Some Thoughts on Sin

The textbook definition of sin is doing something that you know to be wrong. And yet, as has been frequently noted in fiction, villains (almost) never think to themselves, “Gee, I’m doing something wrong now.” We each live out narratives in which we star as the protagonist. We are the heroes of our own stories.

2013-07-29 Anakin w quote

How can we reconcile these two notions: first, that sin requires a knowledge that what we are doing is wrong and second, that no one really believes what they are doing is wrong at the time that they do it?

I’m going to rely once again on Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Killing. (As I’ve written about before, his work has had quite an impact on me.) The primary thesis of his work is that human beings have a strong aversion towards killing other human beings, and that as a result most combat soldiers will not willingly take the life of their enemy even when their lives and their comrades lives depend on it.

Clearly the army that figures out how to overcome this inhibition will have a tremendous advantage over foes that have not. (Grossman suggests that several smaller wars in the 20th century reflected this imbalance, including the Falklands War.) Modern militaries have stumbled onto psychological practices such as operant conditioning to create automatic reflexes that will override the innate inhibition and render combat forces frighteningly effective. Soldiers trained in such techniques still require a host of supporting infrastructure to prevent serious psychological trauma, however, as their inhibitions kick in after-the-fact with horror at their trained reactions. A failure of such infrastructure led to widespread post-traumatic stress disorder in Vietnam Veterans after their return home.

But there’s a simpler route to highly aggressive fighting forces: atrocity. If you can successfully compel young, impressionable soldiers to commit horrible acts of violence against prisoners and non-combatants, you create a drastic tension between their innate reluctance to kill and their innate drive to preserve a heroic self-narrative. In these cases, many soldiers will react to their own participation in atrocity by furiously suppressing their sense of empathy with their enemy (a practice that is significantly easier if the enemy shares common ethnic or religious traits which the soldier does not). Having thus mutilated their own psyches and amputated their sense of empathy, these soldiers are subsequently much more prone to killing enemy combatants, rendering the army more effective in the short run. (Grossman argues that in the long run this a self-defeating strategy because it also increases the fighting spirit of the opposing forces who have both righteous anger and an assurance that surrender is not an option on their side.)

Taking this act of atrocity to be a template for sin, it is apparent that the initial act of sin–the killing of unarmed noncombatants–is not necessarily the most important element of the process. The atrocity is facilitated by a host of psychological factors that have been operating on the young soldier, forces like in-group cohesion, propaganda, obedience to authority, and of course the threat of harm. Grossman tells the story of a young German soldier who was ordered to execute civilians, refused, and was promptly executed himself. It’s astonishing, he says, that with the weight of all these factors some individual still find the will to resist even at the cost of their own lives. Such individuals are rare, however, and in the vast majority of cases once the orders for atrocity have been enacted most soldiers go along with it.

I’m not saying that we should not view that act itself as sinful, but as experiments like Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s both show, the difference between abuser and ordinary citizen is primarily one of circumstance. Circumstance does not seem like a terribly good indicator of moral stature. If Bob and Tom have the same character, but Bob engages in atrocity because his unit was ordered to do so and Tom doesn’t because his unit wasn’t (but would have made the same decisions), how much difference is there, really, between the two? This is why a focus on the event of sin can be misleading and counter-productive.

2013-07-29 Milgram

What’s more important, I believe, is to consider that happens after the event has taken place. Atrocity works (to the extent that it does at all) because most soldiers attempt to preserve their sanity and/or heroic inner-narrative by redefining their values. Explicitly: they dehumanize those that they have killed to preserve their self-image. This is the real problem, because the commission of the atrocity itself may be mitigated by a host of factors, but responding to it by embracing it after the fact internalizes and affirms the warped values implicit in the original atrocity and does so without any compulsion other than preservation of ego.

This is why it made sense for King Lamoni to speak of giving up his sins as though that were some kind of sacrifice. The sacrifice comes from abandoning psychological insulation against the reality of our deeds and making ourselves vulnerable to feeling the disconnect between what is truly good and beautiful and the deficient moral reality we have crafted for ourselves.

Thus the consequence of sin–which is the embrace of wrong acts after the fact rather than the wrong act itself–is creating a private universe of painful immorality. That, in a word, is Hell: we each create our own by our actions and the values that they enact. Consider again the case of the soldier who has committed atrocities and then internalized their logic: in dehumanizing his adversary and overriding the fundamental empathy of our species he has spiritually mutilated himself in a horrible fashion. It’s a vision captured vividly in fiction by J. K. Rowling’s final depiction of the defeated Tom Riddle. After shredding his own soul in the commission of murders, there’s barely enough left to recognize him as a human being anymore.

2013-07-29 Dumbledore Limbo w Quote

What, then, is Heaven? Heaven is a flight back to a world of perfectly harmonious morality. Who has made that world? Christ, alone, has come down and lived in the same conditions in which we each find ourselves, and yet affirmed throughout his entire life the proper ranking of values. He created His own Heaven, in which He is free to dwell with His Father. (If there is an objectively correct moral framework, than any person who creates a perfect instance of it finds themselves in a populous Heaven with everyone else who has done so.)

The purpose of the atonement, then, is to invite us to abandon our own own self-constructed dungeons and escape into the world He has created. To do so, we must first be willing to abandon our own sins, which is to say our own narrative and defensive fantasies. We must be willing to submit ourselves to Christ’s–which is to say God’s–moral universe.

In any case, shifting the emphasis on sin away from the sinful events themselves and towards an examination on the moral character and desires of sinners in reaction to their own behavior will clearly have an impact on our conception of the atonement, but that’s a different topic for a different day.

20 comments for “Some Thoughts on Sin

  1. Well done! Repentance is a religious form of psychotherapy aimed in part at releasing us from this kind of trap freeing us for connection and intimacy with others and with God.

  2. Nathaniel,

    I’m getting closer to understanding you but I will keep pressing a point or two.

    My question gets back to our natures and our understanding of our natures. You use empathy as an example of a natural part of us that is connected to Goodness. And this post describes a process where people redefine values to relieve the pain of doing wrong relative to empathy.

    But I get the vague feeling you are doing the same thing in reverse. That is you do good, and are trying to find reasons why doing good is a reasonable thing.

    Since people have natural drives to do both good and bad (one does not need to be a psychopath to be selfish or lustful or slothful), where does the knowledge of good and evil come from. There seems to be something of an infinite regress in this process of an internal hero narrative and value formation. BY and large, athletic families seem to make athletic skill highly valued, the musically inclined value music, the gregarious highlight social skill, the beautiful value appearance, and the intelligent focus on smarts.

    How do you and I know whether your posts are an example of the naturally pious promoting morality or whether they are revealing something generally truthful? How do I know whether I agree with you because we were brought up the same or have similar moral intuitions or whether, instead, they go beyond our common consent?

    This is a rough stab at an analogy, but how do we know that religion isn’t the putting of a hero narrative on externally imposed rules. Something like, I was chastised for stealing and don’t want to be punished, but since I’m a brave hero I’ll think of myself as voluntarily complying with a higher law.

    That sounds rather Nietzschean but I’m not making his arguments. I’m just trying to get at how you, personally, keep straight which natural desires are good, which are bad, and which thoughts are rationalizations and which are accurate understandings of morality.

    I’m saying we can’t tell good from bad in most cases, I’m arguing that if we reason by analogy from the easy cases to the hard cases, we don’t always know the contribution of nature, nuture, culture, revelation, circumstance, the Holy Ghost, temptation, egotism, etc. involved.

    More pointedly, you seem to want some moral principle (I’m not sure the extent you see it is as a completely transcendent will, or Reason, or Spirituality or even a natural process).

    Maybe, I’m not sure, but maybe the difference between abuser and ordinary citizen Really Is primarily one of circumstance.

    Isn’t the only thing wrong with that, that is conflicts with our “We are agents with free will” hero narrative and couldn’t you just be fighting to maintain it?

  3. Wow, the all-time Freudian slip. I thought I wanted to say “I’m NOT saying we can’t tell good from bad in most cases” but I guess I meant what I wrote! :)

  4. I’ve been more and more convinced of a kind of “morality = human flourishing” paradigm (which could be argued to be Aristotelian) and this fits quite well within it. Joseph Smith reportedly told Oliver B. Huntington that “some people entirely denounce the principle of self-aggrandizement as wrong. ‘It is a correct principle,’ [Joseph] said, ‘and may be indulged upon only one rule or plan–and that is to elevate, benefit and bless others first. If you will elevate others, the very work itself will exalt you. Upon no other plan can a man justly and permanently aggrandize himself’.” On this, Truman G. Madsen wrote,

    “God, taught the Prophet, loves Himself in an inclusive way and hence “everything God does is to aggrandize His kingdom.” Such love expands the “self” to include all selves, all life; and God, therefore, cannot be happy except in the happiness of all creatures. Call that “selfish” if you like. But notice that the opposite is a selfishness which seeks something in indifference to or at the expense of others. We are commanded to be selfish as God is. Joseph Smith taught that there is a law (not, if I understand him, of God’s making but in the very nature of things) that “upon no other principle can a man permanently and justly aggrandize himself.” This is the meaning of the Master’s cryptic phrase: “Lose yourself…and find yourself.”” (Four Essays on Love, 13-14)

    In his book ‘The Moral Landscape’, Sam Harris defines morality as that which produces the well-being of conscious creatures. Drawing on studies of moral cognition, he recognizes the existence of a “reward component of genuine altruism (often called the “warm glow” associated with cooperation)” and that “we know from neuroimaging studies that cooperation is associated with heightened activity in the brain’s reward regions.” From this evidence, Harris concludes, “Here…the traditional opposition between selfish and selfless motivation seems to break down. If helping others can be rewarding, rather than merely painful, it should be thought of as serving the self in another mode.” (pgs. 91-92)

    Well done.

  5. WW: Sam Harris defines morality as that which produces the well-being of conscious creatures.

    So morality = a few beers? :)

  6. I like this post a lot, Nathaniel. It is just the kind of bold and yet grounded stuff we need more of. This is also just the kind of story that Terryl and Fiona need to support their view of divine judgment, and I think could do a lot to strengthen their case.

    I think you have only captured part of what sin is, though–one form of it. You proceed as though we start out knowing what is good, and then turn away from it through a semi-intentional process; but lots of people seem to never have access to a perspective from which they can see another way to go forward besides sin–or anyway, not until years later. Much of the time we are stuck in narratives that make sin seem natural and even right, not because we manufactured such a narrative after the fact, but just because that is how we saw things in the first place. Often this perspective is shaped significantly by the culture we inhabit; other times it is just a result of ignorance.

    Now, granted, our culpability for sinning in ignorance is diminished. But I would maintain that it is still a difficult process to extricate ourselves from those sins, because precisely because we don’t know they are wrong, we think of them as being fine and good, and we have gotten used to desiring and enjoying them. I mean, some people actually like eating Twinkies . . . : )

  7. How, if man is a finite being incapable of understanding and comprehending the eternities, is he supposed to make proper choices that affect his eternal life without all of the information required to make the choice, and without the ability to understand eternity even if it was shown him? The way I see it, sin is a misconception of mans surroundings and his true nature (sin literally means to miss… miss what? Miss the point…). Call me silly, but most sin is not evil in nature, just mankind unable or unwilling to see what he really is and act accordingly…

  8. I think ‘sin’ is the point at which we no longer trust God, and decide to become little gods of our own making and assert our own desires.

    It seems that is what happened in the Garden…and what still happens today with each and every one of us.


  9. RE: #8 — I think your question is also articulated from this line from God Who Weeps, “The question, however, remains: on what basis can the consequences of our choices be deferred or abated? The law of moral agency, of choice and consequence, does not require that we entirely bear the burden of our own choices made in this life because those choices are always made under circumstances that are less than perfect. Our accountability is thus always partial, incomplete. Into that gap between choice and accountability, the Lord steps.”

  10. Your analogies remind me very much of the great divorce, by CS Lewis. It’s been awhile since I read it, but it begins with a bus stop in hell, and the few people who do try taking it find themselves in heaven. Hell, it turns out is almost entirely in the imagination, but heaven is far too real for most people to be comfortable in, so they return to hell.

  11. Nathaniel — you said “The purpose of the atonement, then, is to invite us to abandon our own own self-constructed dungeons and escape into the world He has created.”

    Are you suggesting that this new world already exists? Or would it make more sense to say, “…escape into the world He will help you create”?

  12. Nathaniel,

    Thanks for the great post. But I would argue that a thoughtful, sensitive individual has control over the conditioning that he/she experiences, and to a significant degree can reject the effects of that conditioning. I think resistors to war and atrocities are a little more common than you are prepared to argue at this time.

    I highly recommend C. Browning’s “Ordinary Men” as a counterpoint to Grossman’s book.

  13. […] sin – which is the embrace of wrong acts after the fact rather than the wrong act itself […]

    do you have a name for this new religion you’re inventing, Nathaniel? because the LDS Church teaches very simply that sin = disobeying God (which is an “act itself”). why doesn’t that satisfy you?

  14. Pale robber,

    Strictly speaking, the LDS church doesn’t teach anything, people, the spirit or other beings do and they always need to be interpreted. (I mean you didn’t mean that a wardhouse teaches sin = disobeying God did you?)

  15. I think the original sin is still primarily in the decision/act. There may be varying levels of moral culpability based on the light and knowledge that was sinned against, but I believe in most cases there is at least some degree of light and knowledge that the wrongdoer turns against. This is the condemnation of man, “that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light”.

    I think this post rather is a good description of what it means to be bound by sin, and why the atonement is needed to get out of that binding.

  16. Also, if the original act is not turning against light, why would they have access to new light immediately after the act to then accept or reject? It seems to me that if truly the original act was not turning against light, then afterwards there would be no need for guilt or self-deception. Only when at some later time upon learning the law (that they were previously ignorant to), will death occur, and a need arise for temporal repentance to allow their world view to change opening the way to walk a more righteous path.

  17. no one believes what they are doing at the time is wrong ? I would have to disagree. I sometimes know instantly that it is wrong, as I do it, before I do it or immediately after I do it. Without sin, no humankind…(sinless Adam = childless)

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