Religion 101

In my previous blog entry, I underscored the fact that since U.S. public schools are secular state institutions, they therefore cannot endorse or promote religion in general, or any specific religions or religious doctrines in particular. And this means that it is flatly unconstitutional for the Ten Commandments to be posted (and thereby promoted) by the state in U.S. public schools.

Nevertheless, proponents of posting the Ten Commandments in the schools sometimes argue that, actually, the commandments are not so much “religious” rules, per se, but more along the lines of just being merely some really good, sound, basic moral principles — just ten widely accepted, universally applicable ethical laws which all genuinely moral people (of any religion, or even of none) should therefore have no real problem with. After all, who could seriously object to “Thou shalt not murder” or “Thou shalt not steal”?

Whenever someone poses this sort of question (which actually happens with considerable frequency), or whenever someone seriously suggests that perhaps the Ten Commandments are not necessarily inherently “religious,” but actually can be seen instead as merely “moral” in character (and hence religiously neutral), I really must wonder: when was the last time this individual actually read the Ten Commandments?

A lot of people I encounter personally really do seem to have the vague but sincerely held (yet sincerely mistaken) impression that the Ten Commandments are just rules for moral living and ethical behavior, rather than specifically “religious” commandments.

Perhaps this is somewhat understandable, given the fact that surveys indicate 60% of the American public can’t even list five of the Ten Commandments. As I detailed in my very first blog entry some months ago, despite the U.S. being one of the most overtly religious places on Earth (nearly 80% of Americans specifically self-identify as Christians), the nation nevertheless also suffers from pervasive and profound religious illiteracy.

The broad and deep religious illiteracy of majority-Christian American includes biblical illiteracy, as indicated by over half of the U.S. populace being unable to name even half of the Ten Commandments. A quick review of those commandments can therefore come as something of a surprising eye-opener for those who may be unfamiliar with, or a bit hazy on, their actual content.

Granted, the last six of the commandments may reasonably be viewed as reflecting generally accepted moral principles or rules, which themselves are not necessarily or inherently religious in nature. Honoring your father and mother, not committing murder, not committing adultery, not stealing, not telling falsehoods, and not coveting your neighbor’s property might well strike most people as perfectly wise moral counsel (and not as specifically “religious” counsel).

However, what about the first four of the Ten Commandments? You know — the ones that assert that the God of Israel is the one and only deity to whom religious allegiance is due, that idol worship is a sin, that misuse of the holy name of the biblical God is also a sin, and that the Sabbath has been divinely blessed by God as a sacred day that must be remembered and kept holy (by abstaining from work)?

How are those four — which amount to nearly half (40%) of the Ten Commandments — anything but undeniably and inescapably religious in nature?

Those first four commandments are plainly not just religiously neutral rules for good behavior, which a moral person of any faith (or none) might unreservedly accept and abide by. These four are pretty explicitly theological, rather than merely ethical, in character. Insofar as each of these first four of the Ten Commandments has directly to do with God, posting them in any U.S. public school would pretty clearly constitute an unconstitutional state endorsement or promotion of religion over non-religion.

Additionally, no one can legitimately argue that these four initial commandments are somehow universally applicable, at least to religion in general (or in the abstract), or that they would at least be broadly acceptable to most if not all religious folks. Those first four commandments quite specifically relate to the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, and so are actually unique to one very particular stream of religious tradition — the Judeo-Christian tradition, to be precise — which by no means constitutes the entirety of the religious landscape.

America is a secular republic, with a religiously pluralistic population (80% might be Christian, but the other 20% constitutes an extremely religiously diverse remainder). Consequently, in order to remain fair and unbiased toward students of all faiths as well as of none, U.S. public schools are neither to endorse religion over non-religion in general (or vice versa), nor promote one specific religion over any other religion(s) in particular.

Freedom of religion also entails freedom from the undue and unfair imposition of someone else’s religion upon others (even if that religion happens to be the majority faith among the populace).

(To be continued, and concluded, in Part Three.)