Sunday, October 21, 2012

More About Sin

Richard Dawkins has a new series that I think is going to be a good one. I like his approach to the topics very much. Check it out:



I thought it would be interesting to compare this to my much maligned piece on why atheists should retain the word sin in their vocabulary:
"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. "
I'm certainly not talking about sin in the same way the religious folks in this video are, but I just don't believe there is a word in our collective moral vocabulary that has the same kind of gravitas as sin. 'Evil' is a good word, but it doesn't give us an appropriate sense of relationship between the person and the evil act. Sociopaths are evil only insofar as sharks are evil. We have a way of protecting people from sharks, and we have a way of protecting people from sociopaths. In the first instance, we use shark nets, and Roy Scheider. In the second instance, we use the electric chair, or--more often--we just offer them the top slot on the republican presidential ticket. To call a sociopath evil is to misunderstand evil. Evil is a perversion of our inherent sense of right and wrong, or an act committed against it. To commit evil, one has to come from a perspective that understands--and is capable of committing and feeling--good. A shark that eats a surfer is an act of nature. A sociopath that eats a surfer is an act of nature. A person with relatively ordinary brain chemistry who eats a surfer would need some kind of outside power our self interested goal that lead them to commit such an act. "Eat this surfer, or the girl gets it". says the mad philosopher in one scenario. "Eat the surfer, and you will be permitted to become my Vice Presidential candidate", says Mitt Romney to Paul Ryan. In the first scenario, the mad philosopher could be said to be evil. But he's mad, so could he really be said to be evil? I don't think I have to convince anyone that Paul Ryan is evil. In both scenarios, a regularly adjusted person eats a poor surfer. An act of evil has been committed. To any well adjusted person, such action would easily constitute an evil. The commission of an evil act--an act that contradicts your personal and ingrained values--can be called a sin.

I understand how triggering that word can be. Growing up in an environment that calls benign natural impulses like masturbation sinful can cause a lot of pain to be associated with such a word. But I would guess the word sin would need to have some kind of triggering effect to be effective. If we can disconnect it from its religious groundings, yet maintain its scary, bugaboo quality, I think it would be a good tool to keep.

But I could be wrong. Most people whom I have presented this idea to seem to think I am, anyway.

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