A Secular View of Sin
The Religious View
Central to many religious worldviews is the concept of “sin”. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the fundamental reasons that religions exist: to provide a moral framework for humanity. In these frameworks, right and wrong are divinely decreed and absolute. Moreover, in many religions, particularly the Abrahamic faiths, sin is an inherent fault of humanity and in some traditions, a direct result of the failings of one or two particular humans. This “Original Sin” was then passed on to all subsequent generations.
So in a tradition such as this, “sin” is more of a condition that is inherited by all human beings from the very first. It’s like a disease that was inflicted by the poor choices of Adam and Eve. Humanity is weak, easily tempted and ultimately at fault. We are only saved by the love and grace of God, possibly through the sacrificial actions of an incarnate divine being such as Jesus.
This message is central to Christianity. You are broken. You are flawed. From your very birth you are garbage. Worse yet, it is your own fault. Christianity confirms the greatest fear of many individuals with low self-esteem. They are afraid they are inherently a terrible person. Christianity tells them they are correct.
However it gets even worse in some Christian traditions as well as Islam. Not only are you inherently broken, but if you don’t do something about it, you are destined to suffer an eternity of torment in Hell. Some traditions, such as liberal Christianity and Jehovah’s Witnesses actually reject the existence and doctrine of Hell but this only makes the situation slightly better. For example, there’s still the terror of Armageddon to be experienced for those who didn’t follow the prescription.
So to summarize, humans are born sinful, possibly due to the poor decisions of the very first human beings. This sin is still their fault and they will be punished for it either by death or an eternity of torment in Hell. The only way to avoid this is to follow the moral laws of the religion and possibly accept the sacrifice of Jesus. You also may need to take part in sacraments, rituals or perform good works such as spreading this worldview. This is the only way to be absolved of the condition you were born with but that is still your fault.
But is there a better explanation?
A Secular View
Evolution is true, radiometric dating works and humans are descended from other, earlier organisms. This may be a difficult thing to accept for a person who holds to the Adam and Eve story. I know, I’ve been there myself. Learning about Evolution challenged everything I believed for many years. I was very uncomfortable as I learned about Evolution. When I learned about it, I didn’t learn about it from religious teachers, I learned about it from the very scientists who study it. Eventually, as I came to fully understand Evolution and how well it supports the evidence, I had no choice but to accept it as reality. I’ve read the religious documents that attempt to explain why it is not true, but these documents only demonstrate that they simply do not understand Evolution well enough to argue against it. But I don’t want this article to turn into a counter-apologetics argument for Evolution. So, back to our topic.
Evolution concludes that humans have existed for only 200,000 of the 3.5 billion years or so that life has existed on Earth, which means we are a relatively recent development. Humans descended from other hominins such as homo erectus and homo habilis, which descended from the much more ape-like australopithecus afarensis, which descended from even earlier ape-like creatures, which descended from monkeys, then lemurs, then other mammals, which descended from therapsids (mammal-like reptiles), reptiles, amphibians, fish and all the way back to single-celled organisms. Our evolutionary and thus genetic history is a part of the same history of all other animals on earth. We are animals.
Evolution is a process governed by reproduction and survival. Evolution can only occur when there is self-replication. This is why rocks do not spontaneously “evolve” into sculptures and pieces of metal do not become watches. Evolution requires the replication of genetic code where modification is possible. Without replication and modification, Evolution does not occur. On Earth, this means the reproduction of organisms, where DNA is copied, combined and possibly mutated during the process. Any feature that better enables an organism to replicate itself is a feature that is likely to be passed on to offspring. These features may be harder egg shells, better eyesight, producing more young in each litter, resistance to a disease, more colorful feathers (which is appealing to females) or being able to mate more frequently.
Reproduction and survival is key. The more organisms reproduce, the more Evolution will favor those traits. The better an organism can survive, the more likely it is to reproduce. The more it reproduces, the more of them there will be. I’m sure you can see how this cycle would result in a higher, more successful population of organisms that possess features that aid in reproduction and survival.
To put it simply, Evolution results in organisms that are good at reproducing. This means they have a strong drive to reproduce, will do so successfully, often and will do so at the cost of other organisms. It is competitive too. Males compete for females and vice versa. Organisms must eat other organisms to survive. Organisms will steal food from other organisms, lay eggs inside other organisms destined to be eaten from the inside and even kill the young of competing organisms of the same species. It is a violent, selfish and lustful natural world and it is the world humans grew up in.
Murder, infanticide, lust, pride, ego, brutality, theft and selfishness have been a part of life for millions of years. They are a result of Evolution, and humans have inherited almost all of those tendencies as well as others. You might even say that humans inherited their sinful behaviors from previous species.
But doesn’t that sound strangely similar to what religion tells us? That our sinful behavior is inherited? It certainly does.
I don’t think it should be a surprise that one of the common features of religion is to attempt to counter the biological tendencies we inherited from earlier forms of life. We still have a strong desire to reproduce, often with many mates and at the cost of other humans. We steal for survival, we are proud and attempt to compete with each other for resources and mates. We are obsessed with our appearance and our possessions. We are prone to killing each other over differences or in competition for resources.
These behaviors are no longer beneficial for our survival in more developed cultures and societies. We now need to get along with each other. Theft is rarely necessary if we work together. We value long-term relationships and fidelity. We simply don’t need to live like animals any more, and in many cases doing so is now detrimental to our society. We must attempt to combat these more primitive urges.
Religion both attempts to explain the source of these tendencies as well as prescribe a way to prevent them. The explanations for these behaviors were developed during a time long before the scientific method and more modern tools and techniques for observation and measurement had been developed. As such, these explanations take the form of myths and stories such as Adam and Eve that we now know to be scientifically impossible. Religions also established law codes to prevent or deter these now harmful behaviors and gave these laws the authority of the gods or God. In addition, punishments were also often prescribed along with these laws. In earlier religions, the punishments were often violent, including torture and death. In some of these, such as early Judaism, the gods would punish you in the here and now (such as with sickness or infertility) while in others the punishment didn’t occur until after you died, as in Egyptian religion and Christianity.
The Good News
In a way religions are correct. Humans truly are “sinful” by birth, if you define “sinful” as prone to wrongdoings against other humans. This tendency is a product of our own evolutionary past, so we really did inherit these behavioral tendencies from earlier species.
However, there is good news. It is not your fault.
You are not to blame, nor are you at fault for your tendency to have moral shortcomings. Neither are your ancestors or their ancestors. All life on Earth has been subject to the same evolutionary process and we are more or less just along for the ride. Are humans “broken”? Yeah, we are in ways. But it’s not our fault any more than it is a chipmunk’s fault that it steals the acorns from the stash of its neighbor so that it can survive the winter.
We are all alike in this respect, which means there is an element of truth to the bible’s statement that we “all fall short”. Nobody is perfect and that’s okay.
What Are We to Do?
So, our tendency to do harmful things is not our fault. But that does not mean that our harmful acts and poor decisions are without consequence. The whole reason that religions established moral codes in the first place was to combat our more primitive tendencies in an attempt to benefit society. Even without the authority of gods behind them, morals serve a significant purpose in our society.
It is our duty in life to overcome our evolutionary baggage. We must understand ourselves the best we can through scientific disciplines like Psychology, Neurology and Sociology as well as History. The better we understand our own tendencies, the better we can overcome them and make the world a better place.
Our wrongdoings can be harmful in many ways. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as hurting or killing someone. But others can be harmful to ourselves. A good example here is pride. In particular, the pride we would call hubris, or the irrational sense of one’s status and over-value of personal appearance and possessions. This is precisely the type of pride that the bible speaks against and is in contrast to pride as a healthy, contentment with one’s accomplishments, decisions and positive self-reflection.
Pride (hubris) can cause us to purchase status-symbols, pursue higher status at the cost of others, prevent us from making humble, yet better decisions and act more for ourselves and for our identity than for the common good. Similar to the feathers of a peacock, we spend ludicrous amounts of money on things such as vehicles that are unnecessary, but that we think may be more appealing to members of the opposite sex or to prove manliness. It seems natural that religious moral philosophers, prophets, and teachers would notice these things and add them to their teachings and indeed they have. I may not believe the bible to be a reliable historical and factual document, but there are nuggets of truth and wisdom to be found in its pages. This is true for the writings of other religious systems as well.
Freedom from Sin
Can we ever be free from sin? In some ways it is extremely unlikely, but in other ways we are already free from sin.
It’s improbable that any human being will live a full lifetime without committing some wrongdoing against their fellow humans that is a result of our evolutionary baggage. We can work hard to minimize these behaviors as much as we can throughout our lives but odds are against us that we will ever be truly “free” from the biological tendencies we have inherited. Perhaps after another million years, future humans (which will definitely be a new species by then) will have lost those behaviors through evolution. Perhaps not.
But we are already free from the state of sin that religion tells us we inherited. We may be guilty of wrongdoings during our lives, but we don’t necessarily have to live in a constant state of guilt and repentance just for our very existence. We are free to handle each “sin” as we commit them. As I type this sentence, I am currently not guilty of doing anything wrong. I am not “in sin”. But later today I may make a mistake and do something hurtful to somebody. I must do my best to apologize, ask the person for forgiveness, do what I can to fix or mitigate damage that I have caused and then learn from the experience and take steps to prevent it from happening again. So we are free from inherited guilt. We aren’t guilty of anything until we’ve actually done something to be guilty for.
We are also free from any sin related to God. We are free to spend our time as we desire instead of spreading a religious message out of a sense of obligation or guilt. There is no such thing as “blasphemy” either. There are no “bad words” other than those that some human long ago decided was “bad”. There is no more Sabbath to honor. You are free to enjoy material things without fear of it becoming “worship”. Worship no longer exists. We are free to simply enjoy life and each other’s company.
We are free to love and accept each other regardless of gender, race and sexual orientation. We are free to accept the lives of homosexuals and transgenders. It is no longer an issue as long as it isn’t hurting anybody, which it isn’t. Such things were only ever considered “sinful” because they were behaviors not accepted or understood by the ancient cultures who wrote those laws. We are now free to love fully and completely without judgement.
“Sin” is biological. It is coded in our very DNA and has been a part of life on earth for millions if not billions of years. It is not our fault that we have inherited these tendencies, but it is most definitely our obligation to overcome them and make the world a better place for each subsequent generation.
We need to take care of each other and of our planet. We need to shed ourselves of our primitive tendencies for violence, prejudice and hubris, as well as our tendency for superstition and intolerance for those with different ideas. We need to love each other fully, support each other and aspire to do great things. We need to build each other up instead of tear each other down. We need to tighten the bonds of family and friendship.
Our evolutionary sin can be overcome with human love.