Questioning Those Ten Commandments: Brian Bolton

By Brian Bolton

Almost 25 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court, in Stone vs. Graham, declared that the Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text and ruled that posting them in public schools serves an unconstitutional religious purpose.

In the past decade, more than two dozen cases dealing with displays of the Hebrew decalogue in public schools, courtrooms, and other government buildings have been addressed by the U.S. judicial system. The vast majority of the decisions have concluded that displays of the Ten Commandments in public venues violate the U.S. Constitution.

Yet, the Ten Commandments devotees persist. A recent survey of American adults, conducted for the First Amendment Center, found that 61 percent of respondents thought that the decalogue should be posted in the public schools! They are encouraged by irresponsible statements by judges and state attorneys general that the Ten Commandments are the moral foundation of U.S. law and culture.

Although this assertion is absolutely false, most Americans have not taken the time to read the full text of the Ten Commandments and decide the issue for themselves. The 16 reasons below outline why the Ten Commandments should be rejected. They demonstrate that the Mosaic decalogue is not an exemplary behavioral code that will make America a better society.

1. Do the Ten Commandments constitute a set of philosophical precepts?

Cable television news commentator Bill O’Reilly asserts that the decalogue summarizes “Judeo-Christian philosophy” and therefore is not an establishment of religion. To counter this claim it is only necessary to cite three facts: the commandments are taken from the holy bible, they were issued by the Hebrew god Yahweh (“I am the lord thy god”), and the first four are clearly theological edicts. The Ten Commandments are obviously a religious code.

2. Do the Ten Commandments acknowledge the Judeo-Christian god?

The decalogue was authored by Yahweh, the Hebrew god who liberated the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex 20:2). The Christian savior-god story was not assembled until more than one thousand years after the Mosaic rules were formulated. In fact, there is no Judeo-Christian god. This deity was invented to suggest a unified biblical history and theology which does not exist.

3. Are the Ten Commandments the moral foundation of American law, government, and culture, as Roy Moore, Bill Pryor, Greg Abbott, and other fundamentalist attorneys have repeatedly stated?

A distinguished committee of legal historians recently concluded that American law is not based on the Ten Commandments. The U.S. Constitution is the foundation of American law, which derives in good part from English common law. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson reached this conclusion almost 200 years ago. A cursory review of the Ten Commandments reveals that only the unoriginal prohibitions against murder, stealing, and perjury are reflected in current U.S. law.

4. What is the prescribed punishment for violators of the first seven commandments?

Infractions of any one of the first seven commandments require imposition of the death penalty–typically by stoning to death, but occasionally by burning alive or strangulation. Are the pious religionists who want to post God’s laws in public buildings willing to apply God’s ordained punishment to violators? If the decalogue is posted anywhere, then the associated penalties with mode of administration should also be displayed. After all, it’s God’s word!

5. Does the first commandment acknowledge the existence of multiple gods?

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3) unambiguously recognizes the existence of competing gods–the basis of polytheism. This commandment orders adherents to worship only the Hebrew God and relegates the others to a lesser status. It is entirely inappropriate for this religious directive to be displayed on any public property in the United States, because it constitutes exclusive approval of one among many acknowledged gods.

6. Does the second commandment enunciate a religious principle that is repellent to all civilized people?

The first part of the second commandment prohibits the making of graven images (Ex 20:4). However, the second part contains jealous Yahweh’s promise to “visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate me” (Ex 20:5). Is punishing the innocent descendants of violators an acceptable principle of justice? Is this one of the “foundational principles of Western legal codes and culture” that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott considers worthy of defense? Critics should demand that the full text of the Ten Commandments be reproduced in all public displays.

7. Does the fourth commandment endorse slavery?

The fourth commandment forbids working on the sabbath: Thou shalt not do any work on the seventh day, nor thy manservant nor thy maidservant (Ex 20:10). Manservant and maidservant are euphemisms for male and female slaves. It should also be noted that while there is some disagreement about which day is the sabbath (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday), outlawing all work on any day would virtually destroy the U.S. economy. Furthermore, enforcement would entail executing millions of Americans–professional athletes, Walmart employees, restaurant workers, and others. It is blasphemous to post Yahweh’s sacred rules and then disobey them.

8. Does the fifth commandment promise a reward for honoring one’s parents?

The fifth commandment is another rule that is almost always listed in abbreviated form. The phrase “that thy days may be long upon the land which Yahweh giveth thee” (Ex 20:12) is usually omitted. This commandment explicitly appeals to the selfish motives of offspring.

9. Does the tenth commandment further diminish the status of women?

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, wife, servants, animals, or anything else” (Ex 20:17). This godly law clearly classifies a man’s wife as one of his possessions, reinforcing the view that women are property. The subservient status of women is a dominant theme in several religious denominations in the United States, e.g., Southern Baptist, Catholic, and Islamic. The tenth commandment also approves of slavery.

10. Are the Ten Commandments posted in the U.S. Supreme Court building?

George W. Bush’s latest recess judicial appointee (to a circuit court judgeship), former Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, asserted that the Hebrew decalogue is displayed in the U.S. Supreme Court building. The fact is that Moses is depicted on a frieze with several other historical and nonhistorical lawgivers, including Hammurabi, Solomon, Confucius, Muhammad, Napoleon, and Augustus. Moses is holding two tablets that do not contain any legible writing.

11. Does a Ten Commandments monument on public property constitute a religious endorsement?

In his decision supporting a Ten Commandments monument (donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles) on the capitol grounds in Austin, Texas, Judge Harry Hudspeth declared that “no reasonable person would consider the display to be a religious endorsement.” How could any reasonable person read the first line (“I am the lord thy god”) and conclude otherwise? No less an authority than Roy Moore said that the public display of the decalogue “recognizes the sovereignty of God.” Unbelievably, the local newspaper (the Austin American-Statesman) agreed with Judge Hudspeth, opining that anyone offended by the monument should just not look at it!

12. Does advocacy of the Ten Commandments promote religious bigotry?

Under questioning by Judge Myron Thompson of the U.S. District Court, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore stated that Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are not religions under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, because they do not recognize the God of the holy scriptures. Moore also said that his judicial duty under the Constitution was to acknowledge the Judeo-Christian God, that only the Judeo-Christian God allows for freedom of conscience, and that America was founded on the law of the holy bible. Judge Thompson found these assertions to be incorrect and religiously offensive.

13. Are there actually twelve commandments in the Decalogue?

All presentations of the Ten Commandments end with the tenth. But, two additional commandments are given in chapter 20 of Exodus. First, do not make or worship silver or gold idols (Ex 20:23). Second, construct sacrificial altars of earth or uncut stone without steps (Ex 20: 24-26). Why do the fundamentalist advocates of posting Yahweh’s holy word omit these important rules?

14. Does proscribing unacceptable behavior develop commendable character?

Nine of the Ten Commandments are stated as prohibitions–they tell us what not to do; only one is phrased affirmatively (honor your parents). We know that a useful ethical code tells us how to behave properly–not just to avoid being bad. In other words, the absence of antisocial behavior does not constitute good citizenship. Instead of posting the decalogue, schools and courtrooms should display the Affirmations of Humanism, a series of philosophical principles that promote ethical living.

15. What did Moses do with the stone tablets on which Yahweh wrote the Ten Commandments?

Moses broke the stone tablets in anger when he saw the Israelites dancing, fornicating, and worshipping the golden calf that Aaron had created (Ex 32:6, 19, 25). Then, under Yahweh’s instruction, Moses ordered the righteous Levites to kill their ungodly kinsmen–about 3,000 were slaughtered. Yahweh sent a plague to punish the surviving people for worshipping the golden calf (Ex 32: 27-35).

16. Is the popular version of the Hebrew decalogue the true biblical Ten Commandments?

A careful examination of the Exodus story indicates that the true biblical Ten Commandments are found in Ex. 34: 14-26. The key verses that support this conclusion are Ex. 31:18; 34:1; 34:28. The true biblical decalogue consists of theological edicts, purity laws, and festival requirements–only three overlap with the popular version of the Ten Commandments. However, because it is the Cecil B. DeMille version that Christian fundamentalists want to post in schools, courtrooms, and government offices, this is the set of Ten Commandments that should be the target of critics.


The U.S. Bill of Rights guarantees religious freedom for all Americans and prohibits the government from promoting religious rules of any kind. If the advocates want to display the Ten Commandments in their homes, businesses, or churches, that’s their constitutional right.

However, if fundamentalist fanatics continue to publicly impose the abbreviated version of the Hebrew decalogue on everyone else, then opponents should demand that:

The entire text of chapter 20 of Exodus be posted–the Ten Commandments with all of the offensive elaborations.

The punishments ordained for violators be listed–with the bible verses that support the penalties. 

The decalogue be enforced just as Yahweh intended–because the bible is God’s word and it is “totally true and trustworthy.”

Will the fundamentalist advocates of publicly displaying the Ten Commandments demand that they be enforced as Yahweh requires? No, of course not. These pious proponents of public posting want God’s law recognized and simultaneously they reject God’s ordained penalties. Their advocacy of Yahweh’s law is selective, cowardly, and dishonest.

It is appropriate to conclude with what must be the dumbest remark ever made about the Ten Commandments.

In August 2000, Paul Vallas, chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, said, “I view the Ten Commandments as history’s value statements. They’re certainly universally accepted.” This from the top educator in Chicago!

Foundation Life Member Brian Bolton is a psychologist, a Humanist counselor and University Professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. He now lives in Texas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation