Modern Democracy

Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy

by Dr. Richard Carrier


This updates and expands an essay Dr. Carrier wrote for the Secular Web in 2000 (“The Real Ten Commandments”). The topic deserved to have been covered in Part 5 of The Christian Delusion but wasn’t ventured for lack of space. The following is but a sample of what could be written on the subject. In addition to what follows here, all the same logical fallacies (and comparable historical fantasies) plague advocates of the idea that Christianity is responsible for modern democracy, as plague advocates of the idea that Christianity is responsible for modern science, which Carrier refutes in Chapter 15 of The Christian Delusion.


I keep hearing this chant, variously phrased: “The Ten Commandments are the foundation of Western morality and the American Constitution and government.” In saying this, people are essentially crediting Moses with the invention of ethics, democracy and civil rights, a claim that is of course absurd. But its absurdity is eclipsed by its injustice, for there is another lawmaker who is far more important to us, whose ideas and actions lie far more at the foundation of American government, and whose own Ten Commandments were distributed at large and influencing the greatest civilizations of the West—Greece and Rome—for well over half a millennium before the laws of Moses were anything near a universal social influence. In fact, by the time the Ten Commandments of Moses had any real chance of being the foundation of anything in Western society, democracy and civil rights had all but died out, never to rise again until the ideals of our true hero, the real man to whom we owe all reverence, were rediscovered and implemented in what we now call “modern democratic principles.”

The man I am talking about is Solon the Athenian. Solon was born, we believe, around 638 B.C., and lived until approximately 558, but the date in his life of greatest importance to us is the year he was elected to create a constitution for Athens, 594 B.C. How important is this man? Let’s examine what we owe to him, in comparison with the legendary author (or at least, in legend, the transmitter) of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments. Solon is the founder of Western democracy and the first man in history to articulate ideas of equal rights for all citizens, and though he did not go nearly as far in the latter as we have come today, Moses can claim no connection to either. Solon was the first man in Western history to publicly record an actual civil constitution in writing. No one in Hebrew history did anything of the kind, least of all Moses. The very idea of a constitutional government derives from Solon. Solon advocated not only the right but even the duty of every citizen to bear arms in the defense of the state—to him we owe the 2nd Amendment. Nothing about that is to be found in the Ten Commandments of Moses. Solon set up laws defending the principles and importance of private property, state encouragement of economic trades and crafts, and a strong middle class—the ideals which lie at the heart of American prosperity (and are codified in the Constitution itself: Article 1, section 8, paragraphs (c) through (h), and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Amendments), yet which cannot be credited at all to Moses.

Solon is the first man in history to eliminate birth as a basis for government office, and to create democratic assemblies open to all male citizens, such that no law could be passed without the majority vote of all. The notion of letting women into full political rights would not arise in any culture until that of modern Europe, but democracy never gets a single word in the Bible. To the contrary, under Moses and his successors all supreme offices in church and government were hereditary (or appointed by the inheritors), and instituted by God, not the People. Solon invented the right of appeal, and trial by jury, whereby an assembly of citizens chosen at random, without regard for office or wealth or birth, gave all legal verdicts. Moses can claim nothing as fundamental as these developments, which are absolutely essential to modern society. Solon invented the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, whereas Moses had them all united under a single aristocratic council (Numbers 11:16-17, 27:15-23), yet even they were ruled by fiat from a god-appointed sovereign (Moses, then Joshua, later the Judges and Kings). The concept of taking a government official to court for malfeasance we also owe to Solon. We read nothing of the kind about Moses. The idea of allowing foreigners who have mastered a useful trade to immigrate and become citizens is also an original invention of Solon—indeed, the modern concept of citizenship itself is largely indebted to him. There is nothing like this in the Bible. And like our own George Washington, Solon declined the offer to become ruler in his country, giving it a Constitution instead—unlike Moses who gave laws yet continued to reign. Solon’s selfless creation of the Athenian constitution set the course which led to the rise of the first universal democracy in the United States, and it was to Solon’s Athens, not the Bible, that our Founding Fathers looked for guidance in constructing a new State. Moses can claim no responsibility for this. If we had Solon and no Moses, we would very likely still be where we are today. But if we had Moses and no Solon, democracy might never have existed at all.

So much for being the impetus behind our Constitution. The Ten Commandments of Moses have no connection with that, while the Constitution of Solon has everything to do with it. But what about ethics? Let us examine the Ten Commandments offered by each of these men and compare their worth and significance to Western society. Of course, neither man’s list was unique to him—Moses was merely borrowing ideas that had already been chiseled in stone centuries before by Hammurabi, King of Babylon (and unlike the supposed tablets of Moses, the Stone of Hammurabi still exists and is on display in the Louvre). This point is already established in The Christian Delusion (see chapters 5, 6 and 8), but most thoroughly in David Wright, Inventing God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi (2009). The only novelties Moses added, in fact, were restrictions of religious liberty, exactly the opposite of the American Constitution and social mores. Likewise, Solon’s Ten Ethical Dicta were a reflection and refinement of wisdom that was already ancient in his day. And in both cases the association of these men with their moral precepts is as likely legend as fact, but the existence and reverence for their sayings in their respective cultures was still real—and we can ask three questions: Which list of Ten Commandments lies more at the heart of modern Western moral ideals? Which contains concepts that are more responsible for our current social success and humanity? And which is more profound and more fitting for a free society?

The Ten Commandments of Moses (Deuteronomy 5:6-21, Exodus 20:3-16) run as follows—and I am even going out of my way to leave out the bounteous and blatantly religious language that actually surrounds them in the original text, as well as the tacit approval of slavery present in the fourth commandment, none of which is even remotely suitable for political endorsement by a free republic:

1. Have no other gods before me (the God of the Hebrews).
2. Make no images of anything in heaven, earth or sea (and do not worship or labor for them).
3. Do not vainly use the name of your God (the God of the Hebrews).
4. Do no work on the seventh day of the week.
5. Honor your parents.
6. Do not kill.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not give false testimony against another.
10. Do not desire another’s wife or anything that belongs to another

Now, we can see at once that our society is entirely opposed to the first four, and indeed the last of these ten. As a capitalist society, we scoff at the idea of closing our shops on a choice market day. And our very goal in life is to desire—desiring is what drives us toward success and prosperity. The phrase “pursuing the American Dream,” which lies at the heart of our social world, has at its heart the very idea of coveting the success of our peers, goading us to match it with our own industry. We owe all our monumental national success to this. Finally, our ideals of religious liberty and free speech, essential to any truly civil society, compel us to abhor the first three commandments. The Constitution of the United States in fact abolishes these Commandments, by the First Amendment alone, while in conjunction Article 6, paragraph (c), effectively repudiates the first four, and the Preamble contradicts the fourth and tenth. Thus, already half of Moses’ doctrines cannot be the foundation of our modern society—to the contrary, they are anathema to modern ideals, and effectively repealed by the American Constitution.

Of the rest, it can be assured that shunning adultery has never contributed to the rise of civil rights and democratic principles (despite much trying, there is no Adultery Amendment). It is naturally regarded as immoral—but then it always has been, by all societies, before and since the time of Moses, for the simple reason that it, like lying, theft, and murder, does harm to others, and thus these commandments are as redundant as they are unprofound. They can be more usefully summed up with just three words: do no harm. These words comprise the first commandment of another Greek moralist whose contribution to society also lies far more at the very heart of modern reality: the founder of scientific medicine, Hippocrates.

Finally, we are left with only one commandment, to honor our parents. This of course has been a foundational principle of every society ever since such things as ‘societies’ existed. Yet the greatest advances in civil rights and civic moral consciousness in human history occurred precisely as the result not of obeying, but disobeying this very commandment: the social revolutions of the sixties, still abhorred by conservatives, yet spearheaded by rebellious teenagers and young adults, nevertheless secured the moral rights of women and minorities—something unprecedented in human history, and nowhere advocated by Moses. And by opposing the Vietnam war our children displayed for the first time a massive popular movement in defense of the very pacifism which Christians boast of having introduced into the world, yet are usually the last to actually stand up for. It can even be said that our entire moral ethos is one of thinking for ourselves, of rebellion and moral autonomy, of daring to stand up against even our elders when our conscience compels it. Thus, it would seem that even the fifth commandment does not lie at the heart of our modern society—it is largely an anachronism, lacking the essential nuances that a more profound ethic promotes. And most notably, none but two of the Ten Commandments is realized anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. The nearest you’ll find is the declaration in the Fifth Amendment that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” which in effect agrees with the sixth and eighth commandments. But as already noted, laws against murder and theft long predate The Ten Commandments, exist in all religions and societies (including Solon’s), and are too obviously requisite for any functional society to have required divine inspiration. So they do not in any sense ‘derive’ from the Ten Commandments of Moses.

Let us now turn to the Ten Commandments of Solon (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 1.60), which run as follows:

1. Trust good character more than promises.
2. Do not speak falsely.
3. Do good things.
4. Do not be hasty in making friends, but do not abandon them once made.
5. Learn to obey before you command.
6. When giving advice, do not recommend what is most pleasing, but what is most useful.
7. Make reason your supreme commander.
8. Do not associate with people who do bad things.
9. Honor the gods.
10. Have regard for your parents.

Unlike the Commandments of Moses, none of these is outdated or antithetical to modern moral or political thought. Every one could be taken up by anyone today, of any creed (except, to an obvious extent, the ninth). And indeed, there is something much more profound in these commandments. They are far more useful as precepts for living one’s life. Can society, can government, prevail and prosper if we fail to uphold the First Commandment of Moses? By our own written declaration of religious liberty for all, we have staked our entire national destiny on the belief that we not only can get by without it, but we ought to abolish it entirely. And history bears that out. Yet what if we were to fail to uphold Solon’s first commandment? The danger to society would be clear. Indeed, doesn’t this commandment speak to the heart of what makes or breaks a democratic society? Isn’t it absolutely fundamental that we not trust the promises of politicians and flatterers, but elect our leaders and choose our friends instead by taking the trouble to evaluate the goodness of their character? This, then, can truly be said to be an ideal that is fundamental to modern moral and political thought.

Now, two of the commandments of Solon are almost identical to those advocated by Moses: do not speak falsely, and have regard for your parents. Yet Solon does not restrict his first injunction to false accusations or testimony against others, as Moses does. Solon’s commandment is more profound and thus more fundamental, and is properly qualified by the other commandments in just the way we believe is appropriate—for Solon’s rules allow one to lie if doing so is a good deed (no prescription to do good appears in the Ten Commandments of Moses). And whereas Moses calls us to honor our parents (in the Hebrew, from kabed, “to honor, to glorify”), Solon’s choice of words is more appropriate—he only asks us to treat our parents in a respectful way (in the Greek, from aideomai, “to show a sense of regard for, to have compassion upon”), which we can do even if we disobey or oppose them, and even if we disapprove of their character and thus have no grounds to “honor” them.

In contrast with Moses, Solon wastes no words with legalisms—he sums up everything in three words: do good things. This is an essential moral principle, lacking from the commandments of Moses, which allows one to qualify all the others in exactly the way they ought. And instead of simply commanding us to follow rules, Solon’s commandments involve significant social and political advice: temper our readiness to rebel and to do our own thing (which Solon nevertheless does not prohibit) by learning first how to follow others; take care when making friends, and stick by them; be reasonable; always give good advice—don’t just say what people want to hear; shun bad people. It can be said without doubt that this advice is exactly what we need in order to be successful and secure—as individuals, as communities, and even as a nation. The ideals represented by these commandments really do rest at the foundation of modern American morality and society, and would be far more useful for school children to learn, whose greatest dangers are peer pressure, rashness, and naivete, the very sins Solon’s commandments prohibit.

There is but one that might give a secularist pause: Solon’s commandment to honor the gods (in the Greek, timein, “to honor, to revere, to pay due regard”). Yet when we compare it to the similar First Three Commandments of Moses, we see how much more Solon’s single religious commandment can be made to suit our society and our civic ideals: it does not have to restrict religious freedom, for it does not demand that we believe in anyone’s god or follow anyone’s religious rules. It remains in the appropriate plural. Solon asks us to give the plethora of gods the regard they are due, and we can now say that some gods are not due much—such as the racist gods and the murderous gods of hellfire. In the end, it is good to be respectful of the deserving gods of others, which we can do even if we are criticizing them, even if we disbelieve in them, so long as those gods are respectable. This would remain true to our most prized American ethic of religious liberty and civility. Indeed, in perfect line with that fact, Solon’s commandment forces us to admit that there are many gods, not one—the many that people invent and hope for.

It is clear then, that if anyone’s commandments ought to be posted on school and courthouse walls, it should be Solon’s. He has more right as the founder of our civic ideals, and as a more profound and almost modern moral thinker. Indeed, he has more to do with the creation of courts and juries and the separation of powers that all define our courthouses today. His commandments are more befitting our civil society, more representative of what we really believe and what we cherish in our laws and economy. And indeed, in the end, they are essentially secular. Is it an accident that when Solon’s ideals reigned, there grew democracies and civil rights, and ideals we now consider fundamental to modern Western society, yet when the ideals of Moses replaced them, we had a thousand years of oppression, darkness, and tyranny? Is it coincidence that when the ideals of Moses were replaced with those of Solon, when men decided to fight and die not for the Ten Commandments but for the resurrection of Athenian civil society, we ended up with the great Democratic Revolutions and the social and legal structures that we now take for granted as the height and glory of human achievement and goodness? I think we owe our thanks to Solon. Moses did nothing for us—his laws were neither original nor significant in comparison. When people cry for the hanging of the Ten Commandments of Moses on school and court walls, I am astonished. Solon’s Ten Commandments have far more right to hang in those places than those of Moses. The Athenian’s Commandments are far more noble and profound, and far more appropriate to a free society. Who would have guessed this of a pagan? Maybe everyone of sense.

Is America a Christian Nation?

Much has been written on the fact that the Founding Fathers did not conceive of America as a Christian nation and did not base any of its constitutional principles on the Bible. To the contrary, they explicitly opposed that very thing. The facts are summarized in Farrell Till’s essay “The Christian Nation Myth” (The Secular Web, 1999) and an online collection of cited quotes regarding “James Madison on Separation of Church and State.” They are also discussed in thorough scholarly detail by Frank Lambert in The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America (2003) and even by the devoutly Christian scholar Gregory Boyd in The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (2005). Certainly, America was and is a nation of Christians, insofar as we focus on the majority of the population and their influences and beliefs, but as a government and a polity America was founded as a nation of equals, thus including countless Jews, Hindus, atheists, and every other kind, as fully equal to their Christian neighbors. To achieve this, nothing in the Constitution was derived from the Bible or any uniquely Christian belief.

One of the best proofs is simply to read the Founding Father who actually spelled out what inspired the Constitution: John Adams, History of the Principal Republics in the World: A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1794), in 3 volumes. How much does Moses get mentioned there, or the Ten Commandments? Essentially nil. Ditto Jesus. Adams was certainly a god-fearing Christian, and offers much praise in various of his writings for Christian religion. But that has no bearing on whether Adams conceived or intended America to be a Christian nation, much less built on the Ten Commandments. To the contrary, he held to exactly the opposite principle (quoting from the above History, with emphasis added):

The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature, and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. ... It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had any interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the inspiration of heaven, any more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture. It will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.

That’s a direct denouncement of the Law of Moses, which derived from an interview with God and the inspiration of heaven. He is saying they heeded no such things, but discarded them all, and derived American government directly from their own reason and observation, from the natural world alone. Though Adams does credit beside reason “morality and the Christian religion, without the monkery of priests” as helping to sustain America’s success, he never once credits any specific principle from that religion (like the Ten Commandments) as lying at the foundation of the U.S. Constitution. The idea isn’t even considered. Instead, volume 1 is entirely about the example and influence of Greece and Rome; volume 2 is about that of the secular Italian republics of the Renaissance; and volume 3 more of the same, followed by the precedent of the British Commonwealth.

In the words of his reviewer in the August issue of the 1795 American Monthly Review, the authors whom he considers as most influential in his survey are these: “Particularly among the ancients, Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Dionysius Halicarnassus, Cicero, and Tacitus, among the moderns, of Machiavelli, Sydney, Montesquieu, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Swift, Hume, Franklin, Price and Nedham.” Moses is conspicuous for his absence. So is Jesus. Solon, of course (and in contrast), would be represented most significantly in the writings of Aristotle, as well as many of the others. And indeed an extensive section in volume 1 is devoted to Solon’s Athens, where Adams credits the first invention of representative government to Lycurgus of Sparta, and Solon with its improvement. No mention of Moses.

Modern research proves this was the pervading sentiment among the Founding Fathers. One of the best examples is a dissertation by Carl Richard, “The Founding Fathers and the Classics” (Vanderbilt, 1988). No other work puts everything together so neatly. But coming close is Michael Zuckert, The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition (1999), who argues Locke inspired the Founders more than the Classics, but he does not dismiss the latter, and his bibliography is useful—and, of course, putting it all on Locke is not that far removed, since he, too was heavily influenced by ancient pagan thought. In fact, as I’ll show, everything of his conception that became effected in the Constitution derives from the Classics, not the Bible. Allen Jayne, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy and Theology (1998) puts in perspective the real influence of religion on the foundation of our government. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1992) ranges widely on the same subject, but covers the classical influences enough to demonstrate they had far more relevance to the founding of our nation than The Ten Commandments of Moses.

Many Christian scholars like to adduce examples of the Founders citing the Bible for everything under the sun, and argue therefrom that the Bible must have inspired their ideas, but this is a non sequitur. Exactly as I argue in The Christian Delusion (p. 399), “finding in that period Christian or Biblical arguments for embracing new ideas does not confirm Christianity or the Bible was the cause of those ideas, rather than just the marketing strategy required to sell them at the time,” or by then at least, the idiom most popular and familiar and thus most readily and ideally employed in thought and persuasion. Instead, when we look to the Classics, it is there, and not the Bible, where we find the language, concepts, and ideals that characterize the political theory manifest in the Constitution. For example, that protection of private property is the principal function of government is explicitly stated by the pagan Cicero (On Duties 2.73). You won’t find this anywhere in the Bible. Likewise, the notion that “all men are created equal” is originally, and most influentially, a pagan idea, derived from the Stoic belief that all men are brothers and citizens of the world who share the same natural rights, which they claimed could be demonstrated directly from observation and reason, the very method Adams declares the Founders employed (whereas ‘searching the scriptures’ gets nary a mention as a method ever resorted to). The Stoics likewise developed the philosophical concepts of ‘liberty’ and ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘equality under the law’.

The link is demonstrated by the Declaration of Independence, which says “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” which tells us the idea of unalienable rights is the foundational concept behind this sentiment, yet no such concept appears anywhere in the Bible (and certainly not in the Ten Commandments). Rather, it derives from the Stoics and their influence on pagan Roman legal theory. Hence the Founding Fathers did not find this idea in the Bible. They saw the equality of man in the context of Cicero’s “rights of man” (the ius gentium, “right of peoples,” and ius naturae, “natural right”). Even Paul’s alleged declaration of equality (Galatians 3:27-29) does not pertain to this, as he was not asserting a political concept, but a very prejudicial theology, where only those who “have been baptized into Christ” are equals (for only they are “one in Christ”), and not only that, but equals only in the sense that they all share the same “promise” in the afterlife, not in the sense that they share the same legal rights (the New Testament in fact denies equal rights: 1 Cor. 14:33-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-15; slavery is uniformly supported even in Philemon). That all peoples, of all faiths, ought share the same legal rights is a pagan concept, not a Christian one. They never fully realized it in practice, but many pagans advocated it. Of course, even the Founders fell short that way, exempting slaves and women from the ideals of equality, just as the pagans did, and all other Christians and Jews had ever done. The difference is that the pagans at least advocated the ideal of extending rights to women and slaves. Moses never did. Nor did Jesus or Paul. Just see the paragraph on “Slavery” in my essay “On Musonius Rufus” (1999) and the section “What about Women” in my article “Reply to McFall on Jesus as a Philosopher” (2004).

Centuries before Christ, Zeno originated the idea that “we should regard all men as our fellow-citizens and neighbors, and there should be one way of life and order, like that of a herd grazing together and nurtured by a common law” (Plutarch, On the Fortune of Alexander 329a-b), which the Stoics based on the pagan idea that we are all created by God and thereby share equally in his nature. A century before Christ, Cicero imported these ideas into Roman legal theory, arguing that:

There is in fact a true law, from right reason, which is in accordance with nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal. By its commands this law summons men to the performance of their duties; by its prohibitions it restrains them from doing wrong. ... To invalidate this law by human legislation is never morally right nor is it permissible ever to restrict its operation, and to annul it wholly is impossible. ... For there will be one law, eternal and unchangeable, binding at all times and upon all peoples; and there will be, as it were, one common master and ruler of men, God, who is the author of this law, its interpreter and its sponsor. (Cicero, Republic 3.33)

For how this pagan idea entered early American political theory, see Heinrich Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, Part I: History of the Idea of Natural Law (1936). Similarly, Locke’s idea of rights and government as a social contract derives from the pagan Epicurus (see Epicurus, Key Doctrines 31-37; and Prophyry, On Abstinence 1.7), not the Bible.

One of my favorite examples of a quote showing the kind of sentiment typical of the Founding Fathers, here concerning moral of kindness to one’s enemies (a notion appearing not only in the New Testament Sermon on the Mount but also in the Old Testament Proverbs):

Those men, whom Jewish and Christian idolaters have abusively called heathen, had much better and clearer ideas of justice and morality than are to be found in the old testament, so far as it is Jewish, or in the new. The answer of Solon on the question, “Which is the most perfect popular government?” has never been exceeded by any man since his time, as containing a maxim of political morality. “That,” says he, “where the least injury done to the meanest individual is considered as an insult on the whole constitution.” Solon lived above 500 years before Christ.

Those are the words of Thomas Paine (The Age of Reason II), the political activist who authored The Rights of Man and The Crisis, playing a crucial role in rallying Americans to the Revolution. Paine knew where our constitutional ideals came from, as he declares it in The Rights of Man: “What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude.” In other words, Solon, not Moses.