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Chapter 13: What Sin Is and What It Is Not

Question F: How do unbelievers try to account for sin?

1. Although the world views of those who do not believe in God have no place for sin as separation from God, the reality of moral evil in the world still demands an explanation. For most modern nonbelievers, some form of secular humanism takes the place of Christian faith, and secular humanist ideologies explain away moral evil by denying free choice.9 The evil which Christians consider irreducibly moral is accounted for in nonmoral terms.

2. Many provide a naturalistic account of the human condition and of human action. Some say humankind has only recently evolved from lower forms, and all nonrational tendencies are exclusively a residue of earlier stages. Some, Sigmund Freud among them, claim that the pressures of civilization—an environment literally without precedent in biological history—generate the conflicts we experience.10 Others, such as John Dewey, hold that what Christians consider moral evil should be regarded as a crisis of development, which poses a challenge for human intelligence. If we solve our problems, evolution will continue; if not, the human race will become extinct.11

3. Marxists also explain evil in deterministic terms—that is, they deny wrong free choices. Marxism has a naturalistic basis; it claims to be a science of history and society, and places special emphasis on social structures and economic factors. In its view, the source of all difficulty is scarcity, which has led to economic systems with class divisions and oppression.12 More than other naturalists, Marxists analyze in great detail—and sometimes with acuteness—the permeating distortions which social injustices bring into every aspect of life.

4. Many secular humanists try to account for the unsatisfactory character of the human condition mainly in terms of ignorance and error. Thus knowledge is the solution. For Freud, insight can cure neurosis. For Dewey, progressive education can liberate intelligence to solve problems. For many other modern thinkers, the obliteration of religious belief and superstition—similar forms of error, in their view—will enable science to prevail over human misery. In the age of science, it is believed, what formerly was considered sin and the effects of sin will be subject to healing and repair, much as one heals an infection with an antibotic or repairs the heart by replacing a valve.

5. Atheistic existentialists also deny free choice and personal responsibility. Some talk extensively about freedom, but “freedom” in one of the other senses distinguished earlier (2‑C), not the freedom of self-determination. Nietzsche, for instance, is mainly concerned with creative freedom; for him, what is bad are the mediocrity and stodginess routinely accepted by most people.13 Heidegger develops an elaborate metaphysical description of the human in which he uses traditional moral language; but his thought has no place for objective moral norms based on human goods, and he substitutes aesthetic for moral responsibility, demanding that humankind make something of itself. He attributes failure to respond to this demand for creativity to lack of metaphysical insight rather than wrong choice.14

6. No matter how they explain the phenomena of sin, when they speak of immorality contemporary nonbelievers are usually thinking of conventional morality. They equate morality with the norms more or less generally accepted in a given society. “Sin” is deviant behavior. Although they criticize conventional morality to some extent—as a product of collective neurosis (Freudians) or a tool of oppressors (Marxists)—to some extent they also reinforce it. For example, both Marxists and liberal secular humanists reinforce the conventional morality which justifies killing unborn babies to solve personal and social problems.

For the most part, the social sciences in the liberal, democratic nations are dedicated to helping the established social order solve its problems and maintain itself more or less intact. From this point of view, what formerly was considered sin appears as deviant behavior. A person who does not fit into the society, who annoys others, who behaves contrary to the common norms of conventional morality is a nuisance and a trouble maker. Various methods of social control, both formal (such as the criminal process) and informal (such as public education), are used to try to engineer the desired level of conformity.

In carrying out this undertaking, several of the accounts of sin discussed above are very widely used. For example, psychology is widely used to treat supposed ills; information is provided to help people satisfy their desires in socially acceptable ways (for example, children are taught to avoid venereal disease and pregnancy); social and economic structures are tinkered with by the use of government funds and agencies of regulation (for example, in adjusting welfare programs).

This state of affairs is not as absurd as it appears to many persons of Christian faith who view the inept efforts of social engineering as presumptuous Pelagianism—that is, as an effort to attain salvation from sin by purely human means. In the first place, social engineering is not directed to salvation; it is based on a denial of free choice and the reality of sin. The aim of those working for social control is simply the elimination of troublesome, deviant behavior. No Christian ought to confuse this objective, whatever one thinks of it, with the redemption accomplished by God in Jesus. In the second place, much of the deviation which the social engineer wants to eliminate is not immoral human action. The standards of conventional morality diverge greatly from moral truth; they establish the workable, livable level of immorality necessary for a moderately satisfactory, this-worldly existence for fallen humankind. Deviation from these conventional standards often is the result of psychological illness, ignorance, especially unfavorable environment, and so on.

Conventional morality also is criticized by proponents of contemporary philosophies and ideologies. In many cases, conventional morality has a mixture of Christian moral teaching, and many people utterly confuse the two. Secular humanists tend to confuse Christian morality with whatever they were told was Christian morality when they were young. Hence, criticism of conventional morality often is thought to be criticism of Christian morality, and defects discovered in conventional morality often are mistakenly regarded as errors in Christian teaching.

Christians ought to examine in the light of faith the argument between critics and defenders of conventional morality. Some behavior which is deviant by the standards of conventional morality does manifest sin; some of the social order protected by conventional morality also manifests sin; the philosophies and ideologies used by secular humanist critics of conventional morality themselves serve as elaborate systems for rationalizing sin. Marxism, for example, serves to rationalize the dehumanization it works—amply documented by critics such as Solzhenitsyn. Freudian psychology owes its fascination partly to its utility in rationalizing sexual sins.

9. On determinist theories and their account of morality: Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Germain Grisez, and Olaf Tollefsen, Free Choice: A Self-Referential Argument (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976), 48–103. A splendid treatment of the metaphysical foundations of contemporary atheism: Cornelio Fabro, God in Exile: Modern Atheism: A Study of the Internal Dynamic of Modern Atheism, from Its Roots in the Cartesian “Cogito” to the Present Day, trans. and ed. Arthur Gibson (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1968), 629–938.

10. For an introduction to the thought of Sigmund Freud as an alternative world view to Christian morality, see Luther J. Binkley, Conflict of Ideals: Changing Values in Western Society (New York: Van Nostrand, Reinhold, 1969), 84–106; Erich Fromm’s contemporary development of Freud’s thought also is summarized by Binkley, 106–23. Freud himself summed up his view: Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), 64–80 (chaps. 6 and 7).

11. A very readable introduction to his entire system of thought: John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, enlarged ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957). A more technical work, essential to understand Dewey’s thought as an alternative to Christian morality: Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1922), esp. 248–332.

12. Binkley, op. cit., 44–83, provides a basic introduction to Marxism from the relevant viewpoint, with helpful references to primary and secondary literature. Unfortunately, no single work of Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels summarizes their world view as an alternative to Christian morality. A more sophisticated introduction to Marxist thought, with critique: Louis Dupré, The Philosophical Foundations of Marxism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), 213–30.

13. Binkley, op. cit., 144–59, provides a simple introduction. The most relevant and representative work of Nietzsche for comparison with Christian morality: The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1954), 565–656.

14. For an introduction to Heidegger: Thomas Langan, The Meaning of Heidegger: A Critical Study of an Existentialist Phenomenology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), esp. 201–38. The central, relevant segment of the basic work: Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 312–48. The most relevant brief work of Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 193–242.