Commandments on the Schoolroom Wall?
by Kenneth H. Bonnell
Who can be against there being posted in every school room in the nation
a list of rules by which to live? Surely no one should object to our children
being told not to steal, not to lie, not to kill people, not want to take
what belongs to someone else, and, when they are grown up, not to "mess
around" with somebody else's husband or wife.
So what is there against those "ten commandments" that we hear
so much about and provide the model for so many lists of rules for other
things? Well, for one thing those are only half of them.
Ignoring the differences among the several extant versions, the first
one (Exodus 20:2) starts out with a simple declarative statement: "I
am the Lord thy God..." Some of the words are usually omitted because
they make the commandments limited to a certain group of people. "Thou
shalt have no other gods before me."
This of course is a religious command. But it is uncertain to whom the
"I" refers. "The Lord" does not translate what the
original Hebrew text, which is a proper name for the god of the Judeans
of some two to four thousand years ago. Besides, it cannot be a title
of nobility recognized in the United States; our Constitution prohibits
the granting of such titles.
So should our public schools be a place for posting words attributed to
a god of an ancient people demanding sole recognition as the god of that
The second of the "Ten Commandments, besides its meaning being disputed
between the two major branches of Christianity, would, if obeyed, have
a devastating effect on our arts and our economy: "Thou shall not
make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in
heaven above or that is on the earth, or in the waters under the earth."
This commandment has long been absent from the Roman Catholic version
(since the Seventh General Council of year 787), although it may have
been lately restored to the catechism. It has been in apparent conflict
with the Church's long use of icons and statues. These are only "venerated"
according to Church, which now interprets them to be "visual aids"
for worship and intervention.
If respected as a basis for secular law, then public support and use of
sculpture would have to stop. There would be no more commemorating soldiers
of our various wars or of public heroes like Jonas Salk. Are we to bring
up our children to feel that such "graven images" are wrong?
The third commandment is not to take the name of "the Lord thy God"
in vain. This pertains to the name by which "thy God" had introduced
himself in the first commandment, which children are not generally apprized.
And what does "take in vain" mean? And why are the names of
all other gods not included? This is strictly a religious matter and has
nothing to do with secular ethics.
The fourth commandment (the third by Roman Catholic reckoning) is to "remember
the Sabbath to keep it holy." The "Sabbath" was for those
who originated this commandment the seventh day of the week, actually
beginning on what we call Friday evening and ending about twenty-four
hours later. Christianity somehow dropped the seventh day as the Sabbath
and instituted the first day of the week and put on it all of the restrictions
that previously applied to the seventh day. This again is strictly a religious
rule, although certain jurisdictions in the United States have had "blue
laws" requiring that no business activities be conducted on Sunday.
Modern commercial practices are putting these to rest.
So, to put up the "Ten Commandments" in our public schools as
either a set of rules to be followed or as a model for laws for our secular
society is extremely inappropriate. They would, if required to be followed,
establish religious practice and observance, quite at odds with the First
Amendment of the Constitution.
Kenneth H. Bonnell is retired and has been a director and at times an
officer of the Los Angeles-based Atheists United.