Marc at Bad Catholic got the impression that atheists think being a Christian is only about hating gay people and being irrational and so set out to explain why he is a Christian. His post started out with a discussion of suffering as useless pain that supposedly can have no worthwhile secular answers. I challenged his views of suffering and the potential for atheist responses to it on Wednesday.
His next few paragraphs moved on to the topic of sin and its relationship to suffering. In this post, I am going to dissect what he says on these topics for their falsity and moral and biological backwardness.
The very state of human beings and the universe they inhabit is a sinful one.
Again, this is not a religious claim. The word sin is translated from the Hebrew ‘chattah’, which means ‘to miss the mark’. To say that the world is in a sinful state is to say that our world is not all it should be, that it misses the mark, that it is — in a word — imperfect. This is verifiable. We do not wish children to suffer and die, and yet we live in a world in which they do. It is entirely possible that we will have to at some point push spiky balls of calcium through our urethras. The experiences of these natural things as imperfect — to say the least — is a universal experience. We live in a world that “misses the mark” of perfection.
Let me start by granting that, yes, there is a real phenomenon that the concept of “sin” is trying to interpret: human beings are imperfect. When it comes to moral philosophy I am myself a moral perfectionist, after all. I think we can talk about the greater or lesser degrees according to which a given human being has realized her capacities, the extent to which she has powerfully maximized her full possibilities as a human and, therein, most excellently instantiated her human being (or not). And I think every individual can more perfectly realize the powers that constitute his or her being better than he or she does. Any given one of us could be more perfectly rational, social, emotional, physically strong and coordinated, artistically creative, technologically innovative, sexually attractive and satisfying to others, etc. We could all realize our humanity more perfectly than we do.
And even if we did realize our humanity as much as we able, we are still constitutionally incapable of realizing our powers in the most maximal conceivable ways. Our powers are themselves limited such that we could never attain their total perfection. For example, even as we should strive to know as much as is possible for us, we are too limited to ever hope to attain omniscience.
We also do not even have every conceivable power. Not only are the powers we have finite, but we have a finite set of powers. So we cannot be perfect beings. We do not have enough powers and the ones we have, we are incapable of realizing to the greatest conceivable extent.
But even as I agree with Marc that humans are manifestly imperfect, always capable of greater realization of their full possibilities, and incapable of being maximally perfect beings at all, none of this amounts to what is meant by religious concepts of “sinfulness”. Marc engages in fallacious reasoning from etymology when he insists that simply because the word “sin” translates a religiously neutral Hebrew word for imperfection that therefore all the English connotations of the word “sin” are not inherently theological and religious in character.
The word “sin” is a word employed in almost exclusively religious contexts and there it does not merely refer to the simple fact of the existence of imperfections. In each distinct theology in which it appears it goes much further and offers specifically religious interpretations of the causes, natures, and consequences of imperfections in the world and in humans. And these are typically terrible interpretations, at that. Marc’s own muddled account of all imperfection as “sin”, all suffering as “useless pain”, and of all imperfection/sin being inextricably tied to all suffering/useless pain typifies numerous Christian confusions and oversimplifications of reality and morality.
Marc makes an obviously false blanket statement:
Suffering is the result of sin.
Suffering is not the result of sin in the sense in which traditional Christian “Original Sin” theology claims. It is outright backwards to think that we suffer because two ancient ancestors who were supposedly the parents of the whole human race stole fruit from a magical tree. Neither viruses, nor earthquakes, nor fatal birthing complications, nor any of a myriad of other causes of immense, unproductive human pain are due at all to our present day human imperfections.
Nor are they, more specifically, caused by some cosmic fuck up by that alleged pair of original parents for the human race as the doctrine of Original Sin teaches. Nor are all the pains we cause each other due to our imperfections. Sometimes we can just hurt each other even when we are being good or not doing anything especially good or bad.
If you are an atheist, freaketh not, for we know this on a purely experiential level. When we sin against others — when we steal from them, malign their names, or harm their bodies — we cause them suffering. When we sin against our nature — when we isolate ourselves, or demean our bodies — we cause our selves suffering. Suffering is the result of sin… This verified reality is in fact the reality of the entire cosmos.
No. We do not live in a moral universe where the only things our imperfections yield are sufferings. Sometimes they lead to pleasure. Sometimes they open up opportunities for growth. Sometimes our imperfections only yield abstractly realized harms and not anything like suffering at all. For example, one of my personal imperfections is that I have utterly neglected whatever human potential for musicianship that I may have. This is, I believe, a genuine imperfection within me. But I have no great psychological experience of suffering on its account.
Similarly, I could have a friendship or a working relationship with someone who is unfair to me and yet I do not adequately stand up for myself enough. In such a case I may be objectively disrespecting myself and harming myself in an abstract sense—and yet it might not actually turn out to be a cause of any particular psychologically experienced suffering. In fact, in a total calculus, it may be a preferable evil to me than discord, loss of friendship, or a change of jobs that standing up for myself might result in. So I might learn to brush it off even though it is technically an evil. I also might “demean my body” but not actually suffer psychologically for it.
And on the other hand, as I already mentioned, numerous actual causes of actual despairing suffering have nothing remotely to do with human imperfection. Any number of natural disasters or misery inducing mental or physical debilitations have nothing to do with any imperfection in us.
Marc essentially defined “suffering” as not just any sort of pain but as pain that is useless for directly contributing to any greater personal project. But many of our imperfect actions can be useful parts of larger projects of perfecting ourselves. If one misses the mark a thousand times as part of relentless practice at improving one’s aim, one might in the end wind up all the more perfect. And that hardly makes all the imperfect shots along the way “pointless pain”.
If ultimately we are cultivating virtues and developing meaningful lives, hardly all of our failures—and not even all of our moral failures more specifically—should be understood as inherently pointless. So there is no absolute connection between missing the mark and needless suffering. Unless Marc is dead set against the idea that practice makes perfect or that failure builds character or any of a thousand indisputable truisms.
So to sum up so far: there is nothing resembling a one-to-one correlation between human imperfections (what Marc misleadingly calls “sin”) and human sufferings, let alone the kind of absolute causal link Marc’s fantastical “sin” concept requires.
To be sure—humans are no strangers to moral wrongdoing and other imperfections. But these things are not entirely our fault. We should feel no shame at having simply not evolved every possible power or the ability to fulfill any given power to its maximal conceivable possibility. And even as we strive to work within our capabilities to their fullest realization, we should not blame ourselves that this is hard for us.
The traditional Christian idea of Original Sin blames us and our (actually never-existent) original two ancestors for our imperfections, whereas our imperfections are the result of the imprecise process by which natural selection blindly created us. And they came out pretty extraordinarily good considering the circumstances!
Our moral (and other) imperfections stem in large part from our struggles to socialize and civilize brains that were biologically shaped in prehistoric eras. As admittedly awful a job as humanity has often done in trying to retrofit the brain for civilization, on the whole we deserve some credit for our progress and natural selection deserves some awe for delivering us such plastic, malleable, adaptable brains that can actually experiment with new social, moral, and technological orders at all without causing mass extinction (at least so far).
Our abilities to experiment, discover, and know, and then to preserve and transmit our findings to future generations so that they can build on our accomplishments further are extraordinary in the natural kingdom. The range of choices that have opened up to us and which have become matters for individual and social )rather than strictly biological) determination is a dazzling feat of natural selection. That we have developed the abilities not only to change things but to persistently, on net, improve them–and at rates exponentially faster than blind biological forces were ever able to yield–is simply marvelous.
We are the first animals on Earth to be capable of rationally commandeering our own social, psychological, and, even, biological evolution. By embracing the potentials for knowledge, choice, and experimentation, we have made ourselves greater and, even, on the long haul, far more moral. We are imperfect because the raw materials that constitute us come from an imperfect process and were mostly shaped under more primitive and brutal conditions than we presently live. We should not feel ashamed of the imprecision of our rudimentary natural tools and nor should we blame either ourselves or our ancestors for their imperfections. We should just actively work to shape ourselves and future generations as powerfully as we can.
We should not accept the entirely conceptually and morally backward Christian Original Sin myth that absurdly says we have fallen into moral depravity and general imperfection from a prior state of original perfection. We should vigorously oppose the Christian slanders that blame our imperfections and sufferings on curiosity, experimentation, knowledge, and choice.
Developing choice made us more capable of errors than when we relied on instinct—but we have steadily over time, on balance, used it to become more perfect in countless ways and to accomplish those increases in perfection amazingly rapidly from an evolutionary time perspective. Precisely the less that we were creatures capable of choices was the less human and more brute and, so, more “depraved” and “animalistic” (by civilized standards) that we were in our successively earlier iterations.
Our curiosity, our knowledge, our sharing of knowledge, our aspiration “to become like the gods”—active creators and choosers of our own natures and our own fates–is what we owe nearly all our rational, moral, and civilizational progress. That these things are demonized–falsely attributed to our imperfections and unfairly blamed on them–is the completely warped and backward thinking at the heart of Christianity. And even up through today monotheistic misanthropy and misology, i.e., Christian hatred of human nature and reason, are among both the most obstinant obstacles to moral and social progress, and among the most diligent institutionalized tempters to moral and social regress, with which we as a species have to contend.