I Do Care About Sin
Note: This article is a deconstruction of a post by Paul Boag called I don’t care if homosexuality is a sin. I recommend you read it unannotated first. Paul "agonized over writing this post", so you owe him that.
I feel I have a duty to address Paul's post as an atheist, not least because Paul feels that atheists are intent on convincing him he is a bigot. I cannot speak for all atheists — unlike Paul? :-) — but I have no such intention. I simply think he has a poor taste in book(s).
By all accounts, Paul is a good person. But like many moderate Christians, he has to perform some mental gymnastics in order to excuse the dubious thinking of a perpetually absent interlocutor. If only God was available for comment, then perhaps he could answer for all of this:
Alas, he is not. Never has been, whether you believe he exists or not. The trouble with this is that it falls on people like Paul to answer for him; people who, by their own admission, don't
really know for certain what [God] thinks about almost anything!
For good people, this is bothersome and tiresome. More importantly, however, it makes life really easy on the bad people; Anti-Pauls, if you will. In the absence of a self-advocating God, Christianity only really has The Bible to go on. As such, it is treated as a sacred, unquestionable text by many. While Paul is not one for making "God hates fags" signs, others are and, unequivocally, there are passages in The Bible that provide a pretext for this behavior.
The Bible does indeed say that homosexuality is a sin. But people seem to stop there. They don’t ask what that means. They don’t endeavour to put it in context.
Perhaps the most famous and graphic passage is found in Leviticus 20:
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death. Well, I think that's fairly clear. Unless, contextually speaking, it is referring to merely laying down next to another man but I suspect this would be a little unrealistic, given these two factors:
- This excerpt is from the so-called Holiness Code which lists other forms of prohibited sexual practice such as incest
- Sharing a tent with another man on a camping trip would carry the death penalty. This means The Bible would have me serve several life sentences
This is rarely the position a moderate Christian would take in defending the passage, however. Usually it is one of
- You are reading the wrong edition of The Bible;
- Some of the words in that chapter may have been translated badly;
- You've linked to Wikipedia, which is an unreliable source — quite unlike a collection of patently fictional stories written two thousand years ago, in one case featuring a talking snake
Paul is too smart to fall into these traps. Unlike some Christians, who are acutely focused on scripture, he is not interested in discussing what The Bible may or may not be trying to tell us at all:
I could talk about culture and context. I could give you my interpretation. But to be honest I don’t know and neither do you.
This is a position often called avoidance, not unlike the ubiquitous "God works in mysterious ways" cop out. It is the intellectual equivalent of running away from a debate with your hands over your ears shouting "la la la la la la!" Meanwhile, The Bible in its countless millions of incarnations says homosexuals should be put to death. Very plainly. We are not supposed to edit The Bible, so inevitably, this information falls into the wrong hands.
Take Hitler, for instance, who was a Christian. Here's a picture of a Nazi belt buckle emblazoned with the words "Got Mit Uns" ("God with us"):
And we all know how Hitler felt about homosexuals (hint: he put them in concentration camps and killed them much as the Bible suggests).
Now, for those of you who are a bit slow on the uptake, I am not comparing Paul Boag to Adolf Hitler. Nope, not for a second. I'm not even saying that The Third Reich's distaste for homosexuals was directly influenced by The Bible. I am instead stating that, despite having the same taste in morally instructive books, these two men's actions have proven to be very different. So what is The Bible for?
The point is that, while devotees of Faith are scrabbling to put words (either pro or anti homosexuality) in the mouth of God, atheists must defer to rationality: If being gay does not harm one's fellow humans, it should not be considered a bad thing. And it doesn't, so it's simple. Without the biblically reported God as an alibi, you have no excuse to treat people of different sexual orientations as sinners (bad people).
Here is Paul on the existence of The Bible's controversial anti homosexuality passages:
For Christians this means homosexuals are in some way evil. For atheists it just shows how irrelevant and out of date religion is. But if you dig a little deeper you discover that in fact it is a non issue.
Theoretically, it is of course a non-issue. Or, at least, it should be. Sadly, it is not, because religious doctrine has been used by conservatives as a pretext to lobby against gay rights. Also, if Christians per se, think that homosexuals are "in some way evil", does this include Paul or not? He doesn't tell us what he thinks.
It is a non issue for two reasons and if you can spare me a moment, I would like to explain them.
I have a bad feeling about this…
Sin is a misunderstood concept. People think of sin as bad actions. Murder, rape, abuse, that kind of thing. In fact that is not right at all. According to the Bible (the same source that says homosexuality is a sin) it is rebellion against God.
Okay, we're already entrenched in "what the Bible says" territory, so I think common sense and reasoning may be out of the question. I have just learnt that homosexuality is a form of rebellion against God. So, when I put another man's penis in my mouth, I am not simply pleasuring the man but undertaking a challenge to God's authority, with the ultimate aim of overthrowing him. Really?
Essentially sin is a rejection of God and a failure to live, think and be like him. The Bible says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. In other words, sin is falling short of God. Being less than God.
The whole point was to say; it doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t reach God’s standards. But God knows that and loves us anyway.
Is this the same God who pranked Abraham by telling him he had to kill his own son? Is this the same God who sent bears to kill 42 children just for teasing a guy for being bald? What perfect standards are these? Based on accounts of Mr. Boag who has not, to my knowledge, intimidated anyone into preparing their own son for sacrifice, I would suggest that God should be reading a book about him, rather than the other way around.
I would say this though, of course, because I'm one of those militant humanists who thinks that compassion between actual, living people is more important than the reported contemplative vicissitudes of an unverified deity. Madness, I know.
So from God’s perspective homosexuality is as irrelevant as getting angry at somebody or lying on your tax returns. We make up this arbitrary scale that homosexuality is worse than adultery but not as bad as murder. Sure, some ‘sin’ have bigger consequences on other people and so could be considered more serious. But on that scale homosexuality rates fairly low. The truth is that from God’s perfect perspective, none of us are any different. We are all equally far below him and yet he loves us all utterly and completely.
Let's break this down:
- Homosexuality is a sin, but is irrelevant to God
- God considers it as being similar to evading / not paying taxes (depriving the state of necessary resources to care for the vulnerable in its population), which is also irrelevant
- The difference between homosexuality and murder is arbitrary.
- But it is just possible that murder is worse than homosexuality, if you really want to get into detail and stuff
- God thinks that murderers, rapists and homosexuals are all the same
- God loves us anyway; even the rapists. They are fine.
Do you see what a muddle we get into when trying to post-rationalize the terrible prejudices of the unquestionably perfect (or, rather, the terrible prejudices of ancients hallucinating the unquestionably perfect)? You end up saying things like "in God's perfect perspective" and claim it is "truth". Yikes.
Now some will struggle with the idea of homosexuality being ‘wrong’ on any level.
Homosexuals, for instance.
After all it is what many have built their self identity around.
Is Paul saying homosexuality is a choice here? It certainly sounds like it. This is a worrying view. You see, some folks who think homosexuality is a choice will pressure other folks into ridding themselves of something they can't, in fact, help. This is abusive. Mind you, in God's eyes abuse is much the same as homosexuality, so maybe they cancel each other out.
Isn't it weird how some Christians can meet homosexuals and think their sexuality is man-made, yet think God — for whom the only records are reports written by men — is, in fact, the creator of those men and not the other way around?
My point here is that homosexuality is no different to any other part of the human condition.
For example, raping people. Rape is on a level with homosexuality, in God's eyes. We are all
equally below him.
But let’s imagine for a minute that I am wrong. That homosexuality is in fact a bigger ‘no no’ than anything else. That God does care more. The truth is that it is still none of our business. People can lead their lives in any way they like.
Here, Paul says that in the hypothetical situation that God thinks homosexuality is worse than, say, rape, it's none of our business. Not to worry, though, he assures us; we can go ahead and be homosexual anyway.
That's not The Bible speaking, by the way, that's Paul. If only folks really did take Paul's word over God's reported say-so! That whole Brendan Eich / Mozilla fiasco could have been sorted in a single DM. Oh, and before you even start, Eich donated money towards the retraction of people's rights: That is not expressing an opinion.
"People can lead their lives in any way they like". Really? In any way? What sort of doctrine says "do what the hell you like, I'm not bothered"? It's certainly not the one I read in The Bible. The Bible is quite particular about how we should lead our lives, actually. Either Paul disagrees with The Bible's stance on homosexuality and is not prepared to say so, or he agrees with the position but is too apathetic to intervene and save those who would commit the damnable act in question. Sorry Paul, but what other possible conclusions can be drawn?
Some Christians like to throw around the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” but to be frank this is a thin veil to justify criticism. I don’t believe it is the place of anybody to judge any other human being. I don’t believe we understand God enough to really know for certain what he thinks about almost anything!
Inevitably, we have arrived at the fundamental flaw of Christianity as a catalyst for moral veracity. Having established that we all come up short in the eyes of God, no matter what we do, what impetus is there for us to strive for social justice? What incentive is there for us to be good, honorable, compassionate human beings? What premise is there to rehabilitate transgressors? If it is really the case, as Paul argues, that not being "sinful" is futile, then The Bible is not a moral text. It offers no groundwork for moral agency.
When I was a lot younger, I had a friend called Joe. He took a lot of magic mushrooms at a rave and thought the DJ was Jesus. His overdose lead to psychosis and I visited him in a mental health ward several times. On release he pursued his nascent interests in religion and ultimately became a "born again" Christian.
After weeks and months of supporting him, reassuring him and trying to help him, he met with me one day and had something important he wanted to tell me. "Heydon, you are my friend. But you are filled with human pride and God cannot forgive you for that." Occasionally I still see him, preaching in the street, telling people, to use Paul's terminology, that
the human condition is broken. What dreadful, destructive nihilism. What lack of humanity sanctioned by the notion of God.
It almost breaks my heart.
Ultimately none of us have a clue what God thinks about homosexuality and we should stop pretending we do or trying to guess. Instead we should be doing what God told us to do and love one another. Let’s try that for a bit and see how things work out.
It's easy to invoke the "L" word like this, but I think we can agree that "love each other" is an extremely reductionist reading of The Bible. Even lovey-dovey Jesus said
think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34). And what about Stockholm Syndrome? Is falling in love with the captor who has mercilessly bullied and tortured you what God wants? Or is it a phenomenon identified by professional psychologists interested in a necessarily less anodyne picture of human interaction? In order to actually understand and help people?
In his article, Paul has fallen short of condemning The Bible's views on homosexuality. He has acknowledged them; he has bemoaned the frequency at which he is reminded of them; he has supposed that there are worse sins than homosexuality (
on that scale homosexuality rates fairly low). He has not categorically condemned them.
Instead, Paul's position is that homosexuality is
none of our business. I am glad that there are Christians who, like Paul, contend that other people should be free to act as they wish. The problem is that this does not address the premise that homosexuality is considered a sin in The Bible and this premise is a dangerous one. It gives Christians who do believe in intervention a pretext to intervene. And they will.
Even in God-mandated acts of love and as endeavors to "save" people, they will put those "lost souls" through terrible pain and turmoil, or even kill them. I'm not just talking about Gay Cure Camps and their record for abuse and suicide, but also the violent "exorcism" of young children — often children so young that they are unable to even conceive of a God's existence.
I do care about sin. I care because it is a dubious, over-simplistic concept that is not applicable for understanding or appreciating the human condition. I care that the idea of sin can and will lead to harm. Not always harm through malice, but certainly through misunderstanding. I care that homosexuality being considered bad conflates it with pedophilia, encouraging some people to think their children are not safe around gay people.
This is why I'm a humanist: I believe that actually investing time into trying to understand and appreciate humans (people like you and me, including homosexuals); to invest in and believe in them is a lot more productive and justified than simply tolerating their alien existence in favor of a "close relationship" with an unverified Deity (whether or not that Deity is purportedly loving).
I am proud to be a humanist, and your chosen God should be proud of me for it too. If you're interested, you can join the British Humanist Association.