I realize that this will be a controversial post, and I want to stress at the outset that I am not an atheist and have no interest in propagating a secular worldview as necessarily better than a religious worldview. I know that I may be stirring the trolls’ nest by writing this, but I nonetheless believe that this post will be worthwhile. By writing these words, I am seeking to help those many millions who have been damaged by the church in some way. It took me many years to understand the various pathological beliefs inherent in the Christian tradition, and I believe that I can now help others to find a better way. I also do not want to be taken to mean that there is nothing good in Christianity–far from it. Indeed, I find much that is valuable in the forms of devotion, in the call to service of others, and in the rich tradition of prophetic social justice. But there are also very big problems that strike to the very heart of key doctrines that cannot be easily extracted or ignored. So take this post as a friendly critique, even though I may sound strident at times. If I have offended you, I apologize in advance. If you are very touchy and defensive about your faith, please look elsewhere. This post is intended for those who have been traumatized by aspects of Christian belief and are searching for alternatives.
On the Problems with the Doctrine of Original Sin
Basic formal logic classes teach a fallacy known as black-and-white thinking or the false dichotomy, in which two categories exhaust a larger set and are mutually exclusive. The error comes in admitting of no degrees or admixture between the two terms, in this case, sinfulness and goodness, or, in classical terms, virtue and vice. No one in daily life seriously considers whether people come in two flavors, good and bad, but for some reason this still holds sway in religion, particularly Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity. This religion or set of religions teaches that Jesus Christ, and only Jesus Christ, is a wholly good human being, and all of the others in all of human history are stained and sinful. That is, Jesus is absolutely unique in the entire history of the planet. This is referred to as the “scandal” of the incarnation, which takes on something of an ironic tone for liberal Christians, who adopt this belief as something of a throwback pose, like wearing a Che t-shirt.
Once the error has been accepted, several pernicious outcomes follow. First, all human beings except Jesus of Nazareth are held to be damaged goods, less than complete persons, inadequate in some invisible way. The term “sinner” is to religion as the “n-word” is to race relations in the United States. It is a term of disempowerment, a term of control, a term of subjugation. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in the Antichrist, sin is an imaginary disease for which the Church supplies an imaginary cure. The concept of sin keeps Christians dependent on the Church for forgiveness, which, once the doctrine of original sin has been accepted, can only come in the form of vicarious atonement. In other words, Jesus gives you a “get of jail free” card, so that you don’t have to do the actual work of salvation. The situation is a bit better in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, where at least the saints are given a measure of respect, but even they are held to be sinners. .
The next pernicious outcome of this doctrine is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you truly believe that you cannot free yourself from sin, it makes no sense to even try. The idea of inherent sinfulness then becomes an excuse for every kind of moral laxity, for every failing, large or small. One can always say, “Well, we’re only human,” and nothing more need be said. Every concept of striving, of effort, of self-discipline, of fervor is stripped away by this permanent limit of advance imposed upon humanity for the sake of a power-hungry few. How many Buddhas, how many Krishnas, how many Christs have never been realized because they were told from their infancy that they were inherently sinful? How much suffering could have been spared if we only told our children, “you are good, you are holy, you are divine.” We would consider it child abuse to tell our children, “you are no good,” or “you will never amount to anything,” and yet this is what the doctrine of original sin does.
Another pernicious outcome of this doctrine is that all other divine figures other than Jesus Christ are just sinners and have no exalted status. This means that the saints, sages, and saviors of other traditions are morally equivalent to pawn brokers and used car salesmen (no offense taken, I hope: I am sure that some of these, too, are good people!) in the grand scheme of the universe. Right away, this puts Christianity into a head-on collision with every other faith, since it alone claims to have exhaustive access to the truth through this entirely unique human being. The Buddha, all of the avatars of Hinduism, the Taoist immortals, the healers of the indigenous traditions, every other divine figure is just rubbish in the eyes of the committed Christian. That is to say, according to the conditioning of the committed Christian, although many of them rightly doubt this idea in their hearts. It has also caused some theological controversies within the church, as it became difficult to say that an entirely sinless being could even be human in the first place.
Let’s just think about what happens if we get rid of the idea of original sin. The curse that was never there in the first place is lifted. Humanity has access to its full range of potential to become fully deified, to become wholly compassionate, wholly good and understanding, wholly in harmony with nature and other creatures. The long-squelched religious capacity of humanity, especially in the West, is once again awakened to new possibilities. There is no more dependency on authority figures for salvation, no more clinging to the Bible as the unique “Word of God.” The book is blank and can be written anew. In short, everything that was supposed to happen on Easter morning can happen if we just stop believing that we are inherently sinful. The dharmic traditions have this incredible advantage in having always believed in human perfectibility, in the innate goodness of the human being.
On the Belief in a Literal Devil
The trouble with the Devil is not what you might think: Satan, the great Deceiver, Lucifer, or whatever label you prefer, is not dangerous to humanity because of whatever evil he might inspire. Evangelical Christian preachers would have you believe that the greatest danger to humanity lies in believing that the devil does not exist. In this way, Satan gets unwitting humans to let down their guards so that he can gain entry to the human psyche. This process of temptation is tailored to each individual, as demonstrated by C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. This fictionalized account of demonic enchantment makes for great reading, and it makes the reader wonder about his or her own character flaws, but it doesn’t address the main problem with theories of evil that rely on some grand demonic scheme.
By far, the greatest danger of believing in the devil is that such beliefs give human beings a ready excuse for any moral shortfall that they might have. “The devil made me do it,” has become a cliché, and few people would be so bold, or so insane, to invoke such a phrase in serious manner in defense of their own actions. And yet, due to the influence of Christianity, we assume that people have inherent weaknesses that naturally come to the fore in situations of stress or “temptation.” As in the previous post on original sin, the Devil provides a scapegoat for any sort of bad behavior in which people might want to engage. This is easier than looking into one’s own motives and habits to determine the true nature of behavior that harms others.
To be perfectly honest, though, a great many Christians believe in the literal existence of the Devil. According to a Harris Poll in 2007, more Americans believe in the existence of the Devil than believe in the theory of Darwinian evolution. Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court Justice, was apparently one of those who thinks that Satan is a “real person.” In this worldview, which bears a close resemblance to the Manicheeism that influenced Saint Augustine and comes in both Protestant and Catholic forms, the Devil almost becomes a second God, an evil counterweight to the big man upstairs. And while God may triumph in the end, Satan apparently has free rein up until the last day. Humanity is left hanging in the balance in this stalemate between two cosmic powers, with an inner nature that apparently prefer’s the Devil’s company to God’s.
Contrast this with the dharmic worldview, in which evil can be explained by cause and effect relations. Evil stems not from some unchanging essence or personal power at work in the universe, but through greed, anger, and ignorance, the source of attachments which bind people to the material world. Hinduism and Buddhism have demons, but these demons can be understood as bad thoughts, as allegorical representations of what happens when people fail to discipline themselves through meditation and other techniques of yoga. Demons can be “exorcised” through the four types of yoga, including karma yoga, the practice of selfless service, which burns up the negative tendencies accrued in the past.
Please take note that I do not oppose believing in the Devil because of its supposed “irrationality” or “superstitious” nature. Indeed, I think such terms are generally used as terms of abuse by those touting equally “superstitious” beliefs in scientific or technological progress (a secular salvation narrative). Demonic possession may play an important role in practices of healing and divination at the folk level, and far be it from me to condemn these belief systems. I only wish to question the displacement of responsibility that such belief systems may encourage. The concept of duty takes foremost place in dharmic systems of ethics, and it is from an abandonment of duty that evil chiefly stems. If you need to have a demon exorcised in order to do your duty, so be it, but do not blame Satan or a demon for lack of effort or for a plan that doesn’t come together. Such false causation obscures the true causes, which must be sought through inner inquiry.
If you are (still) reading this post, you must on some level be on the fence about your prior exposure to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You probably have some trauma about your exposure to the followers of the One True God: you nurse wounds you have only just realized that you have. This post will make clear to you why you feel hurt and confused about your involvement with Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. It will make clear to you why you feel like you had some positive religious experiences in one of these traditions and yet you still feel like you have to leave. Again, this post is written for those who may want to leave monotheism (or Trinitarian beliefs) behind but perhaps do not know how or are afraid to make the first step. This is not an exercise in evangelism but a conversation with the recently un-converted.
The first thing that must be acknowledged about the God of the Abrahamic faiths is that this God practices hijacker ethics. If someone came up to you while you were driving down the road, pulled a gun, and said, “Drive, or else!,” you would have to do what that person said or risk having your brains splatted all over the car’s interior. No one in this scenario could say that you acted out of free will, since free will and coercion are not compatible with one another. And yet Christians do say that they have “freely chosen” to follow God, even though they also maintain that they will be damned to eternal hellfire if they do not believe. Take a close look at this belief and the similarity with the carjacking example. God says, “Do what I say, or else!”
Now Christians will say that they do not follow the teachings of Jesus out of fear but out of love. The coercion part doesn’t really affect them. Many liberal Christians, and I am sure liberal Muslims and Jews, etc., do not believe in a literal hell. Perhaps they do not believe in hell at all. But take a look at the Qur’an or the Tanakh or the various Christian Bibles, and you will find example after example of divine retribution for the non-Israelite, the non-Muslim, the non-believer. This happens either in the space of actual history or in some apocalyptic scenario or metaphysically separate hell. All of this violence has its root in the divine command for the nation of Israel to slaughter the other peoples of the Ancient Near East: the Hittites, the Amorites, the Jebusites, etc. They are commanded not only to slaughter them, but to kill every last man, woman and child, every last sheep. They are to burn down every temple, every sacred grove, every house.
To say, “I don’t believe in a literal hell,” is a first step, but it fails to deal with the underlying rhetorical force of that violence and its repeated enactment in the history of these faiths (yes, monotheism is inherently violent). The violence of Christians against Jews has its roots in the very scriptures that Jews use to justify their chosen status. And the violence between Islam and Christianity also has its roots in this same worldview, which divides up people according to how they do or do not fit into the divine plan. These religions compete with each other and position themselves as alternatives, but the core logic is the same: you are either in or out, saved or unsaved, chosen or heathen, good or evil. No amount of fancy theologizing or mental gymnastics can ever get rid of that dynamic, can ever un-write this central violence.
But these faiths do emphasize divine love and peace and not just retribution. One is supposed to find peace by submitting to the divine plan and living according to it. I suggest that believers in the Abrahamic faiths suffer from Stockholm syndrome. They come to identify and sympathize with their captors—the imams, priests, ministers, and rabbis—who tell them that they need some sort of divine salvation to rescue them from alienation. A battered spouse may truly love the abuser. An abused believer may love an abusive God. The condition of learned helplessness is very difficult to escape. The love and peace are the “carrot” to the “stick” of divine retribution. Even the street-level pimp is sometimes kind to the prostitutes that he manipulates and controls. Indeed, it is part of the very definition of manipulation that the manipulator seems to act in the interests of the person being manipulated.
In childhood, I read books like Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller, which feature touching portraits of young boys hunting raccoons with their dogs. I suppose a generation of American educators must have thought it appropriate to teach elementary school children the virtues of bashing a defenseless animal to death with a club. At any rate, supposedly a raccoon can be caught in a trap by driving nails into the opening of a hollow log, so that the nails do not touch but leave a small opening in the center. A piece of tin foil or some shiny object is placed inside. The raccoon grabs the piece of tin foil, since it is attracted to shiny objects but cannot get its hand back out of the trap. The sharp nails prevent it from withdrawing its hand. It will not let go of the tin foil even though it may be clubbed to death by the trapper. Heaven is the “shiny object” which keeps Christians (and other monotheists) trapped in an abusive belief system.
As long as one remains within the logic of these abusive belief systems, one will never be able to leave. Leaving takes a great deal of courage. It requires saying, “hell or not, I cannot be a part of this anymore. Heaven or not, I cannot be a part of this anymore.” It requires letting go of the shiny piece of tin foil, which is the promise of heaven, either on this earth or after death. It requires saying, “I cannot be bribed by such promises.” It often requires losing ties to family and friends or having those ties significantly downgraded. It requires finding an entirely new support system that does not rely on the old rewards and punishments system. It requires no longer thinking of oneself as part of a Chosen group. Most importantly, stepping away from monotheism requires evolving into maturity and taking responsibility for one’s own actions and beliefs.
There are many great souls in all of the Abrahamic religions, many great and saintly teachers who serve as good models, but, in a way, these great souls are better than the traditions from which they come. They succeeded despite their religious beliefs, not because of them. Most great saints were at odds with their religious communities and existed on the fringes of their religious institutions. They were a hair’s breadth away from heresy and execution. A heretic is just a saint who, for one reason or another, fell afoul of the religious authorities, often for reasons having nothing to do with maintaining the purity of doctrine. Orthodoxy is about maintaining the privileged status of a priestly class, not about making sure that belief is correct or efficacious.
The believer is always in an infantile, degraded status in the Abrahamic systems. Think about the pervasive Christian imagery of the sheep and the shepherd. This imagery is at least non-violent, but it is also insulting. In what other context would you want to be called a “sheep”? Friedrich Nietzche pointed out this infantilizing dynamic, this “slave morality,” in his many writings. Think also of the “child of God” image. It sounds good until you begin to wonder whatever happened to the “adult of God.” These religions preclude their followers from ever growing into full maturity: they must be ever dependent upon a text, a savior, the law, etc. Salvation is universally emphasized over sanctification in Christianity: the common believer must be content with being a sinner for life.
Not All Religions are the Same
All of this probably sounds like an elaborate argument for atheism, and many atheists do make exactly these points. To an Abrahamic believer, atheism is indeed the only alternative, and a bad one at that (the lake of fire awaits!). But there are alternatives: the dharmic ones. I will briefly explain why the dharmic alternatives are better. I will confine my remarks to Hinduism, not to say that Jains and Sikhs and Buddhists do not have alternatives as well. Much of what I say will apply to these belief systems, but my wording may not be as accurate for them.
First of all, Hinduism does not have a centralized authority structure but many sampradayas or lineages, each with their own ways of creating authority. The guru principle is notoriously abused (and used to defame Hinduism), but it actually creates a more horizontal authority structure. If one becomes dissatisfied with one’s own guru, one can leave and go to another lineage. One can even meditate, serve, and realize and become a guru. Hinduism is an open source religion: one may go to the scriptures (themselves an open canon) or go to the practices (meditation, japa, puja, etc.) and simply start discovering things. If one does not like the guru lineages, one may find teachers like Ramana Maharshi who, though a great saint, never named a successor to create a lineage.
There is sin (pāpa) in Hinduism, but there is nothing final about it, no state of sinfulness that cannot be overcome. One may have a teacher or a guide, but one ultimately overcomes sin by doing good actions instead of bad ones. Each bad action must be allowed to bear its fruit before it can be overcome. There is no shortcut in this respect, which leads to a long and cyclical idea of time. It may take many lifetimes, but all beings ultimately do reach liberation. The world is not divided into two camps of the eternally saved and the eternally damned. There is suffering in the dharmic belief systems, but it is self-created and is not a divine punishment. I just have to realize how to live in a better way so that I do not make things worse for myself in the future. I have to learn to be kind to my future self, to become my own father and mother, to give birth to the kind of person that I want to be.
Who are the gods, if they are not the great chastisers in the sky? The Sanskrit term is devas, “shining ones.” They may be viewed as separate beings, as spirits residing in Nature, or even as aspects of a single divinity, or some combination thereof, or some other configuration not mentioned here. One need not get the metaphysics right in order to belief in them. The devas are humanity’s helpers as they strive to grow into greater perfection. If one is inclined towards skepticism, which may be understandable after the Abrahamic trauma, one may think of them as aspects of the mind or the personality that one may wish to cultivate. That is, one may correctly think of them as personifications of wisdom or intelligence or fortune or whatever quality one wishes to bring into greater fulfillment in one’s life. From there, the techniques of cultivation are limitless and are beyond the scope of this post. The important thing to remember about them is that they are not separate from me or you or the trees or the sky. They are not the pinnacle of a command-and-control structure, as in the Abrahamic beliefs. We serve them so that they may serve us: a symbiosis exists between the devotee and the god. They are “higher” in a sense, but even they must obey the law of dharma. Gods can fall and humans can ascend. Non-human nature, too, participates in this unfolding drama, as plants, flowers, and animals become part of the cult of a god, manifestations of divinity.
To just bring this to a close, you may still have fond feelings about your time in an Abrahamic faith. You may remember feeling close to God at camp or in the pews or kneeling in prayer. You may remember that warm feeling in your heart, the love and generosity that you felt inspired to breathe into the world. Thankfully, that doesn’t go away when you leave the church or the mosque or the synagogue behind. Nor is it only found in the traditions of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism. Such feelings of love and kindness and generosity of the inheritance of all of humanity, not the personal property of any one faith or belief system. The big lie was just that there is only one correct way of doing things, only one way into heaven. Heaven is all around us, and so are the ways for reaching it. If your belief system has belittled you and made you feel guilty and afraid, it has not served as a vehicle for leading you to higher awareness. You have divine potential within you, and you should make the very adult step of finding your own way to truth.