As time passes and my deconversion is further and further in the rear view mirror, I find it more and more difficult to remember how or why I once believed certain things without questioning. Christians might say this is because I have distanced myself from god and I am alone in my sin. Which leads me to the topic of this blog post.
What the hell is the deal with sin?
One of the dark sides to religion is the focus on sin. This may be one of the most baffling aspects for secularists who have never subscribed to one faith or another. It is also one of the most difficult mindsets to break free from for the deconverted. Religions indoctrinate the idea that you, as a human being, are broken.
I have talked about morality before but I did not address the elephant in the room, sin. From the perspective of the believer it is why one cannot be good without god. It is why when secular humanists talk about morality and ethics believers are unable to to take them seriously. The presupposition is that as a human you are sinful and broken by default.
The most fascinating aspect of the doctrine of sin is that it is an entirely fabricated problem. The atonement is a solution looking for a problem. What Christianity posits is that a perfectly good god created good creations (humans). Gave them basically one arbitrary rule about a tree. And for reasons no one can adequately explain the humans decided to listen to the snake. Did I mention there was a talking snake? For this the whole of humanity is permanently held responsible for the rest of human history.
Think about this from an omniscient god’s perspective. Why create creations with an Achilles heel, knowing they will reject you, particularly, if your purported reason is for relationship with said creatures? Free will is a wholly inadequate explanation for why a god would make this decision. This bleeds into the problem of evil and theodicy which I have written about before.
Let’s take a closer look at the doctrine of sin. In Christian theology sin is pervasive and complete. Paul quoting the old testament explains it in this cheery way:
10 “There is no one righteous, not even one,11 there is no one who understands,there is no one who seeks God.12 All have turned away,together they have become worthless;there is no one who shows kindness, not even one.”13 “Their throats are open graves,they deceive with their tongues,the poison of asps is under their lips.”14 “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,16 ruin and misery are in their paths,17 and the way of peace they have not known.”18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”— Romans 3:10-18
In reformed (sometimes called Calvinist) theology, this is canonized as the doctrine of “Total Depravity.” Not all Christian sects go this far but it is illustrative. To be fair, the doctrine does not assert that people are all bad all the time. Rather, it suggests that even the best motives are tinged with sin. So even when a person is being good it is not purely good. It is not just about the sins one commits or omits but the state of having been impugned with Sin with a capital S.
Even for what I considered the best of Christianity, grace, sin is the dark flip side of the coin. The believer cannot understand the need for graceful forgiveness without truly understanding their sin. To the believer the doctrine of sin is not abhorrent because the solution to sin is one sinner’s prayer away. The entire point of Christianity is the sacrifice of Jesus dying on the cross for the Sin (capital S) of humanity. Good news, right?
He who is forgiven much, loves much
The critique I want to make is about the psychological damage that this inflicts. The message that is internalized is that the person themselves is worthless. Whether this is the intent of the doctrine or not this often happens in practice.
The constant message of the church is a dark one:
You are a sinner
You are broken
You are defective
You are lost
You cannot save yourself
Families are broken and dysfunctional
The world is broken
I want to focus on this word ‘broken’ because it gets used quite often and is quite damaging. Even beyond the spiritual term sin, broken has a very real world connotation. Constantly sending the message that a person is broken is not helpful, it does not encourage a healthy perspective and ultimately can be destructive.
Imagine a person who is experiencing real world tragedy, a person battling depression, and the message of the church is, “you are broken.” What would you expect that person to take away from that message? To add insult to injury, when people suffer real tragedy the victim is often blamed. This does not help people to wellness.
Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects, in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that. Created sick, and then ordered to be well. –Christopher Hitchens
Before I continue, I need to address the reality of evil in the world. Human beings are capable of great good and terrible evil. I am not denying that we as a species are capable of the worst atrocities both individually and collectively. Though we have evolved the ability to think rationally, logically and morally, those selfish and sometimes destructive instincts can and do assert themselves. We are often in a battle with our baser natures. But stigmatizing this as sin does not help the problem and is certainly not a solution.
Evolutionary psychology has some insights into human nature. We have evolved to be selfish as a survival mechanism. We can be tribal. And we are prone to overreact to fear and anger. We are capable of fooling ourselves and others. But that is not the end of the story.
As far as we know, we are the only sentient beings in the cosmos. That makes us painfully unique and can add to our sense of loneliness as a species. At least on Earth we are the only species who have the capacity to be self aware of our instincts and act in spite of them with rationality and morality.
Humans are not broken, in fact we are the most precious commodity in the universe, sentient beings. We are capable of altruism, forgiveness and sacrifice for the greater good. Humanity is capable of both defining and being good.
To err is human, to forgive divine
Humans are, however, fallible. We make mistakes. Sometimes often. We need to be gracious and empathetic with one another. We need to acknowledge our fallibility even embrace it. Admit when we are wrong quickly and not beat our selves up over it.
We are accountable to one another rather than sinners in the hands of an angry god*. How we treat each other is the basis of all morality. I have argued for a secular form of grace. Humans deeply need to feel accepted. That begins with accepting one another’s imperfections.
Interestingly, the entire point of the scientific method is to rule out as much as is humanly possible human fallibility. Peer review, falsifiability and repetition are attempts to avoid human error. This method mostly rules out erroneous ideas leaving room to discover the truth. Through this method the human species has gone to the moon, overcome diseases and created the internet. What is next?
You are not broken you are human and that is divine.
* I am aware Edwards’ sermon was actually about grace but the phrase is evocative.