Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Gospel

Good news? Good news? Good news? I suppose it is news to hear that your sins do deserve eternal damnation and pain of torture. When I was a young Christian (that is, a young human who believed in the silliness that is Christianity) I really did believe everything they told me. Even now I am a terrible skeptic, which is why I choose to define myself as a humanist rather than a skeptic. I have to constantly remind myself to question things, and am very susceptible to believing what I read. It's a constant struggle.

Anyway, one of the things that we learned in Sunday School (and, in some cases, in the actual adult church service) is how to witness effectively. Their secret? Appeal to guilt and shame. "Don't you believe that you have sinned?" Of course. Everyone has guilt. Everyone has a whole closet full of shameful secrets, betrayals, murderous thoughts and evil deeds. And I really believe that (for the most part) we are all our own worst critics. The longer we bury our dark little secrets, the worse they seem to us, even though airing them and saying them aloud can strip them of much of their weight (this is the basic idea of Catholic confession and, I believe, psychotherapy). So the effective witness reminds people of their crimes and the pain they cause. I suppose that this is why evangelizing is so efficient among young people and the emotionally vulnerable (recovering alcoholics and convicted felons). The idea of sin is more sophisticated than ordinary guilt, but at the outset the sleight of hand works and no one notices that their guilt and shame has been transformed into sin.

To perpetrate a wrong is to harm someone else. Stealing harms the rightful owner, lies can be harmless, but they can also have catastrophic impacts, infidelity harms just about everyone involved and so on. This is the concept of guilt, and these are the burdens that every human must carry. They seem much heavier before you realize that everyone carries the same weight. Christians (any theist, for that matter) insist that the lie you told your sister or the candy bar you stole or the pleasure you took in watching a pretty girl walk past also offends god. That is sin, and that is why I can say that I do not believe in sin.

This is the Gospel Message, by the way. That our crimes against ourselves and our fellow man are actually crimes against god. It was not the victim who suffers then, but god. And because we are all victims and perpetrators, we are all damned. Never mind the loopy logic of salvation and Christ's sacrifice, the true story here is that we are guilty of crimes against the universe and need to be redeemed simply for being human. Not that it ever comes to this - anyone can recall quickly and vividly any number of mistakes and offenses - but we are, according to theists, guilty from the word 'go.' Simply and literally by being human we are in need of salvation.

And this is what bothers me so much about the Gospel Message. When I was younger, I only saw the bright light of the story without seeing the deep shadows it cast. I only saw the salvation part because the pain of guilt was so easy to recognize. But upon closer inspection (and it doesn't take a particularly strong lens) the whole thing comes apart and is revealed to be cruel, cynical and mean. Having been on the inside for so long, I can say that there was little - if any - ulterior or monetary motive to increasing the congregation's numbers. I do not mean to suggest here that there was any actual cynicism involved. People actually believe in what they say, and they believe that they are saving souls.

But the Gospel Message should be seen for what it is: a con. It is a false remedy for a false problem. Sin does not exist and, therefore, neither does salvation. But guilt exists and shame exists and real offense is done to real people. It is good that we feel bad for causing pain to our fellow man (and fellow animals, I would like to point out). Like physical pain, emotional pain and the empathy we feel helps to keep our society running smoothly - it is possible that I have the cause and effect backwards, but that isn't really important here. What is bad is when that pain is co-opted for backwards uses, when we are duped into feeding a monster that exists only in our collective imaginations.

1 comment:

miriamt said...

What if it is not so much a con as a seriously false fear, augmented? Religion, I mean…

I also do not believe in sin. While I do not call myself an atheist, by any stretch of the imagination, I no longer call myself a Christian (that would take a bigger stretch). And the doctrine of sin was the watershed for me.

The doctrine of sin implies a judge of human action that would have to be above human actions. This judge would dictate to us what is right and wrong. Then, once the “wrong” has been committed, would have to punish for those actions. Not that the actions could in any way affect him/her/it (being above the human arena). But we obviously do not get punished for our actions immediately…how many time have we lied and been totally fine….so the punishment would have to come after this observable life….hell.

And what if we sacrifice our desires to do these sinful things? Shouldn’t we get something for this? Don’t we deserve some kind of “pat on the head” as it were, for the sacrifice? But we also know the many times we did not steal when we wanted to did not earn us a single good thing. So, this too must come after the observable life…heaven.

This is how, I think, religion evolved …

As we go along in our lives, people do things that are inconvenient to us/me (stealing, for example). And, when they do we feel like beating them up…but we can’t. Fear or self preservation or something holds us back. So we invent a deity that could “beat them up” for us. But now we would have a dilemma. We know that we, ourselves, would like to do many sinful things if we only had the guts. At times we even muster up the courage do act on these desires. So what are we to do? We don’t want the punishments that we have so cleverly created to be doled out to the inconvenient ones.(even if this punishment does come after we are dead) So we invent salvation!