Saturday, September 8, 2012

Atheists Are Sinners Too

The word 'sin' is one that I believe is worth appropriating from religion. This may seem surprising, because much of many atheists' complaint against religion--next to the lack of evidence--is based on religion's establishment of a moral code based on absolute dictates believed on faith rather than worked out through reason, that brings with it the specter of hell and heaven, beliefs in vicarious redemption, and the establishment of an oppressive value system that births an unnecessary order of officials that stand between the population receiving the moral dictates and the giver of the moral dictates, i.e., the preacher class.

But 'sin' is a useful concept, because it establishes the possibility of deviating from the good, and by implication points towards the existence of an absolute good, or a working definition of good faith, or deeds and thoughts that maximally contribute to individual and social well-being, or a high point on the moral landscape; however you want to phrase it. For the sake of this conversation, it doesn't even matter if you do interpret the word in a religious fashion; 'Sin' is an infraction against this established code. It keeps us responsible, and gives us a better version of ourselves to aspire towards.

Jorge Luis Borges said, 'Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone'. Morality is not given to us from on high*, but is developed in the incubator of the individual, who takes influences from genetic predispositions, societal morays, their own reason, and evolving situations. It is reinforced by culutural and internal pressures, and is spread memetically throughout our society. Moral codes win primacy through conflict. Everyone--even the relativists--have a moral code.

Sin is with us. It is a concept that is easily recognized by the human consciousness. It is common and easy to think of 'crime' and 'sin' as interchangable, but often the two things couldn't be more different. Crimes are infractions of laws based on societal morays, which oftern also happen to be good. Sometimes, however--often, I would even say--laws are sinful, and it would be sinful not to break them.

Whatever the philosophical basis of our moral code, there are acts that we can commit that we know inherently were not right. These acts produce a feeling of guilt. I feel no guilt when I commit the crime of going 10 miles over the speed limit on the highway, nor do I feel any guilt when I drive through a four way stop when there is no other car in sight for miles and miles. Likewise, committing a crime that I feel would benefit an opressed class or disenfranchised individuals within the context of a system created to disadvantage them would also cause me no loss of sleep. When I am unjust or uncharitable towads people I have authority over, however--like my children, or my employees--I feel guilt, and the need to make amends, even though I have committed no crime. It doesn't take a judge or a police officer to point my errors out to me or to punish me when I sin; crime requires punishment, but sin comes with its own built-in penalty.

Religion is a dying thing. At least, the religion that talks about sin, and salvation, and grace, and good and evil is. Cultural and moral relativism is winning the day. At least superficially. Because even the relativist has a code of values and judgment they live by. They have just cleverly evaded the public need to declare their system in order to appear all embracing. Ask a moral relativist how they feel about The Ku Klux Klan or the third reich to test their lack of belief in moral absolutes.

I am arguing that we should salvage some of the good language from religion that points to concepts that pre-existed religion, and already resonate in the human mind and soul. Let's keep sin, and make our case in the public sphere as to which things we believe should fall under that heading, and even if those things do not achieve primacy, let's keep them in our hearts, and guard against them.

'Soul'. There is another word that I like. But that's probably another conversation.

*the response to anyone who says morality must come from god is the question: 'Is it good because God says it is, or does god say it is good because it is good? If it is good because God says it is, then morality is subjective. If God says it is good because it is good, then good is outside of God, and larger.'

1 comment:

What Pale Blue Dot? said...

I couldn't disagree more. You do not have to use the idea of sin to express deviating from good. It may be more useful elsewhere, but here, with our puritan baggage, sin is more than deviating from good. It is deep moral failing that is unrescuable without divine intervention. This is a dangerous and deadly concept. It has created much of the social service problems we have, because we believe that most people got where they are because of their own faults. The "worthy poor" never left our policies, even if it left our vernacular. I can't think of anyone who needs to abandon the concept of sin more than social workers--even a neat and sanitary idea of sin like the one you have outlined here as behaving uncharitably. It is an idea that continues to harm us, our clients, and our society.