I am writing this post in response to Jeanne’s last comment concerning the concept of sin. This takes us a little outside the normal orbit of this blog, and also outside my field. But since behaviorism is a way of looking at human activity, and sin is an alternative way of looking at the same phenomenon, it might be helpful to examine the concept a little and draw comparisons between the two perspectives.
For the behaviorist, human activity is a natural phenomenon that can be studied and understood through the normal scientific methods. These methods include: observation, record keeping, forming hypotheses, testing hypotheses, developing general theories, and keeping these theories under constant review in the light of further observation. Science is the business of looking for patterns – regularities – similarities – even between things that seem very different. A physicist sees a child throwing a stone in the air and at the same time sees the moon rising over the horizon, and he recognizes that the movement of the moon is essentially the same phenomenon as the movement of the stone. This is a truly incredible breakthrough, in that the two things seem to have so little in common. Similarly, a behaviorist looks at a child helping his younger sister tie her shoes and another child kicking his sister in the head, and sees similarities – a pattern. Here again, a great breakthrough in understanding. Behaviorism, like all science, is neutral. Behavior is not good or bad – it just is, and it occurs in accordance with certain fairly well understood principles. Individual behaviorists, of course, take moral positions, but we recognize that these are simply expressions of our personal preferences. I, for instance, take the position that behavior which harms other people is wrong. But if you were to say to me: what do you mean by “wrong”? the only answer I could give you would be – I disapprove of it. In that sense, the concept of wrongness is contentless – it has no definition over and above an expression of personal preferences on the part of an individual or group of individuals.
The concept of sin is an attempt to provide content to these personal expressions of preference. The reasoning goes like this. God made the world. God made man and put him in the world. God proclaimed certain rules for man. When man breaks these rules he violates God’s law, and this is a sin. Sin, according to this perspective, is any act that is against the law of God. There are a number of problems here. Firstly: the question of atheists. Are they exempt from the law? Wouldn’t you expect atheists to be extremely wicked, predatory, harmful people? In fact, this is not the case. Most of the atheists I know are about as selfless and giving as the next person. Secondly, and more importantly, is the difficulty of defining “God’s law.” Religious leaders have traditionally claimed an ability to discern this law and an authority to promulgate and enforce it. But they differ so much in their edicts that it is difficult to take these claims seriously. The Catholic Church, for instance, says it’s a sin to practice any kind of birth control – that God is offended if a man puts a rubber sheath on his penis prior to sexual intercourse. Other sects say – No, this is cool – God doesn’t mind that. The Muslims, I believe, say that gambling is a sin – that God is offended if a person goes to Vegas and plays the tables or rolls dice or whatever. Other sects say – No that is ok – and even provide bingo nights as a way of raising money!
Now I’m aware of the fact that religiously inspired thinkers have, through the ages, attempted to provide the various religious commandments with a rational underpinning. In my view these attempts have not been successful.
My primary objection to the notion of sin, however, is that it undermines human dignity and value. The Christian notion of sin involves far more than individual wrongdoing. Embedded deeply in the Christian notion of sin is the tenet that man is inherently prone to wickedness, and can do nothing good by his own efforts, and can only achieve anything of lasting or intrinsic value by the direct grace of God. This grace can only be obtained by man “giving himself” humbly to God, through, of course, the mediation of His ordained ministers. In my view this is not only false, it is blatant, unprovable, Medieval rubbish, and it is offensive and degrading to men and women everywhere. It is also an extremely advantageous philosophy for the various religions!
Now it is sometimes argued that the notions of good and evil are so deeply embedded in human consciousness that they must involve more than the arbitrary injunctions of civil and religious leaders. And I think there might be something to this notion, but I see it in very different terms. In my view man is born with certain basic “hard-wired” drives. These are: self-preservation; reproduction; pursuit of novelty, and … possibly? … a drive to safeguard the clan. The clan is a vague concept – embracing immediate family and other individuals that the child encounters socially during his very early years. These drives, of course, are modified by learning and experience, but the child grows up with these hard-wired drives existing within him and “nudging” his behavior in various directions. For the most part the drives are mutually compatible, but it is easy to see how conflict might arise between the putative altruistic drive and self-preservation: helping others versus helping oneself. And I believe that it is on this conflict that religious and political leaders through history have constructed their elaborate theories of right and wrong, good and evil, sin and righteousness. In addition, it is easy to see how an inborn sense of loyalty to the clan is transformed, through various conditioning experiences, into the behavioral phenomenon known as patriotism
Obviously I’m aware that the position sketched out above of a primitive altruistic drive is fraught with problems. Many theoreticians would maintain that there are only two basic drives – pursue pleasure and avoid pain – and that all subsequent motivators and our sense of good and evil are built on this basic structure through environmental influences.
So there it is – that’s where I’m coming from when I say that sin is a contentless concept. It has no meaning other than the arbitrary and self-serving meaning that religious authorities give it. Civil and political rulers through the ages have used religion – and in particular the notion of man’s inherent sinfulness – for their own ends. The message has been – “don’t worry about how much we oppress you; don’t worry about your poverty and deprivation. You don’t deserve anything better, and anyhow, you’ll get your reward in the next life.” And of course, the religious leaders walk along locked in step with this pernicious doctrine. Religion has always been the sidearm of civil government.
In her comment, Jeanne had expressed the belief that the concept of sin has “…as much ‘content’ as ‘psychosis’ or ‘neurosis’…” And of course here we are in complete agreement. My primary argument against the APA and DSM is that the concepts “mental illness,” “psychosis,” “neurosis,” etc., have no intrinsic content. The APA has abandoned the term neurotic, but retains the term psychotic to describe what would normally be called “craziness.” The concepts of sin and mental illness have in common that they both purport to be explanatory when in fact they are merely descriptive. And even their descriptiveness is dependent on a man-made and rather arbitrary listing. I have discussed this distinction between explanations and descriptions in detail elsewhere.