Like so many other religious concepts, Sin is nonsense.
Let’s start from the beginning. How does Christianity define “sin”? I did a google search for the phrase “What is sin?” and this was the answer from Allaboutgod.com:
We live in a culture where the concept of sin has become entangled in legalistic arguments over right and wrong. When many of us consider “What is sin?” we think of violations of the Ten Commandments. Even then, we tend to think of murder and adultery as “major” sins compared with lying, cursing, or idolatry.
The truth is that sin, as defined in the original translations of the Bible, means “to miss the mark.” The mark, in this case, is the standard of perfection established by God and evidenced by Jesus. Viewed in that light, it is clear that we are all sinners. (LINK)
This, I think, is a good place to start. All these paragraphs are saying is that sin is anything that deviates from a perfect standard set by God. Still, it’s quite unclear. Are we talking about a standard for behavior? Most Christians would probably agree that we are, but many go further and say that thoughts can be sins as well. We’ll examine both kinds of sins in turn: Sins of the Body and Sins of the Mind.
Sins of the Body
Many Christians believe that some actions are universally wrong — killing, abortion, premarital sex, drinking, and the like. However, there are serious problems with labeling an action as sinful. For one thing, morality is not absolute with regard to actions. It might be morally good to kill a man in one instance and morally bad in another. In the Bible, Yahweh orders killing on genocidal scales. ”Thou shalt not kill” is not as easy as it sounds. Consider a classic moral dilemma. A man is forced to choose between killing an assailant and saving the lives of his children in the process or allowing his children to be killed. Most people believe that the morally correct thing is to protect the children and kill a man. Similarly, most people with normal human empathy understand that abortion, drinking, sex, and other actions can be good or bad depending on the circumstances.
Morality is not about actions. It’s about meaning. When we ask if an act is morally good, we are really asking what the act means with reference to other humans (or possibly other life). So if sin is a list of prohibited actions, then sin and morality are not the same thing.
If sin is not the same as immorality, maybe we can salvage the concept. Let’s imagine that there is a God, and he has decided that there are some things that piss him off, and he’d rather humans didn’t do them. What is the standard God used to determine what constitutes a sin? We’ve already established that it’s not morality, so sin is not about being good to our fellow man. Many churches teach this principle: Sin is about offending God, and sometimes you have to do things that won’t be popular with your fellow man, but you do them because that’s what God wants. Kind of scary when you think about it, isn’t it?
We know intuitively what is moral and immoral because we have a frame of reference — our instincts for fairness, reciprocal altruism, and mutual protection. But with God, we have no such frame of reference. Indeed, from the human perspective, we can only regard God’s will as arbitrary and even capricious. If we have no way to judge for ourself what is a sin, we are simply following a set of instructions. (And we just decided that such a list doesn’t work.) Moreover, the Bible is hardly a clear and concise list of what we should and should not do. Should we really hate our family? Should we really sell all that we have? Should we really not let women speak in church or cut their hair? Should we really not allow menstruating women into sacred holy areas? Should we really stone disobedient children? There are over fifteen thousand Christian denominations in the world, and they all have different views on what constitutes a sin.
Then again, maybe God instills us with innate knowledge of what is a sin, apart from our moral instincts. I’ve heard that preached a time or two. But if that was the case, then scientists ought to have discovered a list of prohibitions in the human psyche, right? Of course, they haven’t. What they have discovered is that our instincts for moral meaning are universal. In fact, scientists have discovered the opposite of what we’d expect if there was an innate list of no-no’s. Human culture seems nearly limitless in its moral flexibility with regard to actions.
In the end, we’re left with a horrible situation. Either sin is the same thing as morality, in which case, the church is just dead wrong about how it works, or sin is different than morality, and we apparently have no way to know what is really a sin. But it’s even worse than that. If morality is different than sin, we must admit that when there are differences between morality and pleasing god, pleasing God will necessarily be either neutral or morally wrong! (Think about it… it’s simple logic.)
Sins of the Mind
Let’s go down the other path and see if we can make the concept of sin fit our minds. Maybe sin isn’t about prohibited actions. Maybe it’s about prohibited thoughts. Maybe we are sinning when we contemplate wrongdoing, or lead ourselves into temptation. If this is the case, then God is a real jerk — even moreso than if he gave us some arbitrary list of activities to avoid. Recent neurological research has shown us conclusively that we make decisions before we become aware of having made them. That is, our thoughts are formed before we become aware of thinking them. That being the case, we must admit that God has punished us for doing things over which we have no choice whatsoever.
Even without going down that road, we have to ask some tough questions of God. Why does a human thinking a particular kind of thought upset God? If my thought remains private and no other human is the wiser, who have my thoughts harmed? If thoughts by themselves do not inherently cause harm, then we are left again with the inscrutability and capriciousness of God’s will.
God: “Don’t think that thought!”
God: “Because I don’t want you to.”
God: “Because I don’t like it.”
God: Because it’s offensive to me.
Here is where the concept of mental sin is so devastating and damaging. As an example, hormonal boys are taught that sexual thoughts are sinful. They are told that if they think too much about sex, they’ll become obsessed, and might act out by masturbating or raping a girl. Of course, hormonal teenagers can’t help but think of sex. When they think of sex, they remember that they aren’t supposed to think about sex, so they think about not thinking about sex… which is thinking about sex. Meanwhile, the non-Christian boys just go home, jerk off to a magazine and get on with life. The instruction to avoid obsessing leads to obsession. (Rick Santorum, anyone?)
There is one more way in which the idea of “sins of the mind” poisons the well. I remember being taught that certain kinds of thoughts were from the devil himself — namely, thoughts “borne of the world” which might lead me to question my devotion, belief, and loyalty to God. We have seen throughout history that one of the easiest ways to get large groups of people to do very, very bad things is to brainwash them into thinking that questioning beliefs is the equivalent of a crime. If it is true that God wants us to avoid thoughts which call his existence into question, then God is a fascist dictator, a brainwasher, and a despot. There is no other alternative.
We do not need a God to give us an arbitrary set of rules to live by. We have morality, which is the natural result of natural selection. It works relatively well. It’s not perfect. No humans are perfect. Life is gray. Morality is gray. However, life and morality are a lot easier to figure out if we just ditch the idea of some unfathomable list of things that are “just wrong.”