It’s difficult to discern which of the Ten Commandments is most frequently ignored these days. Switch on a daytime television talk show, and it’s usually a toss up between “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife” and “honour thy mother and father”: often both are violated at the same time. Perhaps it’s not entirely the fault of the trailer park residents who appear on such programmes: their ability to comply with these strictures is likely hindered by their inability to comprehend them in the first place.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” is also often cast aside. Crime dramas, erotic programming, and even situation comedies invoke the higher being in situations as mundane as running out of toothpaste, let alone scenarios of extreme pleasure or stress. Furthermore, even atheists have found it difficult to cry “Science!” when someone cuts them off in traffic.
“Thou shalt not steal” is also flamboyantly disregarded. Bernie Madoff is a prime example: despite having deep roots in the Jewish community, it is apparent that Judaism’s most sacred, clear and basic rules went in one ear and out the other. Billions passed through his hands, and then flowed into the tributaries of an opulent lifestyle; his recently expressed remorse has the tenor of a criminal who isn’t sorry he broke the law, but dreaded the consequences of being caught.
However, perhaps the winner of this “competition” is the final commandment, “thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods”. This is perhaps because it is the most awkward commandment to keep: it is one that frequently falls down the memory hole not just for lay people but for religious authorities as well. Yet, this is likely the precise commandment that the religions of the world should be emphasising the most.
There is no mainstream religion that preaches covetousness. There is no Gordon Gekko of Hinduism that informs believers that “greed is good”, no Ivan Boesky in the Orthodox pantheon of saints that informs the faithful that their way to heaven is paved with shares purchased utilising insider information. In Islam, Mohammed specifically told believers that usury was a sin: this dictum has created a complex Islamic finance industry which tries to mediate between religious obligations and the need of individuals to get mortgages and loans. Christ consistently challenged the rich to give up their possessions to the poor and follow him, warning that it would be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for them to get into heaven. In 590, Pope Gregory I listed “Greed” as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Yet avarice appears to be down the list of priorities for many religions in this day and age. The Taliban appears to be more concerned with executing adulterers than with discouraging, say, the opium trade and the illicit profits gained by it (rather, they benefit from this). The Pope makes a point about preaching about contraception in Africa but was relatively muted in railing against society’s recent failures to restrain its covetous impulses. Most Pentacostal preachers appear to live in a moral universe in which lust permeates and contaminates every microcosm of society and every pore of the individual, but when it comes to overreaching ambition, they have little to say.
Perhaps this curious silence can partially be explained by hidden motives. The Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek identified this in his description of what he called “psuedo-fundamentalists”:
In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful Other, they are fighting their own temptation.
This statement has a wider application than perhaps Zizek intended. For example, we have cases such as that of Ted Haggard, a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who was forced to admit that he’d taken illegal narcotics and engaged in what he called “sexual immorality” with a male prostitute. With his Evangelical hat on, he was most concerned with “family values”, but this was likely in part due to the tension with the temptations to which he had surrendered frequently.
Another possible motive is embarrassment. While the full extent of the Vatican’s wealth is unknown; back in 1965, it was estimated to be over $10 billion. Even if time, bad management and inflation have taken their toll, it is certainly true that the Vatican retains one of the most precious art collections and libraries in the world. Furthermore, while there are many charitable endeavours undertaken by the church, it is also certainly true that the Vatican is not adhering to a monastic vow of poverty either. I personally recall sitting in a Catholic church in an upscale New York suburb one Christmas Eve, and being fascinated by the Italianate opulence of the altar and nave. I have no idea if real gold was used, but certainly brass and marble were in abundance, as well as finely detailed oil paintings of the Saviour at various stations of the Cross. Under these circumstances a call to help the poor, abandon avarice, does seem mildly hypocritical; the priest, perhaps conscious of this and the fact that his parishioners were the type of people most likely to be afflicted by such a message, kept this call sotto voce.
But perhaps the strongest motive to avoid this subject is that people may associate religion with something difficult, and thus become unreceptive. For example, to live as Christ demanded, i.e., to give up one’s possessions, to be kind, merciful and to forgive one’s enemies no matter the injury they render, is extremely difficult. Pulling back on the message so that only personal lust need be addressed makes it simpler: after all, most people do not get the opportunity to live the life of an unbridled hedonist. It was only after the invention of effective birth control that restraints on sexual urges truly began to loosen, thanks to an absence of fear of potential consequences. Perhaps because there would be nothing left to hold onto, many major religions have decided to not pull back from their previous position in light of this social change; what they may have found more germane was to act as a moral voice against the excesses of consumerism and financial capitalism, rather than pay lip service to charity. The closest a major religion has come to preaching this message is certain sects of fundamentalist Islam; however, this element has largely been forgotten due to a change in emphasis towards an easier creed with which to rally people, i.e., attacking the West for its immorality.
Under these circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that increasing numbers of people in the West proclaim to have no religion at all. In 2002, a poll indicated that 44% of Britons had no religious affiliation whatsoever. Yet, the need for an ethical framework, whether it comes through humanist or theological values is greater than ever: the trader who risks the future of his company in order to get a bigger bonus needs to have the voice of conscience whispering in his ear that other lives depend on the firm remaining afloat. The businessman who intends to wreck a bit of unspoiled nature to build a factory needs to hear a message which says he is one of many stewards, not owners, of the earth. The political leader needs to understand that lying, backstabbing and deception in the name of gain is not acceptable. The fight against avarice needs to come from all locations and venues, and preached from churches and street corners, synagogues and university lecterns, mosques and talk shows. If religion, however, chooses to maintain its present focus, the only thing it may perpetuate is its own decline.