Thursday, August 30, 2007

Sin & The Law

It seems to me that a lot of people at what most consider to the be extremes of religious zeal devote a lot of time and effort to the goal of making it illegal to sin.

Sin has been a very useful concept to the monotheistic religions. It's vagueness means that it can be liberally applied so that everyone is a sinner, and with a bit more twisted thinking, even an innocent, new-born baby has been "tainted". This gives some religions the opportunity to claim that we all really need them in order to secure redemption for ourselves, and guarantee ourselves a happy afterlife, featuring 72 white raisins, or choirs of cherubim and seraphim, depending on the flavour of the Judaic derivitive being peddled. (Both options sound like hell to me!)

This vagueness cuts the other way, though, when it comes to trying to make it illegal to sin, because for laws to work, you have to be pretty tight on your definitions, and have an agreed definition of what a sin is. And of course, if we are all born tainted by original sin, we might as well incarcerate new-born babies as soon as the cord is cut.

There is a deeper problem with the whole sin = lawbreaking approach. If we are not legally free to do things that are considered (by some) to be sinful, then we might spend our entire lives free from sin, but only because we feared prosecution. If I were god - and I'm glad I'm not, because I recently grew a beard, and I don't think it suited me - I would find it very unsatisfying to welcome people into my kingdom because they didn't break the law (i.e. they didn't sin), even though I would know how much they might have wanted to.

Of course, the argument would then run "Yes, but god sees what is in your heart, and judges you on that". In that case, what difference does it make if sinning is illegal? Not being allowed to sin by law isn't going to save me if I still want to break that law. So, making sin illegal isn't going to save any more souls than leaving us all alone to judge for ourselves what we consider to be sinful or not.

I'm very much with John Stuart Mill on this one. We should all have the maximum amount of liberty that is compatible with other people having the same amount of liberty.

I've had a couple of discussions recently about theism, atheism and agnosticism. I've heard from a couple of places an argument that tries to reclassify most atheism as agnosticism. As a professed atheist myself, I'm not keen on this downgrading of my position.

As far as I can tell, there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of a deity, and I'm pretty convinced that there will never be enough evidence. The fact that this does leave a gap for me to be proved wrong shows that I not close-minded, just as I am open to the laws of physics being refined and modified as we approach a better and better understanding of the universe. However, unlike the possible existence of Higgs Boson, the discovery of which will go a long way towards providing solid evidence in support of the Standard Model of physics, in the case of a deity, I really don't expect that evidence will ever arise.

There is some "belief" involved in atheism. On the basis of the evidence to date, I am not convinced that there is a god. I proceed on the basis of the belief or assumption that there is no god. My "leap of faith" in this case takes me from an observation that there isn't much evidence that supports the god hypothesis, to a conclusion that this probably means there isn't a god. As leaps of faith go, it's not a very big one. More of a small step, really.

It has been argued that my position is one of agnosticism, because I am still open to the possibility of being proved wrong. Nonsense, I say. To purloin an example from Bertram Russell and abuse it for my own ends, someone might claim there is a teapot orbiting the earth. I might not accept their claim, and can express strong scepticism about it, but the fact that I remain open to being proved wrong doesn't make me agnostic about the teapot. For all intents and purposes, if it comes to a question of belief rather than fact, I do not believe. When it comes to a question of fact, the answer is a little greyer, but not much. I very strongly doubt it, to the point that I would be very, very surprised if presented with evidence that proved me wrong.

Another argument I've had in this area goes something like this: to define yourself as atheist is to define yourself in terms of something that you are not (a believer) or in terms of something that you do not do (believe). Why would anyone make such an effort to deny something, unless there was something at the root of that refusal to believe. Hmm. Let me think about that. Yes, there is something at the root of my refusal to believe. It's that so many people do believe, and as an atheist, I feel I have to stand up and be counted as one of those who actually says "You know what? I don't." If belief is the norm, then I have to define myself in terms that indicate that the normal assumption (most people believe) does not apply in my case.

I'd rather do that than be one of the masses (sic) who are assumed to be believers, and often are "lazy" believers. They've never really thought about it, so they just go along with whatever they've been told.

So, yes, it is defining myself in terms of something that I don't do, but that is only necessary because a contrast has to be made between the majority, who, in however half-hearted a manner, do believe.

That said, a lot of lazy belief in god is similar to the lazy beliefs about how the positions of the planets at the moment of your birth (according to an innaccurate astronomical calendar) affect your personality; that you can influence the outcome of a roulette wheel; that you might be pyschic because just as you went to phone your friend, he or she phoned you; that homeopathy works because it works on animals and children, and they are not susceptible to the placebo effect.

On that last subject, I feel obliged to note that when an animal is treated with a homeopathic remedy, more effort is made to ensure that the creature is looked after, gets rest, attention, etc. It is this care of the creature, not the shaken-up water, that does the trick. And kids? Puleez! My mum used to give us butter rolled in sugar to soothe us when we had a cold. And it worked. Kids, trusting little things that they are, are more susceptible to the placebo effect than adults.

Incidentally, there's loads of this stuff in Derren Brown's book, and it's an excellent read, and sometimes quite naughty. I've always liked his writing, having bought his first two books, which were aimed at magicians. The most recent one is aimed at the general public, and it's terrific.


Tickersoid said...

As you know, I don't read, other than blogs and discarded copies of the Sun and the Star.
Most of my thoughts on theology etc are the consequence of having an undemanding and largely uninterrupted job.
I too, prefer to be thought of as aethiest. Whilst I don't dispute it's possible there is a superior being controlling the universe, presumably out of loneliness and boredom, I find it immensely unlikely.
On the subject of Lazy believers. I've devised a phenomena I call 'Cultural Maturity'. The degree of cultural maturity a society possesses, is the extent by which lazy, go along with whatever the popular opinion is, thinking, most resembles reality.

Tickersoid said...

One more thing. When a society makes laws to prevent victim less crime, it's in trouble.

First Nations said...

why can't i put things like this? WHY WHY WHY???

excellent, Q.

on the subject of possible deities i am firmly agnostic. it's the subject of religion as the revealed will of a deity that makes me snort with derision.

Qenny said...

Tickers: I'm curious about the sense of "maturity" in your phrase Cultural Maturity. I think this might be a big, long conversation one evening soon.

First Nations: thank you, and to answer your question, perhaps a degree in philosophy would help? (That's my excuse for writing stuff like this.)

David said...

Well, Bertram Russell must be the P.G. Wodehouse character, rather than the philosophy-hoovering polymath Bertrand.

I have always thought that there is a more perfect system than the law, morality or the very poor relation in this grouping that is sin. I am so glad you have dragged sin down, Kenny!

This system is "manners" and the apotheosis of its expression comes is Quentin Crisp's divine oevre, ironically titled in this context, "Manners from Heaven".

Why do philosophers study morality rather than manners? As liberal as I am, I sometime dream of a world where bad manners do have a genuine organised come-uppance, instead of the inexactitude of "What goes around, comes around." while we hold our tongues.

Qenny said...

I stand - or sit, since who types whilst standing? - corrected. I did indeed mean Bertrand. And to think I was just going to put "Russell". I would have gotten away with that.

Manners, I fear, don't lend themselves well to the running of our multi-ethnic country. If laws are like the instructions on a tin of paint, manners are like the helpful colour card that guides you towards an harmonious combination of colours.

Da Nator said...

Very interesting, Q. I think it's somewhat true about homeopathy and the placebo effect. I actually do think that alternative treatments of various kinds, including homeopathy, have effects on animals, even if they are subtler than allopathic medicine. However, I do believe that the basic change in how a person feels about and thus treats their pet during treatment makes a huge difference, too. I often tell my AC clients that a good portion of the results they find will come from just paying more attention to and trying to understand their animals (and vice-versa).

As for atheists and religious people, I have the same problem with both of them: when they think they know better than other people and try to convert them. Alas, it seems to be inherent to the human condition, doesn't it? And why doesn't anybody understand that *I* know best?

As for my current beliefs: an omnipotent, singular deity separate from ourselves? Not really. Existence beyond and after death. Very probably. Something beyond ourselves? Definitely.

Qenny said...

I'd like to believe in life after death and something beyond ourselves, but these days I just can't bring myself to think of such notions as anything other than wishful thinking, comforting illusions.

And far be from me, as a magician, to take peoples' illusions away - I spend so much time trying to create the things in the first place!

Tickersoid said...


Let's hope I've conceved something you can modify and/or develop. I don't feel up to contesting ecclesiastical issues with you.

Qenny said...

tickers - but it's so much fun! I'm keen to hear, and will do so soon. I'm doing flying visits to Bristol and Cardiff next week, but will probably stop over in one or the other the week after, so perhaps we can have that conversation then.