCE.
bulletThe Deuteronomy version was written circa 622 BCE by "D".
bulletThere are many differences between today's culture, and the tribal society of the ancient Israelites over 2,600 years ago. Slavery has been abolished. Modern democracies extend religious freedom and tolerance to all of its citizens. Women are able to vote and enjoy equal rights to men. North America has a multi-cultural and multi-faith culture. Thus some of the Ten Commandments no longer apply, for reasons described below. Attempting to promote them throughout the U.S. or Canada would generate alienation, resentment, and anger. Violence, including school violence is possible.

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Are the Ten Commandments for everyone?

Most people have only a vague idea of the contents of the Ten Commandments. They might recall that some of the commandments prohibit behaviors like adultery, murder, lying, etc. Thus they might believe that followers of all religions, from Asatru to Zoroastrianism, should find them equally acceptable. However, these beliefs are mistaken. The first four commandments (or five, depending on the format that you use) require specific worship practices that are unacceptable to people of many, perhaps most, religions.

The Ten Commandments raise some serious problems in modern society. Using the Protestant/Eastern Orthodox format derived from Exodus 20:

bulletThere are concerns about at least four of the commandments in a multi-faith culture which is dedicated to religious freedom, religious tolerance, personal responsibility and an end to sexism and racism:
bulletThe first commandment prohibits the worship of any deity other than Jehovah; this condemns such religions as Buddhism (some traditions), Hinduism, Sikhism, Wicca, etc. It is in direct conflict with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which guarantees freedom of religious belief. It is intolerant of other faiths and could generate hatred and violence against minority religions.
bulletThe second commandment prohibits the use of religious statues, the taking of photographs, drawing of paintings. etc. It promises that God will punish anyone who worships statues. In addition, their children, grand-children, great-grand-children and perhaps great-great-grand children will also be punished by a God of intolerance and wrath. These concepts are deeply offensive to many people who believe that a person should be held responsible for their own sins and crimes, not those committed by parents, grandparents, great-grand-parents, etc. Also, this is in conflict with the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom. Many religious groups and individuals use statues in various ways. Prohibiting or belittling these practices could also generate religious friction and even violence.
bulletThe fourth commandment calls for people to not work on Saturday. This intrudes on the lives and practices of many people, particularly followers of faith groups that do not worship on Saturdays. 
bulletThe tenth commandment treats women as objects that are owned by their husbands. It recognizes human slavery as a normal part of society. The commandment is sexist and has racist overtones. 
bulletAnother difficulty is the principle of separation of church and state which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled is implied by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Government offices and public schools cannot constitutionally promote one religion over another; they also cannot promote religion as superior to a secular belief system. Students are free to pray in most situations at public schools: they are free to to carry religious texts, are free to wear religious clothing, and are usually free to form Bible clubs. However, the school administration itself cannot constitutionally post religious texts or institute a morning prayer in the classroom. The Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments cannot be posted in the classrooms of public schools, unless they are part of a display that includes laws from other religions and from secular sources. Displaying behavior laws from other religions is unacceptable to many of the people who are promoting the display of the Ten Commandments. Alternatives to the Ten Commandments that can probably be legally placed have been suggested.

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Enforcing the Ten Commandments:

The Society for the Practical establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments is a somewhat radical group which promotes the replacements of the world's national constitutions and United Nation's documents with the Ten Commandments. Some passages from their web site are:

bulletEvery human, Jew, Christian, or other, is responsible to perfectly obey the Ten Commandments. They are the only laws that are perfectly suited for all nations.
bulletA son or daughter who either curses or strikes his parent shall be executed. Adulterers shall be executed. Persons engaging in homosexual behavior shall be executed. A woman who has an abortion, and her physician, shall be executed.
bulletDocuments like the U.S. Constitution and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights are "moral evils in the sight of God" and need to be replaced by the Ten Commandments.
bullet"Atheism is deliberate effort to never admit the truth about God."
bullet"Atheism is the ultimate [form] of satanism"
bullet"...in many, if not all cases, atheists are demon-possessed."
bulletIt is the Atheists who are perpetuating physician assisted suicide, evolution, abortion access, equal rights for homosexuals, pornography, pedophilia, etc.
bullet"God requires death for homosexuality...homosexuality...can be and is often more heinous than murder."
bullet"Any homosexual who thinks he or she is accepted by God and His true holy Church has to be cursed with the deepest depths of blindness and satanic depravity."
bulletThe U.S. Constitution has a "poisonous effects upon the society." It gives men rights and freedoms "to think speak and act in ways opposite to their God-given and thus rightful role as males." It also distorts the rightful role of women. 1

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  1. The Society for the Practical establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments has a web page at: http://www.tencommandments.org/

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Copyright © 2000 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-6
Latest update: 2007-SEP-25
Author: B.A. Robinson

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