Improvement is a simple, natural impulse — everyone wants to see a better life for his family and society. But when you add the ingredient of sin, improvement becomes clouded. Is it an improvement to deny women education and health care, to dictate what they wear in public, and to regard them as inferior beings? To the Taliban and the clerics in Iran, those ideas are considered steps on the road to an Islamic paradise. But every society dominated by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam has had to struggle with the notion of sinfulness. The supposed sinfulness of women, as many Muslims see it, is that the mere sight of a woman inflames sexual passion and arouses temptation, thus pulling men away from God.
A woman who walks bare-headed through the streets of most Islamic countries would be considered sinful, but before we shake our heads, consider Hawthorne's novel "The Scarlet Letter," in which the sinful heroine, Hester Prynne, must run into the forest to take off her cap and unloose her hair in the sun. Also consider that conservative politics in this country are largely based on the notion that human being are not improvable, that without harsh opposition to free thinking and liberal sexual mores, not to mention a massive military and police force, human depravity would run amok.

Sin isn't a fact of human nature. It's an idea. As such, it has proved very useful to religious and political elites. The current repression exacted by the Iranian mullahs may be in the name of God, but the clerical elite in that country are immensely wealthy and corrupt. In this country, hellfire fundamentalist preachers grow rich, and many feel free to pursue personal corruption shielded by their prestige and money. Getting past the idea of sin is difficult when the myth is fostered that God hates sinners and favors the righteous. Who wouldn't want to be on the winning team, where all the power and money lie, not to mention the grand prize of salvation?

It would benefit the world as a whole if every society could move past the toxic idea of sin to a new idea. There's no lack of alternatives. Human nature is as capable of love, tolerance, rationality, and spiritual yearning as it is of sin. Psychotherapy was a nonreligious movement that attempted to deal with sin's fundamental forces — aggression, sex, guilt, and shame — by examining the psyche and ridding it of conflict, by bringing the darkness of the unconscious to light. The average person doesn't take advantage of psychotherapy, certainly not the kind that goes inward for self-knowledge, yet the general idea of bringing darkness to light holds good. It underlies liberal politics, reformist religion, secular tolerance, and spiritual seeking.

As a body of ideas, those movements have more to offer the future than the reactionary idea of sin. I feel optimistic about the ongoing campaign against sin-based ideologies (which don't have to be religious; police states like the former Soviet Union were completely secular but based on the necessity of repressing freedom), and optimism is needed in the light of recent events in Iran, where the religious reactionaries have clamped down, as well as Israel, where a kindred form of religious reaction grows bolder. The next idea after sin is being born, and despite the fact that sin holds sway over millions of minds, those minds can free themselves whenever they wish.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

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