Why Sin is a False and Morally and Biologically Backward Concept

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.

Marc writes:

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.

No.

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.

I also know that I have indeed been both maligned and stolen from and while these were hardly pleasant experiences I have not truly suffered on account of these misfortunes. I especially have not suffered in Marc’s sense of being led to despair by the pointlessness of the pain these evils caused me. In fact, in some cases the pains were hardly useless as they were chances to learn quite a bit experientially and to practice virtues. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be maligned or robbed. (So please do not get any ideas, Haters!) But if you try such things, you are likely not going to cause me despair. (Sorry, Haters!)

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.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Laurence

    Italics out of control!

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Fixed. Thanks for the heads up.

  • http://songe.me asonge

    Marc is definitely being a little too ambitious in his project of trying to explain Christianity to Atheists in a way that we’d consider plausible. It would be one thing if his arguments’ internal contradictions stemmed from stretching religious premises into premises available to the diverse naturalist atheist philosophies, but this isn’t the case. I wonder if he would even be capable of creating an internally consistent theology/philosophy. This is still an arduous task, but simpler than creating something on premises available to naturalists (neither are doable in a blog post). I guess he reasons that most atheists just reject the religiously-based premises and not the arguments…but a lot of us in the counter-apologetics camp have noticed that in a lot of cases, there are powerful counter-arguments even after granting the premises. I really think it’s interesting when after the counter-arguments, we show the advantages of the values from the various pieces of our world-views.

  • http://www.darwinharmless.com darwinharmless

    Dan, you philosophers. Really. You fall into the trap of accepting his meaningless words, like “sin” and “imperfection”. Did you ever see an eagle that wasn’t perfectly an eagle, or a dog that wasn’t perfectly a dog, or a horse that wasn’t perfectly a horse. Even if that dog is missing a leg, or about to die of old age, it is still perfectly a dog. I am perfectly a human being, and so are you. Ideas like sin, perfection, and morality have no relationship to reality. None. There are actions which cause ourselves and others harm or pain. It makes good sense to identify these actions, and prevent them when we can. But sin is a useless concept, and so is perfection.
    Take recent findings about serial killers as one example of the lack of meaning of a word like “sin”. It turns out that serial killers all have some kind of brain damage. Now, we’d like to think that serial killers are sinners, and that killing people is sinful. But really they are just defective organism. Sin has nothing to do with it, no more than a car with faulty brakes is a sinful car.
    Your example of not developing your musical talent made me chuckle. I’ve spent endless hours developing my musical talent, but I am so very far from being professional, let along perfect. To be perfect requires a total focus and dedication, which invariably means you must neglect something else. It’s silly to even think about becoming perfect at anything. Even Olympic level athletes are never perfect, at least not for long. Aging will take care of that illusion. The trick is to just get good enough at a few things that you can impress people. That’s all we can expect.
    Oh yes, and it helps to enjoy the process, to pursue something for its own sake.
    I do enjoy your posts, but I don’t think I was cut out to be a philosopher. Obviously, I suppose.

    • blotonthelandscape

      This is why I follow Dan; he takes “charitable interpretation” and turns it up to 11.
      And I think what Dan is trying to say is that the pursuit of “perfection” is one of the greatest aspects of humanity, and something which separates us (conceptually) from other animals.

    • chris buchholz

      Actually, what you just did there, talk about how nothing is perfect, and find a way to deal with it, is philosophy.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    “Life sucks” doesn’t particularly strike me as a fairly strong argument specifically for Christianity. Christian views of original sin are a radical departure from Judaic views, and other religions and philosophies have addressed the issue in what strikes me as a more consistent way. It’s the leaps from “life sucks,” to “therefore the God of Noah and Abraham” to “therefore Christ as the redeemer of sins” that are the deal-breakers for me.

  • http://fliponymous.wordpress.com Patrick RichardsFink

    Two categories of sin: 1)Original Sin, which in its best form is an acknowledgement that people are not and never will be perfect, and 2)ordinary Sin, which is simply violation of the mores of your community. If sin leads to suffering it is precisely because of the external and even more importantly the internal sanctions you face for those violations. Laws that can be broken with no guilt (such as going 10 miles over the speed limit) are laws that are not based on community morality, laws that carry moral weight are codifications of Sin.

    But there are arbitrary sins just as there are arbitrary laws. If the average person can commit a sin and feel no remorse (such as your lack-of-musicianship example) then it’s an artificial sin and one that does not truly reflect the core values that a community uses to bind itself — most of the serious sins are things that disrupt community cohesiveness (bearing false witness, murder, taking 5 hot dogs at the potluck before everyone else has had a chance to get 2).

  • http://skepticgriggsy.wordpress.comhttp://skepticity.blogspot.com Lord Griggs[ IgnosticMorgan,InquiringLynn,Fr. or Rabbi Griggs, CarneadesofGa]

    The notion of sin blasphemes humanity.
    We do not miss the mark indis obeying Godd, as He speaks with with a forked tonque- all those sects.
    We owe putative God nothing nor should we worship Him! He is no more than a square circle. I go for the theistic jugular.

  • LeftWingFox

    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.

    And this is where “spiritualism” in general, not merely christianity, goes of the rails on a crazy train.

    This is the same idea of The Secret; that the universe is just, and suffering is caused by our behaviour. While true in our actions having direct physical and emotional consequences, it becomes incredibly dangerous when we start attaching supernatural strings to the rest of the universe. If me masturbating is going to cause kittens to die, how do we determine right actions to take?

    This supernatural consequence is what causes some Christians to call AIDS a curse from god on wickedness. Or claim wickedness is the cause of a hurricane. Or that sending “Tsunami-like energy”into the universe is bringing the tsunami to your shores. Perhaps it’s karma, or the universe punishing hubris. Should we rely on the priest, the shaman and the guru to divine the will of God or the Universe, and tell us what sins manifested themselves as a drought, or do we try and use the scientific method… and find out what the physical causes are of those forces?

    Because once you try to find the common cause of natural disasters, then those “Acts of God” stop looking like supernatural judgement, and more like natural phenomena which occur independently humanity. It also means the solutions, like antibiotics, earthquake-resistant housing and infrastructure, man-made levees, and artificial reefs, protect both the worthy and the unworthy indiscriminately.

    At it’s LEAST bad, this belief in a just and supernatural universe promotes misdirection. Actions which are at best useless (like praying for rain), or at worse, actively harmful (like prayer or homeopathy in place of medicine). It also discourages compassion, and worse, can actually increase suffering. When we claim homosexuality is a sin (which the catholics surely do) then the very actions intended to purge sin become the direct source of suffering.

    To be fair, mis-action is possible even in a secular society; such as the legal consequences of using certain drugs being far worse than the drugs themselves. At least with a science-based society, we can locate and measure cause and effect and experiment with different solutions, rather than trying to reinterpret ancient rituals to find out exactly which action caused the universe to become angry.

    • http://fliponymous.wordpress.com Patrick RichardsFink

      You cannot sin against nature, only against your community — or yourself.

    • RobMcCune

      @Patrick

      Sinning against one’s self is what is meant by sinning against one’s own nature. Catholics claim that atheists don’t understand their arguments, which is somewhat true due to their use of in-group terminology.

    • LeftWingFox

      That doesn’t address my point, which is that tying supernatural strings between claimed causes and perceived effect is detrimental to human understanding, and human happiness.

  • smrnda

    The belief that suffering is because of sin or ‘wrong action’ or even bad attitudes is mind-poison. It tells you that the problem isn’t out there, in the world, needing to be solved but can be solved internally by some kind of esoteric practice. It’s a great way to keep workers praying instead of organizing, or to keep people meditating instead of protesting, or to make ‘successful’ people think their good fortune is actually earned rather than arbitrary. It helps maintain the status quo and keeps expectations low, and keeps people blaming themselves instead of the system, and keeps them going to the priests for answers instead of thinking.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability D4M10N

    As LeftWingFox implies above, linking suffering to sin leads directly to the lessening of compassion for those who are suffering, because they are thought to be receiving their just deserts. This is not only a terrible idea, but it is not particularly grounded in Christian Scripture. In those passages where Jesus takes the issue of theodicy head-on, such as gJohn 9, he disabuses his followers of the notion that suffering is the result of sin, whether one’s own or one’s ancestors.

    • smrnda

      I think it also reduces compassion even if you don’t view it as a punishment for sin. If I think that learning calculus and statistics is good for some young person in the long run, I don’t feel like their sitting through those courses is an imposition and I am not going to listen to them complain about how bad it is.

      If I think suffering, all suffering, even the most extreme suffering, has some higher purpose, it makes me less inclined to say “hey, that sucked” and more “well, what can this teach you? How can this make you a better person?” Or “what purpose does God have with all this?” In the end, it’s offering platitudes instead of compassion.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    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.

    Christians don’t hate human nature and they don’t hate human reason. You need to understand the whole Christian concept of the human person. We believe man and woman were made in the image of God. That we are loved by God. That we are intended for communion with God. So sin is part of the story. It isn’t the whole story. Sin goes deep but the goodness of man’s nature goes even deeper. Our essence is good. Sin is a distortion of that essence. It is a serious distortion but our original essence remains.

    Not sure how you define social and moral progress. If it just mean whatever ideas are fashionable among the intellectual elite then you are likely right. Christianity will often oppose what people are calling progress.

    • RobMcCune

      What christians define as ‘original essence’ and ‘distortion’ is a warped view that seeks to deny and suppress important parts of human nature. It declares certain normal and healthy thoughts and impulses sin and demands the individual feel guilt and repent, and that society shun individuals who don’t.

      Progress is not arbitrary, it is an increase in human understanding that promotes human flourishing, both as individuals and societies. Thanks for being up front about christianity being opposed to that, as well as intellectuality and fashion.

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      Christianity does not demand society shun anyone. It does believe we are created for a purpose and it is possible to behave in harmony with that purpose or rebel against it. There is no part of the human person that is inherently evil. Everything can be used for good. The truly good parts are the ones that cause the most serious problems when they are corrupted. Most people believe this. Wasting your mind on drugs is bad precisely because your mind is good.

      Progress is not arbitrary? But “human understanding” presupposes that your new understanding is more accurate than the old. Same with “human flourishing.” It implies we know what it means for human beings to be fully alive. How do we know we are not just chasing our tail?

      Catholicism believes in progress. We can gain a deeper understanding of who we are and how to live that out. When we do that the church can proclaim that truth infallibly so we don’t go backwards. That is true progress. It is not just being blown about be the winds of every new idea.

    • RobMcCune

      Progress is not arbitrary? But “human understanding” presupposes that your new understanding is more accurate than the old

      New explanations can be compared to old ones to see which fits our observations, we can also compare explanations in terms how much they explain, and what they presuppose, and which has more potential to expand our understanding. That’s not arbitrary, and choosing between explanations takes place over time, allowing each to be worked out in greater detail.

      Same with “human flourishing.” It implies we know what it means for human beings to be fully alive. How do we know we are not just chasing our tail?

      That where seeking understanding comes in, it’s an attempt to gain knowledge of how, why, and what is necessary for humans to flourish, physically, emotionally, and mentally.

      We can gain a deeper understanding of who we are and how to live that out.

      Then why did you object to defining moral and social progress as increasing understanding to promote flourishing?

      When we do that the church can proclaim that truth infallibly so we don’t go backwards. That is true progress. It is not just being blown about be the winds of every new idea.

      In what Orwellian way is forbiding inquiry in certain strains of thought, and questioning certain ideas ‘true progress’? If anything it’s a recipe for impeding progress, which is true in the church’s case, much of it’s ‘progress’ was made by others and the church followed changes in society. It’s authoritarian to imply that only a decree by the church makes something true, and that individuals who don’t abide it’s mandates are ‘blown about by the winds’. People are agents who are capable of reasoning and understanding arguments presented to them.

  • Stony

    The very state of human beings and the universe they inhabit is a sinful one.
    Again, this is not a religious claim.

    I’m sorry, but he loses me at the first bend. Of COURSE it’s a religious claim, and as such has punishment inherently linked to it. Outside of religion, we may have mores or laws or expected behavior, but those mores or laws are not assumed to be divinely imbued, nor hold the threat of eternal punishment.

    I can somewhat respect his eastern-blend Christianity, I suppose, but it in no way resembles the twenty-some years of conservative Protestant teaching I’ve survived. The funny thing is that my realization that “sin” was a wholly man-made construct is what led me out of religion.

  • smrnda

    If people want to argue that there has been no moral progress, only a change in what ideas are fashionable among elites, I’d suggest the book “The Better Angels Of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker.

    Though here’s a question, and I’ll direct it to Randy since he made a point that I often think about. You said it’s bad to waste your mind on drugs. I would agree, but I would also have to say that I don’t think drug use, in an of itself, is bad if you’re still able to function well.

    On some level, many moral guidelines believed in by religions could be backed up by utilitarian arguments. We should be the good Samaritan because tomorrow, we might be the person in the ditch. But where I can’t follow it is when it makes a case for something being wrong where I don’t see any evidence of harm. Then I just get some hand-waving about god having a plan or this isn’t in accordance with his plan.

  • http://theethicalwarrior.wordpress.com john

    To answer the issue you presented in your last paragraph: Life is and always has been about control. For example, beginning way back in Genesis God got upset that man had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge and had become like the gods. So it’s been down through the ages that no one wants you to “become like the gods”. They want you to be docile and they particularly want you to be obedient. Then they can control you easily. With respect to the concept of sin that was spawned with the Garden of Eden story, the Bible itself says that God created Adam and Eve without them knowing good and evil. How could anyone claim then that they would know that disobedience was bad. In any event, God is omnipotent and therefor knew in advance how Adam and Eve would act.

  • doomedd

    I never understood the point of the “sin” concept. I’ll enumerate some problems below.

    1) Sin ( and religious morality) is more about “spirituality” than morality. For example, doubting god is considered a major sin by catholics (pride). Prideful individuals like me may sin, by religious standard, but I am simply curious about our world. While I sin by trying to understanding a world where god is…unnecessary, I don’t hurt anybody or do something harmful. I do something morally neutral at worst. We, atheist, may sin but the sin itself isn’t amoral. Sin isn’t morality, sin is hot air.

    2 ) Since sin isn’t about morality but pretend to be about morality, using sin (and religious) as a moral foundation is likely to create a moral system that…seriously miss the mark. For example, homosexuality may be a sin, so what? Refusing to obey god’s immorals orders is a sinful but moral act. If you are interested in morality, the proper tools are science and philosophy, not religion. Using religion for morality hinder any ethical progress.

    Sin is useless, we don’t need to burden ourselves with this irrelevant concept.

  • Dave Ricks

    Dan, do you know Alfred Korzybski’s concept of speaking English without the verb to be, a.k.a. E-Prime, popularized by David Bourland in To Be or Not?  I suggest you try a similar exercise, to reformulate your moral perfectionism without the word perfection.  I bet you can still say everything you want (maybe in terms of moral improvement), and the exercise would highlight some things.

    For example, where you wrote, “We could all realize our humanity more perfectly than we do,” you might write, “We could all realize our humanity better than we do.”  I find the second sentence more direct, and it leaves room for dilemmas, where there is no perfection to aim for, no mark to miss.

    Also, if I ask, “Is X perfect?”, the word “perfect” is unary (for one input X).  I prefer to ask, “Is X ideal compared to some Xideal?”, where the word “ideal” is a binary function (for two inputs: X and Xideal).  This disciplines us to state the Xideal.

    While “perfect” and “ideal” may be synonyms in a dictionary or thesaurus, in practice, I feel “perfect” and “ideal” tend to encourage unary and binary evaluations respectively.

    I see a theme in existential questions, that unary evaluations hook people into believing they’re thinking about something, when they really haven’t defined what they’re thinking about (e.g., the ontological argument).

  • http://www.yeshua21.com Wayne

    I agree with Paul Tillich that sin is a concept that we can never quite get away from. In that spirit, I suggest that we think of “the carnal mind” or “the mind of the flesh” as roughly equivalent to what is sometimes referred to (in more modern parlance) as “the egoic mind”:
    http://jeshua21.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/the-carnal-mind-%E2%89%88-the-egoic-mind/

  • B-Lar

    I had always assumed that sin was simply the disobedience of god’s commands. If it is simply a synonym for imperfection, then why not just say that?

    SIN IS A CONCEPT WHICH WAS CREATED SO THAT YOU WOULD LOOK IN THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE SOURCE OF YOUR SUFFERING. (Oh yeah. Feel my bullhorn.)

  • smrnda

    The problem with sin is that there’s this belief that you can have a sinless universe and still have separate, sentient, intelligent beings. Given how many things get qualified as sin (Jesus invented the idea of a thought crime, where if you get angry and keep to yourself it’s AS BAD AS MURDER) you can’t have sentient beings and some degree of conflict, and I think conflict can be healthy. Negative emotions are healthy and useful since sometimes they help us improve things.

    I think the idea of sin among Christians is an unhealthy obsession with some idealized notion of innocence. It’s kind of how ‘child-like’ faith is praised – the idea of uncritical acceptance of authority is the best way to be, and that *of course* god or the priest knows better than you.

  • Chris

    I have my own thoughts about philosophical Christian ethics and so-called “sin”, but I think it is important to understand that the theological significance of such things as the Garden have gone largely to the wayside in favor of poor evangelical theology. The primary significance of that event and many of the early events from the early Old Testament has to do with making a name (read: significance) for oneself as opposed to receiving one’s name from God. The issue in the Garden of Eden is not that they sought knowledge but that they tried to be wise of their own accord by eating the fruit. This has very different implications. Also, the doctrine of original sin didn’t come from this passage until Augustine, I believe.

    One huge thing which evangelical theology often misses is that these stories ARE NOT METAPHYSICAL TREATISES. They are not the end-all definitions of how the universe works with regard to sin or suffering or anything of the sort. These are the products of a culture — namely Hebrew culture — struggling to understand itself and its relationship to God in a very messed up world.

    If you have a PhD in philosophy, then you’ve probably read MacIntyre’s Virtue Ethics. Think of his example of the taboo: the Polynesians inherited the idea of taboo from who knows where, and over time, they lost its meaning, and it grew into this thing which everyone just accepted — until, of course, they realized that’s what happened, at which point they abandoned the taboo.

    To some degree, I think (and hope) that the Christian world is undergoing the latter part of this process right now. The fortunate part is that we still have a pretty decent grasp on the original context, but it doesn’t permeate the culture in any significant way. There are some signs that they are waking up, but I don’t know that there will be any widespread significant change for several more generations until evolution in particular becomes so overwhelmingly obvious that no children learning it will be able to deny it.

  • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana

    Interesting thoughts. My thoughts is a lot of suffering would go away if people weren’t such big jerks. Yelling, rape, child sex scandals, the innocent individual who got AIDS, staving children in Africa caused by a few people in the world holding the wealth from most of it, whatever you want to call these things, sin or not, its a result of people being big jerks. Some suffering is just life, but you know, a lot is us people.

  • Chris

    @Lana

    Well sure, but those things you mention are practical real world things. They have nothing to do with imagined crimes against an imagined god who tallies them down as stains upon an imagined soul, which then qualifies you for one of two afterlives.

    If Jesus magically waives your cosmic criminal record, there is still no net improvement in the real world. If I steal from you and get it confessed (or whatever), it does nothing to repair the injury here-and-now. Likewise, covetous thoughts cause no harm if they aren’t acted on, but that’s still a sin (though a venial one).

    A lot of the interrelated cosmological claims surrounding sin are so inconsistent and numerous as to be baffling. And most of the time, they’re simply assumed as a part of cultural baggage that it’s a pain to untangle it all in a conversation with a person who really believes that sin exists.


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