Atheist Monument Critique: Ten Commandments and Ten Punishments

Atheist Monument Critique: Ten Commandments and Ten Punishments September 18, 2013

Read part 1 of this series on a new American Atheist monument installed on public property in Florida as a protest against a Ten Commandments monument. We’ll conclude this response to criticism of the monument with this post.

The right side lists Old Testament punishments for breaking any of the Ten Commandments. A law is only a law if there are consequences for breaking it (otherwise it’s just a suggestion). Let’s see what they are in this case.

The punishments

For breaking the “have no other gods before me” commandment:

Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God. (Deut. 13:10)

For breaking the “no blasphemy” commandment:

Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. (Lev. 24:16)

For breaking the “keep the Sabbath day holy” commandment:

Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. (Ex. 31:15)

And so on (the full list is here). Though not true for every commandment, death is the go-to punishment. Death for killing. Death for adultery. Death for sassing your parents.

The other Ten Commandments

I know what you’re thinking, because I had the same reaction. What kind of nutty list of Ten Commandments is this? Whoever heard of “no blasphemy” in the Ten Commandments? Don’t be rude to your parents? No adultery? Good rules or not, these aren’t in the Ten Commandments.

Let’s review the story. Moses gets the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20, but the anxious Israelites make a golden calf during his long absence. When Moses sees this, he’s furious and smashes the tablets of the law. He gets a new set in Exodus 34. At the conclusion of this list, we read:

“And [Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments” (Ex. 34:28).

This is the first time the phrase “Ten Commandments” is used in the Bible, and this version of the law was placed in the Ark of the Covenant. It couldn’t be the other set, since it was destroyed. But this law bears only a vague similarity to the set popularly portrayed as the Ten Commandments: make no covenants with the Canaanites (#1), God gets all firstborn (#5), never boil a young goat in its mother’s milk (#10). Read them yourself.

Critique of the American Atheist monument

Let’s get back to the critique of the monument by Benjamin Wiker. About American Atheists’ use of the punishments to show the brutality of Old Testament Law, he says,

Again, we have monumental ignorance, or at least confusion.

Ouch! Looks like someone is about to get disciplined.

First, these come from the Old Testament Law that is directed at the ancient Israelites themselves.

So the Old Testament is irrelevant today? I’m surprised that we’ve so quickly found a point of agreement.

Second, and related, the atheists make no allowance for the moral and theological development that took place from the Old to the New Testament. Jesus Christ transforms the Law by mercy, even while he intensifies and purifies its moral demands.

Moral development? The law is transformed? What kind of plastic law is this?

I’d have thought that the omniscient creator of the universe would get the law right the first time. Or does right action change with time?

Apparently we’re to believe that the Old Testament law was actually version 0.5 because, I dunno, the ancient Israelites were too stupid or barbaric to handle the real thing. And for centuries, the priests just handed out warnings until the Israelites could mature as a culture to handle the message of Jesus.

SFX: record scratch

Nope: Moses came down with the new law, and it took effect immediately. There were no warnings and no slaps on the wrist. The punishment for many transgressions was death, starting immediately. Jesus says this about the Old Testament:

Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled (Matt. 5:18)

Sounds pretty unchangeable.

Back to Wiker:

Third, while the American Atheists may disagree with the actual punishments, are they then also rejecting the moral foundation of all of the Ten Commandments? Is the prohibition against murder a bad thing? Against adultery? Against stealing? Against providing false testimony in court?

The moral foundation on which at least some of the Ten Commandments rest is good; just don’t pretend that the Ten Commandments gave those morals to society.

The Ten Commandments are religious and so are inappropriate for the state-supported public square. There, the U.S. Constitution rules, not the Bible.

And even more difficult for [atheists] to answer, in what way does atheism provide a moral foundation for these prohibitions? Atheism is almost invariably grounded on materialism, and that means that it’s not all that clear about why anyone should or shouldn’t do anything.

You don’t know where moral customs, taboos, and law come from? You can’t imagine a natural source? Take a civics class—they don’t come from God.

To take one obvious instance, purely non-theistic evolution has one rule: nature works by the survival of the fittest, survival by any means.

It sounds like Wiker is twisting “Survival by any means” into “survival by few means: just the nasty ones.” It’s refreshing to debate a Christian who’s well-versed in what he’s attacking. Unfortunately, that’s not what we have here. “Survival of the fittest” (not a term coined by Charles Darwin, by the way) refers to how well suited an organism is to its environment. It’s the fit of a puzzle piece, not an athlete.

Sure, sometimes savagery is a good survival strategy. Grizzly bears are in the take-no-prisoners camp. And sometimes cooperation works best. Bonobos are in the make-love-not-war camp. That’s two different mammals shaped by evolution to use two different survival strategies.

Fourth, as atheists tend to do, the American Atheists are simply lumping all religions indiscriminately together. But a moment’s thought about this would be a real wake-up call for them. It’s not among present-day Jews or Christians that you’ll be seeing calls for death for idolatry or blasphemy, but among Islamists.

Thank God most Christians are not faithful to their Old Testament.

I don’t think beliefs should be hereditary.
— Gregorio Smith (director of “Truth Be Told,”
a documentary film about leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses)

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • ron


  • Mick

    Wiker will be approvingly quoted by Christians for as long his article remains on the Internet. His readers won’t care what he says as long as the overall message can be interpreted as “atheists are dickheads”.

  • trj

    First, these come from the Old Testament Law that is directed at the ancient Israelites themselves.

    It’s a safe bet that any Christian dismissing the Old Testament laws will simultaneously exalt the Ten Commandments. Wiker doesn’t disappoint. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Christian dismiss the Ten Commandments themselves as being OT law, and then in the next sentence defend them. It takes a special mind to do that kind of doublethink.

    • UWIR

      Well, technically, he defends the Ten Commandments, but dismisses the punishments for violating them as being “no longer applicable”.

  • wtfwjtd

    Second, and related, the atheists make no allowance for the moral and theological development that took place from the Old to the New Testament. Jesus Christ transforms the Law by mercy, even while he intensifies and purifies its moral demands. -B.Wiker

    So let me see if I have this straight: According to fundies like Wiker, God dictates the absolute unchangeable moral laws for society, and man gets to pick and choose the punishment for disobeying them? Hmmm, that sound more like the Ten Suggestions to me!

    At least I agree with Wiker on one thing: He tells us that God’s Absolute Moral Law never changes, but man’s moral laws and punishment for breaking these laws “develop” and are “transformed” over time. Sounds like God could use a little schooling from us…

  • Peter Callan

    And again, I repeat, if you need a book written by desert dwelling nomads who couldn’t explain dirt to help you understand that murder is bad, then the problem isn’t with the book, the problem is with you.

  • RichardSRussell

    I’m guessing that the ancient Hebrews probably became cat fanciers during their long sojourn in Egypt, because that would explain why cats developed 9 lives — they needed them all to last very long in that up-tight, bloodthirsty Israelite culture.

  • MNb

    “The moral foundation on which the Ten Commandments rests is good”

    I’m not so sure. For instance there are many parents who shouldn’t be honoured.

    “It sounds like Wiker is twisting “Survival by any means” into “survival by few means”
    No, it sounds like Wiker as so many dishonest believers doesn’t want to know the difference between Evolution Theory and Social Darwinism. ET is not about survival, but about getting offspring. That’s why some male spiders mate even if they run a high risk of death (by getting eaten by the females after copulation).
    Don’t fall into this typical apologist cheap trap.

    • Good point. I tweaked that sentence.

    • UWIR

      If you actually think about what he’s saying, it becomes rather bizarre. First of, the phrase “one rule” implies that this is the only rule, which is just not true. But more deeply, look at the terms he uses. “Non-theist evolution”. That’s what, evolution that proceeds according to natural law? And “fittest”, in evolutionary theory, means “the tendency of the operation of natural law to result in the organism surviving and leaving offspring”. So he’s basically saying that in evolution that proceeds according to natural laws, evolution proceeds according to natural law. Which is simply a tautology. But more than that, to say that non-theist evolution proceeds thusly is to imply that there is a theist evolution that does not proceed that way. So… there is an alternative hypothesis, in which organisms evolve, but God intervenes to aid the organisms that act “morally”? God’s going around with his finger on the scale, ascribing moral value to animal behavior, and providing divine intervention to those he approves of?

      • MNb

        I totally agree.

  • tyler

    “It’s not among present-day Jews or Christians that you’ll be seeing
    calls for death for idolatry or blasphemy, but among Islamists.”

    my goodness he’s never heard of dominionism and christian reconstructionism has he

    perhaps someone should invite him to the next anti-gay rally

    • Good point. The Westboro Baptist folks do enjoy celebrating death.

      • Itarion


        Please. I don’t know how many times they’ll have to tell you this. The WBC are No True Scotsmen Christians.

        • I’m not sure if you’re messin’ with me here, but (just for argument’s sake) let’s take your comment at as an honest criticism.

          The WBC elders must have studied the Bible more thoroughly than easily 95% of all Christians. For any point that you care to challenge, they’ll have a scripture backing up their position. More level-headed Christians might respond with their own contradicting verses, but that merely shows that the Bible is a sock puppet, not that WBC’s position is biblically ungrounded.

        • Itarion

          Thanks, but that was a cross between messing, and paraphrasing what I just read in the comments over on The Friendly Atheist.

          The No True Scotsman informal fallacy, in which a group has a reputation, there is a member of the group who doesn’t conform to it, and the member of the group is thus not a TRUE member.

          Incidentally, the contradictions in the teachings – I was taught young, so it was teachings, not formal scripture – is why I disbelieve. I’m not going to stick with something that makes no form of sense.

        • Ron

          Well, according to them it’s the other way around. They alone are Yahweh’s chosen representatives and anyone who steps outside their anointed circle is a “fig enabling” reprobate bound for the deepest pits of hell.

    • UWIR

      Technically, given the combination of anti-“sodomy” laws and the felony murder rule, it was theoretically possible, prior to 2003, to be sentenced to death in the US for engaging in sex with a consenting adult.

  • R Vogel

    At least he made some room for a little Islamaphobia at the end, I was almost disappointed. He doesn’t have to out run the bear, just the Muslims…

    • Itarion

      Of course, to his mind, either would kill him if they got close enough.

  • R Vogel

    I have always been intrigued by the whole, Don’t boil a young goat in its mother’s milk thing. Was this something that was happening often? Why exactly would I do this?

    • Me, too. One source that I remember hearing (I couldn’t point you to it) said that goat in milk was a popular dish in Babylon. Once the Babylonian exile was over, Babylonian customs like this that had been adopted were forbidden by the priests (Ex. 34 is thought to be from the Priestly source).

    • wtfwjtd

      I was told by some Bible-thumping and Jewish history buffs that it was considered an act of cruelty. But, seeing as how virtually everything from blasphemy to improper sex was considered a stoning offense, this always seemed like a far-fetched (non)explanation to me.

      • Ron

        Hey, even Lord Genocide has standards. Boiling kids in their mother’s milk crosses the line of all moral decency.

        • trj

          Killing every animal in the cities God commands you to invade: OK.

          Boiling a kid in its mother’s milk: Unacceptable.

      • R Vogel

        You would think that once he is dead he wouldn’t care much what you boiled him in…..

  • UWIR

    Ex 19:3-6 “Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

    Ex. 20:2 ““I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

    The Bible is quite clear the Ten Commandments apply to Jews. They do not apply to gentiles. If Christians are going to put up monuments to Old Testament laws that apply only to Jews, then it is perfectly valid to criticize them based on other Old Testament laws that apply only to Jews.