They’ve been used by religious zealots to justify all sorts of bigotry and intolerance, and modern atheists roundly dismiss them as the rantings of a vain and vengeful god. As Christopher Hitchens put it, who would possibly want to follow the “vague pre-Christian desert morality” of the ten commandments, which show every sign of being invented by a petulant “Bronze Age demagogue”?
Lots of people, argues David Bodanis, if the commandments were properly understood. Far from being harsh dictums forged in fire and brimstone, they are a radical early blueprint for inclusive—even democratic—self-government, created by refugees fleeing tyranny. Their core message is not: “Thou shalt not swear when a hammer has whacked thy thumb,” but instead, one might argue, a form of left-wing communitarianism. And we still owe an astonishing amount to them—including the weekend, the concept of innocent until proven guilty, and the philosophy of Martin Luther King.
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