By: Gary Conway & Brett Geisel
This regularly-occurring series trades on the notion topics of religion, especially in a theist vs. atheist context, are interesting. For those who grew up in the church and have left or happily remain immersed, the following dialogue will at some point elicit a strong response. Good. This series also intends to dispel the myth often held by textbook atheists that people who believe in God are naive, dumb, and defenseless. And, for the theists, to show not all atheists are bitter, had a bad experience in church, or are in a stage they just need to grow out of.
Many self-proclaimed intellectual atheists and genuine ones, too, are able to hold their own in arguments championing the absurdity of religion and spirituality. And many self-proclaimed theist intellectuals and genuine ones, too, are able to defend their faith using thoughtful, robust arguments. The Spectator Tribune will only narrate this conversation and ensure both parties play by one rule: No fisticuffs.
I was thinking that we might pursue an anthropological question to continue to elaborate some of the similarities and differences between our particular positions. At the foundation of a Christian perspective on our world on humanity is that, at the root, both suffer brokenness and the humanity, a fatal flaw known theologically as sin. What is your take on this aspect of the Christian world?
In this I believe our philosophies are pretty close together, though I would not describe it in the same way. I believe that human beings are born with both the capacity for good and for evil. I suppose you would say that this is the fatal flaw known as sin. I would not say that this is a fatal flaw at all, but rather the beauty of humanity; the capacity for both great works of goodness and of evil. All that remains is to wake either the goodness or the evil through choice. Every day we make choices that shape who we are and what we do to affect the world around us. I imagine that this is actually very close to what you believe, the only difference is semantics. I would not say that humanity is broken. This type of language, in my philosophy, has been promulgated by religion to encourage the belief that humanity needs religion in order to make the choices necessary to avoid evil. I would suggest that what humanity actually needs is to look to the community around them in order to make appropriate choices about what should and should not be done.
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I think that I would also differ on exactly what constitutes a sin. I for instance have no trouble with working on Sabbath, though I do believe that it is important to take some time for one’s self and family. The day is irrelevant. Covetousness, while stupid, would not be necessarily sinful in my opinion. It is instead an indication of deep dissatisfaction. As such it is not the act of coveting that needs to be curtailed, but the conditions that lead up to such an emotional response to what others have and what one lacks. As a society we need to place less emphasis on possession and acquisition, and more emphasis on internal contentment. Indeed, I would say that all seven deadly sins are symptoms as opposed to sins in and of themselves. When we name behaviours “sin” I believe that we are actually ignoring the root problem and instead attempting to mask the disease through treatment of symptoms only. Doubtless, you have a response to this and I look forward to your take.
I thought that the topic of sin would elicit both similarities and differences that are crucial to our particular positions, and my suspicion has been rewarded. Theologically speaking we make a distinction between sin and sins, the former being a state-fatal flaw, and the latter being specific actions or attitudes. What constitutes a sin has been the subject of much debate in all religions across and within generations, and changes from generation to generation and within specific religious communities.
I agree that we would agree on what amounts to ‘sins’ on many occasions and also agree that the immediate agent of many a ‘sin’ can be attributed to systemic injustices and cultural or political distortions. But I do not see this as a semantic difference, but rather see it as fundamental to how we see the world, humanity and morality. Sin is a human condition that first and foremost acknowledges our finite nature, we will never be omnipotent or omniscient, but also our propensity to evil, and the acceptance that we can never finally overcome our nature, only curtail it. Sin is not something that we can finally treat with the right therapy-education, social reconstruction, political restructuring etc.; even as I acknowledge the need and value for all of these.
I therefore cannot see it as a simple matter of choice, but instead as a constant battle against the evil aspects of our very nature. Neither can I grant that we can look to our community to determine what is correct. By your own acknowledgement, if we looked to our community we would be hard pressed to argue that coveting or its attendant actions are wrong at all, but that acquisitiveness and coveting are in fact virtues, as is sadly often claimed today. As you obviously believe, we must often take a critical or prophetic stance against exactly what our community values as right action, whether the community is explicit or implicit in its affirmation. And I would argue we must point to it as an aspect of human evil. The individual, and any human community, has a fundamental propensity to self-interest that will lead to evil, and this is called sin.
This is not to say that there is not also a fundamental goodness in humanity as well, or to deny the daily acts of kindness, charity, self-giving or love that we receive, that do stem from necessarily ulterior motives. We are caught in the personal and societal tug of war between good and evil that I see as a battle, not a choice. So while I agree that we are capable of great evil and great goodness, I cannot see how ‘”the capacity for both great works of goodness and of evil” can be the beauty of humanity. Our capacity and propensity to evil is what I call both our fatal flaw and our brokenness; fatal flaw referring to our evil inclination as individuals, communities and a species, and brokenness referring to its effects on us as individuals, communities and as a species.
I fear the loss of the idea of sin precisely because it points to the depth of our predicament and to the need for a radical solution that lies outside of our finite ability. I fear the loss of the idea of sin precisely because it accounts for our nature and offers a corrective to any utopian ideas that we can ever finally overcome that nature. I fear the loss of the idea of sin precisely because it reminds individually, socially, politically and religiously of the very real nature of evil we are always on the precipice of bringing into reality.
It is strange to have such conflicting opinions when reading your letter. I both agree and disagree. Society in its disaffection has become something other than what I would wish for or call ideal. But I cannot believe that we have an intrinsic propensity towards evil that is not learned behaviour. Evil occurs, and evil is all around us, but does this evil claim a piece of our emotional being – what you would term a soul? I don’t think so, but then again I am often wrong. I cannot think that we are a species constantly teetering on the edge of abomination. Certainly we walk a destructive line as we learn about who we are and how we affect the world around us, but does this mean that we are naturally predisposed towards evil acts? Not in my opinion.
I would also like to take a moment to clarify my thoughts on covetousness, and what I meant when I said that the act of coveting, or wanting something other, is not sinful/morally wrong. Our current society that raises the acquisition of wealth and material goods to godlike status is abhorrent. But is the simple act of looking over at a neighbour and thinking “I would like that too,” actually wrong? I do not think so. I do not believe that having an emotional response to any situation could rightly be called sin. How we react to emotional stimuli is what determines morality. If I were to actively work towards destroying my neighbour in order to gain what he/she has, then this is sinful. Simply having desire is nothing more than that – having a desire. Actions are what is important, and perhaps this is the fundamental difference in our viewpoints.
Great thoughts and as we are nearing the end of this cycle I will be concise. On coveting, I agree that “thoughts passing through” as we call them at home do not constitute sin, rather in this context it is the continuation of the thought and its specific content that constitute sin: “I wish I had partner like my friend” is different from thinking “I wish I had Bill’s wife.” Both are natural desire but the second is shifting to coveting.
I remain convinced though that history and experience confirms my position that we are a combination of good and evil at our core, never fully either, and that it is not merely a combination of education and environment that account for the evil lodged in our hearts and minds. I can accept the idea that it is only in the knowledge of evil that we can recognize the good, but if we only “learn” evil as opposed to evil being inherent to our nature then I cannot see how we can speak of it having any positive function in human life. The theological concept ‘sin’ and its associates ‘evil’ and ‘brokenness’ are the most coherent explanation I can find.
I suppose that I would have to agree that the propensity for good or evil is not just a sociological, learned behaviour but also a function of genetics – what you would consider the fundamental brokenness of humanity? Genetics can be a powerful determiner for all sorts of behaviour, good and evil included.
As far as “evil” having a positive function in life as a means to inform and direct “good,” can the same end not be achieved whether directed by a soul or a neurological network, whether these traits are learned or inherited? Again, I am astonished at how fundamentally similar our worldviews are, while at the same time fundamentally different.
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Brett Geisel is Winnipeg writer, father and, perhaps, atheist zealot (we’re not sure yet).
Gary Conway is a Winnipeg-based writer, theologian, and a fun guy to share a pint with.