The Tens of Commandments

Thursday 30 June 2005This is 18 years old. Be careful.

To help us make sense of the recent Supreme Court ruling, Ian Bicking analyzes The Tens of Commandments. Summary: the bible is a lot less straight-forward than the sanctimonious religion peddlers would have you believe.


Ohhh, "sanctimonious religion peddlers"? Your loathing of religion is showing again!

The link is interesting, until of course, he gets into his analysis of the Establishment Clause if the first amendment, which he gets wrong, natch.

The fact is that there is freedom OF religion, not FROM religion. If you are trying to equate a frieze of moses carrying the two tablets as a defacto establishment of a state religion, you are going to have to try harder.

The uncomfortable fact for many liberals is that this country was founded on Western European Judeo/Christian values. It is unlinkable from our culture and the history of our nation. This pogrom designed to scrub any mention of "God" from our social discourse is misguided, idiotic and smacks of a Stalin-esque (can't talk about liberals without invoking "Stalin". Call it the "Conservative/Hitler" rule) airbrushing.

Oh, and BTW. Militant atheism is an much a religion as anything that *I* practice. So why are militant atheists (like the ever-fucking ACLU) allowed to impose their version of a state religion on me?
If you want to blame someone blame Thomas Jefferson not the ACLU or sanctimonuous religion peddlers. As for who's uncomfortable about our history, I don't know any liberal who is uncomfortable with the fact that our country was founded on West European Judeo/Christian values. That was the case. What most liberals and reasonable conservative are uncomfortible about is the continuning efforts of the Religous Right to roll back the seperations of Church and State that Thomas Jefferson and others went to great lengths to put in place. For example, both "In God We Trust" on the money and "One nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are modern changes. Setting a precedence for religious symbology in goverment spaces is just a further errotion of this seperation.
Sorry for all the spelling mistakes, I was hit add before I pasted in the checked version:

If you want to blame someone blame Thomas Jefferson not the ACLU or the “sanctimonuous religion peddlers”. As for who's uncomfortable about our history, I don't know any liberal who is uncomfortable with the fact that our country was founded on West European Judeo/Christian values. That was the case. What most liberals and reasonable conservatives are uncomfortable about is the continuing efforts of the Religious Right to roll back the separations of Church and State that Thomas Jefferson and others went to great lengths to put in place. For example, both "In God We Trust" on the money and "One nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are modern changes. Many of us just view the precedence of displaying specific religious symbols in government spaces as a further erosion of this separation.
In response to Andrew:

Your logic gets kind of jumbled up, mixing the question of "To what extent are the Ten Commandments a foundation of US law?" with "Is the display of the Ten Commandments in court rooms appropriate given historical and constitutional issues?". The first is frequently used in the argument of the second, but they are distinct. And neither one implies the other.

The first issue is ostensibly the one Ian is addressing in his post. In that context, your distinction between "of" and "from" interpretations is not terribly useful. Certainly enforcement of any law based upon the first two commandments would violate the first amendment. A polytheist who worshipped any sort of icon would be breaking the law.

Of course, I'm just being deliberately obtuse. The "of"/"from" thing is really just a segue into your "militant atheism" rant. BTW, that term did make me chuckle: A clever rhetorical move to link atheist activism with "militant," a term usually reserved for people who shoot, injure, kill and blow stuff up.

Perhaps a more accurate term would be "aggressive atheists," but "aggressive Christians" would then also apply to evangelicals who engage in similar legal battles, though with opposite goals. Parity, however, isn't exactly a justification for behavior. There are some pretty fucking annoying atheists.

But asshole-ness is orthogonal to belief system, as we've all learned from the Internet.
Andrew's rant is rubbish. The uncomfortable fact for religious people is that this nation was founded on principles of democracy, individual liberty, and limited government, not so-called "Judeo-Christian values".
I would also like to point out that the of/from argument is a false dichotomy.

There is [supposed to be] freedom from government-imposed religion. This means the government is supposed to be atheist. That's "atheist" as in "without belief in God/god(s)", not "belief in NO God/god(s)", but I don't really expect you (Andrew) to understand the subtle difference.
"Militant atheism is an much a religion as anything that *I* practice."

While I don't know what religion you practice, atheism is NOT religion (not sure what "militant atheism" is though). Look religion up in the dictionary, here is what Merriam Webster has to say:

1 a : the state of a religious [a nun in her 20th year of religion] b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : CONSCIENTIOUSNESS
4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

I get tired of people claiming that atheists just choose to have a different belief system. Some atheists are that way, but others, like myself, refuse to have "faith" in things that can never be proven or disproven. The belief in the supernatural is the antithesis of scientific and rational thought. People choose to believe in the supernatural because they want to believe in it, they have "faith". I choose to believe only in the natural world, the world of things that are testable, observable and not governed by undetectable gods, spirits, ghosts, demons or whatever.

Ok, I was going to write some more, and then I just realized I was arguing about religion on the internet, as if I'll ever actually convince anyone to get past their emotional attachment to ghost stories. Bad Damien! Bad!
"2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices."

Your next paragraph described your personal set of religious attitudes. So the label of atheism as a religion holds true by the very definition that you provided.
Sylvain Galineau 8:30 AM on 1 Jul 2005
History is also a wee more complicated that the sanctimonious 'Founding Fathers' story peddlers would have us believe. Jefferson's advocacy of separation was politically self-interested; he and his supporters did not actively push it until the election of 1800 to silence the Northern clergy. Madison, on the other hand, wanted to ensure disestablishment and equal liberty for different faiths, not separation. And this only scratches the surface.

But aside from an opportunity to bash 'religion peddlers', I don't see what this has to do with the Supreme Court's decision, which did not relate to the Bible, its interpretation, 'Judeo-Christian values' or any of the standard buzzwords. In the Texas case, for instance - where it was decided to leave existing displays alone - some Justices can apparently tell whether this display or that one is more or less 'divisive' than another; in Breyer's own words, removing the monuments could "create the very kind of religiously based divisiveness that the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid". According to whom ? Where ? For how long ?

In fact, did the ruling diminish or increase divisiveness on this issue ? Maybe it's because I have been living here for a mere decade but I still can't tell what is more divisive : public displays of the Ten Commandments and graduation prayers, or the Supreme Court decisions limiting or forbidding them. I can't help but wonder if we are not fanning the flames of religious division in the name of forcibly avoiding it. From the reactions in this thread and across the media, it is legitimate to ask whether the Court is not undermining its own stated goal with every such decision.

This being said, watching supposedly rational - because non-religious, of course - people applaud nine aging robed individuals handing down judgments of what is more or less socially divisive is somewhat surreal. Clearly, the place and role of religious faith in public affairs is not the issue as much as whose set of arbitrary beliefs defines what is socially appropriate.
I cannot speak for Jefferson’s motivations but he wrote quite eloquently on the subject of separation of Church and State well before 1800. In 1777, in a draft of a bill promoting religious freedoms, Jefferson wrote:

“That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;”

I don't really have much to add here, and as others have pointed out, there isn't much to be gained trying to argue politics or religion. But I still can't help but get my 2 cents in. Reading the writings of most of the founding fathers, and taken into consideration the motivations and times in which our country was formed, it's nearly impossible to come to the conclusion that the First Amendment's intention was to disallow any acknowledgement of God. Certainly, the primary purpose was to avoid a "Church of England" situation where the government and the state church were one and issues of religious theology were do dictated by them.

Yet when our public schools teach well beyond the basic skills and begin endorsing and esposing a moral code that contradicts Christianity or the values of many other religions, when government and schools attempt to ban even student led prayer, what have we done? Are we not establishing a religion? Atheism or humanism or something else? There is no perfect neutrality.

I leave you finally with this quote:

Noah Webster, author of the first American Speller and the first Dictionary said,

"[T]he Christian religion, in its purity, is the basis, or rather the source of all genuine freedom in government. . . . and I am persuaded that no civil government of a republican form can exist and be durable in which the principles of that religion have not a controlling influence."

Sylvain Galineau 12:28 PM on 1 Jul 2005
Pete, all this excerpt argues is that individuals should not be compelled or forced to support this church as opposed to that one. That's not the same as separation of church and state.

Moreover, eparation does not imply that secularism, or 'irreligion' as it's been recently dubbed, should be promoted, advocated or imposed by the state either. In Jefferson's own words above, forcing a religious individual to support and contribute to "the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors" would be every bit as "sinful and tyrannical", wouldn't it ?
[Nelson Muntz voice] Haaaa ha!
Secularism in government (not society) was exactly what Jefferson and others were espousing. Asking the Government to act in a secular manner is not being irreligious, it is merely recognition that we live in a pluralistic society where all religious ideas can live side by side. Because the Government must manage a society of many religions it simply should stick to the concrete tasks to which it has appointed and leave the topic of religion to the individual.

As for the quote above I chose it for the following line:

“…forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern”

By displaying the Ten Commandments the Government is spreading the teachings of the Judeo/Christian traditions. To my mind that’s simply not their role.

On the topic of atheistic tyrannies, at no point, I am aware of, has the Government ever said God does not exist or stamped “God is Dead” on its money. By not talking about something you are not endorsing a philosophy.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk who carried a gun and ran from the mob. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it. That does not make sense.
Why would a Wookiee, an eight-foot-tall Wookiee, want to live on Endor with a bunch of two-foot-tall Ewoks. That does not make sense.

But more important, you have to ask yourself what does this have to do with this case. Nothing. Ladies and Gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case. It does not make sense. Look at me. I'm a lawyer defending a major record company producer and entertainer and I'm talkin' about Chewbacca. Does that make sense? Ladies and Gentlemen I am not making any sense. None of this makes sense.
Sylvain Galineau 3:11 PM on 1 Jul 2005
Does the display of the Ten Commandments compel or force anyone to either obey them or become a Christian ? That Congress shall not establish a religion and enforce its legal observation is very much the spirit and the letter of the point of the Establishment Clause. Does a monument constitute establishment and legal enforcement of religious belief ?

One can certainly argue that the intent of such a monument may very well be to 'spread' specific religious teachings, but is intent a sufficient standard ? (It seems to be now) Or should one prove effect ? Those people converted to Christianity against their will by a piece of stone erected on government grounds, raise your hands...

One can also point out that monuments can, however, imply a preference for Christian religion that is still against the spirit of the Establishment Clause. But then so is every other Presidential speech ever written and/or spoken; Carter or Clinton were no shyer about invoking God in public than Bush or Reagan, and no different, as far as I can tell, from every single one of their white Christan male predecessors; meaning which God they refer to is somewhat obvious. Yet I do not see anyone arguing that these references are inappropriate and unconstitutional so the line cannot be said to be so clear; whatever secularist intent does exist in the Constitution is nowhere near absolute and much more implicit than explicit. If it weren't, me wonders how the Treasury has been getting away with printing 'In God We Trust' on every single bank note, among other ubiquitous details.

Not talking about something is no endorsement, as long as the silence is voluntary. If not, the opposite viewpoint is in fact being implicitly endorsed through explicit enforcement. Suppressing forms of speech in the name of secularism, atheism or whatever you want to call it is fundamentally no different from legislating school prayers, per Jefferson's own reasoning quoted above, no matter how much you may personally favor one over the other per your own beliefs.

Hence the ruckus every time the balance is perceived to be tilting one way or the other.
"Your next paragraph described your personal set of religious attitudes."

So having an "attitude" about religion means having religion. I guess the only way you can't be religious is to stick your fingers in your ears and go "la la la la la" everytime someone mentions anything metaphysical for fear of forming an opinion and dooming oneself to a religious existence.

Fine, I choose to worship leprechauns. They made everything and that's why so much of the bio-mass on Earth is green. I'd like some monuments to leprechauns be erected on government property and some references put into the Pledge of Allegiance. Money is already green, so no need to add anything there. Schools should also be forced present my LD theory of creation. That's right, Leprechaun Design. Prove it wrong, just try. You can't, that must mean it's a valid scientific theory. And don't any of you secular fucks dare try to stop it and stifle MY right to free speech.
Sylvain Galineau 4:22 PM on 1 Jul 2005
Damien, I assume you mean humor here but how this may come across to religious individuals can't possibly escape you; if you have so little respect for religious beliefs as to reduce those who hold them to believing in leprechauns - or any other creed you clearly deem to be ridiculous, if not stupid - you are going to have a hard time convincing your opponents to respect, let alone defer to your own view.

It's no more difficult to be a bigoted atheist than one of the religious kind. The remarkable achievement of this country is that it has managed to find a workable course between these two shoals at at time when others, in Europe and elsewhere, went from one kind of bigotry to the other with monstrous consequences.

Having grown up in Europe, I am in fact constantly amazed at the sight of this huge nation somehow managing to be so religious and so secular at the same time; never mind how long the balancing act has lasted.

Which probably explains why the moonbats screaming 'theocracy' are every bit as puzzling to me as the loonies who claim Christians are being discriminated against. Are they part of the balancing process ? I don't know. The entertainment value is, however, obvious.

Yours truly,
Secular Fuck Extraordinaire
Sylvain, displaying the Ten Commandments does not force anyone to do anything, but that’s not my point. The display is instructional in the foundational teachings and symbols of Judaism and Christianity and as such doesn’t belong on government property. Regardless of the legal foundation, it sets a bad precedence; next thing you know the government will need to have a relief of Buddha and L Ron Hubbard next to them in order to be fair and balanced.

On the issue of Presidential speeches, Presidents are citizens of our pluralistic society and therefore are free to invoke whatever deity or rational they choose when they speak. And, as politicians, most are smart enough to pick symbols that appeal to their constituencies, whether they believe in them or not.

As for “In God We Trust” on the money, I don’t think it was the right decision back in 1861, but just using the word God is about a secular as you can get and still talk about religion. While many atheist would argue they don’t believe in God and therefore the word shouldn’t be used, as a Catholic raised, self described Bright with leanings toward Buddhist philosophy, personally, I am comfortable using the word to encompass my very naturalistic belief system and the things I recognize as unknowable.

On the final point, no one is suppressing anyone’s speech. There is no societal restriction on anyone talking about religion – in government or not. As I said above, our leaders are able to practice whatever religion they deem advantageous. The only restriction being discussed is that of the government’s ability to display religious items.

Yes Sylvain, I know I was being harsh. On this matter you can be reasonable and diplomatic, I'll continue to be a mocking asshole. I doubt either of us will convince anyone to change their mind even slightly on religion though. My own transformation from theist to atheist took many years and was kind of a painful mental process (I *liked* thinking I have an eternal soul and God is looking out for me).

When people are "faithful", their views of their own religion cease to be based on logic and are instead based on emotion, and their arguments start to get silly (e.g. atheism is a religion, the Constitution doesn't say from *from* religion so religious monuments are ok, ID is a scientific theory, fossil records are tools of Satan to shake our faith, rock music will turn you into a crazed murderer, etc etc). I spent some years in Bapist school, I heard really ridiculous stuff. And I know better than to think you can convince people that even the most demonstrably asinine beliefs are wrong.
Nice try, Damien.

Your ham-handed attempt to segue from "religious monuments are ok" to "rock music will turn you into a crazed murderer" is not just silly, it demeans your argument, whatever that is. But more importantly, it demeans Sylvain, who is trying to inject some thought into this thread.

Oh, and the "I used to be religious, so I know what I am talking about" is pretty tired too. Try a new tune. Trust me, I used to be an asshole. I know what I am talking about.
Sylvain Galineau 9:36 AM on 2 Jul 2005
Pete, there is no requirement for government to be 'fair and balanced' in this matter any more than many other where it clearly favors certain groups more than others, when its preference is not the explicitly desired outcome.

As for the God mentioned on dollar bills, I do agree it has outlasted many other religious items for the very reason you describe.

Lastly, I find it odd that while the government should be prevented from displaying religious items, public officials are very much entitled to not only affirm their religious beliefs in public policy speeches, but even justify their decisions in such terms. The latter - actual policies - matter a great deal more to me than the former - inanimate objects - so if displays are bad then surely deriving public policy from religion ought to be at least as bad. At a minimum, it just sounds awfully hair-splitty. And it goes to show the secular intent of the Constitution is not so clear-cut.

Damien, I have followed the opposite route, if not all the way. Even though I was baptised and went to Sunday school, I grew up in a society where religion is very much frowned upon, when those who are devout are not openly mocked. I am glad my years in the US have not only given me a tolerance of those among us who believe, but an understanding and even respect for them, however unfashionable it is to admit in allegedly tolerant, intellectual and open-minded circles. Below the caricatural, highly polarized, flawed and often irrelevant mirror projected by the media, I find American society to be much richer as a result. Moral, ethical, philosophical and social issues are simply debated based on more information and arguments. For all the colloquial hand-wringing about it all, the very existence of diverse opponents and constituencies ultimately sharpens the process.

Quite candidly, I can't tell reading you who is more or less emotional about this topic. I'd try to explain how I manage to make sense of religious views without tripping into my own comfortable dismissal patterns, but Marginal Revolution's Alex Tabarrok has recently put it in better words than I could here and here re: evolution and creationism, which is as good a starting point as any other.

Happy 4th all.
Interesting discussion on religion. In the philosophy (and forgive me here because it's been a while) of world views, there are two sides, Idealists and Materialists. Idealists fundamentally believe that the world is a particular way because IT IS. There is a God. There is no God. Either way. Materialists do not place faith or belief in anything they cannot touch, sense, test, etc. Materialists can't tell you if there is a God or not until he (she?) bites them on the butt. Thus religious believers and atheists fall in the same Idealism camp. Agnostics (often mistakenly called cowards for refusing to 'choose a side') fall out as Materialists.

One of the great ironies of the 20th century was that the rabid atheism of the Soviet states grew out of a bastardized form of agnostic philosophy. Marx and Engels called it Dialectical Materialism on purpose as they did not believe that God or no-God really had anything to do with human successes or failures.

In the end, it doesn't really matter to me whether my neighbor is Idealistic, Materialistic, or a social vegetable as long as agencies like the ACLU are around to help me defend my basic civil liberties... including the right to practice, or not to practice, religion.
Sylvain Galineau 5:22 PM on 10 Jul 2005
Chris, the reduction of any argument to two mutually-exclusive 'sides' only exarcerbates them and simply support the view of te more extremist elements.
What does it matter what this country was founded on if everybody's going to destroy its principles anyway? The point is, everything in the Bible is true, and regardless of whether you believe it or not, its morals are still pretty much everything you need to live by to not become a completely stupid/idiotic/crazy/criminal person.

That was in a nutshell. I could go on into more controversial territory, but I don't want to start a flamewar or anything.

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