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It’s all his fault ... Constantine the Great: All about Constantine and Christianity, here.

... How – exactly - is anything better if Jesus died for our sins? First published 2013. Updated today

Christian doctrine says Jesus came to ‘save us’, and that his (temporary) ‘death’ redeemed us from our sins. This sounds somehow wonderful and heart-warming, so much so that it almost seems churlish to suggest that there is something very odd and dubious about the notion.  Yet on closer consideration, the idea starts to look deeply troubling.

I had never really focused on this aspect of Christian dogma until I watched a recent film production of the C.S. Lewis children’s novel “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”, which like all his seemingly harmless children’s novels is laced with religious propaganda.  It suddenly dawned on me - from seeing Lewis’ adaptation of the Christian redemption tale presented as a movie – how unhelpful is the notion of Jesus dying for our sins, and of us being able to be forgiven our sins and redeemed only by ‘accepting’ his salvation (as opposed to actually trying to behave in moral ways ourselves).  In the novel and film, the innocent child Edmund was tricked by the evil witch into doing wrong, but then he himself saw the problem, rejected her evil and resolved to do better.  But in the fantasy story it turned out that this – his own effort to do good – was not enough; only the Jesus-figure Aslan’s (temporary) sacrifice of his own life on Edmunds behalf could redeem him.  It dawned on me how questionable this was – the notion that Edmunds redemption did not come from his own efforts to be good, but rather only through a surrogacy arrangement whereby somebody else’s action – Aslan’s temporary ‘death’ – was the only thing that could redeem him.  His own efforts to do good were irrelevant.  I realised this was not only irrational, but more importantly it simply provides no basis or reason for people to actually make the effort to act morally.

If this strange tenet of Christian doctrine were actually true, how would it make us better people?  Far from encouraging us to care more about the moral consequences of our actions, it appears rather to tend in the opposite direction by absolving us of the need to try to be better people because it says that our own efforts to do good are irrelevant.  This can hardly be a basis for a moral or ethical society because it gives us no motive to actually try to behave better.

How did such an odd notion of ‘redemption’ come to be an integral part of what one must assume is meant to be the Christian approach to living a morally worthwhile life?  At least in part the origin of this notion seems to be bound up in the historic context of the apocalyptic end-times belief in which the Christian cult originated.  At the time the early Christian cult was established, the end of the world was widely held to be coming imminently; God was believed to be about to judge the world once and for all, and there was no time left for either individuals or society to be made ‘worthy’ through their own efforts.  So it seems that in the Christian myth God cut us a deal that he would redeem those who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.  In essence, God gave us a last chance for a quick redemption – absolution from our sins leading to a reward of eternal life - because time had run out for us to become worthy – i.e., morally good – through our own efforts.

This apocalyptic end-times rationale for the doctrine of redemption through Christ later transmogrified into the uniquely Christian doctrine of ‘Original Sin’, as James Boyce explains in his excellent examination of the doctrine1 . Early Christian ideologues such as St. Augustine perceived that humans tended to be greedy, selfish and behave badly in a variety of ways. Knowing nothing of evolutionary psychology they tried to explain the origins of human ‘sin’ the only way they could conceive it – through their religious beliefs.  Their explanation – based entirely on Christian mythology in ignorance of the evolutionary origins and nature of the human condition – was that God originally made us good, but we (Adam and Eve) sinned against him in the Garden of Eden. This original sin was passed down to all of their descendants – us – through sex (i.e., reproduction).  Thus we all are intrinsically sinners, and because we are intrinsically sinful, no amount of good works or moral behaviour by us can remove our sinfulness.  Only God’s grace can wash away our sinfulness, and we can only achieve this through accepting Christ.  This belief seems to at least partly account for the bizarre tendency of Christians to regard sex as the greatest sin of all – because it is through sex that original sin is transmitted and perpetuated2 .

The insidious nature of this ignorant doctrine is obvious – it basically means that good works – striving to behave morally – cannot redeem us; we are going to hell no matter how much we strive to be good, unless we accept Christ and are redeemed by God’s grace.  Thus Christian doctrine does not tend to make us behave better; anything we might do to try to make this world a better place is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is achieving entry to heaven – our true purpose in life – and we can only do that through Christ’s redemption and God’s grace.  Thus Christianity at its doctrinal core does not tend to make us better people in this world, rather it tells us that the troubles of this world ultimately don’t matter; all that matters is being redeemed so that by God’s grace we lose our sinfulness and go to heaven.

So the doctrine of Original Sin and the apocalyptic end-times context in which Jesus appeared provide explanations for the origin of this strange doctrine of redemption through Christ.  However they do not justify it.  The end of the world that the founders of Christianity were expecting imminently did not come.  Two thousand years later we are still here, the world has not ended, no God has returned to judge us and create a heavenly kingdom on Earth.  Nor has Christianity made this world a better place – it was never intended to.  It is a doctrine founded on ignorance of the origins of the human condition, focussed not on making this world better but rather on a fanciful hope of a pleasant ‘afterlife’ in heaven;  we should have set these notions aside long ago.  To the extent that anything has got better – and it has (abolition of legal slavery, extension of rights to women, the growth of constitutional government and the rule of law, etc) - it has only been through peoples own hard-fought efforts to make the world better.  Moreover it is relevant to note that much of this progress has notoriously had to face down conservative religious opposition. While we still have huge moral problems to solve – most notably the climate crisis that has been brought on by our greed and over-consumption – there is no sign of any God returning to solve these for us.  We will only solve these problems by doing it ourselves – in a nutshell, by learning to behave better towards the planetary ecosystem and our use of its resources, which is widely recognised as the next level of moral growth that we need to strive for.  Redemption through acceptance of Jesus and God’s grace cannot contribute in the slightest to solving this problem.

The fact that Christianity started in an apocalyptic context, yet following the failure of the ‘end time’ to eventuate 2000 years ago has become a (mostly) non-apocalyptic religion while still retaining irrelevant apocalyptic tenets and the myth of Original Sin as central planks of its belief system, serves to underscore how divorced it is from not only reality, but also from its own roots.

Outside of an unrealised and highly unlikely apocalyptic end-time scenario, Christian doctrine offers no credible pathway to building a better – i.e., more ethical or moral – society.  What it offers is two somewhat contradictory notions, namely that, firstly, God has laid down the rules of good behaviour (moral codes) in the bible, and we must obey these or be sent to hell (according to one part of Christian doctrine); and secondly (confusingly) the notion that regardless of any bad behaviour we can in any case be redeemed and absolved of our sins through God’s grace by simply accepting Jesus as our lord and saviour (according to another part of Christian doctrine).

Neither of these notions offers any real motive for building a genuine and mature morality for either individuals or for society as a whole.  Not only does the notion of redemption through Jesus’ “sacrifice” make little sense other than in the context of a misunderstanding of human nature and an ‘end-times’ scenario (which is plainly not happening and is patently a fantasy); but this also contradicts the alternative religious notion that we must act properly or be damned, because it gives us an easy ‘get out of jail’ card to escape the consequences of acting badly (“sinning”).

Even setting aside this contradiction, the notion that we must adhere to a 2000 year old moral code that originated in a particular Middle Eastern cultural context is not a useful basis for a rationally moral society.  Rather it is an immature approach to morality because it is (negatively) driven by threats and fear of punishment, rather than (positively) by a mature desire and hope to have a good (i.e., safe, secure, co-operative, mutually supportive, flourishing) society to live in.  The religious approach to morality can properly be characterised as childish and immature, since if the reason we obey a moral code is that is imposed by some authority, then in the end we are – child-like - failing to take moral responsibility for our own actions.

This Christian approach to morality is based on the mythological notion that people are inherently cursed by ‘Original Sin’ and so will inevitably behave badly unless forced by fear of retribution to behave well (combined with a magical absolution of our sinfulness if we accept Jesus as our saviour).  In contrast to this ‘just so’ explanation of human social strife, over the last 200 years painstaking scientific research into our evolutionary origins has revealed a more plausible – and much more useful – explanation of the more dysfunctional aspects of our behaviour3 .  This is simply that we are an evolved primate whose behaviour developed and adapted over many millions of years to suit the challenges facing small social groups living in the forests and savannahs of Africa.  It is only very recently (on evolutionary time scales) that our technical skills have dramatically advanced and we have begun to build and live in cities and much larger organised groups;  not surprisingly our deeply ingrained behavioural patterns remain little changed and poorly suited to the radically new physical and social environments we now find ourselves in. It seems rather obvious to state that we are hardly likely to find solutions to problems such as our tendencies towards out-group aggression and unconstrained consumption of all available resources (which were arguably necessary and rational in a pre-civilised environment, but are no longer appropriate) unless we recognise their causes and so are able to look for rational ways to work through them.  In contrast religious moral solutions based on explanations which are nothing but mythological fantasies are not telling us anything useful about whom we really are, and so cannot yield real solutions.

The central problem with Christianity (and other religions) is that it gives a false diagnosis of the cause of our problems, and consequently provides irrational solutions to them.  A far more useful approach would be to understand the real reasons why we behave dysfunctionally, and find ways of dealing with these causes by facing them and trying to modify our behaviour in the light of a clear understanding of why we so often behave badly.  Moreover in contrast to the dismal religious view of humanity as essentially irresponsible and incapable of acting morally unless forced to by fear of punishment, it is actually not very difficult to find a much more rational, mature and indeed compelling reason to behave morally - which is simply the understanding that if we behave well towards each other (and the world we live in) then we can hope and expect to have a better society and a better world to live in. 

As Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger4 and many others have noted, nobody actually gets their moral codes from the bible; rather Christians pick and choose appropriate passages from the bible to justify their pre-existing moral values – which to a large extent are the common values that all humans hold irrespective of race or religion.  Those biblical moral statements that are obviously questionable are conveniently dismissed as simply ‘allegorical’ or some such.  After all, if we really acted strictly in accordance with biblical moral dictates, we would be stoning to death any neighbours who dared to work on the Sabbath (even if their work consists of nothing more than gathering sticks), just to mention one amongst many other obnoxious acts which a plain reading of the bible would demand (Numbers 15: 32-36 and elsewhere in the Old Testament).

In reality, there are many basic moral values that all humans (regardless of race or religion) share, whether or not they have been exposed to the bible or other religious writings.  Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the “Golden Rule” – “treat others in the way you would like them to treat you”.  Religion has no monopoly on this basic moral value, and indeed it is rather easy to see that any social species must inevitably have naturally evolved such behavioural norms or else they will have long since gone extinct.  No species of social animals could survive for long unless they had evolved some basic rules of social behaviour which allow them to co-exist in mutually co-operative and supportive groups, and many of the discoveries of anthropology and evolutionary psychology point to such motivations being the ones that have in fact dominated our evolution and the actual development of those basic moral codes which all humans share5 .  Any social groups that failed to find (evolve) ways of being able to trust and co-operate with each other would be anarchic, incapable of co-ordinated actions for mutual benefit, and so quickly subjugated and exterminated by other groups more capable of such co-operation6 .

Whilst humans obviously do many bad things, it is equally obvious that at the same time we have throughout our history desired to live in safe, secure societies in which co-operation can and has bought mutual benefit and improved conditions.  Our biggest moral problems – most notably our aggressive tendencies towards perceived ‘competitors’ and our desire to consume all available resources even beyond real need – are arguably hangovers from earlier stages of our evolution in harder and more insecure environments when these had more immediate survival value.  However, our shared desire for greater security can only be realised through mutual co-operation and trust, and it is this fact which actually provides the impetus towards good moral behaviour – and patently has done throughout human history, despite all the conflicts which have also beset us.  It is also the reason why the oft-stated Dostoyevskian notion7 that without religious moral codes to guide us humanity would slide into an ‘anything goes’ anarchy of self-centred greed is simply and obviously false; the shared desire to live in more secure and flourishing societies is actually what drives moral progress away from anarchy and self-centredness rather than towards it.

There are no short cuts to a better world.  The Christian approach to morality asserts that the hard work has already been done, by God laying down the moral rules for us and Jesus ‘dying’ (temporarily) to give us a way to be redeemed.  On this deceptively quick and simple path to righteousness all we need to do is mindlessly and unquestioningly obey the moral rules they/he laid down for us – and contradictorily be redeemed anyway through acceptance of Jesus despite any bad behaviour we may have exhibited.  This demonstrably has not worked, and indeed was only ever intended as a means of getting into a better world after death, not as a way of making this world better.  Accepting Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour has not in fact created better societies – and this is most starkly obvious when we compare the excellent social and economic indicators found in the worlds least religious societies such as the Scandinavian countries (lower crime rates, better health and life expectancies, more equal distribution of wealth, etc) with the appalling state of the same indicators in such highly religious (but also much more economically unequal and deeply insecure) societies such as the USA, where a far greater proportion of the population claim to have accepted Jesus as their saviour (Zuckerman 20088 ).  In fact, Norris and Inglehart’s landmark analysis9 of extensive global sociological and demographic data has clearly demonstrated that in case after case,  the more stable, secure and flourishing societies have the lower rates of religious belief, whilst it is the most insecure, violent and unequal societies that have the highest rates of religious belief10 .

The reality-based way to a moral world is the harder way, but it is also the more mature way – striving to build a more moral world not negatively out of fear of retribution and hell if we don’t, but positively because we actually want to live in a better world and recognise that this requires effort – from us, not some fantasy God.  This is a messy business and is obviously taking time, but we are slowly progressing towards a more mature morality; the (still incomplete) achievement of equal rights and respect for women is just one recent example that was widely opposed by the religious (and still is in many societies including Australia), while the ongoing struggle for the right to euthanasia and the rights of homosexuals are further areas where the religious continue to resist much-needed change.  With its contradictory and immature basis for morality, Christianity has historically not been part of progress towards better moral values and a better world; rather it has invariably and notoriously opposed moral progress, and continues to do so.

Today humanity is faced with the greatest crises in our history, namely climate change, species extinction and a host of inter-related problems that we have brought upon ourselves by our accelerating over-consumption of the planet’s resources. This is in a very real sense the greatest moral challenge of our time (as a professed Christian who didn’t mean it seriously enough once said). It is a moral challenge because if we are to resolve it satisfactorily, we will have to change some of our most basic and long-standing behaviour patterns.  What we therefore need is a real understanding of why we have such an overwhelming desire for excessive and accelerating consumption (which arguably served our ancestors well when they lived in small insecure groups on the African savannah, but is no longer appropriate because of the scale and reach of the civilisation we have built), why we are so pervasively in denial about the impacts of our behaviour that we have caused a planetary-scale crisis, and how we can use such understandings to consciously act to find more sustainable ways of maintaining our society.

In this context, the moral irrelevance – and indeed irresponsibility - of Christian doctrine lies precisely in the fact that it gives us a false diagnosis of the cause of our behavioural problems (the notion that humans are incorrigibly and originally sinful and will not behave well except through fear of God’s wrath),  and irrelevant solutions to them (redemption through acceptance of Jesus Christ as saviour, and adherence to a moral code derived from an ancient and very different cultural context but not up for critique or change because it is supposedly Gods eternal word).  Faced with the need to radically change some of our most basic behaviours if we are to resolve the climate change crisis we have bought upon ourselves, the last thing we need is mythological explanations and irrelevant solutions which divert our attention from achieving a real understanding of the causes of and solutions to our greatest ever self-inflicted crisis.

Refs ...

1 Boyce, James, 2014: Born Bad: Original Sin and the making of the Western World; Black Inc., Collingwood, Victoria, 260 pp.

2 Boyce notes that the doctrine of Original Sin is not actually found in the bible; it arose from the interpretations that later theologians such as St Augustine put on the biblical creation myths.  Thus at the time of Christ the need for redemption through Christ was more about the imminence of apocalypse and God’s judgement; it was only later, when the end of the world had not come, that Christian thinkers formulated the Doctrine of Original Sin to explain why redemption could only be found through God’s grace – which in turn could only be had through obedience to the Church.

3 For further reading on the important concept briefly outlined in this paragraph, a useful online primer on evolutionary psychology by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (University of California Center for Evolutionary Psychology) can be found at http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/primer.html (accessed 18th October 2013); see also their book:  Barkow, J., Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. 1992. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. NY: Oxford University Press, and other works on evolutionary psychology.

4 Richard Dawkins, 2006: The God Delusion; Bantam Press, London, 406 pp; Victor J. Stenger, 2006: Do our values come from God? The evidence says No; Free Inquiry, Vol. 26(5), p. 42-45.

5 Frans de Waal, 2013; The Bonobo and the Atheist: in search of Humanism amongst the Primates, Norton

6 Evolved co-operative behaviour can be observed in all social species from ants up, and it is essentially just a matter of definition where we choose to draw the line between calling such behaviour ‘instinctive’ or ‘moral’.  Perhaps the appropriate convention would be to say that ‘evolved behavioural instincts’ become ‘moral codes’ at the evolutionary point at which consciousness has evolved sufficiently to make behaviour a matter of conscious reflection, intent and decisions.

7 Famously expressed in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.

8 Phil Zuckerman, 2008: Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment; New York University Press, 226 pp.

9 Pippa Norris & Ronald Inglehart, 2004: Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide; Cambridge University Press, 329 pp.

10 Note that the implication here is not that losing religion tends to produce better societies, but rather that the achievement – by secular human effort – of more stable and secure societies allows people to discover that they can indeed lead secure and meaningful lives without needing the emotional support of religion to make them feel more secure and happy. This is the purpose that religion has historically filled and is arguably one of the key reasons why our ancestors invented it in the first place.  However we have now arrived at a situation where the moral framework provided by religion is no longer sufficient to cope with the scale of the problems we have produced (notably including anthropogenic climate change and its effects), so that we now need to move on from religion and create a better moral framework which actually recognises the real causes of our dysfunctional behaviour and so allows us to find solutions based in reality, and not in mythological notions that have very literally outlived their usefulness.

Chris Sharples is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania where he dabbles in geomorphology and the effects of sea-level rise on coasts.  He is also interested in trying to spot elephants in rooms, and state the bleeding obvious about them.

All Chris’ previous articles are grouped under the Category, Chris Sharples, here

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• Sue DeNim, in Comments: However I would argue with Leonard that the Enlightenment, often touted as the death knell for religion, was our saviour. Certainly it was for philosophy, thought, scientific endeavour etc. but it was also the time when we discarded our love and fear of the unearthly, and became firmly enamoured with our own achievements and plans. Along with mysticism and superstition, the enlightenment discarded our fear of meddling. Though at first sparking a side shoot of reverence and worship of the natural in all its power and beauty (Romanticism), it ultimately led us to view everything through the cold harsh, and myopic eye of the microscope. It was all reductionism and cataloguing. Regardless of whether a freak occurrence of physics or bestowed by an omnipotent deity, we have lost the reverence and awe for our only home and replaced it with our own smug self satisfaction at the myriad of ways we can manipulate it to our own ends. Very sad.