Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Ten Commandments are boilerplate

"Boilerplate" refers to "standardized pieces of text for use as clauses in contracts" (Webster).   Between the standardized clauses are blank lines where the user adds information that gives meaning to the contract.  For example, the boilerplate rental contract available at Staples provides legal text about the renting process, but only in areas that are common to all rental contracts, so that these sections can be repeated verbatim in all of them.  But the contract is incomplete until someone fills in the renter's name, the rent amount, the landlord's obligations, etc.  Boilerplate is a convenience designed to deliver the necessary framework for legal transactions, but just as the boilerplate at Staples is incomplete, so are the Ten Commandments, with blank lines needing to be filled in.  

This is easy to demonstrate with commandments 5-10, which prohibit (in this order) mistreatment of parents, murder, adultery, stealing, lying about your neighbor or coveting his/her possessions or spouse.  Are there any major religions that might have doctrinal problems with any of that?  There don't appear to be.  Every religion or system for human behavior asserts these kinds of things, usually like the Ten Commandments do, in general terms without specific definitions or examples, making it boilerplate.

Commandments 1- 4 need some discussion.

1. I am the Lord thy God; thou shall not have any gods before me.

This is arguably a specifically Jewish (and by extension Christian and Muslim) commandment, as it applies only to the Judeo/Christian/Muslim god, commonly capitalized to suggest that "He" is the only such entity in the universe.  On the other hand, Hindus believe that there are millions of gods and that the chief god is Vishnu (who rules along with his feminine aspect, Parvathi).  The idea that your top god is the only top god is common among religions and thus is boilerplate.

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.

The Judeo/Christian/Muslim god is invisible to "His" adherents, who know next to nothing about "His" thoughts, nature, ambitions, and certainly nothing of what "He" looks like.  Other religions might allow people to draw pictures and make statues of how they think their gods appear, but their doctrines do not assert that people are equal to gods, that they can understand what a god is "like."  We are ruled by gods, whatever the religion, and we cannot see them the way we see each other.  Therefore the intent of the restriction on artistic expression in the 2nd Commandment is common to all religions and is boilerplate.

3. Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord your God in vain.

The phrase "in vain" was translated from the Hebrew, shav, meaning "emptiness of speech, lying," and may have referred specifically to lying under oath.  In the modern conception, this commandment is taken to prohibit references to God in swearing or cussing, as I learned in middle-school when a friend punched me in the shoulder for saying "goddammit!," which my friend said was taking the Lord's name in vain.  Seriously, must one-tenth of humanity's foundational guidance be that you can't say "goddammit!"?  That's so silly it must be a human idea that God just puts up with.  Arbitrary human pretensions to divine knowledge of this sort are common to most religions, so Commandment 3 is boilerplate.

4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

Recently on a road trip to Reno my wife and I saw a billboard outside a small town that claimed that all Christians who observe Sunday as the Sabbath will go to hell and be tormented forever because the actual Sabbath is Saturday.  There was no mention of whether Jews, who also consider the Sabbath to be Saturday, will get any benefit from this (in terms of treatment after they're dead).  Since the day of the week ordained for worship is a blank line in the 4th Commandment, it is boilerplate.

As noted, there is nothing wrong with boilerplate.  We certainly need to be told not to kill or rob or otherwise hurt each other.  But we do all the prohibited things frequently and without concern because we define the terms used in the Commandments to suit our needs.  Is it murder to kill in war, or to terminate a newly fertilized human egg?  Can starving people steal to feed their children?  Are there abusive parents who should be disobeyed?  The answers are concealed in blank lines in the boilerplate of the Ten Commandments.  

Nor is there is anything to suggest how or if we should curb the human desires that lead to transgression of the Commandments.  Should we drug people who have such desires?  Or kill them?  Or give them therapy?  Such questions are not addressed.

Of course most people don't do critical studies of their religion's doctrine in the course of adopting it; they adopt it because their culture adopted it, and they disassociate themselves from other religious doctrines because other cultures adopted them.  Such people are susceptible to rhetoric leading to religious wars.

When it comes to war, we don't even have the boilerplate of a commandment.  War might be noble and divinely inspired; it might be stupid and a sign of our impending extinction.  We're given nothing on the question.

The Ten Commandments are important for providing general goals we can try to attain.  They are not very useful for immediate problems, unless you fill in the blanks yourself.

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