Sin is the Enemy

I had a bit of a breakthrough today. I now understand who (what) the enemy is. The enemy is not faith. Sorry to disagree with folks like Bill Maher, but the enemy is not religion.

The enemy is sin.

I don’t mean that you should try to live a sinless life, i.e. attempt to eradicate sinful behavior from your lifestyle. Nor should you abandon discretion and common sense and live a dissolute and reckless lifestyle. In other words, give in to sin. No, you should simply abandon the idea of sin, the idea that there is a vindictive, jealous and vengeful God who will wreak judgment upon those He finds displeasing. And that you can somehow please him by living in a particular manner.

Let’s examine that idea closely. Take the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal contained in 1 Kings 18:23-40. As this site indicates, this story is a favorite among Christians. Invariably, Christians spiritualize the story without really examining the events themselves. In the story, Elijah proves that Yahweh was the true God, whereas Baal was a false god. Elijah does so by miraculous means, and the way he does so is quite spectacular and rather amusing, no question. But look what happens afterwards:

And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there. (1 Kings 18:40 KJV)

Now, assuming you believe in God (which I certainly do much of the time), then you must have some internal concept of the nature of God. You probably believe that God is loving and compassionate. Let’s call this a Loving and Compassionate God, or L&CG.

Now, which of these two scenarios is more likely:

  • Elijah called fire down from heaven, which L&CG obligingly sent, thereby proving His existence and power in graphic terms. Elijah then proceeded to massacre a religious minority, with the explicit approval of L&CG.
  • Elijah orchestrated the massacre of a powerful religious minority for political gain. He then exploited his religious culture to justify his war crimes.

I don’t know about you, but I find the first scenario entirely less likely than the second one. Yes, Elijah may have existed. He even may have called down fire from heaven, although I seriously doubt it. What I do not doubt, however, is that the annihilation of a religious minority within ancient Israel (or anywhere else in history for that matter) is not, never has been, and never will be justified and endorsed by L&CG.

I came up with a hypothesis based upon this idea. The gist is that sin-based religion has caused more religious war, persecution, etc., than non-sin-based religion. It turns out that this is certainly true. Of the major world religions, the number one culprit in terms of causing religious war, persecution, etc., is Christianity, with about 15 million deaths. Islam is next, with between 8 and 9 million, except that most Islam-related religious wars also involved Christians. Thus, much of that has to be credited to Christianity as well. Everything else is noise.

Religions where sin is not a major feature (Hinduism and Buddhism being the two major world religions that fall into this category) do not figure in religious wars very much at all. If they appear, it is in a defensive role. Thus, Buddhists or Hindus will defend themselves, violently if necessary, when they are persecuted by another religion (usually Christians and Muslims). Typically, Christians or Muslims attempt to convert Hindus or Buddhists forcibly. This does result in resistance, understandably. Otherwise, the non-sin-based religions simply do not figure in religious wars very much.

Thus, it appears that my hypothesis is correct: It is not religion that dramatically increases human suffering. It is instead the concept of sin, with the associated idea of a vindictive, judgmental and vengeful God.

This gets played out in daily life of ordinary folks as well. Take this scenario. A small child is killed in some senseless and brutal manner. The parents are understandably devastated. A well-meaning but clueless religious person shows up, sees the pathetic scene, and says something like the following:

We just can’t know God’s plan. Although we don’t understand it, we have to accept that God knows best, and somehow this was the best thing for <fill in child’s name>. I mean, who knows, <fill in child’s name> might have turned away from God. By taking her now, God knew for sure that she would be in his loving embrace for all eternity. Maybe this is God’s perfect will.

I am not exaggerating here. I have been to many funerals that sounded just like this. And what has this religious leader just done? He or she has made God to blame for little <fill in child’s name>’s death, and the suffering of these poor parents, who must now try to worship a God who countenanced this obscene event.

In some cases, the opposite occurs. My cousin Monty was the most egregious example of which I ever heard. That happened fairly soon after I had just become a born-again Christian. Monty was a severe alcoholic who was separated from his wife, having multiple affairs, and died in a drunk driving accident in which he was at fault. In the process, he killed an entire innocent family. At his funeral, which I personally attended, the Baptist preacher said the following, more or less:

We can know for sure that Monty is in heaven today in the loving arms of Jesus. That’s because he came down the aisle in this very church at the age of 12 and accepted Jesus into his heart, and was baptized in this very church.

Now, if anyone ever arguably deserved to burn in Hell, Monty would be up there. He was a cad, no question. Not a lot in Monty’s life to admire. However, for me, given a choice of believing that Monty is burning in Hell or in the embrace of Jesus, I will go with neither.

Monty was broken. I am broken. You are broken. We are all in a terrible state. But that does not mean that there is a vengeful and jealous God who will condemn us when we die.

A few Christians are even beginning to embrace this idea. Take for example Rob Bell, a Christian I have thoroughly enjoyed. Rob seriously pissed off the Evangelical establishment when he announced that he no longer believed in Hell. He later recanted when faced with serious persecution, I suppose. The question that got him: If there is no sin, then why did Jesus die?

Why indeed?

Bad Sin

Sin is bad. I know what you are thinking: No kidding. Like I didn’t know that!

But that’s not what I mean. I need to be a bit more clear here.

What I am saying is that the concept of sin, i.e. the idea of a vengeful, legalistic God, who puts concrete requirements on human behavior, and punishes disobedience, is a pernicious, evil concept which leads to terrible consequences. Thus, it is the idea of sin that is bad, not any specific sin itself.

I have been living in the “no sin” state for a while. Bear in mind, I am not saying that I live a life of sinless perfection. (That would be delusional!) No, I am merely saying that I have abandoned the sin-based way of thinking. I no longer believe that there is a divine law which I am required to obey, or face divine justice.

In the process of abandoning the concept of sin, I have become aware of the effect that consciousness of sin had on me. If you believe in sin, you believe in a divine law. Thus, there is an objective, non-cultural standard for right and wrong, good and evil, etc. Here’s the rub: How do you decide what is the content of the law of God? In other words, who decides what is and is not legal?

Typically, in our history, that has been left to religious leaders to decide. And I was no exception. I bought what religious leaders taught me was right and wrong. I attempted to live a relatively sinless life, as that term was defined by my cultural context, in that case Evangelical Christianity. Other religions which assume the existence of a legalistic God are no different, though. Islam, from what I can tell, leads to a very similar place.

Giving someone else the power to decide what is and is not in compliance with the divine law is a very dangerous thing indeed. Especially if the law you are attempting to follow is from a completely different culture, geographic region, historical era, etc. Inevitably, you end up attempting to adapt the putative divine law from those conditions onto your current conditions, with often disastrous results.

Take slavery. Slavery is a well-understood anthropological phenomenon. Once neolithic cultures arose from pre-historical, paleolithic environments, then there was a huge increase in the number of available calories. That meant that part of the human society no longer needed to work on gathering food. This led to the development of government, religion, and the military. Early neolithic empires used soldiers armed with metal weapons to conquer and enslave the surrounding paleolithic humans (whom they regarded as “barbarians”). In the process, neolithic empires obtained access to a large number of captive humans.

What can you do with a captive human? You can kill him/her. But that has limited utility. How much better to force them to hang around and do stuff! Thus, slavery arose almost immediately in human history, following the neolithic revolution.

Once slavery took hold, it became a required part of life. The Roman Empire famously ran on slaves. Once all of the available surrounding cultures were conquered, and the supply of excess slaves dried up, Rome began to collapse. With slavery being the dominant way of organizing human activity in the ancient world, making it illegal under the “divine law” would be unthinkable.

Sure enough, various religious cultures have used their version of the divine law to justify the conquest and enslavement of surrounding primitive cultures. The Western European colonial expansion into the New World was depressingly typical. The annihilation of numerous primitive cultures was justified with the idea of winning new converts to Christ. Columbus’s voyage, for example, was underwritten by Queen Isabella of Spain, a devout Catholic. The explicit goal of the voyage was to find new converts to Christ, thereby increasing the glory of God, and of His faithful servant, i.e. Queen Isabella herself.

Further, the enslavement of Africans during the colonial period was justified using a silly and ridiculous reading of the book of Genesis. In Genesis 9:20-27 Noah prophesies a curse against his grandson Canaan, which includes these statements:

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

The Christian European invaders regarded the Africans as the descendants of Canaan, and thus naturally slaves to the other sons of Noah (notably themselves).

So there you have it: Giving the power to a religious leader to decide what is and is not in the law of God directly led to the institution of slavery, and the resulting enslavement of millions of primitive humans.

If that ain’t bad, I don’t know what is.