I have been devoting my columns this month to the Ten Commandments because we need a fixed moral anchor to solve the problem of evil. And nothing is as effective as the Ten Commandments.
Everything needed to make a good world is contained in these Ten Commandments.
The most common translation begins: "You shall have no other G0Ds before me."
The commandment then goes on to prohibit both making idols and worshiping idols.
Most people, when they think of this commandment, understandably think that it only prohibits the worship of idols and the worship of G0Ds such as the ancient pagan G0Ds of rain, of fertility, all the other nature G0Ds, and chief G0Ds such as the Roman Jupiter and the Greek Zeus.
However, there is a major problem with this understanding of the commandment. Since no one today worships these G0Ds, let alone worships idols made of metal, wood or stone, most people think that this commandment is irrelevant to modern life.
The irony, however, is that this commandment is not only relevant to modern life, but also it is in many ways the mother of all the other commandments.
Why is it relevant today? Because today we have as many false G0Ds as the ancients did. And why is it the mother of all the other commandments? Because if we identify false G0Ds and avoid worshipping them, we will eliminate one of the greatest barriers to a good world.
So, let's begin by defining a false G0D. The point of biblical monotheism is that there is only one G0D and that only this G0D, the Creator of the universe who demands that we keep these Ten Commandments, is to be worshiped.
Why? First, because one G0D means one human race. Only if we all have the same Creator, or Father, as it were, are we are all brothers and sisters. Second, having the same parent also means that no person is intrinsically more valuable than any other. And third, one G0D means one moral standard for all people. If G0D declares murder wrong, it is wrong for everyone, and you can't go to another G0D for another moral standard.
When anything else is worshipped, bad things result. Not only things that can obviously lead to evil such as the worship of power, or race, or money, or flag. But also things that are almost always seen as quite beautiful — such as art, or education or even love. Yes, any of these often wonderful things, when worshipped, can lead to terrible results.
Take art. Many of the cruelest humans in history loved beautiful music and art. But, as a music lover, I learned early in life the sad fact that great music can be used to inspire people to follow evil just as much as it can be used to inspire people to do good. The great Hollywood director Stanley Kubrick vividly made this point in his classic 1971 film, "A Clockwork Orange," based on the Stanley Burgess novel. In it, men rape and murder while classical music plays in the background.
The Nazis had prisoner orchestras play classical music while Jews were led to gas chambers.
Take education. We all recognize how important education can be — from preparing people to join the modern workforce to understanding the world. But education in and of itself, divorced from the higher ends of G0D and goodness, can, and often has, led to great evil. Many of the best-educated people in Germany supported Hitler and the Nazis. Professor Peter Merkl of the University of California at Santa Barbara studied 581 Nazis and found that Germans with a high school education "or even university study" were more likely to be antisemitic than those with less education ("Political Violence under the Swastika," Princeton University Press).
And almost all of the Western world's supporters of the genocidal regimes of Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao in China were highly educated. Education is morally useful when it is a means to the higher ends of G0D and goodness.
The same holds true even of love. Love, of course, is so often beautiful. But it, too, can lead to evil. In the 20th century people who put love of country or love of ideology — of an unattainable dream for humanity — above love of G0D and goodness often committed terrible evil.
And here's a test for you: Imagine that the pet you love and a stranger — a person you don't know and therefore could not possibly love — are drowning. Do you first try to save your pet or the stranger? Well, if love is an end in itself, you save your pet. But if you hold human life as a higher value than love, you won't follow love.
This commandment made the ethical revolution of the Bible and of the Ten Commandments — what is known as ethical monotheism — possible. Worship the G0D of the Ten Commandments and you will make a good world. Worship a false G0D — no matter how noble sounding — and you will end up with evil.