Sin: What's It Good For?
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Religion
November 26, 2006
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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
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.
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.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Sin: What's It Good For?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
26 Nov 2006. Web.
27 Nov 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4009>
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.
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