How do Christians explain their higher incidences of sin?

The news that conservative states tend to be the biggest consumers of online porn (with heavily Mormon Utah occupying the top spot) is but the latest in a string of moral embarrassments that have left Christians red-faced.  Earlier research showed that the highest incidences of teenage pregnancy are there too, in spite of popular chastity movements like “True Love Waits” intended to reduce teenage sexual activity.  And that’s not all.  In the so-called Bible Belt, rates of murder, divorce, and domestic violence tend to be among the highest in America, as well.

Christian apologists rationalize these facts by explaining that “we are all sinners, Christians included”, but this misses the point.  The issue is not that Christians do bad things in the first place, but why they do many of them more frequently than their non-religious counterparts.  This is an anomaly; a deviation from the expected state of affairs, where Christians “ruled by God” should be “convicted of their sin” and do less of it than those governed by more secular (read: inferior) ethics.  So, why the worse behavior?  While Christians scramble for an answer, allow me to venture a few of my own.

I think the main reason is that Christianity discourages the development of a strong sense of moral intuition.  Adherents are taught moral commands, but are rarely given substantive, practical, or rational reasons for their basis.  In other words, they know what they shouldn’t do, they just don’t understand why very well, other than “because God said it”.  Unfortunately, a pragmatic approach to moral issues is out of the question for Christians, because it would open the door to questioning a broad range of moral commandments, and thus undermine the entire basis of moral absolutism.  The downside of such a system is seen most dramatically when the adherent believes that they have divine sanction for their behavior, which removes that sole, divine constraint.  In contrast, humanist ethical systems place more emphasis on the practical consequences of a breach.  Avoid gluttony not because God says it’s a sin, but because the health consequences are diabetes, higher medical costs, and lower life expectancy.  These ethical systems are also adaptable, able to respond to new information, experience, technology, and realities.

Another possible reason for the higher incidences is that since many commands lack a negative or immediate consequence for disobedience (which is odd given God’s alleged omnipotence and omnipresence), disrespect for all commands is fostered.  By way of example, think of a country like Mexico where laws and regulations are many, but enforcement is lax or non-existent.  Such a situation tends to breed increased lawlessness overall, particularly when prohibitions are viewed as improper, irrelevant, or counter-productive.  Many militant Christians understand this problem, which is why they’re often so eager to establish a link between sin and calamity, however tenuous. (But have you noticed that such calamity is rarely, if ever, blamed on the infidelity of their own communities? Hmm…)

A final possible reason is that Christians are actually morally confused, mostly due to the moral schizophrenia of the Bible and the behavior of their prominent leaders.  If you’re a Christian, mixed messages abound.  For example, the Bible proscribes killing (Exodus 20:13), except when it prescribes it (Exodus 22:18 and 31:15).  Slavery, polygamy, and violence can all be justified there, or they can be condemned.  Among popes, pastors, and preachers can be found the most truly reprobate behaviors.  What’s a little porn compared to gay hookers and meth?

I know Christianity helps some people behave better, but at least in some ways, it makes them act worse.  Mr. Apologist, why is that?

14 thoughts on “How do Christians explain their higher incidences of sin?

  1. Those are some good reasons for christian’s moral failures. I also think that the more restrictive a faith, the more people live a double life, the secret inner life of “sin.” And the pressure to perform on the outside can push people to respond in morally bad ways.

    Another christian apologetic goes like this: it is people who are big failures who come to christ; “I come not to heal the well, but to heal the sick.” So the church is full of people that are the neediest, who bring the biggest problems into life, into the church, into christianity — the biggest sinners. Courtesy apologist Tim Keller.

  2. Is the study quoted really believable? Is the data strong? I’ve read (secondhand) critiques I believe at Pharyngula.

    On a more serious note, and riffin on the above, are not many of the negative behaviors at least partially attributable to socioeconomics and education? Most fundamentalists, I would posit, trend lower in socioeconomic terms and thus may exhibit more of these pathologies. So…poor people “find Jesus” but also do more drugs? Or at least drugs that have been criminally sanctioned? Social stress in fundie households leads to more acting out?

  3. I had a christian lady on my blog who didn’t believe that I was a good person/didn’t lie, because she did all of the time. (Her own words!) I also knew a fundie lady who talked at length about cheating on her husband and other awful things she had done. She asked me if I would ever do anything like she did, and I said “Well, I don’t judge you about it, but no, I wouldn’t do those things, and haven’t done those things.” She said “You’re a better person than me, but you’re still going to burn in hell.” 🙂

  4. I’d been a christian most my life, and I think that it’s almost a requirement to be a bad horrible person before you can be saved. They call it a “testimony”. Second generation fundies (like I was) grow up without a testimony, so they get passed over for leadership positions in the church. I’d been turn down many times because I didn’t have a good enough testimony. Now, I’m a first generation atheist.

  5. so what evidence do you have that supports your idea that the people in these porn consuming conservative states and the “bible belt” are in fact christians? that’s a heck of a big assumption to make.

  6. It depends what kinds of christians you’re talking about, too. I’ve met christians who are completely uninvolved in their religion and view the rules they claim to follow as too restrictive and end up exploring other avenues. I’ve also met christians who sin, sure, but their hearts are in the right place as far as trying to do better, to not repeat their mistakes, etc.
    But really, who are you to judge them? Why not just let them do their thing and you can do yours without looking at them and condemning them for slipping up on their beliefs? That’s their business, and they know that when all is said and done and they come before God and are judged, they have Him to answer to and not you.

  7. How do you explain your motive for writing such a blog? I am curious if you write it with a scientific perspective, or a self-vindication perspective? And Jason is right, you make some very strong assertions and assumptions.

  8. Jason wrote,

    so what evidence do you have that supports your idea that the people in these porn consuming conservative states and the “bible belt” are in fact christians? that’s a heck of a big assumption to make.

    Not really, Jason. It’s in fact the most reasonable conclusion. To claim otherwise is to believe that for some reason, non-Christians commit crimes, divorce, and watch porn in far greater percentages than their counterparts just across the border. When the statistics show a pretty uniform correspondence between Christian belief and such metrices across multiple states, it’s simply highly probable that Christians are engaging in them.

    shapeofagirl wrote,

    It depends what kinds of christians you’re talking about, too.

    The “Bible Belt” tends to include the most conservative, committed Christians, i.e., those who attend church and read the Bible more often than others. Their views trend toward socially conservative as well.

    But really, who are you to judge them? Why not just let them do their thing and you can do yours without looking at them and condemning them for slipping up on their beliefs?

    This is a false accusation; I’m not judging anyone. Christians claim all the time that one must believe in (their) God to life a moral life, yet not only do we see no evidence for that, but we see evidence which suggests that believing in (their) God actually makes one less moral, by their own standards. In other words, it seems Christians are making an invalid claim about the power of their beliefs.

    Chad wrote,

    How do you explain your motive for writing such a blog? I am curious if you write it with a scientific perspective, or a self-vindication perspective?

    My motive is counter false claims by religious people about their beliefs, because we live in an ever more entwined social network where such claims can have negative impacts on the lives or real people.

    If there’s any fault to my reason or arguments, I welcome efforts to point them out.

  9. I am curious what claim you feel is false then? I think you misunderstand what a belief in God presupposes. It does not mean you are moral, but rather it means that you believe in something that helps you live in a certain way to attain a certain goal, morality being associated with that “way.” And I don’t think Christians believe one can be moral by only believing in God–in fact, I know there are a lot of moral people out there who are non-Christians and I know there are immoral Christians out there. I feel you gravely misunderstand what a belief system or religion for an individual is; that is why I question your motive, as it seems there is something underlying it.

    As far as the assumptions you make regarding the statistics of “conservative” or “christian” states, regardless of what you say, your conclusions can’t necessarily be taken as such–you are making very strong assumptions that aren’t proven. Here is an analogous example to your conclusion: In New York City if you were to look at the proportion of blacks in jail for crimes, it would outweigh the whites, but is it then safe to say that blacks consist of that same proportion in the population as a whole? No. And for the same reasons, it can’t necessarily be imputed that those same persons that “sin” in the conservative states are then representative of the population as a whole. Shapeofgirl said, “I’ve met christians who are completely uninvolved in their religion,” which I think you need to also account for. And it would be nice to know what your definition of Christian is. I’ve met people who “believed” in God in form only who were really just like you in substance. Does that mean there “sins” can be allocated to the “Christians?”

    Once again, given the context of your weblog, I think there is a little self-vindication going on deep down inside Robert.

  10. Chad wrote,

    And I don’t think Christians believe one can be moral by only believing in God

    Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common refrain we atheists here. For example:

    No matter how sincerely I believe I am right about some moral decision, the true test is in the origin of that belief. And God is the only universal and absolute origin to all morality… If we don’t believe we are created by God, but simply highly evolved animals, and if we believe we have accountability only to society, then there is no end to the depths of depravity that we can go in our search to justify our actions. Corrosion of morals begins in microscopic proportions, but if not checked by a standard beyond ourselves, it will continue until the corrosion wipes away the very foundation of our lives, and we find ourselves sinking in a sea of relativity. – Ray Cotton

    Or…

    But to think we can be good, that we can build a good and humane society without God, is pure folly. – Chuck Colson

    Here is an analogous example to your conclusion: In New York City if you were to look at the proportion of blacks in jail for crimes, it would outweigh the whites, but is it then safe to say that blacks consist of that same proportion in the population as a whole? No.

    Unfortunately, this is not analogous to my argument, because no where am I claiming that Christian predominance in the population is based on their tendency to commit more murders, divorce in greater percentages, or watch porn more than their non-Christian counterparts. We already know that Christians predominant in certain areas because of religious self-identification surveys. That’s a brute fact we start out with. In those areas, we also see higher murder rates and more porn consumption than average. That’s another brute fact. It’s thus a reasonable claim to make that it’s Christians who are responsible for that higher incidence (we already know for a fact that Christians divorce more than the general population). To believe otherwise is to claim that non-Christians are somehow murdering and consuming more porn in those Christian-dominated areas far more in excess than their counterparts in other areas.

    Shapeofgirl said, “I’ve met christians who are completely uninvolved in their religion,” which I think you need to also account for.

    I did. The so-called Bible Belt contains the most active Christians, as demonstrated by frequency of church activity and Bible reading.

    And it would be nice to know what your definition of Christian is.

    “Any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. That is, they honestly believe themselves to be a follower of Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ).” – Source: Religioustolerance.org

    Once again, given the context of your weblog, I think there is a little self-vindication going on deep down inside Robert.

    I have no idea what you mean by that.

  11. Well Robert, maybe you should do a survey and see how many Christians subscribe to what the former finance director and treasurer of Probe Ministries says. And since when are journalists like Chuck Colson authoritative? Frankly, I’ve never heard of both of them and don’t believe what they said. So I am proof that there is at least one Christian that doesn’t fall within the category of Christians you are discussing, and there are probably a lot more out there too. And if more Christians feel likewise, then maybe your conclusions are either false or insignificant or both.

    The probably more accurate characterization of Christians is that they feel the motive for being moral is probably easier to have with a belief in God. I personally feel that it is easier to act a certain way when I believe that you should act that specific way, otherwise the motive may not be as strong. Furthermore, if you could 100% eliminate God from a population, I would venture to say it probably wouldn’t be as moral.

    Lastly, just because we are fallible, it doesn’t mean what we believe is false or wrong. And since we can all “sin,” it is not odd to find that those who predominate a population also predominate proportionally those who sin. So, given the proportion of Christians in the country, I don’t think they necessarily have “higher incidences” of sin–where are the studies to show that non-Christians commit sin in a lower amount given their proportion of the population? Thus, your whole posting may be essentially worthless. And since when is conservative equivalent to Christian and liberal not?

  12. Chad wrote,

    Frankly, I’ve never heard of both of them and don’t believe what they said.

    That’s fine, but recall that you originally denied that Christians think it takes a belief in God to be moral. I presented two who clearly do. Now you’ve shifted and think they don’t speak for most Christians. There’s evidence to suggest you’re incorrect there too.

    As you may know, atheists are the least trusted group in America, according to studies. Why is that? “Many Americans seem to believe some kind of religious faith is central to being a good American and a good person.”

    And if more Christians feel likewise, then maybe your conclusions are either false or insignificant or both.

    Actually, my point is not based on how Christians feel toward non-believers per se. Rather, it’s based on Christian claims about the transformative power of their religion, in which they’re frequently exhorted to live as God commands. Take 1 Thessalonians 5:23, for example: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless.”

    Now, no one expects Christians to be perfect, but they should, on the whole, be better than the general populace, if Christianity is true. Being just as good is disappointing. But worse? if I gave you a medication that not only failed to improve your condition, but made you worse off, you’d refuse to take it, and rightly so.

    Furthermore, if you could 100% eliminate God from a population, I would venture to say it probably wouldn’t be as moral.

    Well, Japan is a country that is about as God-less as you can get. But most measures, they appear more moral than Americans.

    And since we can all “sin,” it is not odd to find that those who predominate a population also predominate proportionally those who sin.

    I think you’ve failed to understand the meaning of “higher incidence”. If I was to take 10 Christians and 10 non-believers, and 6 of the Christians watched Fox News most of the time, while 4 non-believers did, we’d say there’s a “higher incidence” of Fox News watching among the Christians. Incidence already takes into account population differences.

  13. Well then you haven’t proven your assertion that the higher incidence actually exists. For example, it is incorrect for you to assume that teen pregnancy is pregnancy out of wedlock. Since you singled out Utah, nowhere in the research you referenced does it say that Utah is one of the highest in teen pregnancy; on the contrary, the research does say that Utah is the second highest state to have teen pregnancy within marriage. So part of the conclusion you made in the first paragraph of your post is false.

    I just think you need to be careful about the conclusions you draw just so they are in favor with what you personally believe. I would probably agree with a lot of what you may have to say, but not necessarily all the conclusions you then jump to. For example, I do think that Japan is probably more god-less than other places, but how do you then jump to the conclusion that they appear more moral? Are you saying they don’t “sin” like “we” do? What knowledge do you have that is evidence for that conclusion?

    Lastly, morality encompasses more than porn, teen pregnancy, divorce, and murder. Thus, by analyzing just these areas, one can’t make conclusive arguments about the extent of sin in a group of people, such as conservatives/christians (I don’t know who you try to single out by your post). And what about abortion: according to the study, liberal/blue states have higher incidences of abortion. Just b/c liberals don’t feel abortion is wrong, does this mean we can’t talk about it when it comes to morality. I know for sure abortion is a morality issue for conservatives, and they are the ones who do it least. How do you explain that? Maybe you should write another blog entitled, “How do Christians explain their lower incidences of abortion?”

  14. Chad wrote,

    Well then you haven’t proven your assertion that the higher incidence actually exists. For example, it is incorrect for you to assume that teen pregnancy is pregnancy out of wedlock.

    I disagree. Teen marriage rates are very low overall and thus insufficient in explaining the higher incidence of teen pregnancy in the Bible belt. And when these data match up to the data on support“>out-of-wedlock pregnancy rates pretty much state-for-state, it’s clear that the teens are primarily unmarried.

    I do think that Japan is probably more god-less than other places, but how do you then jump to the conclusion that they appear more moral?

    I didn’t jump to any “conclusions,” but if you would like hard data to support my impression, look here and here.

    Lastly, morality encompasses more than porn, teen pregnancy, divorce, and murder.

    That’s right, but because Christians are more moral in some other areas doesn’t mitigate the fact that they are less moral in others, particularly in areas expressly prohibited by the Ten Commandments. According to their own beliefs, they should be more moral in all areas.

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