What Difference Does it Make? Contrasts Between the Ten Amendments
and the Ten Commandments
By Ron Lindsay
Some of those reading the articles and other postings on this web site might mistakenly infer that humanists and other freethinkers are adamantly opposed to the values embodied in the Ten Commandments. This is not necessarily so -- at least not if one has in mind some of the fundamental moral rules set forth in the popular versions of the Ten Commandments. (We refer to the “popular versions” because, as other postings on this site confirm, there are significant differences between the rules usually accepted as the Ten Commandments and the various sets of commandments actually listed in the Old Testament.)
All, or virtually all, human societies have had moral and legal prohibitions against unjustified killing, theft and deceit. Such prohibitions are often referred to by scholars as the “common morality.” These rules are “common” because they are indispensable for ensuring cooperation and reciprocity among groups of individuals. Human beings could not live together and societies could not function if such rules were not accepted by most persons. Humanists accept these fundamental moral principles just like almost everyone else.
However, the Ten Commandments (again, as popularly understood) contain more than these fundamental and noncontroversial moral principles regarding homicide, theft and deceit. They also contain rules relating to the religious practices of specific cultures. Moreover, the purported authority for the Ten Commandments -- the alleged pronouncements of a supernatural being -- is not an authority that humanists would acknowledge and accept. Furthermore, the means by which the Ten Commandments are to be applied to specific situations, namely the interpretations provided by theologians and other self-appointed religious leaders, is unacceptable to humanists as a decision-making procedure, just as it was unacceptable to those who proposed and adopted the Bill of Rights. Indeed, there are important contrasts between the Ten Commandments and the Ten Amendments and these contrasts underscore why we believe the Ten Amendments deserve our respect more than the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Amendments Reflect Democratic Choice
The Bill of Rights was the product of prolonged debate and deliberation. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by itself went through at least a half-dozen proposed versions before the final version was approved by Congress and then ratified by the states, along with most of the other provisions of the Bill of Rights. (Two proposed amendments to the Constitution were not ratified by the states.) Admittedly, the franchise was limited at the time, so not all adults could participate in the voting for representatives. However, we have had universal suffrage for some time now and the Bill of Rights, along with other provisions of the Constitution, is subject to being revised if the people so decide.
By contrast, if the Old Testament is to be credited, the Ten Commandments were imposed on the ancient Israelites by a man who assigned to himself the sole responsibility for acting as an intermediary for the supernatural being who allegedly provided the commandments. To say that Moses brooked no dissent would be an understatement. The Old Testament clearly states that those who declined to worship the deity endorsed by Moses were ruthlessly exterminated. After receiving the commandments, and expressing his outrage at those who had worshiped the statue of a golden calf, Moses ordered his followers to go “throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor,” with the result that “there fell … that day about three thousand men.” Exodus 32: 27-29. No debate, no discussion, no choice. Accept the commandments … or die.
The Ten Amendments Are Relevant to Contemporary Society
The Founders chose the language of the Bill of Rights carefully, recognizing that this language may have to be applied to situations they could scarcely envisage. For the most part, they chose to adopt broad principles as opposed to specific directives. Their wisdom has been demonstrated in the way the Ten Amendments have been interpreted in a reasonable and prudent fashion to address novel situations. For example, the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures was applied to wiretapping once this technology was developed, even though the Founders could not imagine this technology.
By contrast, some of the Ten Commandments, in particular the commandments dealing with religious practices, reflect the peculiar views of a nomadic, semi-barbaric people of ancient times. Is there any contemporary relevance to the prohibition on “graven images”? To the prohibition on taking the deity’s name “in vain”? Note that these prohibitions have equal weight with the more revered prohibitions on killing, stealing and bearing “false witness.”
The Ten Amendments Can Be Interpreted and Applied in a Rational Manner that Reflects the Will of the People
Many who disagree with the Supreme Court’s decisions on various issues may take issue with the view expressed in this heading. Clearly, the Court is not infallible and appointments to the Court all too often reflect partisan politics. Nonetheless, litigants are able to present their contrasting views to the Court, which then has an obligation to explain and justify its decision. Moreover, Congress and the people have the right to overturn a Supreme Court decision if they find it unacceptable. In fact, this has happened a few times in our history. Finally, those who are unhappy with Supreme Court nominees can indicate their displeasure at the next presidential election. All these checks and balances ensure that we can resolve constitutional issues in a rational manner.
Disagreements about the application of Ten Commandments cannot be resolved in this manner. As other postings on this site indicate, the major religions that accept the Ten Commandments cannot even agree on their wording! As to their application to concrete situations, at the end of the day, religious adherents cannot do anything beyond asserting “My interpretation is right; your interpretation is wrong.” Religious dogma is always presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis (or a take-it-or-die basis).
The Ten Amendments Guarantee Fundamental Liberties
This last point emphasizes one salient, critical contrast between the Ten Amendments and the Ten Commandments. The Bill of Rights protects our fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, thought and religion. The Ten Commandments, at least in part, seek to mandate religious beliefs and observances that many find antithetical to their own views. Anyone who values our liberties, as our Founders did, should not be in any doubt about which set of principles -- the Ten Amendments or the Ten Commandments -- is more important for preserving these liberties and our democratic way of life.