Sin: What's It Good For?

What's the point?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Religion

Skeptoid #09
November 26, 2006
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Also available in Japanese

This week, I'm going to put on my burgundy velvet robe, fill my martini glass, and observe that bastard stepchild of the value system: Sin.

Sin is an interesting thing. A sin is something you're not supposed to do, according to a given set of religious restrictions. Sins are not necessarily illegal. Sins are not necessarily wrong. Sins don't necessarily harm anyone. In fact, many sins can be completely, entirely harmless, like the thinking of impure thoughts. So what's the problem? Why are sins bad?

I guess that all depends on whose definition of "bad" you use. For example, if you're a Muslim, it's sinful to get urine on yourself. The rest of us follow this commandment pretty strictly too, but we certainly wouldn't consider the odd dribble to be sinful. Buddhists consider skeptical doubt to be a sin (though they call it a hindrance), but doubt certainly isn't a problem for Christians or Muslims. Most Christians consider polygamy to be sinful, but it's the rule for most of Africa and the East. So there's no one clear yardstick for determining what's sinful or not. It depends completely upon the religious context. Outside of a religious context, the word sin is, for all practical purposes, meaningless.

Christians in particular consider everyone to be sinful, regardless of their performance. They call this "original sin", and it's essentially a negative blot on your report card immediately upon birth. Since Adam and Eve had the gall to eat some fruit that was offered to them, you and I and everyone else are considered guilty by association and are thus fundamentally bad people, according to strict Christian doctrine.

Christians also have to deal with "mortal sins." A mortal sin is one that, if left unrepented, sends you to hell when you die. Christians don't maintain a list of what types of sins guarantee you a date with the devil, instead they lay out some general rules. The big sins, like murder and adultery, put you on the fast track. Mortal sins have to be done deliberately. If you simply forget to go to church, accidentally put on a condom, or unintentionally catch a glance of a hot girl out of the corner of your eye, such sins are called venial sins and you can get away with them. But if you do them deliberately — blow off church on purpose in order to saw some extra logs on Sunday morning, wear the condom on purpose, or deliberately stare at the hot girl with impure thoughts — they are mortal sins. If you do things like this regularly, strict Christians consider that you are hellbound for sure. There are probably a lot of human males who needn't bother wearing their jackets for their burial.

Worst of all is the "eternal sin" - to deny God, which cannot be forgiven. Those considering an eternal sin might as well lose a fiddling contest to Satan right now. The punishment for an eternal sin is the same as for a mortal sin; the difference is that there's no opportunity to be forgiven and get out of it. It's sort of like being on death row in a state where the governor doesn't have a telephone.

When you eliminate activities that injure others or are otherwise wrong, there are still items on the sin list: basically a long list of victimless crimes. This is where the fun begins for those of us not hampered by religious restrictions.

Take social relationships, including plural marriages, same sex marriages, and anyone living together or having sex outside of wedlock. It doesn't hurt anyone, everyone involved has a great time, and it's mutually fulfilling for all participants. But those activities are all pretty high on the sin list. Take it out of a religious context, and suddenly there's nothing wrong with it. Polyamory is also a victimless crime that for some reason is considered sinful: wife swapping, swinging, hedonism, group sex parties, and open marriages are things that all the participants enjoy behind closed doors. Where's the harm?

Straight sex between married partners is all right, so long as it never extends to include masturbation, fetishism, lust, or impure thoughts. "Have to stop a minute, Mabel, I started to feel a little lusty."

The list of sins is not static: it's even been updated to include cybersex. Using a computer in some way to enhance sexual stimulation is sinful. This includes a video chat session with your spouse when one of you is traveling. That makes a lot of sense.

Drunkenness and tobacco are big on the sin list. This one's just plain counterproductive. Who among us doesn't appreciate an evening at the club in an overstuffed leather chair, with a martini and a fine cigar, talking politics and blasphemy. Throw in some profanity (which, fortunately, I don't see on the list of sins), and you've got the perfect evening. Drunkenness and tobacco are fundamental to healthy male adulthood. Frankly, I don't even know how I'd be able to conduct a proper board meeting without these accoutrements.

Idolatry is another sin that would be hard for me to live without. Idolatry doesn't necessarily relate to graven images or statues of other gods; idolatry is the practice of loving anything or anyone more than you love God. For me, the brand names Porsche and Jeep are hard to get past. I do attend church every Sunday morning: My temple of worship is a rectangle at the beach measuring 8 meters by 16 meters and involves the hitting of a synthetic leather ball at other worshippers. And since I cannot honestly say that there are any supernatural invisible flying magicians whom I love more than my own family, idolatry is definitely a sin that I need to commit every minute of every day, as much as I need to draw breath.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Hate and anger are sins. I don't really hate anyone and I don't get angry very often. About the only thing that gets me angry is when I hear the worst of the bad news from the world: children being abused or murdered, and genocides. Apparently, the world's major religions think that I should go to hell because those things make me angry. That loses me right me there. I respect how the Amish can overlook these crimes and offer loving forgiveness to even these criminals, but I'll take the label of sinner and be outraged.

Lying. This one's tough. I don't know how anyone can claim that they don't practice this sin every day, no matter how religious they are. Have you ever told anyone that you can't go somewhere, or can't do something, when the truth is you simply didn't want to? You're a liar. You ever stop talking about someone when they entered the room, to deceive them into thinking you weren't talking about them? You're a liar. Ever give someone one of those quick fake smiles when you pass them in the hall — as if seeing them makes you happy? You're a liar. Lies don't have to be spoken and they are usually not malicious, but they're still lies. We all do it, all day, every day. Lying is a fundamental of politeness and a pillar of good behavior.

The truth is the concept of sin has no place in the lives of intelligent adults in modern society. Politeness, honesty, industry, and simply being yourself will take you a lot further. I say to the religious people: Keep your arbitrary restrictions, and your hateful belief that I should go to hell, to yourselves.

Brian Dunning

© 2006 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Anderson, Gary A. Sin: a History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

de Waal, Frans. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Feldman, Fred. Pleasure and the Good Life: Concerning the Nature, Varieties, and Plausibility of Hedonism. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.

Kurtz, Paul (editor). Science and Ethics: Can Science Help Us Make Wise Moral Judgments? Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Livingstone, E. A. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2000.

Manning, Henry Edward. Sin and Its Consequences. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books & Publishers, 1986.

Portmann, John (Editor). In Defense of Sin. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Thera, Nyanaponika. "The Five Mental Hindrances and Their Conquest." Wheel. 1 Jan. 1993, Volume 26.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Sin: What's It Good For?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 26 Nov 2006. Web. 28 Aug 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 145 comments

Well, I am too late for this discussion but wanted to put this in for the record. For the record God never sent anyone to Hell, Hell is the choice people make of their own volition when they refuse to accept his free gift of eternal life through His son Jesus Christ. It is not God's desire to play "gotcha" with the souls of people. Actually Hell is the greatest monument to human freedom. Romans 1:24 says God "gave them up to.... their own desires." All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. what could be more fair that that?

Bob Smith, Houston, Texas
February 20, 2013 8:23am

Yup, Bob you said it all.. Its not any God who plays "got Ya!" its the fricken flk who write about the guys who write about the guys who proclaim "God".

Sadly, in out christian culture and our theologies, we really dont know which god that is.

As to JC, from the gospels its clear that jesus doesnt proclaim the same deity that we normally think of.

Profound in utterance Bob... none of us want heaven..

Only a narcissist wants that...

Bob, I owe you a keg of my mind numbing black Bock!

Mud,, at Camp Klogs, NSW
March 15, 2013 7:00am

Buddhists consider sceptical doubt a sin? That's news to me. I'd like to see where this comes from? A specific reference, if you please.

David, Davidtown
July 20, 2013 1:53am

David, doubt the handling of the morning wood fairy..The current Dalai LLama is at odds (possibly) with his previous incarnations.

I suppsoe such skepticism is warranted when you only have yourself to argue with.

A special provision of being the Dalai I suppose.

One he never adresses.. The other about taking the money and running is never mentioned out of politeness to himself..Even if it was in this incarnation..

When you are presentually incarnate, the family arguments make the actions of the individual just a bit less noticable?

Come on!

In the Dalais own rule, an eye for an eye is an obscenity!

Midrash Delinquent, Gerringong NSW Oz
July 26, 2013 7:26am

This episode got MANY things wrong.

First off, a venial sin is NOT an "accidental" sin. Venial sins are "minor" sins, like malicious lying and petty theft. Mortal sins are major sins like murder and rape.

Second, sexual activity of any kind is absolutely permissible within marriage as long as both partner's needs are fulfilled. Lust is the selfish desire for sex without care for the other.

Finally, stop with the strawman arguments like "invisible wizard in the sky". I know Brian has gradually stopped with this as Skeptoid has grown in popularity but these early episodes really sting.


Soarel Fyrex, Hobbiton, The Shire
July 26, 2013 6:03pm

This episode got more things right imo.
Soarel mentions only two of "many" wrongs. What are the others?
Skeptoid is growing in popularity because the emphasis here is on learning and using critical thinking to evaluate the plethora of strange irrational ideas and beliefs embraced by the (dare I say it) woo crowd, whom, I suspect, would first off anyway, tend to find such thinking unquestionably and blasphemously sinful.
Dear mud could you write something about that most pernicious device, employed very successfully by the religious inquisitors of yore, utilized primarily for the eradication of minds that criminally dared to think independently, it's called "shunning". Its most gleeful extremity was expressed by burning those, who could not conform, at the stake. Is it still in effective use today do you think and what, if any, are its merits or demerits?

Tina, Knysna
August 8, 2013 2:15am

Tina, sorry for the belated reply.

Yes, Ive seen this shunning process within families of a particular bent. I am not sure it has any merits at all.

People practice shunning out of fear of being excluded from their version of commonality and community. The commonality is certainly not any ideal to aspire to.

Whats evident about shunning is its almost exclusively sexist and a control mechanism. A common sense that most westerners should be free of by now.

Sadly, its still practiced here in Oz (by some) nd bizarrely the same evolution occurs; the people in the pst who have been shunned havent been reaccepted when the rules change.

Two reasons for that;
1) a common sense system such as shunning over religious technicalities is not a system that one would relish returning to and
2) the shunners basically say the shunned broke the earlier rules and deserve continuation of their "punishment".

The situation I am familiar with resulted in two deaths.

If that is what its worth to be devout, pious and fundamentalist whilst practicing an evolutionary apologism I would suggest the ascribed values needs re-examining.

No, its not acceptable in the west and certainly a profound hindrance in societies that have a cultural religious fixation.

Common sense is a bit like that.

Multi Dimensional, Greenacres, Big Il USO
September 30, 2013 4:06pm

First off, this episode is wrong about a couple of things. While a lot of sin is depending on religion, there are certain acts most could consider a sin, murder, rape, theft, adultery, lying, and genocide. Second, his statements about sins are an over simplification, to be a mortal sin, it must meet three requirements, 1. Must be a grave matter (like murder) 2. The person must know the act is wrong 3). They must give full consent to the act. Also, we are not fundamentally bad, we just have a tendency towards bad. This is in part why we are attracted to evil. Also, mortal sins don't guarantee hell, but increase the chance. If an otherwise good person were to do a mortal sin and die, this sin would not destroy an otherwise good relationship. And for thinking unsure thoughts, it's not that, but where it leads us. How many of us have had a small act, like putting off doing something, like waking up, and have it snowball to where you wake up two hours late. We get into habits, it's easier to continuing doing something than to stop, so you may go on committing the act, and sometimes, it can lead to others things. Finally, I think he may have a slight bias when writing about religious matters, but then again, I have one as well, we all do, so think on that as well.

David, Arlington
February 21, 2014 9:51pm

"I'll save my applause for the inmates who beat Jeffrey Dahmer's head to death against a prison toilet"

WTF is this ?

This is a unnessary comment.

It actually shows some disgusting taste.

I'd expect this from a conservative jerk not from someone promoting critical thinking !

Eri, France
March 30, 2014 6:40pm

Believe it or not, most of us "Conservative Jerks" are honorable people who do not enjoy the idea of anybody being killed brutally.

Ollie, Kansas City
August 20, 2014 10:21am

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