Monday, June 27, 2016

The Empirical Verifiability of Sin

University of Michigan


I was recently asked, "What, if anything, is the common thread running through the world's religions?" The answer to that is: the world's religions all agree that ours is a troubled world. The world's religions all attempt to help people live in our messed-up world. (See Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World.)

We, the people, are messed up. Including you and me. This is beyond-easy to verify. Alvin Plantinga, in Knowledge and Christian Belief, writes: "G. K. Chesterton once remarked that of all the doctrines of Christianity, the doctrine of original sin has the strongest claim to "empirical verifiability."" (K1179) Crudely, this means: open your senses and behold how screwed up humanity is. 

"Empirical verifiability" means this: a statement is true (= a certain state of affairs obtains) if that statement is verifiable in principle via the five senses. (Analytic statements, such as A is A, are true analytically; i.e., the predicated state of affairs is contained in the subject.) Plantinga writes:

"It has been abundantly verified in the wars, cruelty, and general hatefulness that have characterized human history from its very inception to the present. Indeed, no century has seen more organized hatred, contempt, and cruelty than the late and unlamented twentieth; and none has seen it on as grand a scale." (Ib., K1188)

People who live self-reflective lives have, upon introspection, discovered "seeds of destruction" and "violence within." I have. You would see the same in you, if you routinely subjected yourself to self-examination.

One more thing: the cause of most human suffering due to sin has been perpetrated, at least in the 20th century, by atheists. Plantinga writes elsewhere:

"Of course the world’s religions do indeed have much to repent; still (as has often been pointed out) the suffering, death, and havoc attributable to religious belief and practice pales into utter insignificance beside that due to the atheistic and secular ideologies of the twentieth century alone." (Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism . Oxford University Press. Kindle Location 104.) 

Thus we can be done with the sophomoric, unstudied idea that sin is the special province of religious people. And the truly foolish idea underlying John Lennon's "Imagine" song that we can make a better world and live as one without religion.