I Take on Christopher Hitchens

A few months ago Vanity Fair magazine published an essay by famed atheist Christopher Hitchens criticizing the Ten Commandments and proposing a new set for today. There are plenty of errors and misunderstandings in his critique, but I will address only one of them now; the major meaning of “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain” is actually “thou shalt not use the name of God to get people to do what you want or what you think they should do when it isn’t clear that God wants them to do that.” Misusing God’s name in a profane way is not a good thing, but it is not the main meaning of this commandment. And it’s interesting how we think of oaths sworn on the hind parts of our body and excretions therefrom as actually more serious than theological oaths nowadays.

But I couldn’t help noticing that most of his new commandments are really Biblical too, in an odd way.

1. *Do not* condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color.

Prejudice is the eighth deadly sin and is dealt with in the Bible by the fact that there is one Adam, one Noah, one Jesus, and one Pentecost. That settled it for me.

2. *Do not* ever use people as private property. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child.

A combination between “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not steal” and the statement in Genesis that all humans bear God’s image, even in their fallenness – and similarly all are fallen except He who came to save us – caused the insight to spread primarily among Christians in the nineteenth century that slavery was wrong.

3. *Do not* condemn people for their inborn nature.

Now original sin is part of all our inborn natures, but precisely because I am an original sinner is why it’s not right for me to jump on you, try to shrink your head, and judge the worst. People are born, or come out of childhood, with many serious difficulties and temptations to behavior that cannot be accepted or validated, but it is our obligation to help them in constructive ways. Mere accusing and condemning will get us nowhere.

4. Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature, and act accordingly.

Genesis teaches, of course, that we are not merely animals. We were appointed stewards of the earth, and that was reaffirmed after the Fall in Genesis 9. But there is a Landlord, and the “web of nature” belongs to Him, not to us.

5. *Do not” imagine that you can escape judgment if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife.

I think “Thou shalt not steal” implies that already, and some have read the commandment “Thou shalt not covet” as partly referring to this very thing.

6. Turn off that ____ cell phone.

I think of this as an application of the Commandment of the Sabbath. The point of the Sabbath is that God is in charge of the world and that it will not fall apart if we kick back one day a week – the sustenance of the universe does not depend on us. A lot of the annoyance with people who talk on phones in public places is that they seem to be saying, “I am he who holds the universe, or a portion of it together, and if I cannot be in touch with my portion of it at this very second, it will implode.” Most of us rightly regard that attitude as rather overly self-important.

7. Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions.

I’ll admit that the Crusades were sort of an imitation of jihad; unfortunately, rightly or wrongly, Western civilization was ‘Christendom’ at that time, and they saw themselves reclaiming conquered territory. I’ll mostly agree with Hitchens if he will accept that Communism and Nazism are religions!

8. Be willing to renounce any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict any of the above.

The biblical prophets are full of denunciations of “false prophets” who taught things that God never said, and of the cult of Baal that misused sacred prostitutes and sacrificed children in the fire. All this proves C.S. Lewis’s point in Mere Christianity [Amazon link] that the two distinctive commonalities of humankind are that we have this idea that we ought to behave in a certain way, but we do not consistently do so. Hitchens has stretched a bit, but he has not been able to so rid himself of God’s law written on his heart as to come up with some absolutely new ethics. God is not mocked.

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