Rethinking Sin

Although for most Christians the Bible remains an essential source document for faith, many of the earlier literalistic Biblical assumptions are challenged by new understandings of culture and new findings in science. The early myths of creation and a primitive and a naive cosmology allowed for an Earth centred Universe (cf a literal Genesis creation) but the inventions of telescopes and new ways of systematically sharing emerging knowledge forced a rapid and relatively widespread rethink of the mechanisms and structure of a vast Universe.

Just as notions of ethics, of laws and of understanding of religious concepts like “Sin” have continually changed throughout the period in which our current Bibles were being written, assembled and edited, we should not be too surprised to find our notions are always incomplete and subject to change as new information comes to hand.

Slavery, despite being supported by a number of scriptures, is now seen as outmoded by most Christians as are explanations for disasters until recent centuries as interpreted as acts of God. Whereas disease might at one time have been passed off as retribution for sinful human behaviour by a vengeful God, modern understanding from areas like genetics and microbiology are now much more commonly preferred. While there is considerable debate about the relative weighting of biological and environmental factors in choices relating to sexual preference and even xenophobia it is becoming increasingly clear that we are not equally free to make deliberate choices in such areas.

Some of this change in understanding has been slow in arriving if only because brain research is complicated and as a consequence it has taken a long time to lay to rest notions like evil spirits controlling behaviour.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that the understanding of free will is found to be far more interdependent on a myriad of external and biochemical factors than was previously thought to be the case. Some of the consequent mind shifts have begun to undermine the most pervasive articles of faith, and this brief paper seeks to suggest how one of these faith assumptions, the concept of Sin, has to undergo considerable rethinking.

In centuries past it was assumed that Sin was any deliberate and chosen behaviour which somehow offended God and which, if not addressed by appropriate confession and religious response, would result in eternal punishment.

Although some sincere believers continue to hold to this view it predates an unfolding understanding of the myriad causes of behaviour.
A very quick overview of some of the main causes of behaviour suggests that many causes are not strictly controllable and certainly far from being deliberately chosen.

It is now relatively widely believed that because the human species shares much of the history and survival problems of related species that some of our species behavioural characteristics are firmly in-built to make it possible to survive in competition. For example, our brains are built around the same pattern as many other mammals and the inner part of the brain where we find the brain stem gives automatic responses to a range of conditions.

Like other mammals we respond to environmental triggers. The flight or fight response to danger is virtually automatic whether we have thought about it or not. Belligerent behaviour may seem undesirable in a modern community setting but as a behaviour which would have provided protection against potential enemies it would have been greatly valued by small tribal groups.

While society sees belligerence as undesirable for the smooth working of modern society it seems odd to assume a God who is often credited with the creation of the human species would want to punish such characteristics that helped the species survive through the ages. Even a modern society expects a proportion of its members to exhibit such warlike tendencies in response to external threats which is presumably why killing members of opposing nations in times of war is not considered sinful and even elevated to being seen as noble and essential.

Our species has survived because we take advantage of available food and some obesity is probably partly a consequence of a relatively new phenomenon of more food being available than would have been the case for our predecessors.

Again, the urge to procreate was essential for species survival, and again for many centuries, this behaviour must have been selected with few social controls since marriage is a comparatively modern concept. I am certainly not against modern laws designed to control those misusing sexual urges. I can understand a society now wishing to have associated behaviour under strict control. However I cannot understand why such an evolutionary advantageous set of behaviours should have been thought to have offended a God to the point of condemning those with such desires to eternal damnation.

Hopefully learned social responses can make society a happier and more secure setting for its members, but we also now know that natural genetic damage and/or external factors often result in behaviour outside an individual’s control. For example a child born with foetal alcohol syndrome is hardly responsible for a mother’s inappropriate choices. When the mother contracts a disease with implications for a developing child eg German measles, again it would seem curious if either the mother or the child should be blamed for the results.

We probably all know elderly people whose behaviour seems inappropriate as long term wear and tear to the brain removes the ability to control. Again it would seem strange if the inappropriate behaviour was seen as sinful and deserving of eternal punishment particularly where the damage is measurable and beyond the individual’s control. We now know that some aggression is directly related to some physiological brain changes.

A one clear behavioural example of this is fronto-temporal dementia. It is a neurological disorder (most often due to a specific mutation) in which disintegration of the frontal cortex occurs. Similarly tumours in the frontal cortex have been associated with some forms of paedophilia while imbalances of oestrogen and testosterone can result in aberrant sexual behaviour.

Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin (and a host of more recently discovered neurotransmitters) can alter behaviour and when the neurotransmitter mechanism is faulty or when it is misled by foreign material eg drugs or alcohol, addictions can be set in place. As we review what is now known about the biological and environmental associations with deviant behaviour, the notion of assuming that undesirable behaviour should be interpreted as intentionally chosen sin is far less plausible and further from simple resolution than the traditional church teachings imply. We now know that many of the reasoning processes occur in different parts of the brain to those affected by addiction and therefore addictions are not always successfully dealt with by reasoning or counselling.

Just as courses are now arranged for judges to show them how deviant behaviour is sometimes beyond the control of offenders, I would like to suggest that such information should increasingly shared with those in the Church who are expected to give guidance for those ministered by the Church. I also suspect that theologians need to seek a scientific review of the factors leading to deviant behaviour before instituting a series of studies to discover how much of traditional concepts of sin are still worth retaining.

Please note that this does not imply we don’t need laws or require legal sanctions to help control order in society.  In general our laws are introduced to discourage undesirable behaviour which threatens the smooth running of a community.   The fact that that we need laws in the first place is clear evidence that many in the community are at risk of offending against public order if left to their own devices.  In addition a Christian would presumably be anxious to incorporate the sort of principles Jesus taught into their chosen life style.   Where we may find it more difficult is first to reach consensus on which if any sins lie outside the legal system and second to reach agreement about what Divine judgement is supposed to mean.

Some Questions for Discussion
1. Is sin an appropriate label for homosexuality?
2. Do the clergy have a role to play in helping mitigate the damage caused by deviant behaviour?
3. Can sin be redefined in such a way as to take into account of modern developments in science?
4. How should the known causes of socially deviant behaviour be taken into account by the Justice system?

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