Penn’s Secular 10 Commandments

by Jesse Galef -

I know, I know, the Ten Commandments aren’t a good moral code. We reject the very notion of following rules passed down from an authority figure. But what if we didn’t take them as absolute rules? What if they were decent, secular guidelines? And what if the authority figure *cough* was Penn Jillette?

It’s a fun idea. Apparently, Glenn Beck challenged Penn to come up with the atheist’s version of the 10 Commandments and Penn did a decent job rewriting them to tease out what was worthwhile. Kimberly Winston shares them with the public in a Religion News Service article – here’s a sampling:

Penn’s Version“Traditional” version
1. The highest ideals are human intelligence, creativity and love. Respect these above all.1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
5. Be there for your family. Love your parents, your partner, and your children. (Love is deeper than honor, and parents matter, but so do spouse and children.)5. Honor your father and your mother.
6. Respect and protect all human life. (Many believe that “Thou shalt not kill” only refers to people in the same tribe. I say it’s all human life.)6. You shall not murder.
10. Don’t waste too much time wishing, hoping, and being envious; it’ll make you bugnutty.10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.

(You can read the others in the article.)

Not bad. It’s a decent starting point in describing what it means to be good without god. I think he was handcuffed by his decision to follow the original format, something the late great George Carlin rejected: (NSFW – come on, it’s Carlin)

He got it down to two commandments, though he tacked on one of his own at the end.

Of course, the ultimate distillation comes from the preeminent secular scholar of our time: E.T.

Be good.

Sure, not much nuance or real guidance… but punchy, I’ll give him (it?) that.

About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)

  • Spencer

    It’s too human-centric, but otherwise, pretty decent. I could probably make a better version though. :) (At least, better to my own sense of morality).

    • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

      Too *human*-centric? Have people been hiding Klingons from me?

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

        Wouldn’t you like to know… =3

  • Jill

    I think #6 is interesting…

    “Respect and protect all human life. (Many believe that “Thou shalt not
    kill” only refers to people in the same tribe. I say it’s all human
    life.)”

    Doesn’t this imply an opposition to abortion?  After all, a human fetus is both alive and (obviously) human, so certainly it qualifies as “human life”…

    • Peter White

      If a fetus is both alive and human then so is my finger and any sperm cells or eggs in anyone’s body. By your reckoning a surgeon who amputates my finger is guilty of murder. Anyone who allows a sperm or egg to die would also be guilty of murder.

      The problem here is thinking that a clump of cells is somehow equivalent to a fully formed human baby. A pumpkin seed is not a pumpkin, an acorn is not an oak tree.

  • Newavocation

    I don’t know, it seems there should be a “DO GOOD” instead of a “BE GOOD” statement. In Daniel Everett’s book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and

    Language in the Amazonian Jungle, he refers to a version of the golden
    rule they use there. “Help those in need today because you maybe be
    the one in need tomorrow.” I much prefer that version as opposed to
    the one we seemed to have adopted “Don’t mess with my billion and I
    won’t mess with yours”.

  • Anonymous

     My favorite “ten commandments” begin: “Congress shall make no law…”

    Well, the second one could have been tightened up a bit, but it’s a pretty good list of commandments for government.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

    I can work with “be/do good”. More complex rule-sets are too much to keep track of.

  • William Perrin

    1. Be excellent to each other.
    2. Party on, dudes.

    Works for me.

    • Xeon2000

      *air guitar*

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    The Two Commandments

    1. Don’t harm anyone.

    2. Be productive.

  • Cheepak Dopra

    Where do people get the idea that the Ten Commandments were supposed to be a code of ethics? The Bible itself says that they were a covenant between Gawd and Israel. Also, the real ten commandments (the ones actually referred to as “the Ten Commandments” in the text) are found in Exodus 34, not Exodus 20, and all of them are ritual laws, not ethical ones.

  • Dan W

    I love that George Carlin bit. You definitely don’t need ten guidelines or commandments or whatever you want to call them.

  • dauntless

    Was this a repost? I seem to remember reading a post on here about Penn’s commandements, which also linked the same Carlin video… it’s not de ja vu, because I read them and watched the video last time and just scrolled past this time.

    • Anonymous

      The “Commandments” article just came out, though they’re referenced in Penn’s new book.

      I did a quick search on Friendly Atheist for Penn Jillette and found mention of them, but no list or video: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2011/08/16/win-a-copy-of-penn-jillettes-new-book/

      It’s always possible you saw the same thing on 1) the SSA’s Facebook wall, where I posted the link or 2) Another blog who made the same ever-so-obvious connection to Carlin.

      Let me know if you figure it out!

      - Jesse

  • Anonymous

    Glenn Beck challenged Penn to come up with the atheist’s version of the 10 Commandments

    Sorry but command morality is something that I left behind with my squeaky pre-teen voice.  Command morals imply that morality is arbitrary and subject to the whims of authority figures.  They deal in absolutes that make no concession to circumstance.  They imply that human beings need someone or something to tell us what to do, how to behave and what to think.  Command morality ultimately leads hypocrisy as those in command break their own rules and to disillusion as those commanded witness the lack of adherence in their “superiors” and chafe under the unfair rule.
    I can take the 10 Commandments and Penn’s version as advice that I’m free to ignore if the situation calls for it or if I think that the command is stupid (Thou shall have no other gods before me?  Pah!).  I can take moral advice from any number of sources if I want but nobody gets to tell me what I should think or what I consider to be right and wrong.

  • http://www.facebook.com/seth.strong Seth Strong

    I agree with the detractors of command authority.  But I also like Bertrand’s 10 items.
    1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
    2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
    3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
    4. When you meet with
    opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children,
    endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory
    dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
    5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
    6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
    7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
    8. Find more pleasure in
    intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value
    intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than
    the latter.
    9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
    10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

    • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

      Good list, but I would make one slight modification. For #5, how about:

      5. Have no respect for the authority of others, ESPECIALLY SELF-BESTOWED, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    “He’s known for his vulgarity; he’s very anti-religious . . .”

    So says a priest from Corpus Christi (Carlin’s alma mater),
    who opposes naming a Manhattan street in his honor.

    (Freethought Today  Oct.)

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Speaking of vulgarity, how about the crucifix?

  • Anonymous

    I think “honor” is better than “love” in regards to parents. Parents who are deserving of love will be loved, regardless of commandments.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_BWYTJU2N7NQRFXYX6AE5CR626M Benjamin

    I personally like Christopher Hitchens list of the 10…

    http://thejaywalker.com/pages/shit_happens.html

    I won’t say commandments but suggestions.

  • Rieux

    Wrt E.T., I always thought it worthwhile to note (though nobody in the movie does notice) that it isn’t quite clear that E.T. understands that “be” is a verb. Earlier in the movie, he sees a “Sesame Street” clip starring Casey Kasem and focusing on the letter B. While watching the clip, E.T. says “B.”

    Gertie, Elliott’s little sister (played by a very young Drew Barrymore), hears E.T. and responds “B! Good!”

    E.T. parrots that back: “B good.”

    As a result, when he repeats the same phrase at the end, does E.T. even know what he’s saying—what “be good” means?

  • http://twitter.com/Cluisanna Cluisanna

    I got it down to three rules:
    1. Do no harm.
    2. Treat everybody with the same basic respect.
    3. Do what you would like to do (without violating rules 1 and 2).


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