Why the Ten Commandments are for atheists, too
The Second Commandment:
You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours."
A man is hanging a picture. His hand slips and his finger shifts in front of the hammer. Instead of hitting the nail, he hits his thumb. “Jesus Christ!” he shouts.
He could have said a lot worse. I have actually had this discussion with nonbelievers who see absolutely no reason why they should refrain from using such expressions. Their attitudes usually soften when I point out that such language might offend people. They also usually concede that such expressions should not be used around children.
But can we look beyond expressions of anger or surprise? A friend of mine who is a Catholic priest would routinely use expressions with the Lord’s name, explaining that this is a form of prayer. Whatever you say, Father. He would point out that the real danger in taking the Lord’s name in vain is the false oath. Consider the following, which all of us have heard in one form or another:
I swear to God if you don’ t call me later, I’ll kill you.
To be fair, almost nothing in this sentence is meant to be taken literally. No one is swearing to God and no one’s life is in danger. The only thing the speaker is trying to say is that he really wants a phone call later. But why do we choose these words to get our point across? Isn’t there a less extreme way to say the same thing? Can’t believers and nonbelievers alike see the problem? We’re making an oath to God in the mundane routines of daily life.
And what kind of people are we that we must swear to God to convince others that we’re telling the truth? Jesus speaks very clearly on this topic. “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no.’ Anything else comes from the evil one.” True!
Despite this very clear instruction, there are times when we have agreed as a people that sacred oaths are appropriate. In our society, we generally invoke God’s name when taking an oath in court, or taking vows of marriage, or even public office. These are important events. Making sure a friend calls us later is important, but maybe we should rethink the words we use.
So what can a nonbeliever take from this? I think at the very least we can agree that this Commandment points out that words do matter. They matter a lot. Words can be vicious and hurtful words can to stay with us for years, even decades.