April 4, 2015

Sin, Salvation, and Social Control

Damnation/Salvation
Damnation/Salvation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Sin and salvation are prominent aspects of Christian doctrine. They have something else in common too. Sin and salvation are made up constructs that do not actually exist. Nothing is inherently sinful, and there are no supernatural entities against which one can sin or that can offer salvation. But these things are made up, that does not mean that they cannot be extremely useful.

The idea of sin was made up a long time ago by people in power who wanted to control the behavior of our ancestors. By convincing them that certain behaviors were sinful, they gained greater control over them than could be accomplished through other means. The idea that supernatural entities were always watching and that they would be faced with eternal damnation for their sins was quite effective for their purposes. And what is salvation if not a reward for behaving the way those in power want you to behave?

In the days before police militarization and surveillance cameras, those in power were fairly limited in terms of how they could control the behavior of their subordinates. They could not be everywhere, and they were bound to miss most bad behavior. Sin became a great way to trick people into policing themselves, maintaining the power of those who had it and bringing massive power to the clergy.

Some Christians still claim that without fear of sin, humanity would devolve into all sorts of awful behavior. Maybe this is true for them, but it certainly does not strike me as accurate for many of us. We have learned that morality is not dependent on made up notions of sin and salvation. We base our sense of right and wrong on far more relevant and practical concerns (e.g., how our behavior affects those around us).

Despite this, I wonder sometimes if there might be at least one way the Christians who insist that we need sin and salvation might be correct. Even today, I suspect that some people - especially those who are relatively powerless and disadvantaged - might behave more passively than they would otherwise because they believe in sin. That is, they might put up with things they wouldn't otherwise put up with because of their belief in sin and salvation. Undoubtedly, this helps to maintain the power of those who exploit them.

What would happen if those who with the least power in society abandoned their belief in sin and salvation and began to confront reality head-on? They might realize that no heavenly rewards were coming. They meek were not going to inherit anything in exchange for enduring misery. They might see the unjust nature of their predicament for what it was. And we might have revolution in the streets.

So yes, there might be at least one way in which belief in sin and salvation still keeps the masses meek, compliant, and more easily controllable by the powerful. But why is this a good thing except for those in power? Why is this something in which the rest of us should be complicit? Isn't at least possible that revolution can sometimes be necessary to bring about just and equitable societies?

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