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Is The Concept of Sin Useful in Secular Morality?

Updated on December 19, 2013

Is Sin an Outdated Concept?

Abrahamic religions would have us believe that we are untenable sinners, unable to follow the simplest of rules and perilously curious and disobedient. And we are born this way because the first of our kind ate an apple. Christianity in particular would have us believe we were implicit in the driving of the nails into the savior's body at Calvary.

What's more because of these events which long preceded our own births and the implications of these acts we are to regard our bodies and their requisite functions as unwholesome, are desires are unclean, and sex as a necessary evil we must suffer through only for procreative purposes. This is all quite a lot of masochism to live up to.

I'm wondering, as unpleasant and very likely manmade, as all this is does it have an underlying utility? Does regarding ourselves as inherently sinful lead to a morally higher ground than otherwise would be attained thus justifying the guilt, shame, and masochism?

Well let's look at the issues in which Christians invest most of their energy and moral oxygen. Homosexuality, condom use, abortion, and stem-cell research are the first issues that come to mind. I think that what is first and most plainly obvious is that these are not the most pressing atrocities in the 21st century nor were they the most pressing atrocities at any other time. If these were indeed the most dire of our moral concerns this would indicate quite an improvement in the overall state of things.

So let's take a different tack in trying to resolves whether sin and morality have anything in common or if rather such a notion is mere verisimilitude. What are the most dire moral concerns in the 21st century? Sadistic warlords and despots in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East going unchecked in their indiscriminate killing of men, raping of women, and kidnapping of children whom they turn into drug addled mechanisms for further cruelty. The AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan African comes to mind. Global inequality of resources on such a slant that hundreds and hundreds of millions cannot get clean drinking water while a few thousand control 90% of all wealth. And of course climate change resulting from the indiscriminant release of known toxins and pollutants which is likely destined to render this planet unlivable for most higher life forms.

The problem is not only does religion obfuscate the issues that truly matter but religious doctrines further exacerbate the calamity of these issues. The proscription against sin makes for such a truly useless map in our attempt to navigate the moral landscape and it is so pronounced in it's dissonance from moral reality that it leads us straight into many of the obstacles around which we must circumvent and stumble.

Let's start with homosexuality. If homosexuality is an unnatural abomination one wonders why the percentage of homosexual humans matches the percentage of homosexuality found in hundreds of other species of animals (around 10%). One further wonders at a god that would create gay animals while having a problem with how loving consenting adults employ the free will he bestowed upon them.

How about condom use. Here religious doctrine is worsening two major moral issues. The Catholic Church has been on a quest to misinform the people suffering from AIDS in African for over twenty years concerning the efficacy of condoms in preventing the spread of the HIV virus. Further, every social scientist knows that the antidote to poverty is the empowerment of women in their reproductive cycles. Once birth control is introduced in one form or another indexes of social health invariably increase and poverty habitually decreases given a little time.

On the issue of Dictators and Despots I'll say that an anti-Semitic brand of Catholicism greatly fueled the disastrous and heartbreaking wildfire that was The Third Reich. The Vatican signed a concordat with Hitler and celebrated his birthday until 1945. Stalin employed a secular kind of theocracy in which he himself was divine which is a model we see presently in North Korea.

Biblical Morality?

Only in 3, arguably 4 commandments are any moral issues addressed and we certainly don't need a celestial fiat to appreciate these. Morality is a priori to religion and has a self-preserving function which is observable even in lower vertebrates. Many species show solidarity, cooperation, even empathy. If we were to take any given theology's literal proscriptions against sin and employ the corresponding punishment in kind we would be doomed to antediluvian darkness.

When we read, for example the Pentitude, of the Hebrew bible we become the arbiters of what is morally useful. We embrace the commandments which no society has not held as prescriptive, do not murder, do not lie, do not, steal and we throw out the nonsense that clashes with modernity and secular morality such as stoning virgins, caning disobedient children, and slaughtering anyone worshipping another god. We recognize morally repugnant acts when we see (or read) them, this is apart of our genetic inheritance.

What about the golden rule, you might wonder? This is an excellent moral injunction but it is not unique to Christianity, in fact it long predates the coming of the Nazarene. It first appears in the Analects of Confucius taking only the slightly altered form of, "Do not do to others what you would find abhorrent if done to you."

And so I'd like to contend that not only is sin an outdated concept with little to nothing to do with morality but also that bible is an outdated book, in so much as it's held above any other literature or any other mythology. It has cultural significance, without it allusions made by great authors like Shakespeare and Dickens would be lost, but as an actual guide for life, through Socratic dialogue and secular debate, we have outgrown it entirely. It was quite obviously written for agricultural and nomadic societies in the bronze age and it has little to nothing to say about the moral issues against which we try to garner our strength two millennia later.


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