Should we be teaching our children–on top of everything else–that they’re sinners?
My baby girl is not even a year old yet, so I’m way ahead of myself here. But she learns so quickly that I’m constantly trying to stay at least a few steps ahead. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the type of values I want to instill in my daughter. She is a fierce individual already, with such a sense of stoke and wonder about the world around her. As her father, I want to encourage her to explore this crazy planet of ours, find things she loves, reject things she doesn’t, make mistakes, learn from them.
As my daughter grows, I aim to teach her some core values: a healthy respect for living things, love of the natural world, an inquisitive mind, the value of dedication and hard work, a deep sense of empathy for other living things.
And, perhaps of equal importance, there are plenty of harmful ideas I hope to teach her about so she can rise above them on her own terms. But there’s one concept I hope to inoculate her against. It’s a notion that many well-meaning (but, in my view, misguided) people have encouraged me to accept over the course of my life. This concept is sin.
The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry defines sin as “anything that is contrary to the law or will of God.” The Apostle Paul discusses Sin extensively in the Book of Romans. “He shows that everyone, both Jew and Greek, is under sin (Rom. 3:9). He shows that sin is not simply something that is done but a condition of the heart (Rom. 3:10-12).”
The idea of sin is hashed out in a Calvinist doctrine called Total Depravity. “Total Depravity is the doctrine that fallen man is completely touched by sin and that he is completely a sinner,” reads the CARM’s encyclopedia entry on this doctrine. “In that sense, he is totally depraved. Because man is depraved, nothing good can come out of him (Rom. 3:10-12), and God must account the righteousness of Christ to him.”
This particular doctrine is not accepted by all Christians, but it seems to be a relatively logical extension of the generally accepted doctrine of sin. And surely, as is the case with every doctrine, there are thousands of different explanations and interpretations. But they all seem to balance on the claim that we, as humans, are born in sin.
This is one of the most toxic ideas I have ever come across. These ideas are poison, and the fewer young people who accept them, the better our world will be. This is already happening, as more people (especially young people) describe themselves as belonging to no religion. But regardless of religious affiliation, I view these ideas about humankind’s sinful nature to be both fallacious and detestable.
First off, I find no good reason to accept this sin idea as anything more than a myth. Adam and Eve didn’t really exist. There was never a Garden of Eden, nor a tree whose fruit doled out knowledge of Good and Evil. I find no good reason to believe Hell exists. I do not believe we are were born cursed. We are not doomed. We need not beg forgiveness for being born.
Philosophers have proffered constructs of “human nature” for centuries. We’re inherently evil, we’re inherently good, we’re blank slates. Philosophical debates about human consciousness and morality will go on forever, and I think there’s a little bit of truth (and a little bit of falsehood) in almost every explanation of humanity’s innate morality (or lack thereof).
But even the most misanthropic views are generally based on an analysis of human action. We’re shitty because we do shitty things. Sin isn’t about what we do (although that’s certainly a part of it). Sin is about who we are. Fallen, broken, children of wrath, depraved, miserable, evil, sinful. I will do everything I can to teach my daughter she is none of these.
Religious faith has plenty to offer plenty of people. Most members of my family are deeply devoted Christians, and they are some of the most amazing, caring and loving people I’ve known. They live, day-in, day-out, inspired by the message of Jesus—and I’m happy they have found something they find enriching and inspiring.
But seemingly few sects offer the carrot of a spiritual journey without the stick of sin. And, on some level this makes sense. People may be more likely to accept outlandish supernatural claims if they are convinced they are doomed. And the sects that decry our damned status most vociferously are, of course, the same ones who claim most assuredly to possess the cure.
So, no, I don’t believe in Original Sin.
I don’t believe in Total Depravity.
I don’t accept doctrines based on flimsy premises, designed to elicit hatred of our own humanity, doctrines whose only authority stems from capitalized letters and repetition.
Sure, I plan on discussing all sorts of religions and philosophies with my daughter as she grows up and begins to ask her own questions. I hope my daughter grows up believing she is a good and wholesome person, and I hope she rejects the notion she is broken and in need of some sort of supernatural treatment. I hope she grows up to realize she has agency, that she is responsible for her own actions, that she has the power to cause others pain or to relieve others of pain.
There is nothing wrong with her. She need not ask any deity for forgiveness. The only time she will need to ask forgiveness is from someone she has harmed.
And I hope those instances are few.
Photo: M Pincus/Flickr
Isaac James Baker blogs about “Reading, Writing & Wine” and tweets @IsaacJamesBaker. He lives in Washington, DC.