I was originally going to call this 'Sin & Guilt,' but oh how I've been led astray...
You may have read some other articles of mine, hopefully H2ELP as well. If this is the case, the title of this article may come as quite the surprise, given its allusion to faith-based notions of sin. I don’t really subscribe to anything based in faith, unfortunately. Of course, although I don’t mean this in the same sense as the more religious of you might, I still believe that it is an interesting and useful concept. The reason for this is that such a notion – sin – is so forcefully ingrained into many of us since the time we were children. Perhaps not everyone has been raised in a more Christian setting, but for me, the notion of sinfulness is something I understand almost innately.
The ethics of this are debatable. I don’t really believe that anyone is born with a notion of sin and wrongdoing as some may claim; and we can’t exactly ask newborns what their theological take on various concepts of abstract notions are (as you may know already, the younglings have some difficulty communicating their thoughts quite often). Therefore, the sin you know is, as far as I can tell, the result of a form of brainwashing for kids. It’s literally what indoctrination means. Prefix: in->doctrine->suffix: ation? So is brainwashing children morally justifiable? Of course, because the morals you have to justify it are the ones you instill in them as they have been implanted in you, likely in a similar way. The reason we don’t usually just learn about religion as we’re older and able to make our own choices is because it becomes a lot harder to just accept things if their concepts aren’t so scaringly etched upon our young minds.
It also makes sense to give children concepts of morality in ways they can understand, as in: don’t do ad things or bad things will happen to you. What does “bad” mean? Well, it’s these specific set of rules, of course, you should already know that.
It is, in effect, just a more complicated version of Santa Claus, with more narcissism, more questionable rule-sets and more debate over what is and is not a part of the Santa myth. As a side note, the figure who lives somewhere up from where you live (can’t get higher than the North pole), has a long, white beard, somehow knows all the good and bad deeds you’ve done and rewards or punishes you accordingly seems far too similar to be coincidental. There’s even Satan in there if you happen to be dyslexic or read it too quickly. Maybe Santa became Satan when he sold his soul to Coca-Cola. Anyway, I don’t know why I never realized this earlier, but it does seem as though the myth of Saint Nicholas is just a more child-friendly version of the Bible. Then again, the bible is a more child-friendly version of the Bible, having taken out things like the Infancy gospel of Thomas and the likes.
In any case, we want to make sure that our kids are good and respectful and generally aren’t unbearable. We have to live with them for a long time, it makes sense that we don’t want to hate them. Therefore, it makes sense when a parent loses some of their authority over the child that he or she would have to invoke some higher power and threaten them with furious vengeance and anger, like S.L Jackson just after a cheeseburger monologue and right before a murder. Similarly, one may threaten them with having no presents for Christmas, only to ensure the kids don’t hate the parents, they just pretend it’s out of their hands and, in fact, all up to St.Nick and how well they behave thenceforth. Because when a child doesn’t respect a parent, the obvious thing to do is to threaten them and lie to them and pretend they’re stupid. They aren’t stupid, they’re just trustful in the wrong people. The kids haven’t yet learnt what horrible, normal people their parents are yet.
If the Christmas presents threats don’t work, just threaten them with eternal suffering and pain and anguish beyond their capacity to comprehend. That’ll do it.
That aside, I want to redefine what I mean by the term “sin.” After all, guilt seems to be fairly self-evident. When I refer to sin, I mean it in a broader sense that the judeo-Christian flavour thereof. By sin, I mean to define anything that enters your conscious thought – or even perhaps unconscious, but that’s another discussion – which provokes and elicits guilt. It’s sometimes difficult to tell what makes us feel guilty, often because we’re in denial. We need to resort back to that self-truthfulness stuff I keep dredging up like a tired fisherman who keeps catching and hauling the same filthy boot. If we’re truly honest and we stop saying things like “yes, well I was hungry and it’s only a chocolate bar, my roommate isn’t going to miss it” and instead say “I knew it wasn’t right of me to steal my roommate’s chocolate bar, however I lost some of my self-control and immorally stole it from the cupboards, under the pretense that it wouldn’t bother anyone,” then we can proceed. Chances are, if we need to justify and action to ourselves, it causes us some amount of guilt. So just don’t do it.
So sin is solely defined as “something which causes guilt.” It sounds simple. It means that if you kill someone to save an orphanage from being burnt down and you can honestly say “I’d do it again; it was the right thing to do,” then congratulations; you may have broken a commandment, but who cares? In effect, this redefining gets around the technicality of religious law. In the same way it does in real law. Tackle a terrorist to the floor and you’re a hero, unlikely to be convicted of assault, even though your action was the same as someone else who would be, provided it was for no good reason. Some religious folk think like this anyway, some don’t. The most pious man in the World (at the time) decided to send as many people as possible over to the middle East to kill as many people as possible and ransack cities, justifying it in the eyes of the Catholic church. You may remember, it happened in 1096. And then again and again and again and again over the next millennium. Religion-bashing aside, what we think is right is right. What we know is wrong is wrong. The law disagrees, and I probably have to say “don’t break the law” or someone might sue me.
What’s morally right and legally right is a Venn diagram which has some overlap, but not
with regards to everything. And given that other religions to yours make laws based on religious moral grounds, it’s self-evident that if you go to that country, this distinction will be more visible to you, and therefore not all laws will comply to your religion unless they render you incapable of thought too. But I suppose there must be some basis for the morality of laws, and why not start with the faith of the nation in question? It makes sense, even if it might be somewhat outdated nowadays.
You might doubt that we ourselves can know what’s moral and not. How can we? That’s why we leave all that to a higher power, after all. We know what’s right because we feel guilt if it’s wrong. Guilt is generally a negative emotion, closely linked with shame, and therefore we learn to not do things for which we know we’ll feel remorse. Objectively, it’s a question of why be good? There are some who are intellectually incapable of feeling guilt, or who are psychologically incapable of experiencing it. Does that make what they do right no matter what? Well no, not to us; we have our own morals by which we judge others’ actions. To them, however, of course it’s morally right to do whatever it is they feel like doing. And we can understand this; if we say someone did something horrible because they were abused as a child and this triggered some psychopathic or sadistic brain profile or something, after which they murdered someone or did something bad and can’t understand why they should feel sorry about it, we can usually understand. Some might say they’re evil, but that’s a flawed argument, if you ask me. We need to be understanding of people who do wrong and not blame them for what they do if they’re incapable of understanding what’s good and bad. We don’t have to let them out on the streets, but we don’t have to vilify them quite as much as we might have a nasty tendency to do. Understanding leads to more understanding, and isn’t that better than aimless, meaningless hatefulness? Take this how you will, it’s not really the point of what I’m trying to say here anyway.
What is the problem with guilt? Who cares? Why does that have to be bad? Well, as said before, with guilt comes shame which itself leads to a plethora of negative emotions. An individual suffering from shame can be a hard thing to watch. One may not even know why this feeling is even there, but it’s just a constant, tormenting evil presence in them. Essentially, it’s similar to the voice inside you which might tell you to do wrong in the first place. “Steal the cookie, Dennis! Yeeeesssssss! Oh how wonderful the taste of sin on thy tongue!” and all that becomes “You awful, terrible person, you’re going to Hell for what you’ve done! How could you not resist such a small temptation, you useless, awful bastard, Dennis!” It’s unfair, it’s hypocrisy, and yet the voice in your head doesn’t get a share of the consequences, just you. (Provided your name is Dennis and you consider the voice as a separate entity to yourself, but that’s neither here nor there.) This is, in my opinion, like the snake in the garden of Eden myth. It tempts you into doing wrong and then also, in another form, tortures you for it eternally. There is indeed some usefulness that Biblical tales can provide, especially with imagery.
The feeling of guilt and the intention to prevent it can be useful tools for you, if you are a person seeking improvement; maybe you want to get fitter and the thought of eating more makes you feel bad, or perhaps if you don't exercise you feel lazy and guilty of being less than ideal. We can turn this into a benefit to keep up our good habits, however, I think that it's a flawed view. It's what we want children to think, but really, a better approach is not damnation for doing wrong, but encouragement for doing the right things. "Well done for managing to go for a jog today, I know it's hard" rather than "You're worthless because last Saturday you had a cheat day." It sounds like mollycoddling and being weak and not hard enough on yourself, and perhaps some people require a different form of motivation, but we're not all the same. If you have problems with how you feel about yourself, don't make it worse by hating yourself into creating more problems. We can love ourselves without being vain and intolerable, so a bit of self-care shouldn't make you feel even guiltier than before. I think that not enough people know this.
Shame can also be used against you by others. Think of how you might be blackmailed. Maybe someone threatens to expose your browsing history or that video you made of yourself years ago or that time you accidentally walked into the wrong changing room or anything else. Generally, the fuel for blackmail is shame. Even in less severe circumstances, like a partner who berates you for something small, making it seem like it’s more important than it is, making you feel guilty, ashamed and more likely to be “extra nice” to them. Emotional manipulation.
Imagine another case of this: you are a young child and someone wants you to be good. Better than you are. They say step into this box and confess your sins to the emissary of your (parents’) faith. Feel ashamed of all the bad things you’ve done, you terrible child, born, conceived and draped in sin. Badness and corruption oozes from every evil pore, dripping off you like tar, you sick, sick, perverted form of Satan. Et cetera, et cetera. It’s great for instilling fear into young people and getting them to comply and generally get used to being used and manipulated and abused and never quite feeling great unless they manage to completely give themselves unthinkingly to the person or persons in charge of your faith. That means the deity, but also the human beings who organize your place of worship. How do you think old men manage to molest the children in their care? Emotional manipulation, most often, for which you as a parent, as well as your religious institution have prepared them and conditioned them so well.
So guilt is bad for you, therefore sin is bad for you. If you can forgive yourself, then you don’t have to feel it anymore. You don’t need some old guy in a box and the adult version of Santa Claus to tell you you’re allowed to feel ok. You have that right yourself, so exercise it and stop thinking so much how other people view you through the lens of their own muddled and flawed take on morality.