The New Atheism's rockstar Christopher Hitchens recently went to town on the 10 Commandments in Vanity Fair, offering his own list as a much more enlightened alternative. My first inclination is to defend the holy writ from such asinine attacks. I’m not really going to do that. No serious Biblical scholar would even finish reading his sophomoric article (except maybe me), much less engage it. Instead, I will "do unto him as he has done unto the decalogue." Hitchens' replacement of the traditional Ten Commandments with his own is predicated on one piece of shoddy hermeneutics and the two great commandments of what I call Hitchensianity. If these are accepted, then we can in good conscience alter the foundational Judeo-Christian laws to best suit our own perceived interests. However, if they are proved inadequate as basis for such revision, then Hitchens will have tasted his own rhetorical medicine.
Hitchens first claims the Ten were always work in progress. He asserts that there are “three or four” different versions of the 10 Commandments in Scripture, each “improving” upon the last. He also claims “They show every symptom of having been man-made and improvised under pressure.” If this is the case, he reasons, then why not keep the evolution going? (I suppose he humbly assumes he’s the most qualified contemporary human for the job…) I will address the bogus "work in progress" claim last. First, let’s examine a reduction of Chris’ commandments:
The greatest commandment of Hitchensianity is this: "Mere fear of unseen authority is not a sound basis for ethics." Bold statement. On this alone, he throws out the first three original commandments as unnecessary. Let’s ask a simple question: If one is any sort of genuine Authority at all, what difference does His visibility make? If this unseen Authority truly were real and powerful and good, then respect for His wishes would seem a sound, and indeed the ONLY basis for ethics. (Sidenote: I won’t nitpick, but Christopher makes no distinction between ethics and morality, using them interchangeably. This is annoying.)
The second is like unto it: Cultural sensibility should dictate morality. If there is no higher authority than human, then democracy should do the trick, Hitchens claims. However, his actual commandments show that not even he believes this to be true. He sees fit to pontificate absolute essentials about several legitimately debatable issues, claiming their universality above what ANYONE else thinks. His final command it that we denounce any God or religion that contradicts his. Wow. That seems culturally sensible. I’m sure we’d all vote “yea” on that one… As if a real God would take the time to conduct a job approval survey before destroying dissenters.
He sums it all up with this: “Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form.” Which is, of course, a moral pronouncement in easily digestible form. If he’s being sarcastic here, I’m not sure what he’s proving, because he stands condemned in his own eyes. So it’s clear that even if we grant that the Ten Commandments need revision, Hitchens has disqualified himself from such a work. Writing in a few tongue-in-cheek commandments does not immunize you from serious criticism, Christopher. I know your game, rogue.
But I won’t concede that the original Decalogue was “a work in progress,” as evidenced by the existence of "three or four wildly different scriptural versions." Or that these "works in progress… show every symptom of having been man-made and improvised under pressure.”
The second Decalogue was an exact copy of the first, written in Moses’ hand rather than God’s. The third changes only ONE thing, which is the impetus for Sabbath, and it was written to a different audience for a different purpose. Hitchens all but claims the differences are mutually exclusive, but in fact each points to a time in the past when one greater than them rested. The point in both is this: "If your fathers and even God Himself saw fit to rest, don’t think you’re above it. Take a day." Even still, the commands themselves are the same. The “fourth” edition is no Decalogue at all. He only throws in because it’s written on tablets, but doesn’t fit the genre one bit. Hitchens knows that, and that’s why he says “three or four” from the beginning. If someone catches the absurdity, he’ll throw it out. He just wanted the jury to hear it before it was withdrawn and stricken from the record. Smoke and mirrors, and nothing more. He’s a seedy defense attorney. There is but one Decalogue in scripture, and it needs no revision.
So do the commandments show every symptom of being man made and improvised under pressure? First, what are the symptoms of man-made law? In Hitchens’ estimation, there is no other kind, so how would he even know what God-made laws would (or should) look like? I suppose he would expect them to be sensible, like him. The more I think about it, I think Hitchens fancies himself qualified for the job. So Chris, pretend you’re Moses spend 40 days writing ten rules for everybody. Then break them to prove a point and start over. Then make sure you write down how you disobeyed God and didn’t get to enter the land you spent most of your life pursuing. The Decalogue is not self-serving. It is not the kind of thing a man would write to keep a bunch of former slaves under control. It was very different from what his Egyptian education would have led him to write on his own behalf.
In short, Hitchens is cheeky and anti-authority (except his own). Not the kind of person anyone wants to be, much less follow. If he were a real scholar, he would address his rivals with respect instead of his choir with contempt. The truth about Hitchens, as Douglas Wilson once observed, is that "he says there's no God and yet he hates Him."