As an addendum to my presentation of morality, here’s a brief explanation of why the concept of sin (as opposed to morality) is a nonsense term, and why it adds no value to any discussion of ethics.
Like so many other religious concepts, Sin is nonsense.
Let’s start from the beginning. How does Christianity define “sin”? I did a google search for the phrase “What is sin?” and this was the answer from Allaboutgod.com:
We live in a culture where the concept of sin has become entangled in legalistic arguments over right and wrong. When many of us consider “What is sin?” we think of violations of the Ten Commandments. Even then, we tend to think of murder and adultery as “major” sins compared with lying, cursing, or idolatry.
The truth is that sin, as defined in the original translations of the Bible, means “to miss the mark.” The mark, in this case, is the standard of perfection established by God and evidenced by Jesus. Viewed in that light, it is clear that we are all sinners.
This, I think, is a good place to start. If I may “un-obfuscate,” all these paragraphs are saying is that sin is anything that deviates from a perfect standard set by God. Curiously, even taking out all the gobblety-gook and dealing with just the given definition, it’s quite unclear. Are we talking about a standard for behavior? Most Christians would probably agree that we are, but many go further and say that thoughts can be sins as well. I remember being taught in Sunday School that thinking about sinning was the same as sinning. Many of my Christian friends through the years have said the same thing — especially about lust. (I will cover Christians’ obsession with sexual purity in another post.)
Sins of the Body
For the moment, let’s just talk about sins involving actions. Is sin the equivalent of immorality? If so, there are some serious problems. For one thing, as readers of this blog already know, morality is not absolute with regard to actions. It might be morally good to kill a man in one instance and morally bad in another. Indeed, even in the Bible, Yahweh orders killing on genocidal scales. ”Thou shalt not kill” is not as easy as it sounds. Consider a classic moral dilemma. A man is forced to choose between killing an assailant (and saving the lives of his children in the process) or allowing his children to be killed by choosing not to kill him. Most people believe that it is the morally correct thing to protect the children and kill a man.
Morality is not about actions. It’s about meaning. When we ask if an act is morally good, we are really asking what the act means with reference to other humans (or possibly other life). But if this is the case, then sin cannot be the same as morality. Morality is a system of approximation and sliding scales, not perfection. (For a more detailed explanation, see THIS ENTRY.)
So let’s go down a different path. If sin is not the same thing as immorality, maybe we can salvage the concept. Let’s imagine that there is a God, and he has decided that there are some things which piss him off, and he’d rather humans didn’t do them. What is the standard God used to determine what constitutes a sin? We’ve already established that it’s not morality, so sin is not about being good to our fellow man. Again, I remember hearing this in church as a child. Sin is about offending God, not man, and sometimes, you have to do things that won’t be popular with your fellow man, but you do them because that’s what God wants. Kind of scary when you think about it, isn’t it?
Anyway, sin is not immorality, so what is it? Things grind to a halt here. We know intuitively what is moral and immoral because we have a frame of reference — our instincts for fairness, reciprocal altruism, and mutual protection. But with God, we have no such frame of reference. Indeed, from the human perspective, we can only regard God’s will as arbitrary and even capricious. (But then, what perspective can we possibly have other than our own? If we have no frame of reference for God’s system of sin, we can’t empathize with it or understand it.) If we have no way to judge for ourself what is a sin and what is not, we are simply following a set of instructions. I suppose that would be well and good enough, but the Bible is hardly a clear and concise list of what we should and should not do. Should we really hate our family? Should we really sell all that we have? Should we really not let women speak in church or cut their hair? Should we really not allow menstruating women into sacred holy areas? Should we really stone disobedient children?
Sure, the Bible does instruct us in some ways that are beneficial. Some of the Proverbs are good words to live by, but curiously, they usually aren’t prohibitions of certain actions. They are almost all guidelines for how to address the meaning of actions. If the Bible is all we have to go by, we’re kind of stuck. There are over fifteen thousand Christian denominations in the world, and they all have different views on what constitutes a sin.
Then again, maybe God instills us with innate knowledge of what is a sin. I’ve heard that preached a time or two. But if that was the case, then scientists ought to have discovered such a list of prohibitions in the human psyche, right? Of course, they haven’t. What they have discovered is that our moral instinct is universal, but we already decided that sin is not the same thing as morality, so we’re stuck again. There’s no evidence that humans have such a built in list of prohibited actions separate from our concept of morality.
In the end, we’re left with a horrible situation. Either sin is the same thing as morality, in which case, the church is just dead wrong about how it works, or sin is different than morality, and we apparently have no way to know what is really a sin. But it’s even worse than that. Since we’ve admitted that morality is different than sin, we must admit that when there are differences between morality and pleasing god, pleasing God will necessarily be either neutral or morally wrong! (Think about it… it’s simple logic.)
Sins of the Mind
Let’s go down the other path and see if we can make the concept of sin fit our minds. Maybe sin isn’t about prohibited actions. Maybe it’s about prohibited thoughts. Maybe we are sinning when we contemplate wrongdoing, or lead ourselves into temptation. If this is the case, then God is a real son-of-a-bitch — even moreso than if he gave us some arbitrary list of activities to avoid. Recent neurological research has shown us conclusively that we actually make decisions before we become aware of having made them. That is, our thoughts are formed before we become aware of thinking them. That being the case, we must admit that God has punished us for doing things over which we have no choice whatsoever.
Even without going down that road, we have to ask some tough questions of God. Why does a human thinking a particular kind of thought piss God off? What harm comes to him if I spend a few minutes mentally undressing some girl on the street? For that matter, if my thought remains private and no other human is the wiser, who have my thoughts harmed? If thoughts by themselves do not inherently cause harm, then we are left again with the inscrutability and capriciousness of God’s will.
God: “Don’t think that thought!”
God: “Because I don’t want you to.”
God: “Because I don’t like it.”
God: Because it’s offensive to me.
Remember, we’ve already decided that immorality and sin are not the same thing, so we can’t appeal to the idea that a thought is bad because it might lead to harm of another person. Even if we were allowed to do so, how could we possibly justify the idea? A thought only causes harm when it leads to action. Here is where I think the concept of mental sin is so devastating and damaging. I remember being a young hormonal teenager in church and being taught that sexual thoughts were sinful. I was told that if I thought about sex too much, I’d become obsessed with it, and probably act out in horrible ways. I might be driven to rape or masturbation!
Of course, a hormonal teenager can’t help but think of sex, so I thought of sex. When I thought of sex, I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to think about sex, so I thought about not thinking about sex. Except… that was thinking about sex, so I thought about other things. And then sex popped into my brain again, and I went through the whole routine again. Meanwhile, the non-Christian boys were just going home, jerking off to a magazine and getting on with life.
We have to admit that it’s insanity to suggest that thoughts, in and of themselves, are harmful. If they are not inherently harmful, and yet we are prohibited from entertaining them, what does that say about God?
A common objection is that “sins of the mind” lead to some sort of corruption of the body. That is, if we dwell obsessively on certain kinds of thoughts, we become what we’re thinking to some degree or another, even if we don’t ever act upon our thoughts. I suppose it’s somewhat self-evident that dwelling on thoughts of moral turpitude gives us lots more opportunities to contemplate acting poorly. But to suggest an intangible corruption is to mis-categorize good and evil as innate qualities, not value judgments.
There is one more way in which the idea of “sins of the mind” poisons the well. I remember being taught that certain kinds of thoughts were from the Devil himself — namely, thoughts “borne of the world” which might lead me to question my devotion, belief, and loyalty to God. (The Church.) We have seen throughout history that one of the easiest ways to get large groups of people to do very, very bad things is to brainwash them into thinking that questioning one’s beliefs is the equivalent of a crime. If it is true that God wants us to avoid thoughts which call his existence into question, then God is a fascist dictator, a brainwasher, and a despot. There is no other alternative.
We do not need a God to give us an arbitrary set of rules to live by. We have morality, which is the natural result of natural selection, and which works pretty well. It’s not perfect. No humans are perfect. “Perfect human” is a nonsense term. Life is gray. Morality is gray. However, life and morality are a lot easier to figure out if we just ditch the idea of some unfathomable list of things that are “just wrong.”