I’ve been pondering sin lately—not sinning, but sin—and how primitive and downright ridiculous the idea of sin is: besides leading to burdensome, unnecessary guilt, it impedes ethical progress of humanity.
Sin is a religious notion. It’s part of various religions’ contribution to ethics. Deciding how we should treat each other is one of humanity’s most important challenges. But ideas of sin and much of religion-based morality are not products of earnest, thoughtful work on what makes for a better world. Sin enters the consideration of ethics through the back door. The components of sin have not been conceived by honestly trying to resolve the question of what limits we should place on ourselves in order to best live together. Sin comes to us from antiquity, from primitive sources, from superstitious people— fabricated from fantasy, inflicted by fear, and forcefully imposed by the pious.
I’ve a correspondent whose most cogent attack on secular humanism is that in the absence of supernatural guidance, we humans would be left adrift. Like Adam and Eve before their fall, we’d be in a quandary about what we should not do. He maintains that God (his specific God as interpreted by his specific church, of course) defines sin and claims to be the exclusive author of the rules. Those who believe in his God are expected to adopt the divine definitions without question. In fact, violating the rules is less heinous than questioning them. If self-imposed restrictions of believers stopped there, non-believers could simply ignore the idea of sin as just another product of superstition.
But apparently to be a good foot soldier for God calls for trying to eradicate sinning among those who believe differently. So it is that religions—not all, but at least the fundamentalist wings of Christianity and Islam—seem hell-bent (no pun meant) to enforce their God’s pronouncements on others. Enforcement takes many forms, but all impose social and even physical damage to transgressors who dissent and even carefree souls who just aren’t paying attention.
There are countless examples in modern life. Public school officials, even knowing they are violating the law, continue to inject their sin ideas into education. Clergy take up arms against liberalizing alcohol accessibility, citing scripture as the reason. Gay marriage is opposed despite its posing no threat to churches’ private definitions of marriage. The Catholic Church fought for contraception and even information about contraception (!) to remain illegal in Massachusetts. To most Muslims, depictions of Mohammed are not just sins for them, but for everybody else on pain of death. And it goes without saying that historically there have been even more cruel attempts to control others.
In other words, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims want their ideas of sin to be recognized by everyone. Each uses whatever force it can get away with to do so. Happily for dissenters like me, Christianity was finally reined in somewhat by advances in Western Civilization, for which we have martyrs of the Enlightenment to thank. Islam, still stuck in the Dark Ages, has not yet been tempered by the Enlightenment.
Perhaps the most obvious weirdness of religious morality with respect to its definition of sin is that it is so disproportionately concerned with sex. In fact, although sin covers more than sex, the degree of emphasis on matters sexual is almost comical. For example, when someone is accused of immorality, you can safely bet that the infraction is in some way sexual. While the humanistic approach to ethics is concerned with a person’s effect on others, sin is often victimless. How else can we construe the sins of masturbation, nudity, lust, or sex outside marriage? Christians’ and Muslims’ sex-obsession causes their whole moral code to be genitally focused. Yes, sins do cover other topics like lying and assault, but sexual infractions are more often what is meant by the word.
I am amused when a media outlet seeks statements from religious leaders about some local moral issue. What on earth do clergy, rabbis, or imams have to offer about morality that so undeservedly commands our attention? Their whole foundation in the matter is one of grounding social and personal proscriptions (as well as, though not as often, prescriptions) on the left-over fragments of ancient texts. We have had centuries of their mind-numbing tether to the beliefs of primitive civilizations, enabling them to omit in their compendium of sins slavery, racism, and kangaroo court punishments. Their combined counsel has been handicapped by the basic flaw of all religion: dogmatic assertion of that for which they have no evidence and dominance of bogus god-pleasing over the needs of human beings.
Of course, religions have recognized as sin a number of universally recognized prohibitions, such as those on murder, lying, and stealing. But though the faithful like to give their respective religions credit for those contributions to human ethics, these moral failures were recognized before their religions existed and were easily derived without positing a supernatural guy in the sky to promulgate them. The “golden rule,” for example, preceded both Christianity and Islam. In fact, religion confounds sensible, humanistic proscriptions with ridiculous ones so much that good rules are soiled by association. (Read Leviticus lately?) Consequently, religions in their articulation of various sins have come up with some real doozies. It takes but a cursory review of religions’ positions taken even in our own lifetimes in the name of morality to find that morality defined by religion can itself be egregiously immoral.
The human race deserves never-ending discussion of morality unencumbered by superstition and inclusion of the ridiculous. Such an undertaking is not easy under the best of conditions, but is greatly hampered by religions which bring their own counterfeit ethics to the task. The feigned divine origin of sin causes otherwise useful thinking to be entangled with the hocus-pocus of religion. (Gods seem unable to pass down a sensible pro-human code of conduct that isn’t cluttered with rules that have little to do with human benefit. The Hebrew Ten Commandments are a shining example.) Consequently, just as religion interferes with conceptualization (e.g., geocentric universe, God-initiated plagues), problem solving (e.g., birth control, stem cell research), law (e.g., drug possession, retail liquor sales), it similarly impedes moral development.
If you are looking for a moral code of reasonable, humane, and challenging tenets, don’t go to Christians or Muslims, but to thoughtful lists put together by secular humanists, for religion-based sin is the real sin.
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