Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Carlin did Moses, Dawkins, and me eight better

When I took Richard Dawkins up on his suggestion in The God Delusion that the Ten Commandments needed updating to align them with the advances mankind has made in understanding what's what (and what ought to be what), I rather slavishly followed him in retaining the number 10. Of course, he was only following Moses, so why not?

But since then George Carlin died (on June 22) and I've been looking into this great man's work. At a UNC library (on June 30) I listened to a CD recording of a live performance he gave not long after 9/11/2001. I was struck by the final segment of his performance, titled on the liner notes, "Why we don't need 10 commandments." Unfortunately, I didn't take notes, or I'd have shared this with you sooner. But fortunately, I discovered yesterday that in the library's copy of Carlin's 2004 book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, there's a section titled "The Two Commandments" [pp. 14-18, emphasis mine] that contains the same material (possibily edited and improved).

Carlin shows his brilliance right off. Unlike Dawkins and me, he's sensitive to having a numerical
problem with the Ten Commandments....Why are there ten? We don't need that many. I think the list of commandments was deliberately and artificially inflated to get it up to ten. It's clearly a padded list.
    Here's how it happened: About five thousand years ago, a bunch of religious and political hustlers....
Of course, Dawkins and I too knew about the hustlers, so why didn't we follow suit, perhaps along Carlin's lines:
...Ten sounds important. Ten is the basis for the decimal system; it's a decade. It's a psychologically satisfying number: the top ten; the ten most wanted; the ten best dressed. So deciding on ten commandments was clearly a marketing decision. And it's obviously a bullshit list....
In all fairness, I have to acknowledge Mel Brooks for having a similar insight. In his 1981 movie, "History of the World, Part I," Moses comes down from Sinai bearing three tablets and begins to explain them as "the "Fift—" but he drops and breaks one..."the Ten Commandments...."

Back to Carlin:
Okay, right off the bat, the first three commandments—pure bullshit. "Sabbath day," "Lord's name," "strange gods." [He's using the Catholic version "because those are the ones I was fed as a little boy."]...Spooky language designed to scare and control primitive people. In no way does superstitious mumbo jumbo like this apply to the lives of intelligent, civilized humans in the twenty-first century.
That leaves seven. Then he's quickly down to six by observing that the next commandment (about honoring thy father and mother) overlooks that
obedience and respect should not be granted automatically. They should be earned. They should be based on the parents' (or the authority figure's) performance. Some parents deserve respect. Most of them don't.
Then, in the interest of logic ("something religion has a really hard time with"), he skips the fifth commandment for a bit and proceeds to the sixth and seventh (against stealing and bearing false witness), which he points out "cover the same sort of behavior: dishonesty." He combines them as "Thou shalt not be dishonest." Down to five.

And then quickly down to four with the combination of the eighth and ninth (about adultery and coveting thy neighbor's wife) as "Thou shalt not be unfaithful."
And when you think about it further, honesty and fidelity are actually part of the same overall value. So, in truth, we could combine the two honesty commandments with the two fidelity commandments, and, using positive language instead of negative, call the whole thing "Thou shalt always be honest and faithful." And now we're down to three.
And the next (the final one on Moses's list),
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods" [note "that coveting takes place in the mind"]
    ...is just plain stupid. Coveting your neighbor's goods is what keeps the economy going: Your neighbor gets a vibrator that plays "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," you want to get one, too. Coveting creates jobs....You throw out coveting and you're down to two...,
one of which is the one we skipped, the fifth:
Thou shalt not kill.
    Murder....But, if you give it a little thought, you realize that religion has never really had a problem with murder. Not really. More people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason.
    To cite a few examples, just think about Irish history, the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the Inquisition, our own abortion-doctor killings and, yes, the World Trade Center1 to see how seriously religious people take Thou Shalt Not Kill. Apparently, to religious folks—especially the truly devout—murder is negotiable. It just depends on who's doing the killing and who's getting killed.2
He offers the revision,
Thou shalt try real hard not to kill anyone, unless, of course, they pray to a different invisible avenger than the one you pray to.
Two is all you need, folks. Moses could have carried them down the hill in his pocket.
Carlin can be heard and seen delivering this deconstruction.
  1. The World Trade Center is where Sam Harris starts in his own heraldic 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
  2. "Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conquerer. Kill them all, and you are a god." – Thoughts of a Biologist, Jean Rostand, 1939.


  1. Hate to burst your bubble but that guy from Nazareth broke them down to two 'way back in "the day"! Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Kind of puts the pressure on us though, doesn't it? If you loved God you wouldn't kill people or do any of the nasty stuff folks do in the name of God (I don't say "His name" because if God exists surely that being transcends sex as well as a bunch of other anthropomorphic bullsh*t right?) And if you juuuuuust loved your neighbor, your friend, your lover, as much as you love yourself, why, you wouldn't want to hurt them in any way either. In any case, I have enjoyed your deconstruction of what seems to have been a little obsolete even 2000 years ago. Seems like if God exists the one commandment should read "Be nice to each other and give me a call now and then."

    1. THANK YOU, Roger, for breathing some fresh air onto this EIGHT-year-old column!