Behaviorism and Sin

by Phil on October 28, 2011

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.

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  • jeanne

    Thank you for addressing this. It’s terribly hard for me to write about, not being good at apologetics. My beliefs about religion are more experiential, based on my own life in a family of atheists and indifferentists, and what came of us all. I certainly know good atheists, for example my brother. But I think he and I benefited for a residue of a long religious tradition, ie my mother’s Methodist background. Her grandparents had been missionaries. That sensibility does not disappear in a generation.

    I have sort of a materialist view of religion as well as a practical. I can’t help but think religion resulted from an evolutionary process, that certain religious communities like the Jews were able to prosper while others floundered. They developed concepts of good and bad based on the problems of people trying to live together. The Jews had laws written down, very firm and express teachings that were to be passed down to each generation. Some would say they went a little, uh, far with it.

    What does an atheist teach – Stoicism? Kant’s Categorical Imperatives? Be Nice and Don’t Hurt Nobody? Children need more discernment than that.

    My church has the Commandments, the Parables, Catechisms and Encyclicals that attempt to cover every facet of human life. We adopted the Cardinal Virtues from the Romans, added the Seven Deadly Sins and the Theological Virtues. Maybe Faith, Hope and Charity speak more to me now as a 62-year-old, than it would have when I was 10, I don’t know. And we have prayers.

    I sure could have used some of that when confronting the moral chaos that was coming at me from every direction.

    Instead, I was left to pick up my views from TV, from what little my mother said (I was supposed to read her mind) from novels, and song lyrics. It’s no way to raise a generation.

    Most the atheists I know of are not happy. They don’t age well. They become somewhat loony (Ayn Rand), sociopathic (Bertrand Russell) , or suicidal (Hunter Thompson). The best (Sydney Hook, Saul Bellow) are maybe one generation removed from religion. I do not have data points for you, just my life and the lives around me.

    Original sin proves itself daily, with the stupidity of virtually Everyone.

    My church opposes abortion and artificial contraception because it wants us to continue to procreate and have good, joyful attitudes about raising the next generation. As it is, many people including myself gave it a pass. It’s much easier to live for today, and trip out on your own ego, than think about the future. That is man’s natural tendency anyway. We could very easily revert back to the hedonism and infanticide of the ancients.

    I see nothing wrong with loyalty and devotion to clan or country. Again, it’s an evolutionary drive, whose clan is more able to survive and thrive? What do they do right, what do they do wrong?

    I go to Mass every week. There is a 90+ lady who comes to the same service, who looks so much like my mother. She has a smile for everyone, and now struggls to get up the stairs of the old church using a walker. But she’s there. How I wish it were my mother.

    Remember, I wasn’t raised this way. I figured it out after my baptism at 43.

  • http://behaviorismandmentalhealth.com Phil

    Jeanne,

    Thanks for coming back. These are intense issues, most of which are outside my orbit.

    I would like to pick up one point. You write: “Original sin proves itself daily, with the stupidity of virtually Everyone.”

    When we examine a phenomenon through the lens of a firmly-held, preconceived idea, we can usually find abundant “evidence” for this idea. The APA’s list of so-called mental illnesses is an example of this. Original sin is another. The truth of the matter, however, is that if we want to truly understand human behavior, we must acquaint ourselves with the well-established principles of behavior acquisition and we must acquaint ourselves with the historical vagaries and vicissitudes of the individual that we are trying to understand. There are no shortcuts to this process.

    Jeanne, in your comment you mentioned apologetics, and this prompts me to clarify that I am not trying to argue you in or out of any particular position. People choose their positions for all sorts of reasons, and it is no business of mine to quarrel with these decisions. I have only one agenda on this blog, namely to draw attention to the spurious foundation of modern psychiatry (specifically the APA’s DSM). It is, of course, my hope that people will read this material and recognize the shortcomings of the APA’s system, but I also recognize that this is a matter for each individual reader.

    Once again, thanks for coming back, and best wishes.

  • Adam Martin

    This made me think of how similar psychiatry is to other religions.

    Sin = thought, feeling, or behavior disorders
    Confession = therapy
    Clergy = psychiatrists
    Proselytization = mental health campaigns
    Eucharist = medication
    Holy Book = DSM
    Inquisitors = the people administering involuntary treatment at the ward

    The only thing missing is a deity, so I guess it would be more of an atheistic religion.

  • cannotsay

    You are not the first to have made that connection of the DSM as some sort of sacred text of the secular world http://www.academia.edu/3126064/Releasing_the_Spirits_-_The_implications_of_cultural_accommodation_in_DSM5 .

    I will add to your analogies that “exclusion from the DSM” is used by all sorts of people to “claim” normality, prominent among them, LGBT people.

    This is why the DSM model is so popular. It gives secularists an excuse to impose their notions of normality. Divine inspiration is replaced by “vote by experts” but the notion of “mind guardians” imposing their notion of normality on the rest of the population remains. We might be less religious and more secular. That doesn’t mean that humans have lost an impulse to impose their notions of normality onto other people.

  • Cledwyn “Untamed Bulbs”

    Religion is little more than glorifed advertising, and both are species of alchemy. Mutatis mutandis, they both specialize in peddling something as that which it is not.

    Just like the advertizer lies about his crappy products in order to sell them, the peddler of religious advertisements (whose product is eixstence itself), lies about the world in order to sell this quintessence of crap we call life.

    Both are essentially fraud merchants.

    Both are alchemists, turning shit into gold.

    Both sacrifice humanity at the altar of their deities. In the former case, the god of money; in the latter, the god who religion would have us believe authored this tragi-farce.

    Looked at another way, religion is basically the art of making people grateful for cancer, and for every affliction life visits upon upon us, all because of what is written in books written by mischievous swindlers, with a wicked sense of humor, it must be granted. On this front, they are helped by all the armies of self-interested parents out there in confederacy against the truth about life because they, for numerous not so romantic reasons, inflicted this sexually transmitted disease as Laing called it, this existential herpes, on someone else, which can only be justified through the claim, upheld by numerous religions, that life is a gift for which we should be grateful.

    To which I would reply, which part exactly?

    Perhaps its the diseases we should be grateful for; yes, we should be grateful for cancer, for Alzheimers. Praise be to the lord, the complete bastard.

    Or perhaps all the hellish instruments of torture that man, paragon of the predators, has invented for his depraved amusement.

    Religious people hawking the notion that “life is a gift”, telling us to be grateful, occupies about the same moral status as telling a rape victim to be grateful for being raped, and for this reason, along with the endless procession of persecutions justifed in the advance of the true faith, I have made religion my enemy.

    Life is ultimately a choice between two equally undesirable options; suffering, or boredom, as Madame de Stael said. Viewed metaphorically, life is like choosing between different torture mechanisms, with the additional torture of being surrounded by people determined to enforce gratitude for being tortured.

    Those who read the books from whose pages are derived the authority religion possesses, claim their pages to be of divine provenance, when truth is they are of anal provenance; they have about them a whiff of feces suited to their true purpose, in that books like the bible are just free toilet paper really, that is assuming there is not someone out there who owns a bible who was stupid enough to pay for it!

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