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The Ten Commandments: They're So Yesterday

I had the opportunity to attend several lectures on healing provided by a variety of religious teachers. One of the speakers questioned God's purpose in revealing the Ten Commandments. Of all the knowledge that He could have imparted to us, why did He provide these commandments that seem so self-evident? Why didn't God reveal something more mysterious, perhaps more important, like the workings of the brain?

What if God had come to the mountain and out of the mist had chosen to reveal the workings of the brain instead of the Commandments? We would have learned that the brain is a miracle of matter, an awesome creation; three pounds of jelly-like material, filled with billions of nerves and trillions of connections that are responsible for how we think, feel, behave, our five senses, movement and breathing.

We would have learned that the deepest part of our brain contains the amygdale that we hold in common with amphibians and controls our physical response to fear. And that the middle part of our brain holds emotion and memory. He would have told us that He created us differently from all of His other creations by giving us a part of the brain that allowed us to reason, problem solve, judge, and control our impulses, and would be the seat of empathy and altruism. Of all of God's creations, we are the only ones with free-will.

If He had told us about the anatomy and functions of the brain instead of giving us the Ten Commandments, would we be better for it today? The commandments against murder, incest and adultery speak for themselves, but apparently not loud enough. Coveting destroys relationships and drains the soul. Wanting what others have can lead to murder, adultery, gossip and dishonouring and abusing parents. Always seeking and desiring what others have prevents us from nurturing and growing our own garden.

There are many today who say that common sense dictates that these behaviours are counter-productive to a society, as if common sense were the sixth of our senses and as biologically innate. If common sense were so common, why do we still fail at keeping the commandments?

Would we be different, today, if we had known 3500 years ago that the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which oversees judgement and impulse control, is not completely developed until late teens early 20s? Would the revelation of the internal workings of the brain prevented murder or bullying while promoting charity and loving-kindness?

Paul Thagard, director of the Cognitive Science Program at the University of Waterloo said in early April that science is "at a tipping point in understanding the brain, enabling us to really figure out a lot of very fundamental things about how the mind works, both how it works well and how it breaks down."

"Recent advances in nanotechnology, microelectronics, optics, data compression and storage, cloud computing, information theory and synthetic biology could help make possible investigations that were unimaginable before...There should be clinical benefits as well. The knowledge developed could enable biomedical scientists to find more accurate ways to diagnose and treat depression, schizophrenia, dementia, autism, stroke, Parkinson's and other illnesses or injuries of the brain."

It seems we are doing much better at unmasking the secrets of the brain while we are still struggling with implementing the seemingly self-evident commandments.

Maybe it is time to take another look at those Ten Commandments and rethink teaching them to counteract our increased sense of entitlement and selfish, mean-spirited behaviours. Perhaps we can start with the ninth commandment. You will not bear false witness; short and simple. Yet, truth-stretching, lying and gossip have become our favourite pastimes online, and on television, and in the schoolyard...Remember the nursery rhyme, "Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me?"

It isn't true. Language is a powerful weapon. Gossip, name calling and lying are destructive, especially, today, when an evil word spreads in a blink of an eye through social networking, even breaking the sanctity of our homes. It is easier to recover from a broken bone than a broken soul. Children do not commit suicide over broken bones.

The purpose of the revelations at Mount Sinai was to impress upon us the importance of compassion in order to live peacefully within a community, but is not just about feelings. Compassion without action is just talk. The commandments ethicize and spiritualize us. They provide the path, the way to develop compassionate behaviour which evolves into empathy when internalized. Perhaps we shouldn't disparage these Ten Commandments until we are no longer in need of them.

There are those who ask why would a commandment stop you from killing? Why would human nature stop you?

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