First, the nonsense: original sin.
Much of the Christian world believes that a talking snake convinced Adam and Eve to eat a piece of fruit forbidden by God, who then became so angry that he condemned all humankind to be born with what Christians call “original sin.” But then came the “good news”: God’s sinless son, Jesus, who is also God, paid a brief visit to earth to redeem us for that sin committed by Adam and Eve. So God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself, and when we die we will be rewarded or punished for eternity based on whether or not we believe this unbelievable story.
But rather than just make fun of such fables, I also think it’s important to read the Bible and try to understand why it has so deeply influenced our culture. Even non-religious people can find meaningful messages in “holy” books. In a previous piece, I gave a few moral lessons from the Bible, including the snake fable. My take was that Adam and Eve were correct to follow the snake’s advice to eat forbidden fruit in order to gain knowledge, because ignorance is not bliss and blind obedience is not a supreme virtue.
The concept of sin has evolved beyond the so-called “original” one. In Orthodox Judaism, the religion in which I was raised, I was taught that sin is violating any of the 613 Commandments found in the Hebrew Bible. Some seem reasonable (don’t murder, steal, or lie), some seem silly (don’t mix wool and cotton; don’t eat meat with milk), and some impossible (offering animal sacrifices at a Temple in Jerusalem that no longer exists). But at least we had a choice about whether to sin, rather than having been born with it.
My wife, Sharon, who grew up Catholic and is now an atheist, recalls how frightened she was as a child when she was required to go into a shadowy booth with a man hidden behind a screen and told to confess her sins. In order to comply with the pressure, even when she had no sins to confess, she made them up, like saying she had lied to her mother when she hadn’t. At the time, young Sharon failed to see the irony of committing the sin of lying to a Father (priest) about lying to her mother. Sharon’s early life was filled with warnings and worries about sin in all its many Catholic categories, including mortal, venial, and occasions of sin, which threatened to send her to hell, or at least purgatory after death.
Sin is sometimes described as an offense against God or as violating an individual’s relationship with God. By these definitions, I‘m pleased to say that this atheist is sinless. There is no such thing as sin for atheists, if sin is about doing something that displeases an imaginary figure. However, sins can be whatever religious figures say they are. Eating meat on Friday used to be a sin for Catholics, but no longer is.
My secular definition of sin, which could serve as a workable guideline for both theists and atheists, is hurting people, animals, and the environment. Those uncomfortable with the s-word can still be comfortable with a guideline.
A larger challenge for me this time of year is to come up with a secular version of Lent.
Several years ago, I asked a Catholic friend what he was giving up for Lent. He said that Catholics don’t just give things up; they take on positive actions, too. That sounded reasonable, but when I asked what positive thing he would be doing, he smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m giving up smoking for Lent.” (When Lent ended, he resumed smoking.)
I also have an Orthodox Jewish friend who was a chain smoker six days a week, but abstained on Saturday because it was a sin to ignite a fire. Interestingly, both my Catholic and Orthodox Jewish friends had a greatly diminished desire to smoke when they had a religious incentive to refrain.
As an atheist, during Lent I can’t forget that some people are fasting or denying themselves harmless pleasures because of atonement for Adam’s original sin, while others might be actively engaged in positive actions that I admire. If, for example, a group of Christians decides to help homeless people during Lent, I’d be pleased to see atheists join the project because it’s the right thing to do. Incentives to break bad habits and form good habits might be stronger for some during a special time of year, but that could lead to theists and atheists working together more frequently at any time of year.
Christians often say that they “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Based on some of their actions, usually pertaining to the LGBT community, I suspect that some Christians hate both. As for me, I hope atheists will look for ways to love and work with well-intentioned people — including people who believe in original sin. We can respect individuals without respecting their strange theologies.