The True Origins of a Specious Argument
A Guest Commentary
The faithful often try to tell us that without god the world would collapse into chaos. They claim that god provided us with laws or commandments to live by and that societies have base their laws on these commandments. This strikes me as a rather arrogant assumption that overlooks some very basic historical facts.
In fact, the relationship probably works the other way around. Religion took its laws from those that already existed. For example, let’s look at the ten commandments. The claim is that they brought rules to a world without any. The implication is that people ran around killing, stealing, and raping with impunity before them. However, codes of law had been written long before the alleged burning into stone of the ten commandments. For example, the Code of Hammurabi was written a thousand year’s before, and there were others before that.
One aspect about Hammurabi’s code that may seem familiar from the first testament is the eye for an eye justice it espoused. Fire and brimstone Christians will recognize much of what they believe and stand for in it. So, rather than codes of law being based on the ten commandments, it seems that the ten commandments were based on these codes of law.
This is not the only case that the old was recycled into something new by a religion. Many older ideas, stories and myths from various cultures have been integrated into them.
So, where did these laws come from? What inspired them, if not some kind of divine intervention? Where did the moral authority come from? The answer is rather mundane, actually. These laws resulted from the need for practical solutions to manage the problems of the growing city states in the ancient world.As settlements grew into towns, and towns grew into cities, it became necessary to govern the behaviour of the growing populations. A system was needed. Property had to be recognized. Order had to be established. Rules were needed to make clear what was allowed and what was not.
The fact that civilization emerged at all probably indicates that those who would kill their neighbours and take their property were always in the minority. If they were not, they would have killed off the more passive minority and then turned on each other. So, it seems the majority of civilized people have always been inclined towards co-operation and peaceful co-existence, at least at the local level.
Practical problem solving using rationality and common sense. Isn’t that how most things get done?