An Upgrade to the Ten Commandments

By Donald B. Ardell, Ph.D. | 10 February 2021
Real Wellness Report

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The Ten Commandments have long struck me as negative, bossy and irrelevant; Christian enthusiasts often claim these ancient codes are the foundation of our laws today. I think Robert Ingersoll put that idea to rest with his response to a reporter’s question, “Colonel, what would you substitute for the Bible as a moral guide?”

Some Christian lawyers – some eminent judges – have said that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of all law.

Nothing could be more absurd. Long before these commandments were given there were codes of laws in India and Egypt – laws against murder, perjury, larceny, adultery and fraud. Such laws are as old as human society; as old as the love of life; as old as industry; as the idea of prosperity; as old as human love.

All of the Ten Commandments that are good were old; all that were new are foolish. If Jehovah had been civilized he would have left out the commandment about keeping the Sabbath, and in its place would have said: ‘Thou shalt not enslave thy fellow-men…He would have left out the one about graven images, and in its stead would have said: ‘Thou shalt not wage wars of extermination, and thou shalt not unsheathe the sword except in self-defense.’

If Jehovah had been civilized, how much grander the Ten Commandments would have been. All that we call progress – the enfranchisement of man, of labor, the substitution of imprisonment for death, of fine for imprisonment, the destruction of polygamy, the establishing of free speech, of the rights of conscience; in short, all that has tended to the development and civilization of man; all the results of investigation, observation, experience and free thought; all that man has accomplished for the benefit of man since the close of the Dark Ages – has been done in spite of the Old Testament…

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The Ten Commandments (Decalogue) are grossly archaic, unhelpful and ill-fitted to modern times. Still relentlessly promoted by the Religious Right, a modicum of objective scrutiny suggests it is time for a new and improved edition. If I were Pope, head of a Protestant sect or a televangelist, I’d lead the way seeking a major upgrades for believers. I’d recommend a transition from ten negative, uselessly general and bossy shalt nots to a set of positive, specific REAL wellness-worthy common decency guidelines.

I hope they catch on.

First however, let’s review a few facts about the insistence of some religious enthusiasts to insert displays of their ancient religious shalt nots into public places.


Many religious people get quite irate when objections are raised over the intrusions of religious ceremonies, signs, flags, statues, monuments or other displays where they don’t belong, such as public property. In recent years, local officials in Oklahoma and Alabama directed the placement of Ten Commandment monuments on State Capitol grounds. These actions were met by protests and legal challenges, which in both cases culminated with state Supreme Courts directing the removal of such monuments. Despite claims that the monuments were not really religious so much as historical artifacts, the Courts made clear that no public money or property can be used, either directly or indirectly, for the benefit, or support, of any sect, church, denomination or system of religion. Both state high courts scoffed at the claim that Ten Commandments were other than religious in nature, an integral part of the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Why would elected government leaders, sworn to uphold state and national constitutions, do this? Perhaps Saul Alinsky had such actions in mind when he made these remarks during an interview in 1972 for Playboy Magazine:

If you think you’ve got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious, political and racial fanatics.

Polls have shown that most people, including Christians, can’t recall more than a few of the Ten commandments, suggesting that most of the shalt nots are not taken seriously, even by the faithful. Most know the ones proscribing stealing, murdering and coveting; the others are evidently too weird to bother remembering. Yet, many Christians continue to assert that these ancient rules were foundation elements that inspired our Constitution and should be put forward as moral guides.

Despite all these liabilities, Right Wing Christian politicians and religious interest groups continue efforts seeking to inflict their Commandments on the rest of us. FFRF just called attention to a bill in the North Dakota State Senate directing the display of the Commandments in public schools, which the US Supreme Court has previously ruled unconstitutional. The bill fails to specify which version would go on display – there are quite a few still making the rounds. One such, the Exodus 34 version, would warn children not to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk and that all blood sacrifices must be yeast-free.


The current ten, as mentioned, are weighted with religious babble, of dubious origin and accuracy, and completely unsuitable for other than the religiously orthodox. It’s unlikely the Decalogue as constituted will ever be eligible for display on government property, unless we descend into a theocracy, as many Republicans clearly desire. The Ten Commandments are forgettable, non-functional and unpleasant. They are medieval proscriptions. They are, quite simply, useless in most cases or self-evident no no’s clearly covered by secular laws. They don’t work as guides to morality on the issues of our time. To secularists, they are nothing if not bizarre.

The first four Commandments simply attest to the fact that the alleged author-god had an uneasy vanity: He relied on threats rather than reason. Imagine getting all steamed up over a graven image that might have provided some struggling humans a bit of comfort, as a child might seek with a doll. Why do defenders overlook the pettiness, bluster, bombast and psychotic insecurity underlying these initial Commandments? Are the secularists supposed to remain silent, look the other way?

The rest of the Commandments don’t exactly dazzle, either. Number five (honor your father and mother) is OK, other things being the same, but seems a bit general and allows no exceptions. What if one or both parents are abusive, negligent or cruel?

Number six (don’t murder people) is laughably obvious. It’s impossible not to know doing so is wrong, but look at crime data, and note how the Commandment is suspended for wars, capital punishment and other circumstances. In any case, as long as people don’t want to be killed, there will be laws against murder, as well as stealing, which is the eighth Commandment. It’s a lot easier for those with plenty than those who are starving to follow this one. As for number seven, (don’t commit adultery), this has proved more inconvenient that the other Commandments. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible not to transgress, depending on how one interprets adultery. What about thoughts – can hormone-driven teens avoid breaking this Commandment? Even Jimmy Carter could not manage this Commandment. You might recall his confession to Hugh Hefner in a 1976 Playboy interview: I’ve looked at a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.

Besides, norms vary from culture to culture, from one century to another. The ninth Commandment is pretty good, too, relative to the rest, at least in the basic idea not to bear false witness against your neighbor and presumably not against anyone else, as well.

Finally, we get to the tenth Commandment. Here we encounter a shalt not most of us would find manageable, reasonable, and not painfully obvious – not coveting a neighbor’s wife – or house, male servant, female servant, ox, or donkey. I’ve personally managed to eschew almost every one of these temptations.


Adults raised without religion and others who rejected their childhood indoctrinations generally view the Ten commandments as antediluvian bromides, useless as moral guides or a code of conduct.

As noted above, a few of the shalt nots are self-evident to anyone with an ounce of good sense. Secularists are not likely to elevate false gods when they hold none to be true. How can believers be confident they’ve chosen or, more likely, been taught to adore and follow the real god? Few need a religion to know that it’s not OK to steal or, for God’s sake (just an expression!), murder people? All civilized societies forbid such crimes and punish (in this life) those who violate human rights. And why forbid coveting when it is actions that matter? Why the big deal about your neighbor’s wife, which almost implies that other forms of coveting might be just dandy? Where would the advertising profession be if we did not covet stuff? Could there be a free enterprise economy?

Instead of just ignoring the Ten Commandments, perhaps secularists should engage believers in polite conversations about these matters, leading some to take a closer look at what was accepted as gospel, so to speak, at an early age. Instead of gospel, or literal truth, a degree of doubt and skepticism, along with positive ethical replacements, might be a good deal more useful.


I’ll preface the set of commitments with an additional portion of 19th century orator-extraordinaire Robert Green Ingersoll’s response to the question, What would you substitute for the Bible as a moral guide?

We cannot depend on what are called ‘inspired books,’ or the religions of the world. These religions are based on the supernatural, and according to them we are under obligation to worship and obey some supernatural being, or beings. All these religions are inconsistent with intellectual liberty. They are the enemies of thought, of investigation, of mental honesty. They destroy the manliness of man. They promise eternal rewards for belief, for credulity, for what they call faith.

These religions teach the slave virtues. They make inanimate things holy, and falsehoods sacred. They create artificial crimes. To eat meat on Friday, to enjoy yourself on Sunday, to eat on fast-days, to be happy in Lent, to dispute a priest, to ask for evidence, to deny a creed, to express your sincere thought, all these acts are sins, crimes against some god. To give your honest opinion about Jehovah, Mohammed or Christ, is far worse than to maliciously slander your neighbor. To question or doubt miracles is far worse than to deny known facts. Only the obedient, the credulous, the cringers, the kneelers, the meek, the unquestioning, the true believers, are regarded as moral, as virtuous. It is not enough to be honest, generous and useful; not enough to be governed by evidence, by facts. In addition to this, you must believe. These things are the foes of morality. They subvert all natural conceptions of virtue.

All ‘inspired books,’ teaching that what the supernatural commands is right, and right because commanded, and that what the supernatural prohibits is wrong, and wrong because prohibited, are absurdly unphilosophic.

And all ‘inspired books,’ teaching that only those who obey the commands of the supernatural are, or can be, truly virtuous, and that unquestioning faith will be rewarded with eternal joy, are grossly immoral.

Again I say: Intelligence is the only moral guide.

I have reviewed the nature of controversies surrounding the placement of religious icons in public places, provided an overview of what The Great Agnostic Robert Ingersoll had to say on the topic, and assessed The Ten Commandments from a REAL wellness perspective. Now, at last, I offer the promised set of updated moral guides better suited to modern times than the ancient Decalogue.

Enough of the overly negative, vague and bossy shalt not Ten Commandments. My recommended common decency-focused Ten Commitments offer standards of behavior more personally honorable and socially beneficial than the proscriptions found in the Ten Commandments.

These commitments were created by the American Humanist Association (AHA). The original AHA commitments are designed to promote principles based upon reason, freedom and tolerance in a democratic world. In this world, an individual’s worth and dignity is respected, nurtured, and supported, and human freedom and ethical responsibility are natural aspirations for everyone. The AHA Ten Commitments honor altruism, critical thinking, empathy, environmentalism, ethical development, global awareness, humility, peace and social justice, responsibility service and service and participation.

The major differences between the religious shalt not commandments and the AHA-inspired commitments that follow are that the common decency commitments are positive, specific and addressed to concerns vital to good order in 21st century society, no matter what, if any, religion you follow.

  1. Be aware and respectful of nature, the environment and other life forms, while nourishing a sense of awe about the cosmos and the wonder and brevity of your existence.
  2. Cultivate your mind: Be familiar with the mighty thoughts that genius has expressed, the noble deeds of all the world. (Robert Green Ingersoll, Improved Man)
  3. Be a wise steward in caring for and enhancing the quality of your body – nourish it well while cultivating a high level of physical fitness.
  4. Be independent.
  5. Be helpful and of service to others.
  6. Be truthful, sincere, kind and honest.
  7. Embrace responsibility for past and present outcomes and future possibilities.
  8. Practice critical thinking – respect the demonstrated facts of science and the true history and nature of the world.
  9. Promote peace and justice at every opportunity, in ways large and small.
  10. Embrace the common decencies.

The latter invites slightly more explication than the rest. The list of such virtues could be quite extensive; however, mention of a few should convey the basic ideas. Some of these overlap with the ten noted above – they are important enough to reinforce with a bit of overlap.

Common decencies include personal integrity (telling the truth, not lying or being deceitful), sincerity (e.g., candid, frank and free of hypocrisy), keeping promises (honoring pledges and agreements) and acting honorably (eschewing fraud and skullduggery). Other qualities deserving a place in your commitments to decency are trustworthiness, loyalty, dependability, reliability and acceptance of responsibility. Add benevolence, fairness, gratitude, respect for justice and equality, tolerance and a willingness to negotiate differences and you have a list sufficient for a worthy upgrade from the medieval Ten Commandments.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Donald B. Ardell is a lifelong promoter of REAL wellness based on reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty. He is a life member of Freedom from Religion Foundation and publisher of the REAL Wellness Report. He’s also an Robert Green Ingersoll enthusiast who lectures on both wellness and “The Great Agnostic.” He is a champion triathlete, having won more than a dozen national and seven world titles in the sport. His website is His latest book is entitled, “NOT DEAD YET: World Triathlon Champions 75+ Offer Tips for Thriving & Flourishing in Later Life,” available on

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