By Jacqueline Leo
How many of the Ten Commandments can the average person name? Almost no one aces this test including respondents in a survey by Kelton Research who were able to name the seven ingredients in a Big Mac, but not recall the commandment, “thou shalt not kill.” Yet the Ten Commandments are the equivalent of a social contract that informs our legal system, our civil behavior, and our love and respect for God. The Commandments are shared by Jews and Christians, but other religious groups subscribe to many of the same principles. So why can’t we name them all? I believe it’s because we can’t hold more than 7 independent objects in short term memory—a proposition that was proved scientifically in 1956 by George Miller, then a professor at Harvard who wrote the seminal paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.”
Miller is known as the father of cognitive science, and I often wonder how he would apply his magical number to today’s digital information overload. Finding a way to manage everything from information, work obligations, everyday tasks, social engagements and even friendships and family is essential if we’re going to recall our memories and escape our self-imposed mental hopscotching. Writer Andrew Sullivan called this having “pond skater minds.”
Many religions and cultures limit their tenets to seven, including the Japanese who revere the seven virtues: Truth, Bravery, Compassion, Civility, Sincerity, Honor, and Loyalty. Catholics have the seven sacraments and the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, pride, and wrath. But Mahatma Gandhi created his own list of seven:
1. Wealth without work
2. Pleasure without conscience
3. Science without humanity
4. Knowledge without character
5. Politics without principle
6. Commerce without morality
7. Worship without sacrifice
The Hindus also have seven marriage vows, taken as the couple walks seven steps around a fire. In Judaism, seven is perfect number, indicating completeness. This is based on the seven days of creation (including the day of rest). Muslims share the idea that seven is a perfect number. According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad ascended into the seven heavens during his lifetime and met the divine.
Despite our focus on what some see as fundamental differences among religious beliefs, we have more in common than we acknowledge. Christians, Jews, and Muslims, for example, share seven common beliefs:
The Seven Shared Beliefs
1. Monotheism—belief in one God. Christians believe in the Holy Trinity (The Father, Son and Holy Spirit), but the three are one according to the New Testament.
2. Divine revelation—truths are revealed through the word of God.
3. Daily Prayer—Muslims must pray five times a day; Jews are supposed to thank God every day for the gifts he bestows; and Christians who follow Catholicism are to pray seven times a day, while most simply say nightly prayers.
4. Muslims, Christians and Jews all participate in religious fasts. Christians have Lent, a 40 day period of denial leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; Jews fast during Yom Kippur; and Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan.
5. Prophetic Tradition—all three religions believe in “messengers of God.” Jews and Christians believe in Moses among others in the Old Testament; Muslims acknowledge many prophets of Allah cited in the Qur’an, the most important being Muhammad. All three honor Abraham as great prophet. Abraham believed in the one and only God. So if all three religions believe in Abraham, they would logically believe in the same God.
6. All three believe in almsgiving and charity.
7. All three believe in holy sites: Jerusalem for Jews and Christians, Mecca and Medina for Muslims.
Perhaps one reason the Ten Commandments are not fully shared by all religions is that some of the tenets are redundant or confusing. We would do much better organizing the first 3 in the chart below into one idea of belief and respect for God. The last two—coveting another’s wife or possessions is a thought, not a behavior, not worthy of a commandment that deals with behavior. Voila—the perfect seven commandments that almost everyone can remember and hopefully act on.
Division of the Ten Commandments by religion/denomination