Among the things I missed whilst away at the APSA meeting is this delicious fisking of the Ten Commandments by Christopher Hitchens.

(Hat tip: Stephen Green)

FILED UNDER: Religion, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. melvin toast says:

    Seems strange to me that there are certain disciplines where knowledge and education don’t seem to be a prerequisite. Let’s Fisk the General Theory of Relativity.
    What a stupid theory… I mean anyone can see orbits are
    circular. You’re telling me space is bent by gravity? Looks
    straight to me!

    Here’s a patently stupid comment: The first four of the commandments have little to do with either law or morality, and the first three suggest a terrific insecurity on the part of the person supposedly issuing them.

    Well according to those that believe that the 10 Commandments are Godly, it would seem strange that the omnipotent creator of the Universe is insecure seeing that he’s… well… omnipotent.

    But more importantly, is there any morality without the belief in an absolute being? I think existentialism pretty much says no. So it would seem that the first commandment at least has everything to do with law and morality as it is the basis of law and morality.

    To quote a God fearing individual, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” They’re only self-evident because they were held by God fearing people.

  2. Biff says:

    But more importantly, is there any morality without the belief in an absolute being?

    Of course, this is the lead-in to a very old and tiresome debate. But isn’t it obvious, empirically, that the answer is Yes? There do exist atheists who live morally, after all.

    I’d actually argue that even religious folks don’t REALLY draw most of their morality from Scripture anyway, but that would start another long, tiresome debate, and it’s getting late…

  3. JohnC says:

    Man, Melvin, what a perfect example of someone who doesn’t understand the difference between science and religion.

    Guess what? A fisking of Relativity is happening all the time. That’s pretty much the definition of science.


    And I love you’re justification of “Have no other gods before me”. That was just rich. Yea, God-fearing people made up the homogenous people who wrote the constitution.

    It’s theocrats like you that simply give me shivers whenever I hear religion and politics being mixed.

  4. melvin toast says:

    It’s you and people like you…

    Bush must give you the shivers…

    Actually I don’t know what you’re background JohnC but
    I’m not criticizing the concept of scrutinizing an idea.
    Rather I’m demonstrating that someone who’s not familiar with a certain subject, General Relativity for instance, a theory that is well established, can unfairly draw ridiculous conclusions. And a fisking of the General Relativity ISN’T happening all the time as it has been well established for 60 years. Furthermore scientific theories are generally scrutinized using emprical data or accepting scientific principles. Scientists who scrutinize with poor logic and uninformed conclusions usually don’t get published. Fleischman and Pons comes to mind.

    As for having no other gods before the one God, it seems logical that we wouldn’t want to put money, fame, or ego before morality and ethics. As for the accusation of mixing politics with religion, I wonder how we’re supposed to have a public school system that teaches our kids that murder is wrong but also says that one man’s terrorist is another mans freedom fighter. Where do we derive that the sanctity of innocent human life? What’s wrong with Uday sending his rivals to the lions? The lions were hungry. And trees have feelings too.

    As for biff’s claim that atheists can be moral too, go read Lord of the Flies. Atheists might be able to abide in a society crafted by God fearing people, but societies crafted by atheists, i.e. Soviet Union and PRC aren’t poster boys
    for inalienable rights. Empirical Baby!

  5. Biff says:

    As for biff’s claim that atheists can be moral too, go read Lord of the Flies.

    Right, because fictional occurrences can disprove an empirical claim…

    Atheists might be able to abide in a society crafted by God fearing people, but societies crafted by atheists, i.e. Soviet Union and PRC aren’t poster boys for inalienable rights.

    This is the old, tiresome debate I didn’t want to get into…

    Anyway, you’re changing the subject. Your original claim was not that only “societies crafted by God fearing people” respect rights. It was that morality could not exist without a belief in God. This claim is clearly empirically false, since there are millions of people who don’t believe in God and yet somehow manage to have a moral system.

  6. melvin toast says:

    Biff, you’re wrong by assertion. But besides that, you
    haven’t picked up on the distinction I made. There are only a few countries that were founded on atheist principles, most of them being communist. Go back and read what I wrote.

    I accept your first point though. From now on I will treat all fiction that I read as if it were Bugs Bunny. Tolstoy and Mark Twain are the Road Runner and Coyote to me now.

    Finally I’d like to point out that there is an R-squared of 1 correlation between countries that lead the world in fight against nazism, racism, communism, and terrorist and the presence of the statement in God We Trust on their currency.

    God bless America, God shed his grace on thee, one nation under God, God save the United States and this Honorable Court, so help me God.

    Hmmm… I find this debate inspiring… I’m not tired at all!

  7. James Joyner says:


    It’s been a while since my stats classes, but I don’t think correlations have R-squares.

    To answer your objections to Hitchens, your defense of the 1st four commandments presumes belief in God. They have little meaning otherwise. This is relevant, given that the context of the debate is Roy Moore’s posting of them and citing them as the source of all law.

    Why does an omnipotent being need so much love? Let alone putting that first ahead of, say, murdering people?

    Hitchens’ point is that the comandments which are also enshrined in the law are not unique to the Judeo-Christian belief system but indeed essentially universal. Even the Stalinists and Nazis prohibited murder, theft, and the like among the citizenry.

  8. JohnC says:

    They also demanded no other “gods” before them as well.

  9. melvin toast says:


    R-square IS a metric of correlation. This can easily be verified via google et. al.

    You are correct that the 10 commandments have little meaning if you don’t believe in God. That’s probably why the first commandment is to believe in God.

    Your argument that the Nazis and Stalinists prohibited murder is exactly my point. Individuals are free to design ethics that serve their purposes in the absense of religion. Murder is prohibited unless you’re killing Jews. How do you refute that without belief in an absolute ethical system?

  10. James Joyner says:


    Is it your contention that no religios leaders–including Christian leaders–practiced genocide?

    Actually, Pearson’s r is a measure of correlation. R-squared is a measure of statistical regression and is measured as a percentage. See http://trochim.human.cornell.edu/contents.htm

  11. Bryan says:

    Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an argument about religion devolve into a dispute over statistical formulas before!

    For Hitchens’ piece, he’s obviously woefully inadequate in his analysis, since it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a theologian) to understand that the 10 commandments are not the ONLY commandments laid down in the book of the law (Pentateuch) in the old testament. Several of the horrors he describes are addressed elsewhere in the moral code.

  12. James Joyner says:


    True–and Hitchens notes that there are indeed more than ten. His rather tongue-in-cheek point is that, if there are only going to be TEN handed down on stone tablets, one would presume that several of the ones picked should have been bumped in favor of more significant ones. And, mainly, that the 10C’s aren’t of all that much use as the basis for modern law.

  13. melvin toast says:

    Pearson r is correlation between two variables. R square is correlation of a model to data using a least-squares fit:

    The multiple regression correlation coefficient, R², is a measure of the proportion of variability explained by, or due to the regression (linear relationship) in a sample of paired data. It is a number between zero and one and a value close to zero suggests a poor model.

    Bryan understands me. I’m trying to say that Hitchens is taking pot shots without doing his homework. Thanks for the support Bryan.

    To your other point, is my contention that medieval Popes were saintly? No. I don’t really understand how Catholics can be Catholic given their history. Here’s the point. Mayans used to sacrifice children to keep the gods happy. That was their ethical system. In America we call that murder. Killing someone in self-defense is not considered murder in America. Why? The answer is that America was
    founded on Christian principles which to some degree are based on Jewish principles. Thus the Judeo-Christian ethic.

    We’ve been living with the Judeo-Christian ethic for so long that Mayan child sacrifices sound barbaric. Without the belief of an absolute ethic power the two attitudes are equivalent. PETA believes that zacky farms is as bad as the Nazis. Why don’t the rest of us believe that?

    If you can come up with a fundamental reason why Mayan child sacrifice or Uday rival sacrifice is barbaric, other than it just is, I’d like to hear it. In the mean time, “Because God said it is,” makes sense to me.

  14. James Joyner says:

    “Because God said it” seems much sillier than anything PETA would say, frankly. I’d prefer a utility maximization model–or almost anything–to a blind obedience to a fictional character.

  15. JohnC says:

    Ah, I get it. Anything good is Judeo-Christian. Anything bad is evil atheists and worshipers of false gods. And anything bad done under the J-C watch is an obviously flawed misunderstanding due to the inherent sinfulness of mankind.

    I hope you don’t teach.

  16. melvin toast says:

    Those that can’t do teach.

    Utility maximization eh? Wouldn’t there be more utility in systematically exterminating the less useful members of society? I mean instead of providing healthcare and food stamps we could just cremate them all.

    On a more fundamental level, why is the utility maximization model any better than any other approach. What makes it better than the Saddam Hussein ethical system?

  17. JohnC says:

    Your pretty darn good at knocking down these strawmen.

  18. Biff says:

    Initially I wondered if getting bogged down in this thread was worth the trouble. Then I read this:

    Biff, you’re wrong by assertion.

    Who could pass that up? 🙂

  19. JohnC says:

    ‘s funny to hear. Disturbing to think that this is a commonly held thought process in the US. Terrifying to know that the protector in Chief of the Constitution of the US would agree with MT’s arguments. Mind bendingly surreal to hear otherwise sane people defend it by virtue of “majority rule” popularity contest.


  20. melvin toast says:

    What’s so disturbing? Actually the wrong by assertion
    thing was a joke. But you seem to be the implementing it.
    I’m wrong simply because my position is horrific?

  21. JohnC says:

    Well, our inability to call your God in court and cross examine him. Until a duly pointed representative of the people can do so, it’s impossible to argue with a position based on an source we can’t question objectively. “Trust me” isn’t a foundation for law.

    It’s not that you’re wrong. Who knows? Maybe I am going to hell and my secular ways will usher in the final apocalypse.

    But geez looooiz. We can’t base law on something not everyone agrees upon, much less has even the patina of objective reality we can at least argue with rationally.

    Is that really too much to ask?

  22. melvin toast says:

    The difference between humans and animals is that humans have the ability to conceive of unwavering principles that define their purpose. It’s important that we live this way and not like cows or monkees who chase after whatever lustful instinct they might have at the moment.

    Now the reality is that there are many attitudes about which principles are reflective of absolute truth for the exact reasons you stated. No religious person can truthfully claim that faith is not a component of their belief.
    However, it’s good to remind ourselves that we OUGHT to have principles and not acquiesce to moral relativism because there are times when the right path isn’t the most comfortable path.

    I personally don’t think that government should display the 10Cs if a court rules they shouldn’t do that. I DO thing that having “In God We Trust” on our currency is a good think. It reminds us that we’re not just in it for the money.

    PS I once asked a philosophy prof who is also religious how Divine Providence can be aligned with physical principles. He immediately responded that physicists have as much faith as any religious person. After all, we can’t observe every interaction yet we believe that they all behave according to the laws of physics.

  23. JohnC says:

    Right. This reminds me of #234 of Proofs of God’s existence:

    (1) There are some things in logic that you can’t logically demonstrate.
    (2) Therefore you have to take them on faith.
    (3) Your faith in logic is the same as my faith in God.
    (4) Therefore, God exists.

    Just because we can’t explain everything yet doesn’t mean that we won’t be able to. The boundaries of what we don’t know are always being pushed back.

    Faith in the laws of physics is the faith that things are explainable.

    This is far, far different than a faith in something that can’t be explained.

    Category error in your processing logic.

    Oh, and there’s plenty of other ways to “remind us we’re not in it for the money” than to put “in god we trust” on the money.

    Also, I might just add that it doesn’t seem to work very well at all. Other than reinforcing the religious beliefs, that is. As far as reminding people about things more than money, it does a crappy job.

  24. James Joyner says:

    As far as reminding people about things more than money, it does a crappy job.

    You mean you don’t read your money and think about the deeper meanings? Frankly, I tend to throw my change in a box and roll it every few years. I use plastic whenever possible.

  25. JohnC says:

    Surprisingly, I do use a fair amount of cash on a day to day basis. But that’s mostly for my cigarettes and my morning mocha at Star Bucks.

    I can’t remember the last time I wrote a check.