An atheist’s understanding of sin

Dear Lane,

I’ve been thinking about words like “sin” and “evil” lately, after hearing a couple of notable atheists say things like “there is no such thing as sin.” While I think I understand what they mean by that, it’s important to clarify, because a statement like that leaves an opening for a believer to argue that atheists are fundamentally amoral. So I’ve been thinking about moral values and human nature and goodness and badness and all that jazz.

When believers talk about sin, they’re usually using it in one of two ways. The first is a loose, general usage, referring to any kind of immoral, unethical, or God-defying behavior. While I may draw different lines of morality than they do, I certainly have some, and I have no problem denouncing people who cross them (though I prefer to do so with a liberal dose of care, understanding, and respect for their basic human rights.) I would never use the word “sin” because of its specifically religious baggage, but if someone describes a mass murder as a sinful act, I’m not going to quibble with them.

The second usage is more narrow and confined to religious theories — sin as in original sin, the notion that all humans are somehow fatally flawed, fallen from the divine glory, and (in the most extreme theologies) completely devoid of good, of wisdom, and of clear perception unless God gives it to them. That’s the kind of “sin” that I assume most atheists are denying, and I’ll stand right up there and deny it with them. It’s bunk, my friends. It’s a scam. The “sinful nature” concept allows religious leaders to discount all desires, ideas, and intuitions that might call their doctrines into question. It’s one of those circular, self-reinforcing ideas in Christianity that make it so hard to believe from the outside and so hard to stop believing from the inside.

Most of my believing friends who buy into the “sin” concept find ample evidence of it in their own lives. It’s not hard for them to see themselves as helplessly flawed, both in mind and in heart. We have conscious, somewhat rational minds, and behaviors that have been coded into our bodies since long before that consciousness developed. A human being is not ruled by their conscious mind, which creates uncomfortable conflicts within our desires, plans, and actions. St. Paul wrote, “I do not do what I want to do, and what I hate, that I do.” Most of us have this experience fairly often, and the “sin” concept provides an explanation for it, and an illusory way out.

Since we reject that notion, though, what can we say about the discomfort of those internal conflicts? Is there any solution, or alleviation of the strain? I think there is, but it can only come in the form of slow personal growth (which is the way it comes for believers, too, only they surround that growth in their myth). I don’t understand the mechanisms whereby conscious reflection influences semi-conscious patterns of behavior (does anybody, yet?), but it certainly seems to have some impact over the long term.

I have more to say about the process of personal growth and the foundations of morality, but they’ll wait for next time.