Sin Saves The Universe: The Unexpected And Tragic Return Of Collective Guilt

Medieval 2.0

And can you then impute a sinful deed To babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed? Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found, Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound? Was less debauchery to London known, Where opulence luxurious holds the throne? - 
Voltaire, “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster,” 1756

Medieval 2.0: The Unexpected And Tragic Return Of Collective Guilt
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When Voltaire wrote of the devastation caused by the Great Lisbon Earthquake, it was still widely believed that, as part of god’s perfect plan for the universe, the innocent must occasionally suffer horrors.

This was solid, mainstream theology with an august pedigree stretching back nearly a millennium and a half. Voltaire and his comrades sought to end it and, thanks to their unique genius and wit, they were successful.

That is, until recently.

From Katrina to Aurora, AIDS to 9-11, SARS-COVID19, the notion that it is acceptable and just for god’s wrath to be visited upon the innocent has resurfaced with an alarming rapidity and veracity. 

How has this happened, and how can our knowledge of its first appearance guide us in responding to its current reemergence? 

In 410 CE, the Eternal City of Rome, which had resisted invasion for eight centuries, fell to Alaric I, and in the ensuing orgy of murder, destruction, and rape, it was the job of the theological community to explain how god had allowed all of this to happen just thirty years after the empire adopted Christianity. 

The need produced Augustine’s City of God, which stood as the definitive answer to why god permitted the innocent to suffer and die in such overwhelming numbers. 

He had counsel for everybody. For the starved and starving: “Those whom famine killed outright it rescued from the ills of this life, as a kindly disease would have done; and those who were hunger-bitten were taught to live more sparingly.” 

For the violently slain: “Of what consequence is it what kind of death puts an end to life, since he who has died once is not forced to go through the same ordeal a second time?” 

And for victims of rape: “Neither those women then, who thought over-well of themselves by the circumstance that they were still virgins, nor those who might have been so puffed up had they not been exposed to the violence of the enemy, lost their chastity, but rather gained humility; the former were saved from pride already cherished, the latter from pride that would shortly have grown upon them.” 

Really, then, the sacking of Rome, by Augustine’s account, was the best thing that could have happened to everybody involved—a free lesson in frugality and humility, courtesy of the almighty, and all it cost was the brutal death of one’s loved ones and the repeated, savage violation of one’s own body. 

It all sounds entirely horrid to our modern ears (mainly because it is horrid), but there was a system of theological reasoning behind it that marched under the banner Sin Saves the Universe. It was Sin, according to this tradition, not Virtue, which turns the wheels of creation towards perfection. 

The thought, as it was assembled by Isidore of Seville, Thomas Aquinas, and others over the succeeding centuries, ran something like this: If we are to obtain blessedness on our own merit, we must have Free Will. 

But, if we have Free Will, there must be a path away from blessedness if our choice to be good is to be meaningful. 

Therefore, god endowed us with a capacity for sin and permitted that we use it, and since he is Very Clever, this permission must be part of some larger and perfect plan. 

But if sin is allowed with all of its ill consequences, it must be an exceedingly important part of that plan, and so each sinner has more than purely individual significance. 

Therefore, by medieval reckoning, each act of sin can’t be an isolated and independent act by a deranged mind: it must have an impact that ripples across the community and a purpose beyond the individual sinner. 

When the sinners sins, it affects the innocent as well, with just perfection the result. By bringing chaos, the sinner allows the Good to overcome it and show their righteousness. By persecuting the true believers, he allows for the creation of glorious martyrs. 

By suffering torments for his wicked acts, he serves as an example. And, by bringing destruction to his city, he provides the gateway for the redemption of all. This is Augustine’s point in its final evolved form: that sinners and the destruction that god brings through them are necessary so that The Elect might grow and perfect themselves. 

As the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum put it in 1484, “If there had been no sin, . . . then there never would have appeared what debt of grace in good works is due to God, ... and many other things without which the universe would suffer great loss.” 

It took the eighteenth century’s revolutionary conception of justice to chip away at this monument to the beauty of catastrophe, this love song to suffering. 

After Voltaire wrote Candide, it was no longer possible for a theologian to say the phrase “the best of all possible worlds” without provoking knowing laughter from all sides. 

By deflating the concepts of Sin and its handmaiden, Disaster, as the positive guiding forces of humankind’s destiny, the Philosophes also rescued the sinner from the epicenter of god’s divine plan. 

The caprice of Nature and man’s as-yet-unrealized sense of responsibility towards his fellow man more than explained the travails of the human race without recourse to claims of perfection that beat against common sense and experience. 

The debate was, to all appearances, definitively settled. So it remained until the ignition of the Culture Wars. 

First, we heard of AIDS as god’s punishment for homosexuality and vice. Pat Robertson saw Katrina as god’s retribution for America’s abortion policy, while Generals International was somehow able to twist the BP oil spill into a sign of god’s disfavor with our treatment of Israel. 

More recently, we have witnessed an unhinged youth kill a dozen moviegoers in cold blood, and that too, according to Truth in Action spokesman Jerry Newcombe, is a result of god visiting upon innocents what the immoral in society have wrought. 

It’s the thirteenth century all over again. Or is it? For the better part of twenty years, we’ve been employing Voltaire’s techniques in the attempt to fight back the rising tide. 

You even see Candide quoted from time to time on the internet chat boards where these debates get thrashed out, but to no avail. We are treating this as a rematch of a fight we won before, and that is precisely why we aren’t making the impact we think we ought. 

As we’ve seen, the punishment of the innocents evolved by the church theologians of the Middle Ages had as its central thesis that disaster and sin were brought into the world to serve an ultimately higher-good purpose, one that had an aim beyond the suffering of those involved. 

To combat such an idea, highlighting the arbitrary, malicious, and deeply unjust structure of nature and the world worked well. This new wave of collective guilt enthusiasts, however, works from a different starting point, even if they arrive at the same conclusion. 

The assumption is not that innocents suffer because the world is secretly perfect and that free will works towards that perfection, even (perhaps especially) when it falters. 

Rather, innocents suffer because the free will was a mistake, and people have doomed themselves and their civilizations beyond redemption by their use of it. 

The goal is not to make people better, even by St. Augustine’s perverse notion of “better,” and punishment is not something undergone on the way to the bigger point god is making. Punishment is the bigger point; it is the last stage of The Big Plan, a dress rehearsal for the glorious day when Everybody Who Isn’t Of The Elect is going to be dragged down for eternal suffering. 

How does one argue with people coming from such a dark place? The medieval Scholastics thought their beliefs to be reason-derived, and so they at least could be approached through reasonable argumentation. 

Voltaire and company, by using reason to demolish the machinery of the old theological system, effectively drove the successors of the Scholastics onto the shoals of Faith, where we find them still today. 

It is axiomatic that you can’t argue against faith any more than you can box with a spider web. But perhaps you can find out why that faith is so important, and offer something better in its stead. 

If, as appears to be the case, this new generation is concerned that our use of Free Will is heading us towards disaster and away from the principles of Good Living, then maybe it is not in abstract moral argumentation, but in the potential of modern life, that we shall find our answer to them. 

We need to show how the secular turn, and the freedom of action and variety of choice it has brought with it, allows everybody to live closer to the best ideals of their notion of morality. 

Just as Humanists are better Humanists than they have ever been, so too are Christians now better able to live their most cherished (or at least most publicly proclaimed) principles than at any time before. 

They can offer the hand of Christian charity without wrapping it in the iron glove of dogma, and so approximate the principles of their founder in a way that a thirteenth-century missionary could never understand. 

They will most likely never be bouncing and bonny Atheists like ourselves, but perhaps by recognizing what modern humanity offers them, they will grasp what they, in turn, have to offer it, and we may all get over the notion that anything—in this world or beyond—justifies the suffering of another living being.


By Dale DeBakcsy 

Author of the weekly Atheist webcomic The Vocate, co-author of Frederick the Great: A Most Lamentable Comedy, contributor to The Freethinker, and former editor of the online Rivets Literary Magazine. By way of feeding his children, he is also a physics and mathematics teacher.

First published on American Atheists Magazine 2012 (4th quarter). Republished on Fadewblogs courtesy to the author.

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