Monday, June 23, 2014

We’re All Going to Die!

Having ended my review of Vitruvius with a link to Guy McPherson’s Climate-change summary and update, where he explains his Near-Term Extinction (NTE) idea, it seems worthwhile to explore the matter more fully lest my readers conclude that I’m endorsing this particular brand of doomerism.  For those who learned about NTE and now find themselves filled with any sort of strong emotional reaction, read this.
Feel better?

I’m not going to discuss the merits of one case against the other, as I don’t have the time, inclination, or expertise to follow up on all the claims and references. I don’t know if McPherson is right or wrong or partially both right and wrong. In fact, despite inflammatory rhetoric and cherry-picked and debatable ‘facts’ on both sides, nobody knows the fate of the world for the next week, much less the next few decades. I rather hope he’s completely wrong, but the scenarios he lays out seem at least somewhat plausible. Instead of assessing whether or not we should believe in NTE, I want explore how it can be a useful idea irrespective of whether or not it’s true, how just considering it improves your humanity, and how people come to consider ideas dangerous.

Our present society seems obsessed with knowing only one story, or rather, determining the One True Story, which, as John Michael Greer points out in one of his early blog posts, is a deadly mistake. There may well be some sort of absolute truth to things, but we’ll never know it with any kind of absolute certainty. Science doesn’t work that way, but proceeds by induction, with each new measurement having the potential to reverse long established principles. As a consequence, science can never be completed. The data can never be fully collected; experiments are never finished and scientific knowledge never finally settled. Having only one hypothesis invites confirmation bias. Commitment to only one possible future leaves you vulnerable to the near certainty that you’ll get the future you don’t expect.

Human extinction as an abstract concept is easy enough; all species, as far as we know, go extinct. But it’s different to imagine witnessing the extinction and being part of it. Apocalypse stories are as old as history, likely because our species has lived through a few major global catastrophes, such as post-ice-age flooding with rising sea levels and some serious volcanic eruptions, but we did survive and there are always survivors in our narratives. Even in the event of all-out nuclear war or a comet impact we imagine people living as long as necessary in underground bunkers. NTE adds a new story, one where not only do we have complete die-off, but it happens in our lifetime, and it’s our fault.

John Michael Greer dismisses NTE (as he must to fit his own story) as another example of apocalyptic narrative like every other failed prediction before it. As he sees it, NTE is an excuse to give up and do nothing, mocking McPherson as peddling “dispairoin” in contrast to McPherson’s detraction of his critics’ “hopium” peddling. As much as Greer’s ideas have and continue to influence my own, far more than McPherson ever could, it seems disingenuous to take the possibility of NTE off the table. The failure of apocalyptic fantasies to manifest does not preclude their possibilities, though they may remain next to nil. Greer seems committed to assuming all ideas reduce to their underlying narratives, which is of course true, but the question remains if the narratives accurately describe reality or not. The answer to that question can only be ascertained after the fact, and by then we will have deluded ourselves into thinking that the narratives were obvious, or else (as Nassim Taleb points out) will have constructed new stories so that we can think that they were obvious. Yet, if NTE is true, then no one will be left to speculate about it.

Memento mori, Latin for “remember death”, was a phrase whispered in the ear of a conquering Roman general to remind him that for all his present glory, he too will die, and thus should retain some measure of humility. And so must we all. The importance of the contemplation of our mortality is currently quite unpopular in modern industrial societies. The delusion of immortality, once recognized as a common youthful mistake, now feeds the imaginations of wishful technologists who dream of robot bodies housing their uploaded minds in a synthetic utopia, ironically unaware that their fantasies differ in no appreciable way from the fundamentalist Christian rapture or the salvation of humanity by beneficent aliens. Those technologists with less implausible dreams than an immanent super-AI that solves all our problems are working on things like treating aging as a disease, or nanotech that repairs our cells like so many miniature surgeons. These approaches make quite a few spurious assumptions, like using machine metaphors for organisms, or thinking robots small enough to pass through cell membranes can’t possibly do something unexpectedly harmful. Besides, the ability to imagine something does not mean that it exists, or can exist, or should exist. Even if the technology to accomplish these feats were not about to become economically infeasible in short order, or if they could be free of the unforeseen, and often horrific, consequences that accompany almost all of our technological “advances”, there is no reason at all to think that an end to death would be a desirable state of affairs.

Death gives life meaning, and without it we would cease to be human. The problems resulting from overpopulation are already scheduled to result in huge complications and likely mass die-off. Evolution proceeds by the death of older generations freeing up resources for the younger ones; science (and culture generally) proceeds in the same way. As Max Plank said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The end of death, even were it possible, would mean the end of meaningful life and the end of any sense of progress, however dubious that concept may be. Thus, those who seek physical immortality are profoundly anti-human, and anti-life. “Afterlife” and “after-death” are, after all, semantically identical; life and death are sides of a coin. To oppose one is to oppose the other.

The contemplation of mortality, however, enriches life by forcing decisions and value judgments about what to do with the time we have. Far too many humans waste precious years doing (and not doing) things they will regret on their deathbeds. The cultural fantasy of perpetual youth reinforces the problem and yields middle-aged adults unprepared for the right-side of the curve of a lifetime, with the attending psychological crises now common phenomena.  Greer and others, such as Jared Diamond, have argued that the same process plays out in civilizations that fail to consider that their lifetimes mirror those of individuals.

Meditations upon corpses are an integral part of traditional Buddhist practice; the idea there being to provoke disgust with physicality and thus motivate striving for the alleged permanence of nirvana, with the resulting acceptance of mortality from this seen as side-effect. The philosophical obsession with the impermanence of material forms has a long history in the West as well, starting with Buddha’s contemporary Pythagoras (and likely before him), on through Platonism and Neoplatonism and eventually Christianity. Western philosophy contrasts the physical world with the spiritual world, a dualistic system of binaries including evil-changing-multiplicity versus good-unchanging-unity. These types of worldview seem to be born of harsh times, when escape from the toils of physical life becomes the only reasonable concept of salvation. There is reason to believe that it was not always this way, and that the emerging religious sensibility of our age is reversing the metaphors. Greer refers to this fear of physical life as “biophobia”, a world-hating anti-cosmic ideology characterized by escapist afterlife fantasies and a denigration of matter that contaminates the thinking even of some modern non-religious people with obsessive concern about sterile environments and ‘pure’ substances. It remains to be seen if the relative comfort of modern life that possibly gives rise to the non-biophobic, life-affirming, world-loving attitudes will survive the crushing depression that the age of limits is set to impose.

And yet, the concept of NTE adds something new. It’s not hard to imagine your own death, or even some far-off abstract extinction of all life on Earth by the Sun’s red-giant phase enveloping the Earth’s orbit, but the death of our entire species within our lifetimes seems unprecedented. The worst visions of environmentalists, involving things like the cutting down of the last tree or the melting of all ice, rarely assert human extinction, and if they do it’s imagined as a problem our grandchildren or more distant descendants might face. Seriously thinking about personally witnessing a good part of our species’ extinction (up until your own time comes) lends a visceral urgency to the meditation, something not dealt with in religion or philosophy thus far.  By considering the possibility of NTE, even those self-interested people who consider it okay to sacrifice future generations for a few more years of opulent industrial lifestyles (a position fairly characterized as evil) must conclude that they too have skin in the game.

As an idea, NTE therefore has the potential to increase empathy, though not necessarily. McPherson certainly thinks that it does, as he advocates that we collectively go through a grieving process and treat the living creatures of Earth, including ourselves, as if in hospice. He recommends that people adopt a simple environmentally-friendly lifestyle and try to be kind and generous with each other, because no one is going to survive and the best we can do is minimize suffering as we go down. Initially, he thought (along the lines of Derrick Jensen’sEndgame”) that bringing down industrial civilization within a couple years could conceivably slow down the positive feedback loops enough to allow some species, maybe even some of us, to survive. But recently he’s considered the potential impacts of the 400+ nuclear reactors which must be continually fueled with electricity lest they go into meltdown, and also of global dimming – the phenomenon of air pollution actually lowering the atmospheric temperature by a couple degrees that was discovered when airline traffic was grounded for a few days after the events of September 11, 2001. So it appears that the sudden collapse of industrial civilization would result in NTE by different means.

Greer critiques NTE by suggesting that believing there is no hope will lead people to give up, do nothing, and continue to live their current lifestyles, even though this is neither what McPherson advocates nor how he lives. In fact, the lifestyles of Greer and McPherson are rather similar, with the exception that Greer refuses to drive or fly and insists that McPherson’s continued flights around the country to give presentations demonstrate bad faith on the part of the environmental movement. This is because Greer believes in Gandhi’s admonishment to “be the change that you wish to see in the world” – an idea that radical environmentalists like McPherson and Jensen explicitly reject by framing environmentalist action not as a popularity contest to win minds, but as a war to be won by force, political or otherwise. McPherson argues (correctly) that the planes will fly whether or not he is in them, nor should he to be viewed as a role model. Although McPherson believes humans are finished, he still associates with radical environmentalism in a bid to spare some fraction of other species.

For his part, Greer also recommends a grieving process, but for industrial civilization rather than humanity. Both men anticipate huge effects from both peak oil and global warming including the end of industrial civilization and massive die-off of humans and many other species; their predictions differ only in magnitude rather than kind. Greer’s rejection of NTE appears to be based solely upon its similarity to other apocalyptic narratives, despite these almost never involving total extinction and ignoring the geological fact that extinction-level events can and do happen, as well as the assumption that people will respond to NTE by not changing anything. However, people who accept NTE do not seem to be continuing life as usual, but making radical changes, sometimes going off-grid, taking up organic gardening, and caring for each other in a more profound way than they did before, all of which I presume Greer would find agreeable.

Of course, it’s conceivable that some people may do nothing, or worse, go on a hedonistic polluting binge having given up all hope for the future, but we should not judge ideas by how a psychopathic minority might react to them. If a majority were to respond in this manner, it would be fair to say that NTE is a dangerous idea. But then, the belief in progress that got us into this mess in the first place is then definitely a more dangerous idea. But can an idea really be dangerous? From the perspective of an industrialist, if everyone went back to living off the land and quit their jobs, industry would be ruined, and therefore voluntary simplicity would be a dangerous idea. Creationists think evolution is a dangerous idea, and evolutionists think likewise about creationism. It would seem that “dangerous idea” is more of a rhetorical label for a personally disagreeable position than an objectively discernible notion.

Perhaps a better criterion can be derived if we require that “dangerous” involves some substantial risk to society. Creationism and evolution then can’t really be dangerous, as someone’s ideas about these things have no consequence upon anything in their life or those of anyone else. Even telling captive school children that Jesus rode dinosaurs or that the god of monotheism doesn’t exist can’t be considered serious harm in any real sense, as other ideas can readily compete with them. These are merely ideas, we would say, leading to no appreciable harm. It may, in fact, be more harmful (but only on a mental level) to remain sheltered from a wide range of competing ideas, which would inhibit the mechanism of memetic cultural evolution, lead to shallow belief systems, and undermine the basic project of philosophy.

The idea that owning people as property is morally acceptable is now widely considered an evil and dangerous idea. Yet slavers argued for a long time that abolition was a dangerous idea threatening the economy and social order of the day. Some people may consider the argument that the abolition of slavery had more to do with the industrial revolution than the progression of moral conscience a dangerous idea, as it’s then easy to imagine slavery returning as industrialism runs out of fuel. Regardless of its implications, if true, it would be a costly mistake to ignore it, especially for those at risk of enslavement (which is highly doubtful to fall along racial lines). So even in this case, the dangerousness of the ideas is relative to the moral reasoning of individuals.

Heresy as a taboo has been with us as long as monotheism. Ancient pagan thought and philosophy, being naturally diverse, used the term to mean simply “choice”, “opinion”, or “school of thought” and it was the task of educators to provide numerous ‘heresies’ for consideration and debate. Monotheism turned the word into the pejorative we know today. Thus, we can now have scientific heresies, with certain ideas considered too dangerous for research due to political correctness or for their potential consequences. Steven Pinker wrote an essay called “In Defense of Dangerous Ideas” as the preface to the collection of such ideas in “What Is Your Dangerous Idea?”. Pinker’s essay is worth reading, as he covers the topic more thoroughly than I can here. Although his concern is with scientific inquiries that violate social taboos, such as racial and gender differences, rather than the more obviously harmful ideas of weapons research or things like the insertion of “terminator” genes into food crops.  The very concept of dangerous ideas is thus fraught with complications and looks like a philosophical quagmire.

Which gets us back to NTE. From Greer’s perspective, NTE is a dangerous idea because it has the potential to lead to inaction when he believes certain actions will be helpful in cushioning the coming crises. From McPherson’s perspective, Greer’s theory of catabolic collapse is a dangerous idea because it gives people false hope when he thinks their time would be better spent psychologically preparing themselves for the inevitable extinction. From the perspectives of peak oil and climate change denialists, both Greer and McPherson are spreading dangerous ideas that threaten the economy and the social order of our day. Who is right and who is wrong? Does it matter?    

I contend that it doesn’t matter who is correct about these differing predictions. Failure to consider any one of them leaves us less capable of recognizing the signs of whichever one does eventually develop. There are always many possible worlds with many alternatives, and the ones that history will finally settle on can’t be known until after they occur. Having multiple stories keeps us flexible. The rhetorical hammer of ‘dangerous ideas’ is itself a dangerous idea used to shut down consideration of different theories.

The one thing we can be certain of is that we are all going to die. (Contrary to the aphorism, taxes are not certain.) Whether we all die collectively in a mass extinction is uncertain, but taking the possibility off the table is a mistake, as is regarding it as a forgone conclusion. We live in a world composed of ever-changing probabilities of various degrees, making convictions of certainty a terrible vice.

This discussion of dangerous ideas developed from my reading of Peter J. Carroll’s latest book which concludes with a grimoire for obtaining alien knowledge that poses inherent dangers to our sanity. This struck me as interesting, as I had not before considered any ideas to be actually dangerous. Therefore, although I’ve merely touched upon it thus far, for my next post I will write more explicitly about magick as I review Carroll’s “The EPOCH”.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Taking Out the Ten Commandments

A long, long time ago, in 2001, back when I watched cable news incessantly, there was a flurry of stories about schools or local governments getting sued for posting the Decalogue. The interviews mostly followed the same script, with the secular opponent claiming a violation of church and state, and the religious proponent making the fantastical claim that Judeo-Christian ethics generally, and the Ten Commandments specifically, are the basis of the legal system of the United States.  Not once did I see this blatant falsity questioned by any moderator.  Instead, both the reporters and secularists would nod their heads and repeat their talking points about progress and separation of church and state as if nothing preposterous had been said at all.

This produced a rare spasm of motivation to write, back then, and I produced a rather flippant little paper critiquing the Ten Commandments and arguing that they have nothing at all to do with American jurisprudence. While wondering what to write about for my next blog post, I considered my old essay, as it was well received among the few friends that saw it, but last I heard this was settled law; the courts consistently ordered the removal of religious signs and monuments in public buildings. The paper seemed anachronistic, attacking out of the blue when the Ten Commandments weren’t in the airspace of the media-driven collective conversation. Nor did I think that they would be, but history does seem to repeat itself, and I was surprised to read of this and then this on The Wild Hunt. It seems that a city council composed of Christians has forgotten the rules about monuments and gotten itself sued, this time by Wiccans, which gives the story a good newsworthy spin.

Since giving up TV a few years ago, and weaning myself from internet TV and most “news” since, I’ve become increasingly and blissfully unaware of pop culture and consumer trends, the absurd blunders of celebrities/politicians, distant weather systems and natural disasters, and all the other miasma that has no measurable effect on my life, and hence should have none upon my mind. So I haven’t seen any of the reported mainstream media coverage of the story this time around, but I suspect it’s similar to last time (but now improved with witches!). The article in The Wild Hunt mentions that there was “a great deal of talk about the Ten Commandments being the foundation of law in the US” during the unveiling of the monument, but gives no further comment.

So I decided to update and revise my original essay to explore the subject more thoroughly, although in the process I realized that my original thesis was overstated; a couple of the Commandments have been the source of certain laws, but not the ones against killing and stealing that readily get cited in debates as evidence for the legal relevance of the whole set. No, it’s the injunctions against working on the Sabbath and adultery that have inspired onerous laws designed to enforce Christian cultural norms and continue the long-standing tradition of conversion tactics imposed by force of law. So while the Ten Commandments have had some influence, it is still the case that they never were among the foundations of US law.

Having sat on this essay for a couple months now and thinking I’d again missed the window of opportunity in the news cycle, I was not going to publish it, but given the recent decision by the Supreme Court in Town of Greece vs. Galloway (pdf) wherein the Catholic majority declared explicitly Christian prayer before government meetings open to the public to be okay, it seems worthy once again to post it. Although it does not address the issue of government sponsored prayer, the tangential belief in the Judeo-Christian basis for the United States, seemingly now endorsed by the highest court in the land, deserves harsh critique. Therefore, I intend to show that not only are the Ten Commandments not the basis of US law, but they are not very good as a moral code for modern people in the first place.

Let’s examine each of the Commandments in greater detail.

1.       Thou shalt have no other gods before me. - Exodus 20:3

So with the very first of the Ten Commandments, the god of the Jews, having brought them out of Egypt (Ex. 20:2), tells them that he is the most important god for them.  He doesn’t say that he’s the god of everyone; only the Israelites are being addressed. Some sorts of Christian have accepted a type of idea of reference that encourages them to believe the words in the Bible are really their universal god writing directly to them, and also to everyone else. While the story suggests a localized tribal god, Christians generalize this to a god of the entire world and all humanity. Curiously, Yahweh doesn’t say that they can’t have other gods, just none before him. He’s jealous, you see, which one would think would make jealousy a virtue, but wait for the last commandment for the irony. However one chooses to interpret it, the first Commandment is clearly a religious statement and entirely unconstitutional by the First Amendment if one tried to make it a law.

2.       Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. – Exodus 20:4

While it seems like a general prohibition against art (the Muslim version is taken as such, which is why Islamic art consists mostly of geometric designs), the god of Moses seems primarily concerned about the worship of images, as is clear from the next two verses where Yahweh threatens the great-grandchildren of his enemies.  This is therefore another religious command that would be unconstitutional if it were law. The banning of iconography and statuary severely limits the opportunity for polytheistic experience by not providing anchors for the gods to manifest in dreams or hallucinations. And of course, the vast majority of Christian denominations simply ignore this commandment.

3.       Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. – Exodus 20:7

With this command, Moses’ god ensures that his name is considered holy and unspeakable.  This ploy worked so well that no one can now know with any certainty the correct pronunciation of YHVH.  I have a strong suspicion that the true pronunciation of YHVH is “Yee-hah-woh”, derived from the ancient Greek transcription of YHVH as IAO in the Hermetic writings; since Greek lacks the consonants of the Tetragrammaton, and Hebrew lacks vowels, it is a simple matter to put the two together. Now that you know a plausible pronunciation, you can try to take it vain, assuming it’s your god. Make sure to use the proper name though, censored spellings like “G-d” miss the point, and exclamations like “god damn these commandments” don’t count because the word “god” denotes a species of spiritual being, not the name of one of them. In any case, this is again a religious dictate.  I’m fairly sure that taking any name you want in vain is protected by the First Amendment.

4.       Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: – Exodus 20:8-10

The Sabbath day is Saturday.  Sunday, as the Lord’s Day, was adopted as the holy day for some Christians in distinction from the Jewish Sabbath. The Catholics even brag about their power to change one of the commandments, as evidence of their power generally. Those Christians who avoid work on Sunday, but not Saturday would seem to be in violation of this commandment, for “sabbath” does not mean any weekly day of rest, but Saturday only, as “shabbetai” means “Saturn”. Yet, Sunday is the first day of the week, a day for beginning new works, not resting as is appropriate to Saturn. But the etymology of “Sabbath” has become forgotten, and only the meaning of simply ‘day of rest’ or just ‘holiday’ remains. Even the Wiccans ended up calling their 8 seasonal holidays “sabbats”.

Although this commandment is obviously of a religious nature, it has been the source of so-called blue laws, mostly mandating stores to be closed on Sundays as per Christian custom. Going back to colonial days, these laws have been gradually going away as secularism and consumerism gain cultural currency. Christians, recognizing the continuing loss of their virtual theocracy once held through a tyranny of the majority, frame the growing enforcement of separation of church and state as a persecution of their traditional values. Yet, the courts have supported Sunday closure laws, arguing, in the face of all evidence, that they have historical precedent, and so have become secularized. You know, like Christmas. Despite most governments yielding to consumer pressure for the right to shop on Sundays, a few states, counties, and cities continue to enforce closures and ban the sale of certain items, particularly alcohol, on Sundays. In at least one town, stores are closed by unofficial agreement and mowing one’s lawn on a Sunday can have negative social consequences. Of course, this is lenient compared to Yahweh’s choice of punishment: “Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” (Exodus 31:14).

It seems likely that taking regular time off from work both for mental and physical rest contributes toward good health, and most people naturally do so daily, weekly, and at larger intervals with vacations. Demanding that everyone take the same day of the week off and imposing the rule as a law seems extreme. Different people will function better with different schedules, and there is no reason to think there is anything special about resting one day per week versus a day every 9 days, or an hour of meditation every day. I’m of the opinion that government should not be turning uncertain health advice into law, especially if that advice has sectarian religious origins.

5.       Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. – Exodus 20:12

This would be common sense back in a world where your parents can legally kill you, but it’s hard to imagine as an enforceable law in modern times. It’s probably not even a good idea in all situations.  Victims of parental abuse should not honor their abusers, but Moses’ god makes no exceptions.  This seems more worthy of an aphorism than an edict from the Most High. As important as family is, wouldn’t the additional instruction to “Honor your children” make it better? Or even a more general commandment like, “Respect other people”?  So far, the First Amendment mostly grants the right to disrespect people, so long as it doesn’t cross over into slander, libel, or harassment, although I’m sure there are people who would jump at the chance to criminalize disrespect and hurt feelings generally. The Code of Hammurabi gives us this gem, “If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off.” I don’t suppose many people would advocate that now. Of course, the Biblical punishment (Exodus 21:15) is more severe: “And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.” In case anyone thinks striking your parent is an extreme offense requiring the Draconian punishment, we also find this: “For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death” (Leviticus 20:9). Then again, there does seem to be a distasteful trend towards criminalizing childhood rebelliousness. How many parents today wouldn’t mind seeing their kid in handcuffs for talking back?

6.       Thou shalt not kill. – Exodus 20:13

Eventually, by the second half of the list, Yahweh tells the Israelites something recognizable as a common law.  It’s important not to generalize the word “kill” since the original Hebrew translates more accurately as “murder”, and there are exceptions for self-defense, executing criminals, and making war (especially against any tribes living in the Promised Land). Even so, some religious adherents following similar rules against taking life go so far as to strain their drinking water to spare the microbes.  Just about every society has a prohibition against murder, so this commandment is not so special to the history of law, much less is it the basis of laws against murder.  Any sensible individual or society will come up with this rule on their own without the need for a god telling them that murder is wrong. Even in Genesis, it’s clear that people know murder is wrong from the story of Cain and Abel, long before Yahweh lays down the law.

7.       Thou shalt not commit adultery. – Exodus 20:14

Adultery was outlawed by most ancient civilizations and is still illegal in some form in almost half of the states in the US. Definitions and punishments vary wildly from place to place and across time. Most ancient definitions only considered the marital status of the woman, as marriage was primarily about property rights and ensuring the man’s offspring were really his. In modern secular countries, where sexual freedom is considered something like a right, and with many people having trouble reconciling the idea of marriage as an idealistic love bond between souls with its obvious historical roots in contract law, the outlawing of adultery is increasingly seen as outside the proper role of government – legislating morality being fraught with difficulties in a multicultural society.  Modern definitions usually treat all parties equally and range from the more traditional “sex with a married person” to sometimes include all non-marital sex or cohabitation. Even in states that don’t criminalize adultery, it can often be grounds for divorce and considered in the division of property, alimony, and the custody of children. Nevertheless, in modern times we see a trend towards treating adultery as the moral failing of “cheating” rather than the crime of breach of contract.

Among the Hebrews, the punishment for adultery was the death of both parties. “And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:10). Punishments now usually consist of fines and sometimes imprisonment, except in many Islamic countries where death by stoning is still commonly practiced. Adultery was also illegal in the pagan Greco-Roman world, with punishments from death to banishment. It seems unlikely that the lawmakers in ancient Greece or Rome were looking to the Torah for inspiration. Nor does adultery suddenly become a sin among the Israelites when Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the stone tablets, as can be seen from the stories in Genesis where people seem to know adultery is against the rules. So while adultery is often considered a crime, the Biblical commandment against it is not the source of laws prohibiting it.

8.       Thou shalt not steal. – Exodus 20:15

This is similar to the 6th Commandment in that it is also a real law, but also in that it is not unique to Judeo-Christian tradition.  It is a common sense necessity for any civilized property owning society. The prescribed punishment for theft is usually restitution, often with extra, and if the thief cannot pay up they are sold into slavery. Of course, stealing and selling a man is a capital offense: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16).

9.       Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. – Exodus 20:16

“Neighbor” here refers to a member of the community, so in this case, that means other Israelites. Proving a case could require two or three witnesses and a false witness would be given the sentence they were trying to have imposed on the defendant.  Like the last four commandments, perjury is normally outlawed irrespective of divine dictates. The Code of Hammurabi contains equivalent injunctions against, and punishments for, providing false witness.

10.   Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbors. – Exodus 20:17

Yahweh doesn’t want the Israelites to desire each other’s property, which seems reasonable enough. Wanting something you can’t have is certainly a problem, but it’s not a crime by modern standards, and hard to understand how it was punished. Thought-crimes, being subjective and unenforceable, never make good law. Perhaps Moses’ god is trying to convey an idea similar to the Buddha’s assertion that desire is the source of sorrow, but a man came up with that independently and more explicitly than did the god of Moses.

So it seems that only five of the Ten Commandments are equivalent to actual laws, three of which (6,8, and 9) are general principles which any normal society could be expected to produce independent of divine intervention. Laws against adultery and shop-keeping on Sunday were probably inspired by their respective commandments, but it would be silly to argue that they are essential to the legal system.  The rest of the commandments are religious commands or regular moral advice with no equivalent in US law and mostly contravened by the First Amendment’s establishment clause. It’s clear that the Ten Commandments are not in any way important to the legal system of the United States, nor are they very influential on the world at large.  Roman law has had a far greater impact on modern law than religious law ever had, and hopefully, ever will. Note that the Wikipedia article on Legal History doesn’t even mention the Ten Commandments.

The question remains as to why politically minded Christians in the United States continue to say that the Ten Commandments are the basis for US law. Assuming that they are not consciously lying in an attempt at propaganda, they may actually believe the revisionist history lately popular with fundamentalist Christians, arguing that the United States is a Christian nation, founded by Christians, and inspired by Judeo-Christian values and Mosaic Law. Evangelicals like this guy, and sects like Dominionism, explicitly aim at turning the US into a theocracy, believing that that was the intent of the founders until liberals mucked up the plan. It’s fairly easy to show that this is wrong; we just have to look at the Constitution and the words of the founding fathers.

“The United States government is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” – President James Madison, Treaty of Tripoli, 1797.

Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists is famous for its last phrase. Here’s the full quote:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Many of the founding fathers believed in Deism, a sort of jerry-rigged theism attached to a mechanistic worldview, popular among Enlightenment intellectuals before full-blown atheism lost some of its social drawbacks. The god of the Deists creates the world and then has no further involvement, stepping out to let physics run the show. All too familiar with the horrors of religious wars and persecutions in Europe and the colonies, they went out of their way to create a secular constitution that never mentions religion other than to state that there shall be no religious test for any office, and the granting of freedom of religion in the First Amendment.  If the Ten Commandments had inspired the founding fathers, why does the First Amendment specifically forbid any laws that could be based on the first three commandments?

Maybe the Christians who believe that the Decalogue underpins the legal system are thinking more metaphorically, as the Tablets of the Law, graven in stone, and delivered from on high are a powerful symbol of the concept of ‘law’ and the authoritarian law-giver. If that’s the case, then other (arguably better) sets of ethics or laws should be placed side by side for comparison. I’ll accept their claims of neutral historical monuments when I see equivalent monuments listing the Code of Hammurabi and the Negative Confessions of Ma’at. Historically, gods usually don’t issue laws, governance being a rather mundane and non-spiritual concern that’s usually considered the province of humans. Furthermore, most societies have recognized that 'law' is an evolving human concept, needing continual revision, which makes any immutable set of laws rather bizarre. Thus, placing only a god-derived list of laws is an implicit endorsement of religion, and explicitly unconstitutional.

Maybe we should have monuments for the Ten Precepts of Buddhist ethics. Being mainly for monks (especially the last five), and hence more stoic than the Decalogue, they would undoubtedly be more advantageous for the average American. They are:

1.       not to take life
2.       not to lie
3.       not to steal
4.       not to engage in sexual activity
5.       not to drink alcohol
6.       not to take food from noon to the next morning
7.       not to adorn their bodies with anything other than the three robes
8.       not to participate in or be spectator to public entertainments
9.       not to use high or comfortable beds
10.   not to use money

It’s apparently pretty easy for humans, enlightened or not, to come up with better ethical lists than the god of Moses did. Atheists, including Christopher Hitchens, Penn Jillete, and Richard Dawkins, have come up with their own replacements for the Ten Commandments – conveniently collected here. Isn’t it strange how even the Unabomber came up with a set of rules more clear and reasonable than Yahweh did?

Or perhaps the following rules would be better yet to erect monuments for people to live by (except for the second half of #7, that’s just stupid):

1.       Do not give opinion or advice unless you are asked.
2.       Do not tell your troubles to others unless you are sure they want to hear them.
3.       When in another’s lair, show him respect or else do not go there.
4.       If a guest in your lair annoys you, treat him cruelly and without mercy.
5.       Do not make sexual advances unless you are given the mating signal.
6.       Do not take that which does not belong to you unless it is a burden to the other person and he cries out to be relieved.
7.       Acknowledge the power of magic if you have employed it successfully to obtain your desires. If you deny the power of magic after having called upon it with success, you will lose all you have obtained.
8.       Do not complain about anything to which you need not subject yourself.
9.       Do not harm little children.
10.   Do not kill non-human animals unless attacked or for your food.
11.   When walking in open territory, bother no one.  If someone bothers you, ask him to stop.  If he does not stop, destroy him.
-          By Anton LaVey

The Satanic Temple is promoting their own monument in answer to an Oklahoma law allowing religious displays on public property and the placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the capitol. When Christian zealots try to use the force of law to preach their religion in an open society, they may get more than they bargained for. Even though I disagree with all of these lists of rules, at least in part, inclusivity is a virtue, right?