Thursday, June 04, 2009

Who defines what is sin?

Religious types are always ranting and raving about what they call sin. But who gets to define what is sin and what is not?

In Romans 3:20 Paul says “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his (God’s) sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”

I suspect that if you asked Christians what comprised “The Law,” many would say The 10 Commandments. But this wouldn’t be correct. The law is the law of the Hebrew Torah which consists of a lot more than the 10 Commandments. The Torah contains 613 Mitzvot or laws.

As a matter of fact, The 10 Commandments aren’t even laws or commandments. In the original Hebrew of the bible they are referred to as the Aseret ha-D'varim. One could translate this to mean the Ten Sayings, the Ten Statements or perhaps the Ten Things, but not The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments would be Aseret ha-Mitzvot.

The Ten Commandments aren’t individual laws; they are categories of laws. There aren’t Ten Commandments plus 603 other laws. There are 613 laws which fit into one of the ten categories derived from the Aseret ha-D'varim.

Nor are any of the 613 laws considered more or less important than any of the others. All are equally sacred and equally binding. Perhaps this is why the Epistle of James states in James 2:10 “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it”.

The problem is these laws are 3,000 years old. Some of them have clearly been overtaken by events and are no longer meaningful. Others would be considered repulsive in modern society and still others are open to wildly varying interpretation.

So who decides which laws if not followed result in sin? Which laws can be safely ignored, and how different laws are to be interpreted? This is sort of especially important if they were all originally thought of as equally binding or if in breaking one you break all.

The Catholics have it easy. They have a hierarchy and an infallible (within the sphere of faith and morals) Pope. What about everyone else? Who’s the authority and who decided he was in charge?

I guess fundies don’t care. They need to grovel on a regular basis and declare they’re miserable sinners that don’t deserve any mercy and then ask poor Jesus to forgive them anyway. They don’t need to keep track of which sins they’ve committed; they just need to admit they’ve committed them even if they can’t figure out exactly what they may have been.

As Christopher Hitchens points out in “God is Not Great,” a fundamental principle of Totalitarianism is a system of laws that is essentially arbitrary or impossible to fully comprehend. What makes this an effective controlling mechanism is one can never be sure if one is breaking, or has broken, the law. This means you live in constant uncertainty, uncertainty leads to fear and frightened people are so much easier to control.

Therefore one can make the argument that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is a Totalitarian system that substitutes a heavenly leader for an earthly one. Or, in reality, Totalitarianism is a religion which substitutes an earthly god for a heavenly one. This is why I don’t buy the Hitler and Stalin arguments people throw around when they try to convince me how useful religion is.

But none of that answers my original question. Who decides what constitutes sin? Each man can’t decide for himself because that would be moral relativism and don’t religions claim morality is based upon Divine Authority? So who speaks for God?