Tara Isabella Burton: The Evolution of Sin in Modern Society

“The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden” depiction of Adam and Eve in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Julia Scheeres always knew she was a sinner.

Raised in Indiana by fundamentalist evangelical parents, Scheeres grew under a moral code defined by obligation and fear.

“God,” she wrote recently, “was a megaphone bleating in my head: ‘You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad!’”

When she had kids of her own, Scheeres decided to raise them without the concept of sin, an approach she described recently in a New York Times essay.

After losing her faith, Scheeres says her “notion of sin has evolved.”

She does not fear arbitrary punishment by an invisible God, but rather the ramifications of “real-world concerns”: racism, economic inequality, injustice.

“To me,” she concludes, “the greatest sin of all is failing to be an engaged citizen of the world.”

While Scheeres’ criticism of the Christian concept of sin is fairly simplistic — there are plenty of mainstream contemporary Christian traditions whose paradigms of sin look pretty similar to the one Scheeres has now chosen — she raises a vital question.

Writer Julia Scheeres in 2005. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

What does it mean to be a “sinner” in secular America?

For the 24 percent of Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated, the deontological approach Scheeres grew up with — a litany of divinely mandated thou-shalt-nots designed to stymie any form of human pleasure — is culturally as well as theologically alien.

What has persisted — as much in the form of our modern conception of the “Protestant work ethic” as in Christian theology proper — is a sense that virtue, and vice, are inextricably linked to self-control.

One of the biggest repositories of sin-related language in secular America, after all, is in the diet and food industries: We talk about sinful desserts, spicy sauces that are hellfire hot.

When it comes to food, clearly, eating for pleasure, for sensation, rather than efficiency qualifies as sin. When food becomes more than fuel — and “virtuous,” organic, sustainable fuel at that — it is the devil’s work.

Even today, contemporary “wellness” culture often makes use of the same dichotomy — albeit cloaked in the pseudo-scientific language of health.

There might not be “good” foods and “bad” foods — linked exclusively to calorie count — but there are still “clean” foods and “dirty ones.” Admitting to dieting may no longer be socially acceptable, but we’re expected nevertheless to crow about our “unprocessed,” “toxin-free” meals and the “cleansed” (and, yes, thinner) bodies that house them.

The rhetoric of shame, guilt and filth is still there, but it has been stripped of its spiritual meaning.

All this gives temptation a discomfitingly capitalist, individualistic turn.

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Source: Religion News Service