But the second and third commandments troubled me. For one thing, "graven images" couldn't possibly mean any likeness at all, as the King James version seemed to say. Not only was I raised in an artistic household (although, to be fair, my father's paintings are kind of abstract), but the church had stained glass windows depicting apostles and saints, and there were mosaics and statues all over the place. If the people whose job it was to preach this stuff thought it was okay to make likenesses of these things, then there must be some special meaning to the word "graven" I didn't understand yet.
The third one is what really got me angry, because unlike the "graven images" thing, everyone around me seemed to have a pretty clear idea of what it meant. It was even explained to me thusly: Don't use the name of God in a disrespectful manner. And I'd seen people scolded for saying things like "God damn it!" or "Jesus CHRIST!" as an expletive.
Okay, I'll accept that this is a rude thing to do, I thought. But come on. Commandment #6 is "Thou shalt not kill." The ten commandments are supposed to be the ten biggies, right, the really serious important rules? How does using a mere word come anywhere close to making the list, much less coming well before murder as a no-no? I couldn't imagine that God would be so petty, so vain as to be offended by such an ordinary and commonplace utterance, much less condemn someone to eternal damnation for what he might have said after hitting his thumb with a hammer.
Thus the seeds of doubt were planted, and eventually I found myself simply abandoning any assumption that the authors of the Bible had any more clue what they were talking about than any other mortal of the time.
Oddly enough, it was only after becoming a de facto atheist that I began to appreciate a subtler and more important interpretation of the commandments that troubled me so, the first three. In fact, I now believe they are the three most important, for believer and non-believer alike, because they are aimed at fostering a proper sense of humility and piety (and yes, I think an atheist can be pious).
Let's look at the first. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Trivially, this is no problem for the atheist to obey, because atheists have no gods at all. But more seriously, notice that it doesn't say "Thou shalt place me before other gods." It just says no other gods before God. God is frequently kind of evasive about putting into words exactly what or who He is; "I am that I am" is kind of vague. And yet, even as an atheist, perhaps even because I am an atheist, I'd insist that there is some kind of absolute, objective reality about the universe, something which for lack of a better term I'd be willing to name "God" simply because it's supreme and not subject to anything else. Or call it "Truth", if "God" is too laden with smiting and silliness. And if we put all the mythological baggage of "God" aside, then it turns out that the commandment to have no other gods before Truth becomes one that preaches a genuine piety.
The second commandment, in my little Gideon New Testament, was explained to me as meaning not that one should never draw a picture of a flower, but that one should never make artifacts into idols. The paradigm case was right there in Exodus, where some of the Israelites made a golden calf and started worshipping it. Now, this is in a sense a violation of the first commandment, since worshipping an artifact is to have another god before God, but it's an especially tricky case, because it's so much easier to think that by genuflecting before a depiction of something, you're worshipping the thing it depicts and not the mere artifact. Yet the God of the Israelites, like the abstract Truth I mentioned in the paragraph above, is not a physical thing, and cannot be depicted at all. So it does make some sense to make it a separate commandment, which I'll restate as follows: "Never mistake a depiction of the Truth for the Truth itself." Or, to use my favourite Zen saying, "Words are a finger pointing at the moon: look at the moon, not the finger."
Finally, the third commandment deals with a closely related impiety. It has nothing to do with speaking disrespectfully about the Big Guy, but with having the vanity to think you speak for Him. The commandments doesn't say "Thou shalt not speak the Lord's name in vain"; it says "take". What can it mean to take anyone's name, but to assume to act as an agent for them in some way? And is that not an extremely vain thing to assume, especially if it's God you claim to be speaking for? The vitally important point here is that you do not get to speak for God, no matter what you think it is you're saying. Everything you think you know is just that: what you think you know. None of it has any divine authority, and every thing you ever say about God (especially, but anything else for that matter) should always be attended by the tacit qualifier "I think that..." or "I believe...." You don't get to say "God hates fags"; you get to say that you believe God hates fags. You don't get to blame anything you say or think or do on the vain pretence that God told you to. For, as the second half of the commandment goes, "the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain."
That's significant, I think. None of the other commandments tack that on, that the Lord won't hold you guiltless if you steal or murder or covet. It's only taking the Lord's name in vain that gets this addendum, and I think it's because the thing that makes taking His name in vain so bad is that it makes you think you're guiltless, that you're playing it safe and just doing what God says. That's kind of the whole point of taking His name; you think you're just following orders.
Remember Harold Camping, who predicted the world would end last year? I happened to download his PDF explaining his reasoning, which was subtitled "
You don't need to believe God exists to see this is a sin. But you kind of need to believe God exists to be capable of committing it.