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THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (A.K.A. THE DECALOGUE)

Their current status

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Topics covered in this essay

bulletComparison of the commandments with current social beliefs
bulletAre they being followed?
bulletDo the Commandments need changing?
bulletPublic knowledge of the Commandments
bulletSurveys

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Comparison of the Decalogue with modern social beliefs:

The Ten Commandments have widespread respect in North America, even among some Atheists, Agnostics, and other non-Christians. However, many of the individual  commandments are currently ignored. Some -- particularly those dealing with slavery, expecting non-Judeo-Christians to worship only of Jehovah, and treating women as property -- are considered quite immoral and intolerant by today's secular standards.

The following table compares the original commandments with today's practices:

# Topic Commandment Secular response
1 No other Gods Only the Hebrew God is to be worshiped. Our Multi-faith culture accepts worship of Buddhist, Hindu & other Gods/Goddesses.
2 No graven images No images or likeness allowed of anything in heaven or on earth. Images are frequently used: crucifix, cross, statues,  photos, symbols, etc.
3 God's name in vain Keep any oath to God made while signing a contract. No longer applicable. We do not usually take oaths when signing contracts
4 Sabbath Worship every Saturday. No longer done by almost all Christians.
5 Elderly parents Honor them. Victims of childhood abuse often reject parents. Some store elderly parents in nursing homes.
6 No killing Do not murder people. Capital punishment and homicides widespread in the U.S. - higher than for other industrialized countries. Physician assisted suicide being introduced.
7 No adultery Men may not have sex with married or engaged women Not well followed. Various surveys indicate an adultery rate in vicinity of 40%.
8 No stealing Kidnapping people into slavery prohibited. Not applicable; slavery  abolished in North America.
9 False witness Perjury forbidden. Perjury remains a serious crime.
10 Coveting neighbor's possessions No coveting his house, wife, slaves, animals or any other possessions. Coveting is a feeling, not under conscious control, and thus is not a sin. We no longer keep slaves. Most of us no longer consider wives as property.

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Are the Ten Commandments being followed?

In modern-day society, we appear to have rejected many of the Ten Commandments. Even as we maintain a high level of respect for the Decalog, few people can fully recite them. Even fewer know their true meaning, and very few actually follow them as originally intended:

bulletCommandment still followed closely:
bullet#9 - Prohibition of perjury in courts.
bulletCommandments that are often broken:
bullet#5 - Abusive parents often not honored. About one in three elderly parents in nursing homes are abandoned by their families and never visited.
bullet#6 - Murder rate high, particularly in the U.S. Capital punishment is followed in many states. Assisted suicide is available in Oregon.
bullet#7 Adultery is widespread.
bulletCommandments considered redundant:
bullet#1 - Worship of other Gods is allowed in a multi-faith culture.
bullet#2 - Images (drawings, symbols, statues, photos) are acceptable.
bullet#3 - Oaths to God are no longer sworn when signing legal contracts.
bullet#4 - Saturday religious services are not widely practiced by Christians
bullet#8 - People in North America are no longer kidnapped into slavery.
bullet#10 - Our entire economy is based on coveting neighbor's property. Slavery has been abolished. Women are no longer considered property, except by abusive boyfriends and husbands. Coveting a neighbor's possessions is a feeling. Psychologists recognize that feelings are generally outside a person's control and are thus not sinful.

Of the above, there are three commandments whose current meanings are very different from the original. They have essentially been re-written:

bullet#3: This has changed from not violating an oath associated with a legal contract, to not using God's name when swearing.
bullet#7: This originally prohibited a man (whether married or not) from having sex with a woman who is married or engaged. It is now applicable to both men and women. Some have further expanded its meaning to include sexual activity between a married person and any person who is not their spouse (whether the latter person is married or not)
bullet#8: This originally banned kidnapping people into slavery. it is now interpreted to prohibit all stealing.

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Does the Decalog need to be changed?

Seventh Day Adventists and other Sabbatarian denominations (churches which worship on Saturday) believe that the original Ten Commandments, were intended as a universal set of rules for all people and eras. Thus they will never need to be revised; they will never go out of fashion. Other conservative Christian denominations generally agree, with the exception of #4 (worshiping on Saturday).

Religious liberals might point out that the sets of commandments were drafted some 3 millennia ago for a pre-scientific, religiously intolerant society in which women were considered property, slavery was widespread, numerous sins and crimes punished by the death penalty, religious freedom was restricted, and polygyny was common.  Since the Ten Commandments were written, western culture has changed in dozens of ways. We have, for example:

bulletBecome multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-faith.
bulletAbolished slavery.
bulletGiven women the vote.
bulletApproached equality of opportunity for men and women (except in the Armed Forces and religious spheres).
bulletReplaced polygyny with monogamy or serial monogamy.
bulletEssentially eliminated the death penalty in all western countries other than the U.S.
bulletBanned the practice of burning people alive.
bulletBegun to accept people with a minority sexual orientation as deserving of full human rights.
bulletIncreased the importance of individual human rights.

Elsewhere on this web site, we have outlined some of the negative effects that the Ten Commandments may have if posted in a government office or public school. Also listed are two attempts to produce revised sets of Ten Commandments that are compatible with modern society. 

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Public knowledge of the Ten Commandments:

A large percentage of people regard the Decalogue as being of prime importance. They are regarded by many as the fundamental moral commands of the Judeo-Christian faith. But not that many adults are aware of what the Ten commandments actually say:

bulletA poll by the Sunday Times in London England revealed that only 17% of Anglican clergy were able to cite all 10 commandments. The poll is believed to have been held in early 1997.
bulletWe are searching for other surveys. Any help would be appreciated.

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Surveys:

Dr. William Snell, Jr. of the Department of Psychology at Southeast Missouri State University is conducting a series of "Psychology Investigations" via the Internet. One survey called "Religion and the Ten Commandments"  It studies "people's views about religion and religiosity. Volunteers taking the survey are "asked to respond to a series of questions about the Ten Commandments, several other aspects of religion/religiosity, and parenting behaviors." A report on this study is not yet available. 1

The First Amendment Center and the American Journalism Review released the results of a poll on 2003-AUG-1. They found that:

bullet60% of adults said that it was acceptable to post the Ten Commandments in government offices.
bullet35% said that they should not.

N = 1,000. Margin of error is 3.1 percentage points. 2

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Related essays on this website:

bulletModern versions of the Ten Commandments
bulletRecent U.S. court rulings on separation of church and state
bulletThe Istook Constitutional Amendment
bulletPrayer in the public schools
bulletOrganizations dealing with church/state separation issues

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Reference:

  1. "...Psychology Investigations conduced by Dr. William E. Snell...," at: http://www4.semo.edu/
  2. "Survey: Majority of Americans OK With Ten Commandments, Pledge in Public," Religion News Service, 2003-AUG-5, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/

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Copyright 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-SEP-26
Author: B.A. Robinson

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