7% of people think it’s okay to kill you

Seven percent also think stealing is acceptable (I guess if you’re fine with killing someone, you’re not going to balk at taking his wallet). 13% of people would be willing to lie about you, 39% think it’s probably okay to covet your possessions, and 28% aren’t convinced that cheating on you would be wrong. These were the findings of a recent YouGov poll into people’s opinions of the Bible’s Ten Commandments [1].

These findings aside, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that six of the commandments are still considered ‘important principles to live by’ by more than half the population. That’s not bad for a bunch of rules laid down 3,500 years ago [2].

Back in 2009, the makers of The Sims 3 conducted a similar poll as part of their promotion for the new game [3]. They found that the same six commandments were considered relevant, with strikingly similar levels of support.

It seems we’re pretty consistent about the right things to do, but what about the four commandments both polls abandoned? What are they and why have we rejected them? Here they are in order of decreasing popularity:

You shall not worship idols
You shall not use the Lord’s Name in vain
You shall have no other God before me
Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy (i.e. keep a day for rest and worship)

The common thread in these commandments is that they are all to do with how we relate to God. There are things to do and not do, but they all add up to orienting our lives around worship of God above all else. No wonder a secular society has rejected them. Following God’s rules is one thing; acknowledging the God who made the rules is something else entirely.

‘Wait a minute’, I hear you say, ‘Loads of different cultures across history have had rules against killing, lying, stealing etc. They’re just sensible principles for treating each other how we would like to be treated, there’s no need to imagine a god behind them.’

The trouble is, when you separate the ‘what’ from the ‘why’ – when you try to enforce obedience to rules that have just developed because they seemed like a good idea at the time – you quickly run into difficulties. Is cheating on your spouse still wrong if s/he is also cheating on you? Or if s/he isn’t meeting your needs? Or if the marriage is dead? Is killing someone still wrong if s/he is suffering a debilitating terminal illness and is seeking your help to die? Or if s/he is still developing in the womb and will be born with a severe disability, or a cleft palate? The amount of support for Assisted Dying and the number of abortions performed every year suggest that far more than 7% of people believe that killing another human is not always wrong.

If you think of the principles we live by as just a ‘natural law’ evolving alongside humanity and kicking in at some point when we collectively decided that ‘survival of the fittest’ wasn’t working for us any more and it was time to try cooperation instead, then these moral ideals become entirely subjective. They can be discarded as soon as something more compelling comes along – some lives aren’t worth preserving or protecting, your happiness is more important than keeping your promises, freedom is more important than interdependence. A brief look at the news headlines from recent months should be enough to tell us that adapting our morals to what seems right at the time is not doing a wonderful job of creating peace and harmony for all. It never can.

One of the reasons we see such deep disagreements on so many moral issues today is that we don’t have an agreed foundation for morality. Reducing our ethical standard to, ‘How I would want to be treated’, or ‘What I need to do to be happy’ founders when one conflicts with the other, or when a moral question has no clear ‘victim’ or happiness at stake (is it wrong to steal negligible amounts from a huge corporation, for example?). A flimsy moral framework like this is not sufficient to create a successful, flourishing society, or even a successful, flourishing life.

Only when we put those four rejected commandments back at the centre of our ethics do we have a context for understanding and obeying all the others. After all, what is a moral law without a moral Law Giver? And only when we give the God of those commandments pride of place in our hearts do we receive the strength, discernment and desire to keep them, all of them, and live the life that we were made for.

[1] YouGov, ‘Most Brits think only six of the Ten Commandments are still important’, 25 October 2017. To be clear, these figures include those who were ‘not sure’, but I wouldn’t feel a lot safer with someone who wasn’t sure if ‘Thou shalt not murder’ was a good principle to live by than with someone who was sure it wasn’t!
[2] No-one knows the exact date when the commandments were given to Moses and the people of Israel, but ‘some scholars propose a date between the 16th and 13th centuries BC’, Encyclopedia Britannica.
[3] http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/the-sims-3-28-per-cent-of-11-to-16-year-old-british-children-can-t-recite-any-of-the-ten-commandments–unless-they-re-just-bearing-false-witness–of-course

Jennie Pollock

Jennie Pollock
Jennie is a freelance writer and editor who loves digging deep into culture through reading, museums, theatre, and exploring the streets of London.

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