Chocolate and Gold Coins

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Curse of Moses

You probably aren’t aware of this but Moses really received eleven commandments from God. The eleventh commandment was:

Thou shalt not write down the word of the Lord.

For some reason, Moses never wrote that one down, but did write the other 10 for posterity. So the curse of Moses is: “He who dares to write down the word of God dooms his followers to obey that word for all eternity.”

This is the fundamental tension in all religions: Write your religion in pencil and someone will erase all of it. Write your religion in stone, and no one will ever be able to change it, even if change is very necessary.

Of course, the mental midgets who run the world’s religions might smugly announce: “The word of God never goes out of fashion. There is no need for amendment.”

Sure. And I suppose we should be still giving burnt offerings to God as penance for our sins. Cultures change, and religion changes with it. If that undermines your concept of the divinity of religion, perhaps you need to think about this some more.

There is a great anecdote that illustrates this concept wonderfully. There was a small Christian sect in Pennsylvania Colony (a haven for religious freedom in colonial times) that was being falsely accused of practicing several evil acts, (I don’t think these acts were record in the source of the anecdote). A representative of the sect went to Benjamin Franklin (who was a very famous publisher in the colonies) and asked that he help erase the bad name of their religion. Franklin asked that the representative write down their beliefs, so that this would show others that they believed in nothing wicked. The representative declined and sited a very interesting reason, which I will paraphrase:

“At one time we had certain beliefs which upon further reflection we discovered to be false. Therefore, we decide we should never write down our beliefs, for in writing them down, we make it impossible to amend them.”

Franklin was struck by the humility of this sect.

Gresham’s law applied to religions drove this humble sect to extinction and Islam and Roman Catholicism number billions of followers. The religions that succeed are the ones that lay the religion out in black and white and leave no scope for ambiguity. The “proof” of their divinity is the fact that they have an answer for everything.

Of course, there’s a heavy price to pay for this lack of ambiguity. “True believers” are doomed to follow a long defunct vision of what “being a good follower” really means. For Catholics priests, it means no marriage, and no hope of ever voiding the pressure building in the prostate. One Pope’s nonsensical notion of the virtues of celibacy doomed millions of Catholics to misery and frustration. And no one can ever change it.

For Islam, the religion was all recorded with no ambiguity by Mohammad from God herself. There is no amendment possible. Muslims suffer under the most extreme “Curse of Moses” possible. It’s not just 10 commandments, its thousands. And many of them are real clunkers after thirteen centuries. But there is no scope for interpretation. Either you believe or disbelieve.

Muslims must confront a daily paradox: they unquestionably believe that they have the one true religion on Earth, and yet they live in countries that show absolutely no evidence that they are blessed by God. Except for a few far eastern countries, the only wealth Muslims see is not produced by their own creativity but pumped out of the ground. No one respects wealth if it is merely won in a lottery. The poverty, the corruption, and the decay of once glorious cultures all seem to mock the religion.

To their credit, most Muslims accept this paradox without resorting to violence. But some cannot accept it. The pressure builds until somehow it is released. And then we see this.

Of course, it is a little too easy to blame all of the problems of the world of Islam on outdated beliefs. The religion does not endorse corruption. The religion does not endorse murder. But the religion does not in any way endorse freedom or tolerance either. And the combination of freedom and tolerance of others is the true antidote to the problems we see in the middle east.

Perhaps Islam could use a new prophet, but no applications are being accepted.


  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:30 PM  

  • How about a Wikipedia entry for a new religion? Anyone is free to edit or amend it...let us see what we get.

    By Blogger Patrix, at 2:49 PM  

  • I think you're going to get some interesting comments here....:-)

    The only permanence is change.......but as always, people don't like change....

    That, really, is the conflict of civilizations, of religions, of everything....

    I'm going to mention the 11th commandment to some of my friends and see what reaction i get :-)

    By Blogger Sunil, at 3:19 PM  

  • Hi Patrix
    A wiki as a religion would be wonderful. Nothing carved in stone. When an idea becomes obsolete, just omit it.

    Unfortunately, the zealots of the world will erase it all I'm sure.

    But it would be fun to try anyway.

    Hi Sunil
    I think the power of religion for most people is that it is "the rock of ages" the one constant that never changes. In India, you have temples that date back 1000 years or more still in use. That provides a lot of comfort to people.

    But all religions change over time. The change is so gradual, we aren't able to perceive it. But if you read about ancient times, it is clear that those people's beliefs were fundamentally different than ours today.

    In fairness to Muslims, they might easily change without a new prophet. The new prophet might be a metaphor for a new way of thinking that could happen spontaneously. And maybe it is happening in many places. But it doesn't seem to be happening in the Arabian penisula where it's needed.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 3:44 PM  

  • Real thought provoking writing! The posting kept me thinking about the eleventh commandments in my own religion Hinduism.

    By Blogger Kesava Mallela, at 4:00 PM  

  • Amazing post Michael

    OpenSourcing of all prominent religions will do a world of good, and improve the scenario a great deal

    By Blogger Vulturo, at 5:38 AM  

  • An old post from my blog:

    Open Source Religion

    By Blogger Vulturo, at 5:41 AM  

  • Hi Kesava and Saket
    Saket: Thanks for the link. Sure, Hinduism is like an open source religion. In truth all religions are in practice, even Islam. People pick and choose what things to hold precious and what things to ignore. Somewhere along the way, animal sacrifice when out of favor. That's a very good thing.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:24 PM  

  • If Hinduism is an open source religion, then it needs newer improved versions, and fast.

    My fellow-Hindus smugly poke fun at the backwardness of Islam and the Catholic Church, but forget that our own religion, no matter how "open source" is still a very intolerant religion.

    In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were a lot of reformers in the Hindu community, mainly pertaining with eradicating the caste system, the biggest blot on Hinduism. However post-1950, there are no such reformers, because the polity has made the existence of backward castes imperative as political tools.

    Yes, the written word in hinduism is not as dangerous and regressive as in some other religions. But it is dangerous and regressive nevertheless, and we Hindus need to recognise it.

    By Blogger Gaurav, at 4:08 AM  

  • Hi Gaurav
    Any religion that has been around for centuries is going to have so heavy baggage associated with it. Perhaps the world could use a new religion. But religions are only created by people who think they are talking to the creator of the universe. Such people are typically non-credible.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:53 AM  

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