Sin and punishment for atheists

Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean that I live in a world without sin and punishment. In fact, I sinned today… and I was punished.

I’m currently in the middle of a 20 day visit to Hawaii. As on most long trips, I made a special order from bodybuilding.com for the supplements that I thought I would need during these two weeks, and had it shipped directly here ahead of time. This avoids a lot of extra packing and checking of bags. However, in this case I vastly underestimated the amount of protein powder I would need for 20 days.  I’m currently in a “gaining phase” of my workout routine, so I’m consuming more calories than usual each day.

Because of this misjudgement, I needed to find a store here that sold protein powder. I hate doing this, because it can be very expensive. The whole reason I use bodybuilding.com to order workout supplements is that they are inexpensive compared to buying supplements in a store. But on top of that, I discovered that there must be some kind of mark-up associated being in Hawaii or something, because the total I spent was more than twice what I would have paid if I had ordered the correct amount ahead of time from bodybuilding.com.

This isn’t an ad for bodybuilding.com, I swear.

My point is this: I made an error in judgment, and I paid a pretty severe price for it.  Somewhat jokingly, the thought crossed my mind: “I’m being punished for not keeping better track of how much protein powder I consume each day.”

It was a joke, of course. But it was also a thought that came very naturally. It seems natural to think this way, whether you (consciously, rationally) take it seriously or not.

It’s the kind of thought that can happen at any time. You don’t pay attention to using correct form when you work out? You may be punished with an injury. You drive faster or more sloppily than you should? You risk being punished by having an accident. You don’t bring your umbrella with you on a cloudy day? You could be punished by getting wet. You do something wrong? You risk being punished.

Why does this type of thinking come so naturally? I don’t know for sure.

Certainly, when you are an infant or young child, your parents protect you from most of the dangers of the big bad world, so most negative consequences are mediated through them. You try to stick your finger in an electrical socket, and usually (usually) you don’t get the negative reinforcement from getting shocked:  instead you get the negative reinforcement because one of your parents notices what you are doing and stops you and tells you not to do it.

You do something “wrong”, and you are “punished” for it.

So early on in life, the “cost” of doing something wrong is usually mediated by a conscious agent: it happens not because of the physical laws of the universe, but because you have a conscious being (in the form of a parent) watching over you who will do something to reprimand or teach you a lesson when you do something wrong.

It is only later in life that that intermediary goes away, and you are exposed to the raw forces of nature. As an older child and an adult, when you do something wrong, you are much more likely to experience the actual negative consequences of bad decisions. But you already have a mental habit ingrained in your mind: when you do something wrong, you are punished.  So is it really any surprise that, psychologically, you associate “the consequences” doled out by the universe as a form of “punishment”?

This way of thinking is also consistent with the long arc of our human history for the last 3000 or more years. Humanity did not always have the very mechanistic view of cause and effect that we have today. Back in Aristotle’s time, when X caused Y to happen it was often supposed that Y was some kind of “natural goal state” that the universe was intrinsically driven to, and thus in a sense the result Y caused the trigger X to precede it. There was a great deal of anthropomorphism in the way they viewed natural laws, as well. Things in nature happened because spirits wanted them to happen or gods were happy or angry. Many times, almost any event in the universe could be seen as being “willed” by some conscious entity or other.

This isn’t really that weird or crazy, when you think about it. By far, the most important things in any human’s life are that human’s social interactions. Even in primitive tribal times, the most important causal forces for a person were human relationships. So your “default view” of the entire universe would–quite sensibly–be colored by that. If you do not live in a culture with a strong mechanistic view of cause and effect, why wouldn’t you interpret consequences of your actions in a common moral framework?  When you are rude to the chief, you get punished by the chief smacking you around. When you are a bad hunter, you are punished by not catching any deer. It is a face-value obvious way of looking at the world.

Of course, in today’s world, it’s easy for a non-spiritual, rational person to just dismiss it as wrong.

Except….  Why should I?

Let’s think for the moment about the power of the word “sin”. As an atheist, what might the word “sin” mean to me, in my life?

People use the term “sin” to describe what is ultimately an economic scenario.  You have an option of making two possible decisions, where one of them has the possibility of a special “cost” associated with it because it is the wrong decision (the “punishment” for committing a “sin”).

Even as an atheist, I can talk about that economic scenario. You can always calculate the cost of making a bad decision as the difference between the value that you would have achieved if you had made the optimal decision and the value you achieved with the actual decision you made:

Vcost = Voptimal - Vactual

One way of looking at this value is to call it “negative consequences” of your bad decision-making.

Another way of looking at this value is to call it your “punishment” for having “sinned”.

So I would like to start this as a movement!

Calling all atheists!

It’s time to stop denying that “sin” exists, and time to start just using it to mean what we (practically, functionally) think it should mean anyway!

It nothing else, it’s kind of fun.

I may not believe in a supreme being, or a “will” of the universe or any supreme being. I may not believe in objective moral “right” and “wrong”.

But I don’t have to deny myself the power of a rhetorical device!

From now on, a “sin” is whenever a person makes a non-optimal decisions.

And quite naturally, any time someone “sins”, he runs the risk of being punished.

Sin and Punishment



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  1. […] matter what the other person’s sin is that lead to the conflict, you weren’t perfect either. There is something you could have […]


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