I take a position either between or beyond that of these two gentlemen (both of whom I have the utmost respect for), depending on how you see it. To me, it's quite obvious that suffering is caused by competition, but that's far too dull to get excited about. These men, in their own way were very passionate about their feelings, and I like that. If I were to do this post "live" I'd be more animated than Stephen, and not quite so animated as Russell, but in text it all looks very calm, which I hope doesn't give the impression that I'm not passionate about what I say, because I am.
It's discussed often enough, without knowing the word, even by those whose theology is at Sunday School level. Any believer, in any religion will at some point scream at their God in anger when something terrible happens to someone they love. In fact, I'm told this is one of the commonest reasons for people "losing their faith".
And of course it was always so. So, the priests had to come up with an answer. People wanted an answer. One of the answers was the concept of an adversary, an evil being thwarting Gold's plans and leading people astray. It's very simplistic, basic, naive even, but for people needing an answer it was someone to pin it all on.
It just doesn't work in their own theology though. If a deity is omnipotent - 100% powerful - then there could be no adversary. So, either their God is not 100% powerful (hmm) or simply permitted this adversary, and in fact there are all sorts of versions of both of these in various sacred mythologies.
The other idea was to blame humans. Hey, you guys did this to yourselves. Not necessarily YOU, but your ancestors. The whole sins of the father thing. Versions of this show up in all religions, from karma to the Hindu castes, and of course the original sin of the Abrahamic religions. The "out" for this in Christianity is Jesus, of course, and that story is just baffling. It goes like this, the all-powerful God was tricked by the first two people he created, and because of what they did the rest of humanity was tainted. So to make up for that God became a human, and sacrificed himself. This simply doesn't work for me, and is one of the reasons I'm not Christian.
The problem with the concept of sin is that it's used in more than one way. There is the theological meaning, which is quite complex, and the everyday meaning which is simply "bad things you do".
Some religious leaders, who should know better, like to throw around the second meaning, with daft ideas like "the earthquake was caused by the sins of the people in that town". That is pure superstition and not even worthy of consideration.
As a result of this people have got hold of the idea that sin does indeed simply mean misbehaviour, especially if it's sexual. People who talk about sin a lot tend to have very dirty minds.
The problem is, they don't always have anything to back it up with. They pick and choose bits from their holy books as it suits them to justify their treatment of sinners. So, for example, they'll tell you that homosexuality is a sin, based on Old Testament teachings. But if you tell them that eating shellfish is a sin based on the same set of laws, ah well, that's different. In fact, if you just mention the shellfish, and the mixing of fabrics, or anything you like (Leviticus is full of this stuff) they'll dismiss that, it's all OK you see, Jesus has it covered. The OT was for ancient people in a time with customs different to us, you don't need to worry about that.
Oh, so homosexuality IS OK now then? Oh, well, no......that's different. Jesus didn't cover that? No, that one's still a sin.
And so on.
Then there's the concept of free will. This was apparently a gift from God. But when Adam and Eve exercised it, well, you know the rest. So you have free will, BUT......it's a trick. A test. Don't go using it.
Of course, this is all the literalist stuff. Russell mentioned, and he had a point, that Stephen's interpretation of "God" was this literal, holy book version. Not what Russell sees God as at all, so when Russell says he believes in God, he's really not referring to the same concept. Russell's idea of God is pantheistic and mystical, without any of that smiting and divine retribution. Works for me just fine.
Unfortunately the reality is that those who abuse religion to cause harm to others are the literalists. They don't give a shit about oneness, about mysticism, about metaphors. They just fling the word sin around, based on their anachronistic and twisted interpretation. Based on cherry picking their books to suit. They've been doing it a long time, and they've caused a lot of harm and I don't have a good word to say about their version of God either. Thankfully, I don't believe he exists.
These days, the ancient religions are enjoying a comeback. I think it's related to a rejection of this literalism.
These people agree with Russell, that religion when used as a way of dealing with the mysteries of life, have their place, especially if it's alongside science. Religion as an adversary to science doesn't work for me.
This is not the first time I've written about this, and it won't be the last. Having discussed it with people of all beliefs and none, on many occasions, I am familiar with all the objections. So let's get one out of the way right now. It's that whole "love the sinner, hate the sin" bollocks.
If there's one thing I think is cool about liberal, non-literalist Christians, it's their idea of unconditional love. I can get behind that. It's quite simple really, if God is superior to humans (not much of a God otherwise) and perfect (ought to be) and omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, then you'd think he'd be better than us at stuff like jealousy, forgiveness, patience, and so on. I remember being taught in Sunday School that God can forgive everything, but then they were Methodists and they're pretty warm and fuzzy.
To me, the greatest thing a human can attain is unconditional love. And some do. They forgive their torturers even. But specifically, good humans are good at forgiving their kids. They love them whoever they are. There is no "but". When a good parent finds out their kid is gay, they carry on loving them the way they always did.
Any God worth his stripes would do the same, especially since apparently God made the kid gay in the first place (remember?). Either His creation is perfect, or it isn't.
And if the kid does something totally unspeakable, like murder, does that kid go to hell? NO, Jesus has got it covered. God's grace, yada yada, it's all forgiven. Quite how God manages THAT, I don't know, but then I'm NOT God. That is some amazing forgiveness right there.
I suppose then, I'm not shocked when those who still call homosexuality a sin are often those who do think some people (their selection, I assume) actually ARE going to hell. Again, more than one type of Christian, more than one type of interpretation, more than one type of belief.
And if you think about it, if God made you, and you turn out to be a murderer, then he's only got himself to blame. Free will? Not if the guy is a raging psychopath.
Me? I find the concept of sin totally useless. If we are "all" sinners, as some say, then what's the point of even talking about it? If sinners go to hell, then we're all going, and nothing we can do about it. If Jesus has that covered, then a) none of us are going to hell, so it doesn't matter, b) we can all sin some more, and c) what fucked up creation are we anyway?
Whether or not there is a God, I have an idea. Why not behave well anyway? Why not be loving to one another regardless? Here's a quote from a man who lived back in the olden days when apparently humans were still too stupid to think outside the box, but this Pagan managed to do it:
"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but...will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."
(Attributed to Marcus Aurelius Antonius, 121-180CE)
What is sin then? I'll tell you. It is what other humans have decided you shouldn't do, based on their own interpretation of whatever holy book they use as moral guidance, because they can't figure it out for themselves. It can include what you eat, what you wear, and who you love. And, according to them, if you do these things, a divine entity so powerful that he created the entire universe, will punish you. Despite making you that way in the first place.
I want none of this.