Sin responsibly

You know how people, after reaching a rock bottom point in their lives, often find religion? You know, the old redemption and salvation story.  They have had evil done to them, did evil themselves, but now they walk the righteous path!  It’s a powerful narrative, and the times it has been utilized in story-telling (both in text and in personal behavior) are countless. It’s a ubiquitous narrative structure of religion, literature, and personal psychology.

In sort, it’s one of the most fundamental aspects of being human.

Now, I could go on about how this narrative is flawed, especially in how it is utilized by religion as a vehicle for more than mere narrative, but of actual truth, but that’s obvious and banal.  Besides, many atheist commentators have made that point numerous times, and blogs which keep pestering the same points get stale after a while.

So, how about this; Let’s try and take that narrative and fit it onto a different vehicle.  Let’s see how, perhaps, this narrative relates to how we create a false dichotomy in terms of relationships, specifically when it comes to cheating and exclusive commitments.

Similar to the penitent sinner, there is the repentant adulterer.  Yes, there are the people who have cheated and who try and commit themselves to being successfully monogamous, but I’m interested in the less obvious versions of this story.  I’m interested in a story of the person who struggles with the desire to cheat, and who fights of this desire with an ideal of monogamy and exclusivity.  I imagine that this struggle has many facets that we would recognize in man other tropes, including many “romantic” ideals which include concepts such as “one true love,” “soul mate,” and “belonging” to someone.

Somehow, the natural, and undoubtedly widespread, inclination to be attracted to many types of people is shrugged off by rationalizing some special exceptionalism or superficial romantic notion of exclusivity by people who are struggling to fit into respectable expectations.  To fit in.  They see their desire as a roadblock, rather than as an alternate route.  They probably don’t even see the path less traveled.  They see the road, the obstacle, but not the other lanes of traffic.

Why is this narrative so clean and obvious in our culture? Is it as simple as the fact that many cultural forces, including the conservative influence of religion, have tried to battle our animal nature, trying to beat the swords of our lust into ploughshares of civil monogamy?  Is it as simple as groupthink and herd behavior?

In today’s cultural and political climate, “family” (usually meaning a man and a woman who have children) is often held up to be the foundation of our society and culture.  This structure, solidified in monogamy, sexual exclusivity and (ultimately) ownership, is thought to be what holds all of this together.  If it disappeared, it would lead to anarchy (“yay” the anarchists may say).

So to not struggle against our instincts is to invite destruction.  Not merely of our relationships and our personal salvation and redemption story, but to that of our entire society.  This is why I think that the insights of both atheism and polyamory, founded by skepticism (the method, not the community), are so radical.  They question the very dichotomy of not only our instincts with many assumed ideals, but they present an alternative perspective through which to view these instincts.  They seek to deconstruct the problem, very much in the tradition of the best of postmodern criticism (yes, there are good aspects to postmodernism, believe it or not!) so that we can see the problem from a different perspective.

At bottom, the answer is not to repress, struggle against, or transcend our instincts, but rather to find a way to make our instincts the fuel for creating a responsible, mature, and enjoyable life.  The answer to desire is not always denial; sometimes it’s merely to re-think the nature of that desire in terms of what is possible, even if not popular or easy.  Our instincts are not good nor are they bad, but they are real and they will continue to pester us, so we might as well get comfortable with that.  And since we are getting comfortable with them, we will have to live with giving them some limitations, boundaries, and maybe even rules.

Monogamy is not the answer to variety of sexual and romantic desire.  Monogamy is the answer to a genuinely limited set of such desires.  Monogamy is what happens when happiness involves one person.  Religion is not the answer to our metaphysical needs (cf Nietzsche).  Religion is only such an answer when it happens to be true (and unlike monogamy, religion may never fit this bill.  That is, monogamy may be rational, but religion may never be so).

We have the capability to re-define things such as “family,” “commitment,” and “love” to be broader than the exclusive and restrictive definitions which are common today.  We, if we are to care about progress over the conservative impulses of some of our culture (conserving a system that simply does not work), must continue to demonstrate that progress is not only inevitable, but that it is morally superior.

We should be struggling along with our instincts and desires, rather than against them.  It’s not only a pragmatic strategy, but an authentic (and thus moral) one.

In short, keep sinning because it’s not actually a sin.  But do it responsibly.

Atonement and Monogamy as Impossible Ideals

As a student of anthropology, I think a lot about cultural constructs which permeate our lives, most of which are pretty invisible to us most of the time.  From an early age I was fascinated with the various institutions of religion, as well as the many more personal spiritual ideologies people espouse, and the various psychological and sociological structures which surround them.  Later on, I started thinking about similar aspects of how we think about sex and relationships, and eventually found many similarities between how we think about gods, spirits, and sex.  This is no surprise since one of the best ways for religions to hold our attention is to demand certain behaviors is to hold us hostage with fears about our deepest inclinations; sex is a great example of this.

In religion, there is this idea of atonement.  It comes in many forms from many theological systems, but it is basically the way that we come to make amends with some supernatural or natural power.  Whether we have to deal with a fundamental brokenness in our nature, some separation, or lack of enlightenment (to only scratch the surface of ways religious ideas deal with this atonement thing) from the power we seek atonement with, there is a set of actions and beliefs which we must do or have in order to reach some ideal relationship with the universe, deity, or ourselves.

Tantalus perpetually reaching for fruit and water he will never grasp

It is my view that the religions which survive best find a balance of difficulty and comprehensibility in the ideals it sets up.  Adherents must be, like the  Tantalus of Greek mythology, perpetually reaching for this ideal of atonement which they cannot really achieve, but it must be something they can imagine as a logically possible thing to have.  Sure, people can think that they have achieved the goal (as many Christians believe they are saved), but the scriptures and religious leaders will always mention that this is pride, or something similar in order to keep them in check.

Opposed, conceptually, to atonement is some detriment presented as part of our nature or circumstance.  We stand unenlightened, sinful, or separated from some god(s), knowledge, or understanding and we will remain there until we atone, repent, or whatever must be done to solve this problem, heal this sickness, etc.  As Christopher Hitchens said many times,

Even the most humane and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us, in Fulke Greville‘s unforgettable line, “Created sick — Commanded to be well.”

The bottom line here is that there is a tendency in human worldviews, whether religion or otherwise, to present a highly unlikely ideal against some much more likely, and often repugnant, set of behaviors or beliefs which we must be encouraged away from.


The sin of non-monogamy and the atonement with The One.

There is a mainstream view of sex and relationships, here in the modern west and most other developed nations, with monogamy as the ideal relationship type.  The majority of cultures have some version of this practice, and it’s major competitor is some kind of patriarchal polygamy.  Polyandry or true sexual/relationship equality is rare and considered aberrational when it occurs.  It took quite a while before we would have a sexual revolution, and with it true freedom started to become part of our cultural consciousness.

And yet even still there exists within our sexually liberated world a distinction between studs and sluts; men are expected to be promiscuous, women are often valued for their “purity.”  These promiscuous men and these sluts are expected, or at least encouraged, to eventually outgrow this part of their life and find The One, or at least settle for A One.

Do you believe that lifelong monogamy is a realistic expectation for a married couple? (click for context and details)

For most people who have a period of sexual liberation, it ends with the attempt to reach an ideal of monogamy. Men and women may be expected to have sexual experiences in their teenage years and into their 20’s, but eventually most people expect them to settle down.  “Settling down” means taking relationships seriously, and usually means exclusivity, marriage, and monogamy.  So while we are liberated as a culture in terms of having sex before we “get serious,” get serious we should, because seriousness means exclusivity and exclusivity is good.

The fallen circumstance, or nature, which even our progressive culture patiently tolerates for is one of promiscuity.  But this sexually liberated part of our lives is held against a stable future ideal of monogamy.   The holy grail of relationships, The One, is presented against the superficial and regrettable reality of youthful promiscuity.  This One is The  person with whom we can have a real relationship, rather than failing perpetually hopping from one insignificant relationship to another (sometimes at the same time!).

A mnemonic device I learned years ago about the word atone was that you can break it down into at+one.  In other words, especially for many Christian traditions, the goal was to work to become at one with some god or another.  All of our other inclinations, not having to do with this atonement, should be secondary to that relationship of working towards chasing that ideal, because nothing was more important than that.  Monogamy has taken a similar place in our culture as that ideal of religious atonement; the sinful and superficial world of sex, lust, and other failings of human behavior are presented against an ideal of monogamy.  That is, even liberal society maintains this ideal, even though that liberality allows sexual promiscuity, co-habitation before marriage, etc.  Anything that looks like monogamy, even if it isn’t really marriage, is what we should be striving for.  The difference here between mainstream conservatives and liberals on this issue is how we get to monogamy, not whether that is the goal.

This shows me that culture tends to be truly human (all too human!) and tends to have worldviews which are conservative even when we are progressive (I actually argue that today’s liberals are tomorrow’s conservatives, because the mainstream is largely conservatives concerning ideals).  We conserve ideals, even as our values shift.  So, even as we become increasingly liberal as a society in terms of seeing redemption and atonement in looser and looser terms, we hold onto the ideal itself.  Liberal views about the supernatural and what we should be doing with our lives changes in terms of the details of the path to get there, but the destination does not really change.  This is one of the greatest failings of most of mainstream liberal culture; it does not seek to question the ideals, assumptions, and goals of our worldviews.


Ideals Worth Wanting

What should be the strength of progressive culture, or perhaps a radical culture, is the re-valuing of our values.  We need to evaluate what is worth valuing, not what we should change in terms of how to get to our Heavens, Nirvanas, or other paradises whether they be otherworldly or physical.  The question is not how we can get to paradise or what we are allowed to do before we settle into monogamy, the issue is why do we value such ideals? Why is being at one with some supernatural power good? Why is monogamy the ideal?

I don’t think there are good answers to those questions, except to say that perhaps those things should not be ideals at all.  With religion, atonement is merely an impossible goal, set before us to tantalize us and keep us striving and behaving within acceptable boundaries.  Monogamy is no different, in that the only way to achieve it is to pretend as if our ability of love is so limited, and our sexual desires so parochial, that we force ourselves into ideal relationship expectations while repeatedly failing in thought if not act.  There is no reason to set us up with impossible ideals which make no sense to value, whether with gods or monogamy, when we have real ideals to inspire us.

A skeptical approach to reality brings us to an informed and skeptical atheism, and allows us to love the people we love, the way we want to love them, in order to live authentic and rewarding lives.  And while we may never be ideal skeptics or lovers, we can at least have ideals worth wanting.


Quotes from Bizarro World (2)

This is a continuation of a series of quotations from, and commentary of, my reading of John Frame’s book, Salvation Belongs to the Lord, which I am reading for a class about faith in Christian life.  I will be under-cover, so shhhhh…..

See Part1

“as believers in Christ we don’t get what we deserve.  We deserve death, but God has placed that punishment of death on his Son.  In Jesus’ death he gets what we deserve….”

(page 23)

Now, this quotation brings up nothing new to me, but I think it is more valid to quote what an actual Christian says than to try and summarize based upon generalities.  This way, no straw-men are hurt in the writing of this post.

This common theme, that we are all sinners worthy of death, is disturbing to me.  It is not disturbing in the way that Frame, and other Christians, may expect it to be disturbing; I am not worried about the death that I deserve.  I’m disturbed because this view seeks to distract us from this world, a world of this magical and mythological thing called ‘sin’ which supposedly pervades our very being.

Christian theology seeks, fundamentally, to make us feel broken.  It is a great marketing technique to make the customer feel like they lack something, then to present them with a product to fill that gap.  The fact that religion tends to use this method quite frequently explains that it’s success has to do with how our brains work and are manipulated much more than religious messages being true.

But what are they selling?  Belief in Jesus, right?  Well, yes, but it is done through this substitutional atonement; Jesus suffered for your sins.  This makes no sense at all, but it seems sweet of him to try.  This substitutional framework is mirrored on the idea that Adam, who represents us in his fall from the “covenant of works” (by which humanity was tested to see if they could obey God’s laws and failed in the eating of the fruit of the tree…you know the story).  Adam failed, Adam represents us.  Jesus succeeded, and Jesus seeks to represent us if we would only believe….

There is something in the mind that catches at this.  It is a subtle psychological method going on here.  There is a subtle manipulation, one that I have never succumbed to, but I feel it.  I don’t feel it in a desirous way, I feel it in a way similar to that feeling I get when I hear a good sales pitch.  I subtly think yeah, that makes a kind of sense…I should buy that! but am then returned to reality where I don’t need a George Foreman grill.

(I’m waiting for some Christians to tell me that this feeling is God trying to reach out, but my hardened heart refuses to accept the free gift…you now the drill.)

And so God gave his only begotten Son and all that, right? We should feel thankful, shouldn’t we?  Well, I have addressed Jesus’ ‘sacrifice‘ before, and I don’t think much of it.  I know the whole “fully God, fully man” thing is supposed to make it possible for Jesus to suffer and make the crucifixion meaningful, but I don’t buy that either.  I guess that makes me a heretic for not accepting the Chalcedonian Declaration.  Whether Nestorian, Monophysite, or mythicist, I am certainly a heretic of some sort.

People, we are not sinners.  There is no reason to believe a literal and historical Fall occurred.  There is no reason to accept that a mythological Fall occurred, or that we are inherently sinful or broken in any spiritual way.   In fact, there is no reason to accept the existence of a non-metaphorical ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ in the first place.

Any imperfections in our being are due to the blind forces that formed us over millions of years of evolution–not some moral failing due to lack of obedience to some megalomaniacal  bully of a god.  We have the ability to educate ourselves, improve ourselves, and we don’t need a savior from any fairy-tale sins.

There is nothing to save us from.

God lied and so we are all sinners

eveWhen Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, she had no way of knowing that it was wrong. She could not have known that the snake–or God for that matter!–was good or evil. Therefore, she cannot be blamed and the punishment was unjust. Therefore, there is no need for salvation from God because the Fall was God’s fault, being omniscient thus aware of what would happen.

Let’s recap the story just for fun, eh?

God creates Adam…

2:16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

After some naming ceremonies and all that, God takes a rib from Adam and makes a woman. Then a snake comes into the picture. Here is the text from Genesis:

3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

3:2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3:3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

3:4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

3:5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

3:6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

What happens next? God comes down and throws a fit, kicks them out of the Garden, and then they go on to somehow populate the earth with only one surviving son after Cain kills Abel.

But let’s take a close look at the situation that Eve finds herself in upon talking with the serpent. Eve has no knowledge of good or evil when the serpent approaches her. She can’t because she has not eaten the fruit of the tree yet. She has heard, whether from God directly or through Adam, that if she eats of the fruit she shall die on that day. The serpent says otherwise.

Now eve, in not having any knowledge of good nor evil, can’t judge whether the serpent is good or evil. She also can’t know whether God is good or evil. She is left with competing pieces of information and little to make a good judgment with. If she has any logical skills, she will have to recognize that she is in a situation with conflicting proposals. God says one thing, but this snake, being wise itself, says something else. How is she supposed to pull the truth from this?

Experiment. That’s right folks, she has a situation where the only way to find out the truth is to eat the fruit and see what happens. She has to be the world’s first scientist, doing a primitive science-like experiment, in order to find out the truth. And what happens? Well, she doesn’t die, and neither does Adam. The serpent was the one telling the truth, not God.

And as a result we have something like science associated with the Fall of humankind. To test God is to sin. That is, if you find yourself in a situation where conflicting information about what God says, to test it in any way is akin to the Fall of humanity, to repeat the original sin for which salvation is necessary.

No wonder Biblical literalists and science are so often at odds.

I’ve heard apologetics that argue that this act was a Fall from God’s grace, but that’s not what the story says. Genesis says that “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” This is supposed to be some kind of spiritual death, but that’s also not what God said earlier. Why would God be so vague when the future of all humanity is at stake, especially when God must know what will happen.

But there is a further point here. Isn’t god supposed to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere? Wouldn’t god know that the serpent would say what it said, Eve would eat then give the fruit to Adam, and created the universe just this way anyway?

I know, I know….God gave us free will. except if God knows literally everything about the universe, God would know every “free” choice people would make and made it that way anyway. Thus, didn’t god create the universe, including us, just the way he wanted to?

Doesn’t that put the cause of this Fall, whether spiritual or otherwise, squarely in God’s lap?

I much prefer the gnostic interpretations of this story. In one version, God is not the true god but a demiurge–a lesser god, and in many cases an evil god. The serpent is a representative of the truth, of the true god, and is the hero of the story or the savior who becomes a kind of sacrifice. In some versions of ancient Gnostic Christianity, the serpent represents Christ.

And while I find this interpretation fascinating, it does not jibe with the Christian salvation story that I hear. In fact, it nullifies the necessity of salvation. It makes the Fall nothing more than pissing off a “god” that lied from the beginning anyway. Who needs salvation from that? (when typing, I mistyped ‘salvation’ as ‘slavation,’ and made myself laugh…some out there will find that funny).

Bottom line: God lied, the serpent didn’t, Adam and Eve get punished because the serpent called God out on the lie, and as a result we are all sinners. Yeah, makes perfect sense….