Add yet another false dichotomy and violation of Occam’s Razor to the popular religious discourse. In the article Why Americans Dismiss Sin, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie decries the idea that sin is largely absent from the public dialogue. He lists a number of reasons why he thinks this is the case, concluding that “Our culture pushes us to cast aside responsibility and to find others to blame.” He is pretty firm on this, concluding his article thus:
“Absent sin, we are not responsible. Absent sin, there is no moral precision. Absent sin, there is no moral judgment. Absent sin, there can be no forgiveness.”
It would be a good idea to define the thing we’re really talking about here, and Yoffie does give us his definition. “Sin is what results when a human being chooses evil rather than good. It is the consequence of violating transcendent values.” He also notes that, “Jews and Christians, to be sure, do not understand sin in precisely the same way, but both see it as a foundational theological category.”
So here are the problems. First, it is not necessary to invoke the language of religion to have a discussion about or to practice personal responsibility, moral precision, forgiveness, or acknowledging our weaknesses. There have always been people who willingly violate social norms, customs and laws, and there always will be. His list of cultural explanations is only the latest set of excuses, or rather the same ol’ set dressed in modern clothes.
It is not an either/or choice between personal responsibility or sin unless one wants to actually define sin as the avoidance of personal responsibility, making it sin by definition, but Yoffie does not do that. He clearly says that it is the violation of transcendent values, an idea for which there is zero evidence and infinite disagreement. If Jews and Christians “do not understand sin in precisely the same way” then whose transcendent values shall we use, and what of other faith systems’ transcendent values? Perhaps Yoffie does not care about these differences as long as we acknowledge and deal with sin for what it is. Is it not enough to be aware of and acknowledge our avoidance of personal responsibility and to purpose to do better without invoking “sin” the way Yoffie defines it? In seeking forgiveness, is it not enough to feel remorse for harming others or not acting from a place of love, acting from a place where the flourishing of human beings and our relationships is not paramount?
I am not suggesting that there is no wrong-doing, but that the standard for judging wrong-doing should not be someone’s idea of a transcendent value system for which there is neither any evidence or societal consensus. I fail to live up to my own standards all the time, but I appeal to the well-being of human beings, informed by our understanding of the world, informed by science and my conscience, codified however imperfectly in our laws as the standard, not to theology. Where a theological transcendent value system also results in the thriving of human beings I have no conflict, at least as far as the results go. But neither is there any Jewish or Christian value that supports the well-being of humans that originated with and is unique to the theology. It always has its roots somewhere else. Whence transcendence?
On the other hand, theological value systems often do not support the flourishing of human beings as we see today for example, in the discourse on same sex marriage and gay rights, as Yoffie rightly points out. The only reason the religious give for their opposition is that it is based on revelation, a transcendent value for which the religious need no further justification.
Sin also comes to us with a good deal of baggage. It is not possible to have a discussion of sin without also invoking hell and divine eternal judgment. Perhaps there are enough of the theologically liberal who do not believe in a literal hell to move past those ideas (or in the case of many Jews, never had a hell story or afterlife integrated into their theology). It does seem awkward to dispense with the idea of hell and eternal divine judgement but still speak in terms of sin, at least for Christians. This is a country where more than 40% of the population believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old and was created in six days and presumably also believe in a literal hell, so dispensing with the whole language of “sin,” and its fiery brimstone partners is not only appropriate but necessary, at least for clarity.
The false dichotomy lies in asserting two sides of a coin or a continuum for which acceptance of personal responsibility is on one end and “sin” on the other. The other end of the the continuum is not sin but simply not accepting personal responsibility. The standard for whether that has negative consequences or not is the well-being of sentient beings, not observance of a transcendent value system (and it is clear that there are situations where assuming responsibility for acts is actually the wrong thing to do). Injecting the dynamics of a transcendent value system unnecessarily multiplies variables and complicates the human experience and processes of self-examination and reflection, remorse, humility, diligence, forgiveness, and love. The lack of motivation to love or to assume more responsibility for one’s actions is not helped by bringing the idea of sin back into the vernacular.
Yoffie begins his article by asserting that “To talk of religion without reference to sin is absurd,” and it may well be, at least for the Abrahamic religions. I would submit though, that to talk of personal responsibility without reference to religion is preferable. Not only does it simplify the dialogue, it is based on reason rather than revelation, I believe it is more effective and, if you will forgive me, it covers a multitude of sins, or if not a multitude at least the false dichotomy and the violation of Occam’s Razor.