Sin: What's It Good For?
There seems to be very little point to classifying some wrong actions as sins.
by Brian Dunning
November 26, 2006
Also available in Japanese
This week, I'm going to put on my burgundy velvet robe, fill my martini glass, and take a long, critical look at that bastard stepchild of the value system: Sin.
Sin is an interesting thing. A sin is something you're not supposed to do, but only 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 are completely, entirely harmless, like the thinking of impure thoughts. So what's the problem? Why are sins bad?
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 are generally on board with this too — as a sort of guideline, 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 some of 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 inherently 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 ate the forbidden fruit in the Genesis legend, you and I and everyone else are considered guilty by association and are thus fundamentally bad people, according to strict Christian doctrine, which includes the assumption that we're all actually descended from them as if they were real people.
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 an attractive person and an impure thought pops into your head, 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 do something deliberately that produces impure thoughts — they are mortal sins. If you do things like this regularly, strict Christians consider that you are hellbound for sure. By this yardstick, there are probably a lot of us who needn't bother wearing our ski jackets for our burials.
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 the Devil 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 actions considered sinful, basically a long list of victimless crimes. Take social relationships, including plural marriages, same sex marriages, and anyone living together outside of wedlock. It doesn't hurt anyone and it's mutually fulfilling for all participants. But those activities are all pretty high on the sin list. But remove a particular religious context, and suddenly there's nothing wrong with it. Polyamory is also a victimless crime that is considered sinful: wife swapping, swinging, hedonism, group sex parties, and open marriages are things that all the participants enjoy behind closed doors. When it's consensual, and hopefully done safely, it's hard to argue that there's any harm.
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, according to Catholic doctrine and others. This includes a video chat session with your spouse when one of you is traveling. How does that make any sense in the 21st century?
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, is very rarely considered sinful), and you've got the perfect evening. Drunkenness and tobacco are fundamental to the lives of some people I know, and many of them are not even in jail for anything.
Idolatry is another sin that's hard for some 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 deities 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 in many religions. 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 the way some of the faithful such as the Amish can overlook thesecrimes and offer loving forgiveness to even the worst criminals, but I prefer to 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 those who wish to impose their particular culture's religious restrictions onto those who don't choose to follow them: Keep your arbitrary restrictions, and your hateful labels, and your hateful belief that others should go to hell, to yourselves.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Sin: What's It Good For?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
26 Nov 2006. Web.
24 Apr 2018. <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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