I’ve been pondering sin lately—not sinning (as in a pastime), but sin (the concept). In short, it is a primitive and ridiculous idea. Besides leading to burdensome, unnecessary guilt, it impedes ethical progress. In other words, sin itself is a sin.
Sin is a religious notion, religions’ ill-conceived attempt at ethics. Sin enters the consideration of ethics through the back door, for the nature of sin is not the product of meticulously pondering 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 their fantasies, inflicted on us by their leftover fears, and forcefully imposed daily by the pious.
Sin is not only an unnecessary and unreasoned concept, but competes with thoughtful development of human ethics. Arguably, deciding how we should treat each other is as important among human challenges as how to acquire clean water or to eradicate disease. It deserves all the intelligence and compassion we can bring to it.
I’ve a correspondent whose most cogent attack on atheism 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. To him, his God not only defines sin, but is the indispensable author of the rules. Without a divine source, we are left in the frightening state of relativism. Those who believe in his God are expected to adopt the divine definitions without question, regardless of how mindless they are. In fact, violating the rules is less heinous than questioning their authenticity.
If self-imposed restrictions on believers went no further, 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 sin 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 (so to speak) to enforce their God’s pronouncements on others. (Or, more accurately, enforce their various and conflicting interpretations of what this God decrees.) Enforcement takes many forms, but all impose social and even physical damage to transgressors and dissenters, and even upon carefree souls who just aren’t paying attention.
There are countless examples in modern life. Public school officials in the United States, even while aware they are violating the law, continue to inject their ideas of sin into education. In communities, clergy take up arms against liberalizing alcohol sales, citing scripture as the reason. Gay marriage is opposed despite its posing no threat to churches’ private definitions of marriage. The Catholic Church has fought against contraception and even information about contraception. To most Muslims, depictions of Mohammed are not just sins for them, but for everybody else on pain of death. The list of cruel attempts to control others is inexhaustible.
In other words, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims want their ideas of sin to be recognized and heeded by everyone. Each uses whatever force it can get away with to do so. Happily for dissenters like me, Christianity was reined in somewhat by advances in Western Civilization, for which we have martyrs of the Enlightenment to thank. (The churches did not voluntarily give up control over others.) Islam, still stuck in the Dark Ages, has not yet been tempered by a similar 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. 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, or lust? Christians’ and Muslims’ sex-obsession causes their sense of morality to be genitally focused.
I’m amused when a media outlet seeks statements from religious leaders about some local issue that their religions deem to be a moral one. What on earth do preachers, rabbis, or imams have to offer about morality that so undeservedly commands our attention? How can they possibly be considered experts? Their whole foundation in the matter is one in which social and personal proscriptions are based on the tired fragments of ancient texts. We have had centuries of their religion-based ideas and have repeatedly found them capable of justifying slavery, racism, oppression of women, and other damaging treatment of human beings. 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. Even the so-called “original sin” consisted not of harming people, but of seeking knowledge (escaping ignorance) against the wishes of God.
Of course, religions have recognized as sin a number of universally acknowledged prohibitions, such as those of murder, lying, and stealing. But though the faithful frequently try to take credit for those contributions to human ethics, these sins pre-existed their religion and are easily derived without positing a supernatural guy in the sky to promulgate them. The “golden rule,” for example, preceded both Christianity and Islam.
Religion confounds sensible, humanistic proscriptions—ones not unique to their own dogma—with ridiculous ones so much that good rules are soiled by association. (Have you 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 bringing to the task not only their own counterfeit ethics, but their ludicrous claim to have the blessing of divinity. Their feigned divine definition 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 Hebrews’ Ten Commandments are a shining example of silliness mixed with morals already known.) Consequently, just as religion interferes with conceptualization (e.g., a geocentric universe, God-initiated plagues), confronting new technologies (e.g., birth control, stem cell research), law (e.g., drug possession, retail liquor sales), and civil rights (e.g., race and gender-based discrimination and suffrage), it similarly impedes moral development in general.
Perhaps we can cleanse the sin concept of its absurdity and repulsiveness, but I prefer to discard the word altogether. It’s beyond delousing. Ethics is a perfectly good substitute, one not so burdened with ancient foolishness. Our race of magnificently developed beings needs useful, shared rules of relationship–lest we rather than our environment be our worst obstacle. But an honest search for a code of behavior that befits a caring and intellectual species has little to learn from Christianity and Islam; their tenets are neither reasonable nor humane, and their claims of authenticity are based on lies.
In my own consideration of so important a pursuit, I’ve found the code of ethics generated from secular humanism to be unsurpassed in coherence and humaneness. The morality of religions, steeped in superstition-driven concepts of sin, is the real sin against our struggle to learn how to live together.
Responses to parts of the comments received for this post through January 17, 2015 are addressed in the next post (“Sin and evil,” January 18).
I like the idea of eliminating the word sin; it sounds too negative. What would you like to call a action that mistreats your neighbor? As for the foundation for any code of ethics it was stated by Jesus “love your neighbor as yourself”. Unfortunately, strong leaders are always trying to define and redefine what that means to suit their purpose and that is when things go astray and frustrate us. If you read Paul’s letter to the Romans you will find that he struggled with trying to define right and wrong. We still do, be sure your foundation is solid.
Good post, John. Did you intentionally leave Judaism out of the second to last paragraph “…. little to learn from Christianity and Islam“?
I wonder if there is a distinction between sin and evil, or is the existence of evil just another ridiculous idea perpetrated by organized religion?
It would have been helpful if you had outlined the secular code of ethics so we could see what it says. I’m guessing it somehow explains what secular humanists consider what is “right” and what is “wrong” (as opposed to “sin”). Or maybe it subscribes to the notion “If it feels good, do it.”