What is Sin?

JusticeSome atheist friends of mine had a party in my honor (not to be confused with a lemon party), and one of the questions of the hour has been what is “sin”? My friends seem to think that is some nasty and degrading and offensive word and concept, inherently judgmental and repressive, arbitrary and dictatorial at someone else’s whim (who doesn’t even exist). Naturally, as a theist and a Christian, I have a different idea of it.

I maintain that sin is an absolute and universal concept, essential to humankind; my friends are of the opinion that all morality is relative and there is no absolute “right” or “wrong” and certainly not a “sin.” This, of course, is an argument that has gone on in philosophical and theological circles for centuries, and I have no hope of resolving it here. I am just a dumb sheep and not much of a philosopher. But I do think it’s important food for thought as I am here struggling with my own sin.

The Catholic Church defines sin thus:

SIN: An offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God. In judging the gravity of sin, it is customary to distinguish between mortal and venial sins (1849, 1853, 1854). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed.)

My friends, being atheists, of course don’t agree with the “God” part. But the parts I bolded are what make this apply to whomever you are, whatever you believe. Because whoever you are, whatever you believe, if you are human, you have to believe that there is a “right” and a “wrong,” a “good” and a “bad,” a “help” and a “harm.” And to do wrong is to sin.

Now, whether morality is absolute or relative is a different argument: but there are, without a doubt, in human society, codes of mores that are particular to groups of people. And there is a “right” and a “wrong,” a “good” and a “bad,” according to those codes. To deny that “morality” exists is the same as denying “freedom” or “truth” exist: sure, those ideas may to some degree be socially constructed and relative according to the who and where and when. But they do exist. There is a “right” and a “wrong,” according to your local idea of morality, and a “sin,” whether there is a god or a king or a sheriff.

Some things, of course, are pretty absolute. There may be some situations in which killing human beings is arguably justified and perhaps even right; but it seems pretty universal that killing innocent and defenseless people is wrong. There may be some situations in which taking things that don’t belong to you is right; but it seems to be common to all societies that taking things of value against the will of the person who has them, especially by force or coercion and to their detriment, is wrong. These things are sins against humanity.

And to my situation: some people might argue that pornography is “benign” or “okay” or “good” or maybe even “right.” There’s nothing shameful about sex or sexuality or nudity or the human body–those are all beautiful and good things. But most people, upon seeing the shame and exploitation and destruction and abuse and addiction that the pornographic industry inflicts upon its participants and oftentimes its viewers, would agree that those were bad things. And artistic nudity, the display of the nude body for its aesthetic qualities, can certainly be good and has its proper place. But that’s the kind of “pornography” that I enjoy more than anything; that has been more deadly to me than anything. There may be nothing at all inherently pornographic  about this kind of art–but alone in my room, with my pants down, with gigabytes and gigabytes of it on my hard drive, is most decidedly not its proper place. And nearly anyone, I think, regardless of how they feel about pornography or nudity or sex or art, can agree that the kind of addiction and destruction it has wrought in my life is bad–is wrong, an offense against my own dignity–is a sin.


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