Sin: The Dirty Little Word that Trivializes Morality and Warps Ethics
by Chris Barrett
Sin: An immoral act considered to be a transgression against a divine law.
Considered by whom? Against the divine law of which God?
The many different proponents of an array of religions consider “their” particular “deity” or “divine” as the one with the authority to declare divine laws, and thus define sin or sinful behaviors.
History suggests the dictates of these “divines” is nothing more than the claims of humans from a particular point in each time and culture.
Example: How would you respond to a news flash: “Local SDA Church stones member to death for collecting firewood on the Sabbath”? No one would try to justify such actions today, yet why is it we can read about exactly the same thing in the Old Testament and not cringe or question?
Many religious writings are awash with similar examples of “their” “divine” ordaining equally evil behavior in the name of eradicating sin. Some are doing so today. Of course, not all the “gods” agree on what is and is not sin.
The failure common to most every religion is that in the name of dealing with sin, they have behaved in ways we today would call immoral and unethical. I find no reason why an action which is immoral and unethical today should be considered otherwise just because a God/god said it was okay in the past. None.
I am reminded of a classic quote in Part 6 of Dr. Taylor's Blog series summary of Dr. Wilbur’s book:
“The worst atrocities have their source in the zealous pursuit of a sublime ideal that is believed to be so majestic, so magnificent, and so grand, that it is worthy of every sacrifice, every hardship, and every abomination. (Shadia B. Drury in the preface to Terror and Civilization)”
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Pascal.
Put simply, while the thrust of these quotes is broader than our topic, how much evil, immoral, and unethical behavior has taken place in the name of dealing with sin?
Now, this blog grew out of discussion about whether suicide is sin.
We need to move beyond the petty, religious propaganda that seeks to describe human behavior in terms of “sin”. Too many are trapped in the mentality of viewing human morality, ethics, and values through the blinkered lens of one particular religious world view or another. We need a bigger perspective.
Breaking free from the mentality of defining human behavior through the lens of “sin”, will free us to see behavior in more neutral terms. Describing human behavior in terms of normal or natural, vs abnormal and unnatural, would open the world view and offer a level playing field.
What is natural for humans has to do with our nature: What we are. This is no different to any animal. All exhibit behaviors that are “natural” for their nature.
Who defines “natural”, “unnatural”, “normal”, and “abnormal”?
As we have noted, religiously based dictates seem always little removed from their culture. Often expressing the opinion of a limited number of people, or even worse – some charismatic leader. Such dictates are far more likely to get it wrong than would a collective voice of the widest possible analysis of human culture, civilization, needs, desires, successes, failures, norms, and factors contributing to its wellbeing.
What do we do with the psychopath, the sociopath, and the like?
The collective power of human culture leaves no doubt that these behaviors are unnatural and abnormal.
Would you let a lion loose in downtown New York? No. But, say you did, what will you do when you find him in the street eating a pedestrian for dinner, blood running down his mouth with his meal mangled under his claws? Will you arrest him? Put him in solitary confinement? Describe his behavior as “sin”? Will you expect the punishment will change his ways? No, no, no, and no.
A lion is a lion – what he does is natural for him. A sociopath is a sociopath. A rapist is a rapist. What they do may be natural to them. Is it acceptable to human society? No. Is it natural, or normal behavior within what it collectively means to be human? No. Should such be allowed to roam the streets looking for prey? Absolutely not.
Now, we could define their behavior as bad, immoral, etc. etc., but sin? I think not. First it assumes a divine dictate, and both the correct divinity and the correct interpretation and application of its demand. Secondly, and even worse, it oversimplifies the problem. Tell the lion to stop sinning, and see how the situation improves. Give him a 10-year prison sentence and see if he changes his mind and gets a conscience about eating people! Tell the average sociopath to stop sinning and see what good it does. A 10-year sentence may arguably do little better than with the lion.
“Natural” behavior in the wrong place (lion in street) is “unnatural” behavior to those who are in the right place (pedestrian) . You go and sit down for lunch in a lion's cage at the zoo and you are engaging in “natural” behavior in the wrong place. It is “unnatural” and you may well pay the price for it. So should the sociopath, but not necessarily by punishments designed to reform; doing so may in fact be no more possible than altering a lion's nature. We would simply remove the lion from the wrong place where he cannot help but cause destruction. So the sociopath.
The “Golden Rule” is natural, but so is going against the Golden Rule. Both spring from deep wells within the human spirit. Both are expressions of what it means to be human. We can be deeply selfish, yet profoundly giving.
What does seeing the good and bad elements of being human as normal and natural mean to the religious?
If you have to get on your knees and scrape, grovel and beg God for victory, chances are what you are struggling with is natural to you as a human and is not sin. (If what you struggle with is socially unacceptable and harmful to others – face up to it or await the consequences.) If it is normal to human society and behavior – stop losing sleep over it. Enjoy your life, your relationship/s, your body. Do no harm to others, bring them joy if you can. Live life in the best way you're able in the body and mind you have.
Consider a priest trying to be celibate, when doing so is completely unnatural to him, pleading with God for victory, strength, peace of mind, pure thoughts. What a lot of nonsense in God's name. I'm sure you can think of things we SDA's have been told are sinful, harmful, etc. that leave many a young person with the same begging and pleading to overcome things that are natural to being human.
Islam is well known for how it covers up its women. Why? Presumably one reason is so that men are less likely to have a "sinful" thought. Less temptation etc. Two problems: such thoughts are natural. Just as natural as when I see a beautiful flower, and can appreciate its beauty. (note I am not addressing the issue of acting on such thoughts) The same religion is known for its genital mutilation. An evil destruction of something completely natural. All in the name of what? Purity, anti-desire, sensations that are what? Sin?
What a disgrace that people can engage in such oppression and ruin of people's bodies, just because they consider their divine has spoken such obscene demands.
“Sin” is a dirty little word. Delete it. Don't let it warp the sense of values, ethics and morality that are innately yours as a human; innate values that are too easily trashed if one surrenders them to the petty whims of a God, or external authority figure. We need to think in terms that what we are is normal human beings; we need to live and enjoy your life with the freedom that comes from judging everything from the simple perspective of loving life and doing good to others.
Life will not be easy. Ask the bird as it enjoys a worm in the dewy morning light of a tranquil spring garden if life is easy (don't ask the worm). Ask the same bird as he clings to a violently shaking branch, in a howling storm over frozen fields if life is easy.
That is nature.
The bird is what the bird is. You are what you are. You can be no other than what humans are, as the bird can be no other than birds are, or lions what lions are. Like it or not, it is human to have an innate sense of good and bad, better and worse, love and hate, good and evil. Embrace the nature of being human. It will bring you moments of joy and thrill, of terror and fear. It will bring opportunity to love or hate; to do good or bad.
Life will have enough struggles. Do not complicate it with a shred of unnecessary guilt by the potential crushing force of a dirty little word. Be as free as a bird. Spread your wings and fly in the freedom of being natural, normal and fully human.
Note: This blog may lie a long way outside the usual thinking of many people. Comment is welcome, I just ask that if you find any of it confronting, before you comment, let a day pass and read it again before you speak your mind. Perhaps a second reading, built on reflection, will alter your initial impression.
Also, most readers here will be aware of the typical biblical responses or answers that can be offered about sin. While these may be useful, there is perhaps more to gain by actually grappling with issues in real dialogue, rather than “answers” that I fear will be too easily pulled to mind.