John Loftus on the Ten Commandments

Out of concern that a Christian apologist was not responding fairly or charitably to him, John Loftus recently brought to my attention his comments about a man who prominently placed the ten commandments on his property, a move that some in his community called “courageous.” John’s comments are HERE.

Loftus doesn’t think there’s anything courageous about displaying the ten commandments on one’s own property because that’s a constitutional right. I don’t know about that. The fact is there may be any number of things that a person has a right to do but for which there may be negative consequences such as social pressure, ridicule, even in some cases vandalism and violence. Posting something as overt as this in a prominent location could easily attract discrimination in various forms, so there may well be something courageous to it (being unfamiliar with the community in which this took place, I can’t say for sure).

But it’s John’s apparent criticism of displaying the ten commandments that caught my attention. In spite of the fairly good education in Christian thought that John has, his comments about the ten commandments struck me as fairly dismissive and at times superficial. The first quick comment, although not developed or substantiated, is that there are three versions of the ten commandments, versions that disagree. This is not a new claim, others have made it, but it is not a substantiated claim. The three versions, says Loftus, are in Exodus 20, Exodus 34, and Deuteronomy 5. The claim is that Exodus 20 and Exodus 34 present conflicting versions of the ten commandments. This is highly dubious for two reasons. The first reason is that Exodus 34 is in fairly close proximity to Exodus 20, and the writer of the narrative portrays God in verse 34 saying: “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.” The thesis here is that the writer or editor of this narrative apparently did not realise what was in the ten commandments as listed in Exodus 20 just chapters earlier, so came up with a list of instructions (very few – not ten), and called them the ten commandments. Ancients were not morons. Secondly however, a more obvious response is to actually look at Exodus 34 and note that the ten commandments are not spelled out at all, let alone in conflict with the list of commandments that recently appeared in chapter 20. What we do see in Exodus 34 are four groups of rules that God told Moses to write down (verse 27 where God says “write these words”). However the same chapter, as noted earlier indicates that the ten commandments were written by God. Why these other groupings of rules are placed here in the narrative as well I do not profess to know, but the suggestion that not only was the writer or editor so dull that he did not realise that within the space of a few chapters he had two conflicting versions of the commandments, but that within a few short verses he had two conflicting accounts of who wrote those commandments, is a stretch.

Moving in to the more substantial comments that Loftus makes here, his first one is as follows:

The only commandments relevant to American law are the ones prohibiting homicide, theft and perjury, which are laws almost everyone wants enforced, for good reasons.

Here Loftus suggests that the other ten commandments have little relevance in the US because they are not currently parts of US law. This clearly does not follow, as we can easily think of many real world scenarios where moral precepts that were not currently part of law were highly relevant precisely because they differed from current law. Clear examples include the following:

  • When the British slave trade was legal, moral precepts condemning slavery were highly relevant even though they were not reflective of current law.
  • When women were not legally permitted to vote, moral precepts insisting that women should have the right to vote were highly relevant even though they were not reflective of current law.
  • When abortion was not legal in the US, moral precepts that the law should change to permit abortion – according to advocates of abortion rights – were highly relevant even though they were not reflective of current law.

Since I assume that Mr Loftus does not support the slave trade, does not wish to see women prevented from voting, and supports abortion rights, he has laid down a principle in regard to the ten commandments that he would not accept in other contexts. This is called special pleading. What is more, it is a principle that he should not accept elsewhere, nor should he accept it in regard to the ten commandments. Perhaps the man who displayed the ten commandments on his property finds them relevant in the US precisely because he thinks that Americans need to pay more attention to them than they currently are. Mr Loftus may not share this man’s beliefs in this regard, but it is false to say that they are irrelevant because they do not reflect US law. This is, in effect, to say that social change is always wrong because we should assess the relevance of moral principles simply in terms of whether they match current legals norms or popular fads.

But why, exactly, does Loftus think that none of the other ten commandments are good moral imperatives or that they should not be adhered to – apart from the fact that they are not currently enshrined in law? He never actually says, instead (apparently) allowing innuendo to do the work for him:

Who, for instance, in our day wants to prosecute people for worshipping a different god, making a graven image of him, working on the Saturday Sabbath day, taking the Lord’s name in vain, not honoring their parents, committing adultery, or coveting another person’s property? We all know what happened when such laws were enforced by the church, now don’t we?

The whole “we all know… don’t we” approach really is a way of not actually providing any reasons, but instead hoping that the reader will share a certain stance, whether they are right or not. Let’s ask directly and see what lurks behind the innuendo: What did happen when the church enforced laws about making and worshiping idols, taking God’s name in vain, not honoring parents, committing adultery or coveting?

What we first have to do is actually look for a time when the church enforced the law. What we also have to do is ask whether or not the church, by its own standards, should have enforced them, and in order to be fair and balanced, we have to ask what type of standards secular law enforcement was meeting (or failing to meet) at the same time. Once we have done this there will be no rock behind which innuendo can hide.

The problem is in trying to discern which, if any, examples Loftus wants us to think of. It is easy to find cases where the state enforced sabbatarian laws, restricting trade on Sunday. This is still the case in some countries, and has come to be referred to as “blue law” (see also HERE for specific reference to US history). A good example is seen in a speech from Theodore Roosevelt:

Hours are excessive if they fail to afford the worker sufficient time to recuperate and return to his work thoroughly refreshed. We hold that the night labor of women and children is abnormal and should be prohibited; we hold that the employment of women over forty-eight hours per week is abnormal and should be prohibited. We hold that the seven-day working week is abnormal, and we hold that one day of rest in seven should be provided by law. We hold that the continuous industries, operating twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, are abnormal, and where, because of public necessity or for technical reasons (such as molten metal), the twenty-four hours must be divided into two shifts of twelve hours or three shifts of eight, they should by law be divided into three of eight.

What is being applied here is what biblical ethicists have called the “general equity” or moral principle of the law. Just as the sabbath law in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 was given explicitly in contrast to the slavery that Israel had endured in Egypt, so the principle of giving workers a day off each week is a way of not treating them as slaves.

Examples of the state enforcing the sabbath idea are easy to find. What is less easy is finding cases where the church and not the state had the power to enforce these laws, or laws against idolatry or adultery. The latter should be quite unobjectionable to Loftus and to many of us, as it really amounts to laws against breach of contract (supposing marriage to be a contract at the very least). To be fair to Loftus, it was a brief throwaway comment in a letter to the editor, but I think, given that he has reproduced the comment at a website where he can write what he pleases, the very least he owes his readers is a substantiation of the innuendo. Mr Loftus, we do not “all know what happened” when the church enforced these laws. Please tell us.

Not really explaining what it means, Loftus adds to his comments about the church enforcing law the comment that “We live in a democracy, not a theocracy, and for good reasons.” How is this supposed to be informative? As I have said elsewhere, the verbal contrast between “democracy” and “theocracy,” both incredibly slippery terms, is simply a rhetorical one which, when closely examined, breaks down. It actually presents a false dichotomy unless one is willing to carefully argue that there is no possible way to have a democratic society and for the moral facts that underlie law to be derived from God or divine law. If there is such an argument, Loftus has certainly not attempted to present it.

Unfortunately there is also a degree of misrepresentation in Loftus’s piece. He says: “The last one about not coveting reflects the ancient barbaric practice of a thought police, something which is still being enforced in some Muslim countries where people can be prosecuted for what they think!”

Really? Punished for what they think? Enclosed in the following set of square brackets, I have provided a list of every instance in the Old Testament where a person was punished or a punishment is prescribed for the sin of envy, coveting what another person has: []. That’s right, the list is empty. Mr Loftus seems to think that every moral instruction is legally enforcable, a claim which is manifestly false. There are other prominent examples in the Old Testament as well, like “you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, all your soul and all your strength.” There was never any test prescribed for figuring out if people really loved God with all their heart, and there was certainly no punishment prescribed for failing to pass such a test. It’s just mistaken to say that an unenforced piece of moral instruction about which attitude to encourage or avoid amounts to the thought police, punishing people for what they think. This is hardly “barbaric,” as Loftus claims, presumably for rhetorical effect.

It gets worse, as Loftus closes his post by caricaturing the ten commandments, as follows:

Even if we regard the Ten Commandments as moral rules, aren’t they too restrictive? Is there any room for mitigating circumstances or exceptions? The history of ethical thinking reveals there are a great many exceptions to straightforward commands such as these. Is religious art a graven image to avoid? Should we always honor or obey our parents in everything, even if one tells us to do wrong or who molests us? One commandment states we should not kill, yet we see plenty of divinely sanctioned killings in the Bible, even genocide. Should we always tell the truth under all circumstances? I think not, and so do many religious people.

Is this portrayal of the teaching of the ten commandments really fair? Were they all intended as exceptionless rules that never take circumstances into account? The body of writing in which the decalogue appears reveals that this is not the case at all, and the “many religious people” that Loftus alludes to do not themselves interpret the ten commandments this way. When the Torah unpacks the prohibition on killing, for example, it is explicitly states that anyone who commits murder should be put to death (e.g. Numbers 35:31). It is equally explicit that there are other circumstances under which a person would not be punished as a murderer for killing a person. It takes account of accidental manslaughter (e.g. Deuteronomy 19:5-6) as well as self defence (e.g. Exodus 22:2), for example.

Christian thinkers throughout history have clearly expressed this understanding of the prohibition on killing. St Augustine, for example, says in 21 of The City of God:

Chapter 21.-Of the Cases in Which We May Put Men to Death Without Incurring the Guilt of Murder.

However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Abraham indeed was not merely deemed guiltless of cruelty, but was even applauded for his piety, because he was ready to slay his son in obedience to God, not to his own passion. And it is reasonably enough made a question, whether we are to esteem it to have been in compliance with a command of God that Jephthah killed his daughter, because she met him when he had vowed that he would sacrifice to God whatever first met him as he returned victorious from battle. Samson, too, who drew down the house on himself and his foes together, is justified only on this ground, that the Spirit who wrought wonders by him had given him secret instructions to do this. With the exception, then, of these two classes of cases, which are justified either by a just law that applies generally, or by a special intimation from God Himself, the fountain of all justice, whoever kills a man, either himself or another, is implicated in the guilt of murder.

The point here is that the duty to not kill is a prima facie one which can be set aside in circumstances that the lawgiver stipulates. This is normal in law today: A statute will lay down a prohibition, and a section or part of law will spell out any exceptions that might exist.

As for Loftus’s comment on lying, the ten commandments do not prohibit lying, they prohibit bearing false witness in court. There is an important difference between these two things. Lying is the practice of intentionally conveying an idea that is not true. I think there are cases when this is permissible, from serious cases like misleading the Nazis about whether or not there are Jews hiding in your house to more trivial cases like faking a pass in football. Strictly speaking this is lying, but the ten commandments have nothing to say about it. Bearing false witness in court however is perjury, seeking another person’s punishment on false premises, which is very serious. If there is a plausible exception to this duty, Mr Loftus will need to tell us what it is, because on the face of it there does not appear to be one. But even supposing that there were one, we must still construe such commands as prima facie duties.

It is simply misleading and unfair, therefore, for Loftus to say that the ten commandments are unreasonably restrictive because they allow for absolutely no exceptions. The case law of the Old Testament does indeed spell out that exceptions exist, and Jews and Christians over the centuries have always understood and expressed this.

As for questions like “is religious art a graven image to avoid?” This is not a case of a commandment being restrictive. It is a case of Loftus finding a commandment unclear. The commandment tells us that Israelites were commanded not to make a graven image and bow down and worship it. Religious art is not made for such purposes and therefore is not subject to this prohibition. I am aware of some who think otherwise, but I simply find their position implausible based on what the commandment indicates. I also find it implausible in like of the fact that many artefacts of the Old Testament temple would have been physically graven images, and yet they were permitted because they were not objects of religious devotion.

This man who displayed the ten commandments was not, as far as we know, insisting that every one of them should be enforced in US law. That being said, the reasons that Loftus has given for (apparently) claiming that the ten commandments should not be something that Christians look to as a source of moral instruction both personally and socially is not particularly compelling. Dubious claims are made about the criteria for the relevance of moral claims (special pleading appears to be at work here), unsubstantiated innuendos are made about unspecified episodes in church history, passing suggestions which look dubious are made but never explained (e.g. what, exactly, is wrong with legal sanctions against adultery?), and the ten commandments themselves are removed from their old testament legal context and thereby considerably misrepresented, while the history of Christian thought on these commandments is simply overlooked.

John’s post was originally a letter to the editor of a newspaper. I can only hope that the readership of the paper involved is mildly astute. If they are, the impact of the letter will almost certainly be much less than Loftus might like.

Sorry John, but if you’re going to draw people’s attention to pieces like this, flaws like this are going to be pointed out. Nothing personal.

Glenn Peoples


11 thoughts on “John Loftus on the Ten Commandments

  1. Thanks Glenn. You need to know that I condensed the material and made it brief so as not to call too much attention to myself. The 10 “word’s” in Ex. 20 are either legal precepts, all of them, or they are moral precepts. Make up your mind when criticizing me. And you either gloss over the best interpretation of what I wrote, or fail to understand some of it. You ignore other parts of it. Is it fair to ignore the things you have trouble criticizing? Surely you realize I know more than I can say, we all do. My background knowledge on such issues assumes the book is purely a human ancient superstitious one. I see things differently. It’s not about the facts so much, since what’s considered a fact is sometimes dependent on background knowledge. And I don’t think you understand how abhorrent the horror of the Inquisition is for freethinkers like me, either.


  2. John, you think that I must regard the ten commandments as either moral or legal precepts, and you suggest that I need to make up my mind. Are you suggesting that I’ve sent a mixed message on this? If so, how?

    I think they are moral precepts, but I simply fail to see why we have to make it an either/or decision when it comes to morality and law. I think, after all, that law should be grounded in morality.

    You tell me that I’ve failed to understand part of what you’ve said, and you also say that I ignored parts of it. I really can’t comment on this, as you haven’t said exactly what it is I have ignored or misunderstood.

    I have to say that I also don’t understand your reference to the inquisition. Neither your original post nor my reply to it said anything about the inquisition. Moreover, the inquisition was most certainly not instituted to combat violations of the ten commandments. Indeed, the inquisition would have lynched me right alongside you. I am, after all, a Protestant.

  3. Glenn, you admit that moral laws are relevant to a society and then discount the tenth commandment because it wasn’t enforced. Which is it? The fact that laws were not enforced means little, and you’re argument is from silence anyway.

    You speak of Sabbath and blue laws and neglect the ones about not worshipping any other god. That’s an important one that the Inquisition was concerned about. The rallying cry for over two centuries was “Convert or die!”. Their logic was impeccable. You would not be able to argue against it in a theocracy such that they envisioned. The Ten Commandments were establishing a theocracy, not a democracy. That is obvious and only mental gymnastics can get around this fact.

    And you never commented on why an omniscient God didn’t command some other things which would have been better for us like I suggested.

    When you do comment on the death penalty you fail to deal with some of the harsh ones.
    And you fail to understand my whole point. It’s about the relevancy of the Ten Commandments as symbols for what Christians support in an American democracy.

    You state the obvious when you said the command about not bearing false witness concerned perjury. I said that! And then I commented on the applicability of such a commandment with regard to lying, even though I don’t think it does.

    And the no graven image command was indeed interpreted by the reformers to prohibit religious art. I’m presently writing a chapter for a new book on what I’m calling the “Problem of Miscommunication.” In it I talk about the kinds of things an omniscient God should have said to clear up the way his followers misunderstood him. If he had known this and if he had known us better he could’ve easily cleared up how believers misunderstood him. Did you know that 8 million Christians died in the religious wars of the 17th century over communion and church authority? Do you know how the church was discredited in the eyes of non-believers because of this and because of the rise of modern science which could’ve been avoid if God has revealed the truth about creation and other things?

    Do not tell me God is not to be blamed for this. It will fall on deaf ears. In any company the buck stops with the CEO if the company he runs is in disarray because he fails to communicate.


  4. But why, exactly, does Loftus think that none of the other ten commandments are good moral imperatives

    Ha! You have no idea, do you, Glenn?

    If he had known this and if he had known us better he could’ve easily cleared up how believers misunderstood him.

    Hrm, John, the commandment against adultery is pretty clear, and that didn’t stop you, did it?

    Do not tell me God is not to be blamed for this

    God is not to be blamed when people willfully misunderstand him, just like he wasn’t to blame when you committed adultery or lied to your congregation, John.

    or laws against idolatry or adultery. The latter should be quite unobjectionable to Loftus and to many of us

    Ha – I think you have no idea, Glenn…

  5. Tuckster, whether or not John is correct in his comments about the ten commandments is independent of his personal moral failures, however serious they may be.

    John, It looks to me like you’re darting off in multiple directions. Firstly, there just is no “which is it” question for you to ask. As I have said, I regard the ten commandments as moral principles, and as you should be well aware, even where law is grounded in morality, that does not mean that every moral misdeed should be legally punishable. I gave you not one but two clear examples of this in the Old Testament law, but since this evidently has not explained it, here’s an example from today: Don’t use ingracious ad homs. I’m sure that this is a moral precept that you think people should live by, but I’m equally sure that you don’t believe that it should be punishable by law. Likewise then, you have no genuine reason to object to a moral command about coveting that was never met with any legal punishment, even though morality was the basis of law.

    You have now implied that I am trying to “get around” the fact that the Old Testament law was an implementation of a theocracy. But theis is clearly false since I am not trying to get around it or deny it in the least. What I said, contrary to what you’re now implying, is that you set up a false and simplistic dichotomy between democracy per se and theocracy per se. You are more than welcome, John, to provide a careful argument that these two things are never compatible. I even linked you to my argument that they are compatible to give you some material to work with. But just repeating the fact that we live in a democracy and not a theocracy (or similar sentiments) just is not an argument.

    As for your further reference tot he Inquisition, I must once again question why you are poisoning the well. Where did I advocate the Inquisition? Where did your original article mention them? Are you going to offer a careful argument to show that the Inquisition were enforcing adherence to the ten commandments? As far as I can tell even referring to them has been nothing more than a rhetorical distraction. As a protestant I am only too well aware that the inquisition was in large measure a reaction to the reformation, and not, as so often ignorantly charicatured, some sort of violent evangelistic movement.

    You complain that I did not comment on why the ten commandments did not include MORE laws, laws that you say would have been useful. Why should it? They were never meant to be read in isolation from the wider body of law that they appear in (in the Torah), where case law is spelt out inmore detail. To demand that all the detail and every single moral precept is spelled out in the ten commandments is just not a reasonable complaint.

    I would note, however, that a person could use the same tactics against your list that you’ve tried (unsuccessfully, as I’ve argued) to use against the ten commandments, John. You referred to violence against one’s wife. But isn’t this too restrictive, John? Why haven’t you allowed for mitigating circumstances, like when a large wife beats up on a smaller husband? Why are you so rigid, John?

    You now say that you agree that the command about bearing false witness was actually about perjury. You complain that “I said that!” Yes you did John, but if you’ve been continually aware of this, then it was manifestly deceptive of you to complain about the ten commandments by saying “Should we always tell the truth under all circumstances?” You are now agreeing that the ten commandments never required this to begin with, so I think you’re being a little shifty here John.

    You say that many Reformed believers do indeed thinkt hat the commandment on graven images morally prohibits religious art. I know that John. In fact I stated in my reply to you that there are some Christians who do not agree with me. I also offered an argument for the falsehood of their belief.

    The remainder of your comments about God and science have nothing to do with your unsuccessful complaints about the ten commandments. I think they are rhetorical filler in lieu of serious arguments.

  6. Glenn, I said we know what happened when the church enforced these laws. If you did not know I was referring to the Inquisition then I cannot help you. And if you don’t know the difference between a theocracy and a democracy, which Israel was without question then I cannot help you there either, even if it might be possible to have both, which is not America anyway given the 1st Amendment. When it comes to “some” Christians who disagree with you about graven images, remember at one time in the past the overwhelming majority of Protestants did as far as we can tell. Once again you operate on hindsight interpretations, and yet fail to realize that the Christians of the future will say that of your interpretations to the point where they’ll say just like you do now, that they never would’ve believed what you do. While you’re correct that the Ten Commandments cannot include everything I think a few of the ones I suggested would’ve been much better, even not beating thy wife, which even if it has possible mitigating circumstances is better than treating one’s wife as property in the 10th Commandment. Those are my points. As I said originally you fail to understand my whole point. It’s about the relevancy of the Ten Commandments as symbols for what Christians support in an American democracy.

  7. Well John, in light of my post and your replies, I’m very comfortable letting the reader determine whether or not I have been fair and whether or not your original post had a great deal of merit.

    I also think a bit more serious reflective thought on the issue of theocracy and democracy (as per the link I gave you) might help, but that’s probably a side issue overall.

  8. “Likewise then, you have no genuine reason to object to a moral command about coveting that was never met with any legal punishment, even though morality was the basis of law”

    Actually, (leaping to your defense) coveting is presently punishable in 8 US states, as people can still sue for damages due to “alienation of affection” in 8 US states. Therefore I think that the 10 commandments are still quite relevant even today.

    Where an affair has taken place outside of marriage, the spouse as plaintiff often seek damages against a 3rd party for interfering with that marriage. Coveting can get you punished in a court of law if the plaintiff can prove that your subsequent actions contributed to the break-up of his or her marriage.

    It is difficult in those cases to prove that the defendant did more than think about breaking up that marriage, and actually acted out those thoughts. However in those states, once a case has been brought against that 3rd party, that is a matter for the courts to decide, and no longer a private matter.

    Often the only realistic option for the defendant is to settle with the plaintiff in order to avoid the expense of a trial.

    “You shall not commit adultery.”

    “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour”.

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