Tag Archives: sin

When the natural law condemns the lawgiver

Professor Matt McCormick provides an excellent exposition on the dilemma facing theists regarding the morality of God’s actions – and inactions.  He asks, “If a human did what God is allegedly doing right now, would we consider that a morally good action?”  He briefly touches on one implication of his argument for the “natural law” – an implication I would like to delve into further.

The “natural law”, in case you’re not aware, is the term used by some theists to describe an alleged objective moral standard instilled in our hearts by God.  We all appeal to this standard, they say, when judging the goodness of others’ actions or our own.  But a problem arises when God’s own behavior violates the natural law.  Genocide – whether committed or ignored by God – is perhaps the example that comes most readily to mind.

What are we to make of these divine violations that transgress our moral sense?  Believers rationalize them away by claiming there must be a higher moral good behind them, but what this higher moral good is, they cannot say, for God never provides or demonstrates one.  Prima facie, they are moral violations, and should be considered such until we’re given compelling reasons to believe otherwise.  When someone commits murder, we don’t let them go scot free when their lawyer proclaims, “There was a higher moral purpose behind my client’s actions, and you’ll just have to trust him on that.”  Even those who say God told them to murder are still locked up (one way or another).

Even if we grant the proposition that God is a morally perfect being who can never commit a moral transgression, it still leaves us with what to make of the sense of moral violation.  Why do we still have it?  The natural law is seemingly producing false positives.  Essentially, theists tell us to ignore our sense of moral outrage whenever divine action seems to violate the law, but what about divine inactions, which can just as strongly trigger moral outrage?  Are we to ignore those too?  But that would entail ignoring our moral sense altogether, since we never know – absent being provided a compelling rationale – whether any moral transgression served some higher moral good.

For instance, returning to the example of genocide, how do we know the Holocaust wasn’t a critical piece in God’s overall plan?  Wouldn’t moral condemnation of the Holocaust be at best premature and at worse mistaken?  Given the theistic supposition that God chooses to intervene or not intervene in human affairs – invisibly, unpredictably, inscrutably – there is literally no event in which God’s involvement positively can be ruled in or out, and thus no moral outrage we can be confident of.  The natural law thus becomes neutered as a moral guide.

Some theists might argue that “sin” affects our ability to discern the natural law.  Since we’re said to all be living under it, the question becomes, to what extent does “sin” impact discernment?  They never say.  And if “sin” is muddying the waters, so to speak, how can we really even trust our moral sense as an intuitive guide?  An objective law capable of divergent interpretations is little different than no law at all.

When it comes down to it, the choices are pretty stark for the theist: abandon divine moral goodness, or abandon the natural law.  Both cannot existence concurrently, unless the latter doesn’t derive from the former, in which case theism itself must be abandoned.

When Christians fail at debate

I’m finding it increasingly common to have my posts at Christian blogs removed.  It seems proprietors are simply unable to respond.  This is not to say my arguments are particularly good (though they may be); rather, I think many Christians lack critical thinking skills, preferring diatribe over debate.  They’ve been told what to think, and now they’re going to tell you what to think.  Like their faithfully held beliefs, they entertain no possibility they could be wrong, and must work assiduously to maintain that appearance.

The latest example comes from the Possessing the Treasure blog.  It’s proprietor, Mike Ratliff, recently fulminated against the growing acceptance of homosexuality in Christianity and society, a practice, he reminds us, is a “sin,” “abomination,” and “sexual perversion”.

Now, it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see Christians working themselves up over issues like this, primarily because they’re quite literally shooting themselves in the foot and contributing to their faith’s demise among the next generation.  Many wonder, as I do, what is the Christian’s prurient fascination with homosexuality, when Biblical morality covers so much more.  This is the question I put to Mike.  In his response, Mike dodged the question, but not before alluding to my lack of god-logic for failing to understand.  So here’s what I wrote back, which Mike refused to publish:

Mike: I do not expect you to understand what I am going to tell you since you are an atheist. You are not regenerate. You do not have the Holy Spirit.

Me: Yes, I lack the required special gnosis which supersedes normal reason and logic, apparently.

Mike: To answer your “thought” about why we are focusing on homosexuality like this is that it is clearly an issue of morality. It is sin and not the same thing as race or whatever. It is a sexual perversion whose advocates insist it is not. It demands protection and acceptance in our society. It is immoral as I said and, therefore, should not be given that sort of recognition.

Unfortunately, your “reply” doesn’t answer my objection. How is homosexuality any worse than, say, adultery?  Or blasphemy?  Or working on the sabbath?  Aren’t these “issues of morality” just as serious?  Christians aren’t clamoring to place restrictions on them, or reverse their acceptance.  Why?

It matters little to me, as a non-Christian (and heterosexual, by the way), what Christians accept or don’t accept within their own religion.  What bothers me is your attempt to force Biblical morality on the rest of society.  As you may not be aware, the Bible is not a part of the U.S. legal code.  When it is, then by all means outlaw homosexuality (and adultery, and worshipping other gods, and working on the Sabbath), but for now, you would do well to keep your morality to yourselves.

Mike: As far as your poor logic concerning God’s Law, the moral parts of the Law are still very much in affect and are contained in our faith. On the other hand, those dietary and ceremonial parts of the Law were fulfilled and done away with at Christ’s crucifixion.

Me: Good news to slave-owning Christians who wish to increase their holdings from pagan nations! (Lev. 25:44)

Further down in the comments, a person named Jackie wrote, “[G]ays are actually helping to fulfill this same worldwide “sign” (and making the Bible even more believable!) and thus hurrying up the return of the Judge! They are accomplishing what many preachers haven’t accomplished!… Thanks, gays, for figuring out how to bring back our resurrected Saviour even quicker!”

Jackie’s reasoning is sound (and something I’ve previously blogged about), but of course it wholly undermines Mike the Christian’s rationale to keep “sexual perversion” at an absolute minimum.  Unsurprisingly, a reply pointing this out did not make an appearance either.

Amateur Christian theologians like Mike aren’t the only ones running away.  Over at the Debunking Christianity blog, John W. Loftus (whose book, Why I Became an Atheist, I’m currently enjoying) has issued a debate challenge to his former mentor, William Lane Craig.  The latter has so far demurred, saying he refuses to debate former students.  That’s odd.  In his book, Reasonable Faith (p. 21), Craig wrote, “Again and again I find that while most of [anti-Christian college professors] are pretty good at beating up intellectually on an eighteen-year-old in one of their classes, they can’t even hold their own when it comes to going toe-to-toe with one of their peers.”  Is it Craig who’s afraid he can’t hold his own against one of his peers?

Some random thoughts on sin

As I mentioned earlier last month, I’ve begun to wonder about sin.  No, sorry, not in the sense that I need to be “saved” from it, but as a natural sociological phenomenon.  Why was it invented?  What has it endured?  What is so useful about in the religious context?

I’ve tried with little success to do some research on the topic, but either sociologists and anthropologists have basically ignored it, or I’m looking in the wrong places.  I don’t know.  Perhaps it’s simply too broad a concept to make any definite sense out of.  Or too taboo.  Maybe Daniel Dennett, who’s written on the natural origins of religion, has a few ideas, but here are a couple of my own.  I apologize if they come out in a scattershot manner. 

We know a lot about how sin is understood by believers, at least, because it’s one of their favorite subjects. As a general matter, most describe sin as some kind of act which violates the edicts of a moral lawgiver.  But not all religions recognize the existence of sin, and the ones that do obviously do not agree on precise categorizations.  Most maintain that sin produces negative consequences, though they acknowledge there is no immediate cause-and-effect.  The best that can be expected is that sinners will one day get their just desserts, which appeals to our common notions of justice.

What I’ve found difficult understanding is why sin was invented.  If anyone has an article, link, or book recommendation which sheds light on this question, please share!  In the meantime, I’ve come up with my own theory.

It seems to me that sin is one of our ways for trying to make sense of calamity that befalls us, individually or collectively.  One sees this theme repeatedly in the Jewish Tanakh, for example, where sin is invoked as the cause for the ever-recurring troubles experienced by the Jewish people, believed to actually be punishments from their god.   The roots of viewing calamity as a consequence of wrong-doing are found, I think, in the concept of retribution – the return of harm to those who’ve harmed us.  When ancient peoples met disaster in some manner, they did not have the benefit of modern knowledge to help them understand its true causes, though that didn’t stop them from seeking to understand why nonetheless.  Their attempts followed instincts that evolution has bred within us, e.g., the well-known tendency to anthropomorphize forces of unknown origin.  Since humans seek revenge when they’ve been wronged, these anthropomorphized forces did the same.

One benefit to viewing calamity in this way is that it gives the afflicted a sense that amends can be made, that normalcy can be restored.  This thought struck me as I was watching a documentary on the devastating 14th century black plague, during which groups of devout believers, called “Flagellants”, whipped themselves raw in a vain attempt to “atone” for the sins that they believed provoked God to cause it.  The Indians of the south and central American continents took this idea a bit further by sacrificing all manner of living things, including humans, as a way to pre-empt calamity and ensure the continued favor of the gods.  Even though such measures obviously have no impact on the vagaries of nature, the mere fact that “something is being done” could have a beneficial palliative effect and can help a people endure calamity by giving them hope.

So that’s my theory on the origins of sin, for what it’s worth 🙂  It doesn’t explain why certain behaviors or practices were ever categorized as sins in the first place.  Some obviously have a utilitarian purpose.  For example, prohibitions against murder and theft (at least against your own people) tend to promote healthier societies.  But what’s the point in prohibiting things like the blending of specific fabrics in clothing (Lev. 19:19)?  I’ve read such sins relate to purity, though this simply raises another question: why is it considered impure, when eating different foods at once is not?

I read somewhere that esoteric prohibitions like this strengthen a community by signaling commitment.  If you’re willing to abide by the community’s costliest laws, this shows you’re vested in it and can be “trusted,” enhancing cooperation.  Plausible I guess, but again, it doesn’t explain why some things become a sin while others don’t.  Perhaps such a question is beside the point.

Another unresolved issue is how sin became so intertwined with religion.  Perhaps it’s because, as my theory suggests, the concept of sin emerged alongside the concept of gods.  In any case, religion and sin I think are in a symbiotic relationship, like co-dependent memes.  Christianity, it seems to me, has been particularly effective at exploiting the relationship, where sin’s reach attained such profound lengths that it infused our very selves from the moment of existence.  Incidentally, a monopoly on absolving sin didn’t exactly impede the growth of the Christian church, nor hinder its political power.

Today, sin seems to have lost much of its potency as a fuel for religion.  Perhaps it’s because what constitutes sin has become so muddled, coupled with the fact that we possess a far better understanding about the nature of our existence than we did millennia ago.  It seems that sin is returning full circle to what it was understood originally as: “missing the mark.”

Back from vacation

I figured before I left on vacation I’d be a virtual whirlwind of blogging activity, but it turned out to be precisely the opposite.  There was so much traveling and family to visit with, I simply found it too difficult to seriously think about topics I wanted to explore.  I’ve been pondering the concept of sin, for example, but haven’t decided on an angle and would really like to research it more in depth.  To merely observe that every religion has a different view of it, an inexplicable circumstance under the theory of some divinely engraved natural moral law, is trite.  What I’m curious about is what makes it so useful to religion, why it plays so prominent a part.  It seems to me it is partly a useful tool for community control and the strenghtening (or enforcement) of group identity.  But why do some behaviors become intolerable sins (e.g., slavery), while others are increasingly tolerated (e.g., divorce, homosexuality, adultery)?  Why do some people feel strongly about sin, their own and others’, while others do not?

Sin is clearly a complex subject from a sociological, psychological, and even religious standpoint.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize how little I understand it.  Perhaps spending a little time playing a new game I picked up, Sins of a Solar Empire, will clarify things a bit… 🙂

It is often said that two things should never be discussed in a family setting: religion and politics.  It’s a rule generally not observed in my family, at least when I’m around, and the recent visit was no exception.  There may be a few reasons why.  First, I probably know more about both topics than anyone else in my family, so members like to ask what I think.  Also, I approach discussions more informatively rather than argumentatively.  If I sense someone feels strongly emotional about a topic, I’ll begin to clam up.  I also avoid “proselytizing”.  Most everyone knows me (and one of my sisters) is an atheist, but I don’t make it a point to remind everyone of the fact.  No one is strongly religious, but I figure if they’re interested why I’m an atheist, they’ll raise the subject.

But vacation is over now, so time to get back to our regularly scheduled program!