Monday, June 27, 2005

The Sin Fetish

Religion, like sex, is generally a very personal matter, and by its nature it tends to defy easy definition. This, of course, has not stopped people from trying, and if there is any one thing that has distinguished religion in the common era (CE or AD) from that of before the common era (BC or BCE), it is the tremendous amount of effort that has gone into defining religious things, organizing them into stricter and stricter dogmas.

The effect of this, historically, has been to make religions rigid, and it has created the need to enforce orthodoxy and stamp out diversities of opinion. Rather than claiming to touch on truths, religions these days often tend to speak in the singular: TRUTH. There is only one, they claim, one correct way of defining the divine, one correct way of viewing the universe. As this attitude festers, it tends to become aggressive, and inquisitions and crusades and jihads result. Religion, which can serve to liberate the human spirit, which can help heal suffering and provide meaning in what often seems a meaningless existence, becomes instead a tool of power and control, and it winds up adding to human misery rather than alleviating it.

The big tool in the toolchest of this sort of religion (which is, thank God, not the only sort of religion out there) is of course the concept of sin. This is not to say that sin is merely an invention of oppressive religion, for there is ample evidence of an inherent moral code in most human beings, even if they act against it. We do know the difference between right and wrong most of the time, even when we do bad things. Were there no inherent moral code, it is hard to see how human societies could function at all, and it is no coincidence that those societies which abandon moral codes completely tend to collapse or survive only with significant outside aid. One need not be religious to be moral, as ethical atheists prove every day.

When it comes to the idea of sin, few groups seem more enthusiastic about the matter than the Roman Catholic Church. This organization seems to love the idea of sin, seems to love defining it. A summation of Catholic sins given at the St. Thomas Aquinas Forum shows us that the church has grouped them into two broad categories: Mortal and Venial. Mortal sins, of course, are the really bad ones, and if you die having committed a mortal sin, apparently even a single mortal sin, you get to suffer in hell for all eternity at the hand of your loving God, even if you rescued Jews from the Holocaust or saved a million babies from starvation. A venial sin doesn't exclude you from heaven, but it's still bad. Maybe it warrants only a spanking or something like that.

Mortal sins, of course, get the most attention. Many seem to be based on interpretations of the Ten Commandments. I won't outline them all here, but will instead focus on a few features of them.

First, the commandments that get the most attention in the summation are #5 (You shall not kill) and #6 (You shall not commit adultery). Unfortunately, #5 is a mistranslation: correctly, the Hebrew reads: "You shall not commit murder". From #5 we are told that murder, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are sins, and there is some logic to this, since each of these things can be interpreted as a form of murder. Of course, so too can hunting, eating vegetables, and fighting off an infection, since the commandment does not specify humans, particularly if you use the translation of "you shall not kill".

Other sins based on #5 include scandal, drug abuse, gluttony, alcohol abuse, terrorism, extreme anger, hatred and extortion. I don't know if blackmail falls under extortion or not. What's odd, though, is that although each of these things can be considered bad and immoral, among them only terrorism by its nature actually involves murder. The others can lead to death, but they don't have to.

Notably absent from these varied definitions of sin is war. While this might at first seem odd, the sad truth is that Christian and Catholic history are both quite bloody, and even the current Pope has argued that:

"Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."

"You shall not kill" or "you shall not murder" apparently don't always apply if you use enough bombs. "Onward Christian Soldiers" and all that.

Now #6, "you shall not commit adultery" includes adultery, which is what it says, and then a whole host of other things that seem to be related to adultery only in that they involve sex or marriage: divorce, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape, homosexual acts, incest, and masturbation. Now, some of these things are very bad things because they have clearly defined victims: rape and very often incest cause real harm and are usually the result of the abuse of power in one form or another. Divorce, on the other hand, has no clear victim and can be used to end an abusive marriage (note that spousal abuse does not seem to be on the list of mortal sins, unless it leads to one like rape or murder). Fornication can be a bad idea, as can prostitution, and if one of those involved is married, then both can constitute adultery.

But pornography, homosexual acts, and masturbation? Yes, all can be harmful in excess, but so too can religious devotion, as Jim Jones and David Koresh clearly showed. And the simple fact is that human beings are sexual, and that these are forms of sexual expression that need not produce victims. And to judge by the regularity of sex scandals within Christian organizations, repression hardly seems likely to eliminate the excesses that do occur.

There are more sins, of course, so many so that I can't recount them all in the space of this single essay. Suffice it to say that Reverend Lovejoy's remark to Marge Simpson is not far off the mark: "Marge, just about everything is a sin. Y'ever sat down and read this thing? Technically, we're not allowed to go to the bathroom."

The question is: Why? Given the almost fetishistic obsession with sin given by the Catholic Church and a huge number of Evangelical Protestants, one can't help but wonder if many Christians (and others in other faiths that do the same thing) aren't actually getting off on sin somehow. Note that the site from which I got the list of Catholic sins has no corresponding page detailing Catholic virtues (though it does have one on grace, which is not the same thing, and one on faith, one on Original Sin complete with a total misreading of what the book of Genesis actually says about the matter, another on angels, justification, redemption, and the position of the Church on controversial topics). The site also has, of course, lots of discussion about those the Church regards as its enemies, which seems to broadly be anyone who embraces modernity.

But I think the main reason isn't fetishistic but rather that it is political. The Catholic Church has through most of its history been a political instrument first and foremost, as have many other churches. By deciding that the church has the divine power to define sin, it gives itself the power to control the lives of its members, which is all the more disturbing given the use of forced conversions in Christian history, a trend that continues today through the use of extortion: Christ is the only way to salvation, and the only way to get Christ's support is to do what the church leadership tells you to do.

The church leadership, mind you. Not Jesus. A quick look at the citations in the list of sins given above shows us that only a minority come from the Gospels; most are from Paul and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). The simple fact is that the Bible itself doesn't actually mention many things defined as sins (such as masturbation), or mentions them only briefly (homosexuality).

So I confess that I find it impossible to see the exaltation of sin that dominates so much Christian thinking today as anything more than an effort to restore the political power that Christian churches had before the rise of secularism. You know the sort of power I mean, I'm sure: the power to make war, the power to persecute, the power to sell indulgences, the power to hold inquisitions and kill and torture Jews and heretics, the power to enslave Native Americans and Black Africans, the power to silence dissent and to tell boldfaced lies about science and medicine, and so on.

What I don't see is why anyone would consider such a grab for power to be moral. I somehow doubt Jesus would see it that way, since he spent most of his time talking about compassion, peace and love. What a weirdo, huh?


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