The Ten Commandments
on the Schoolroom Wall?
by Kenneth H. Bonnell, August 4, 1995
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 people?
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 modedl 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.
The Good Old Days?
Church-Going Than Ever
by Richard Morin
Many Americans, particularly those who preach on television, argue that the United States has forsaken the religious commitment of its forefathers for the easy pleasures of sin, sloth, and televised professional sports.
Actually, many social scientists and historians argue that America has never been more church-going than it is right now. Our history books may be cluttered with images of pious Puritans gathering for the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas, the first potluck social, and the like. But most Colonial Americans were more likely to be found in the local tavern Saturday night than in church on Sunday, says Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington.
In 1776, only about 17 percent of the country were church members, compared with about 65 percent today, says Stark, who has tallied church membership as a percentage of the over the past 250 years using church records and census figures. [see chart below]
Even in the populated cities and towns, Colonial Americans were not particularly religious. It's safe to say that most people walking around had some nebulous notion of God, even though they had never been in a church and were just vaguely Christian -- nobody had ever instructed them.
Why didn't early Americans go to church? Part of the reason is that most of America, even in the eighteenth century, was still untamed frontier filled with untamed frontiersmen who preferred drinking to tithing and praying.
Women, churches, and schools came later. Even by the first U.S. census in 1790, men still significantly outnumbered women in the United States and its colonies, Stark reports in his book, "The Churching of America." He wrote the book with Purdue sociologist Roger Finke.
Actually, America today is one of the most church-going countries in the Western world. Only about 20 percent of the British are members of the Church of England, Stark reports. In Scandinavia, church membership is measured in single-digit percentiles.
Church Membership in America:
1776......17% 1906......51% 1850......34% 1916......53% 1860......37% 1926......56% 1870......35% 1952......59% 1890......45% 1980......62% 1995......65%
Freedom From Religion
"Cooperative Baptist Fellowship News,"
Phoenix, Arizona -- The Rev. Richard Jackson sums up everything he knows about "religious freedom" in just seven words: "Religion and liberty can never exist together." Jackson, pastor of the North Phoenix Baptist Church, said that religion inevitably results in a list of dos and don'ts and is "the common thread that gets woven into a rope of bondage."
"Religion never has and never shall bring true freedom," he said. When reduced to a religion, Jackson said, Christianity brings bondage just like every other religion.
At one point in history, Jackson said, the United States was "well on its way to following the disastrous footsteps of other nations which had distorted Christianity into a state church."
"That did not happen in no small part because there were some folks called Baptists who insisted upon and celebrated faith and freedom and demanded the same for others." Jackson said it can be argued that the U.S. Constitution is the "most significant document in human literature outside the Holy Scriptures itself."
He said he disagrees with those who say the First Amendment protects freedom of religion but not freedom from religion. "I believe that the First Amendment gives us both," he said.
"I believe that the First Amendment makes
us free to be under the bondage of religion if we so choose," he added,
"and I will stand for that freedom. But, on the other hand, I believe
that the First Amendment makes me free from religion.
On Being Civil
David C. Noelle
San Diego Association of Secular Humanists (SANDASH)
April 7, 1996
This speech was given at the Atheist Coalition's Easter gathering at Mount Soledad Natural Park on the theme, "The Park Belongs to Everyone".
I'd like to begin by thanking Dr. Irons and the membership of the Atheist Coalition for sponsoring this event. By organizing this gathering, these people, and those of us who have supported their efforts, have become the target of many insults and much ill will. We have been called childish, mean spirited, and uncivil. Now, I tend to consider myself fairly mature, friendly, and courteous, so these angry words caught me a bit off-guard. I asked myself, "Is this event truly a breech of civility?"
To be honest with you, I originally answered this question with a "yes". It didn't seem very polite for us to gather here this morning. After all, we had good reason to suspect that our celebration would interfere with the plans of others who hoped to worship here. As far as I know, there were no courteous offers to negotiate a compromise. My Christian neighbors asked, "Why can't the atheists hold their celebration on another morning or at another location? Why are they making trouble?" I had no answers for them.
But then I thought of Rosa Parks. On the 1st. of December in 1955, Rosa did something that, frankly, wasn't very polite. Seated on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to relinquish her seat to a white man. She was arrested for violating the city's segregated seating laws. If they had lived in Montgomery at the time, I suspect that my neighbors would have accused Rosa of being childish, mean spirited, and uncivil. They would ask, "Why couldn't she just move to a seat at the back of the bus? Why is she making trouble?" For Rosa, the answer was clear. She was living in a city that, through its actions, identified her as a second class citizen, all because of the color of her skin. Rosa wasn't very polite that day in December, but her action embodied the height of civility. As an American citizen, she stood up to the prejudices of a city to protect the civil rights of all of us.
After thinking of Rosa Parks, I no longer saw our gathering as uncivil. Like Rosa, we are living in a city that, through its actions, has identified many of us as second class citizens, all because of our particular religious beliefs or the lack thereof. The Christian monument on this hill, which our city government has supported both in maintenance and court costs, is a clear sign that the non-Christians in San Diego should not always expect fair and equal treatment by their city. This large cross in a public park, still standing despite court orders for its removal, is a clear message that, in the eyes of the City of San Diego, Christians are preferred and others are to be, at best, merely tolerated. In the face of this insult, we cannot be quietly courteous. As members of a civil society, we must stand up to the prejudices of our city in the name of freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion.
I am a Secular Humanist, and, as such, I live a joyous and ethical life, free of belief in dogma or supernatural forces. My convictions differ from those of my religious neighbors, but I am not asking the city to adopt my views on life in preference to theirs. I am only asking that the city government recognize the diversity of belief and non-belief in this fine town, and offer equal respect to us all by adopting no religious preferences at all. I am only asking the city to be civil to all of its citizens.
I am no orator, so I will close with the words of an orator. In the words of Robert Green Ingersoll:
Through all the ages of superstition, each nation has insisted that it was the peculiar care of the true God, and that it alone had the true religion -- that the gods of other nations were false and fraudulent, and that other religions were wicked, ignorant and absurd. In this way the seeds of hatred had been sown, and in this way have been kindled the flames of war. Men have had no sympathy with those of a different complexion, with those who knelt at other altars and expressed their thoughts in other words -- and even a difference in garments placed them beyond the sympathy of others. Every peculiarity was the food of prejudice and the excuse for hatred.
... and, also ...
The intelligent and good man holds in his affections the good and true of every land -- the boundaries of countries are not the limitations of his sympathies. Caring nothing for race, or color, he loves those who speak other languages and worship other gods. Between him and those who suffer, there is no impassable gulf. He salutes the world, and extends the hand of friendship to the human race.
by Rick Lott
Democratic Alliance for Action
Of all the philosophical inconsistencies of the GOP, the most confusing is their constant moaning about the intrusion of government into the lives of the citizenry while at the same time exhibiting an eagerness to legislate something as personal and private as religious conviction.
Spurred on in no small part by the Christian Coalition's $25 million war chest and 1.6 million member voting bloc, the Republican Congress-for-hire is quick to kowtow to the Religious Right groups who have been waging an aggressive propaganda campaign which focuses on claims of religious persecution.
First among the myths perpetrated by these groups is that prayer in school has been declared to be illegal and that children are being expelled for praying. Ironically, it is only the zealots who make the claim that school prayer is illegal -- most of us liberals honor it as an individual's right.
Earlier this month the Clinton administration, through the Department of Education, cleared up this lingering misconception by issuing a set of recommended guidelines that outline a student's rights regarding school prayer. Contrary to the claims of the Religious Right, students have the Constitutional right to pray in school, either individually or in informal groups -- so long as the prayer is not organized by the school.
Nonetheless, the Republican Congress has been in a rush to propose numerous made-to-order school prayer Constitutional amendments on behalf of the Christian lobbyists. Although these amendments may seem innocuous, they represent a dangerous precedence for the government to intrude into the realms of religious freedom.
Attempts by the Religious Right to legislate religion in their favor are dependent on the lie that separation of church and state is not guaranteed by the Constitution. While the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear literally in the Constitution, that does not mean that the concept isn't there. Just as the phrases "fair trial" and "religious liberty" do not appear in the Constitution, they are no less firmly established Constitutional rights.
The First Amendment begins "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." It doesn't takes a degree in constitutional law to understand it. It is not the place of government to meddle in the religious beliefs of the citizens.
The movement for a school prayer amendment has gathered some popular support among those who see it as a panacea for moral decline, blaming the absence of school prayer for everything from low SAT scores to teenage pregnancy. But it just won't work. In fact, legislated school prayer would make things worse.
For a school to require students to recite, for example, a Christian prayer would give Christianity a special status, implying that other religions are somehow inferior. One religion would be pitted against another, conflicts would arise, and intolerance would grow.
The only palatable compromise in a directed public school prayer would be a watered-down prayer that would be meaningless to the deeply religious and an infringement on those who follow no religion.
I find the best statement against public school prayer in Matthew 6:5-6: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners. but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray..." A bible-believing Christian would appear to be required to oppose school prayer.
Is another Constitutional amendment necessary? Or even desirable? Despite sixteen other amendments to the Constitution, the original ten, our Bill of Rights, have never been tampered with. They are the embodiment of our individual rights, and to date have stood inviolable. Proposed amendments such as the ones regarding school prayer are solely for the purpose of political gain by the Republican Party.
The First Amendment is one of the finest laws man
has ever written. For over two hundred years, it continues to mean exactly
what it was originally intended to mean: Religion and other fundamental
rights should remain beyond the reach of majorities and governments, and
certainly not subjected to the political whims of Congress.