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What Is Sin?
Amanda Smith
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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Smiths
Subject: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Wednesday, September 22, 1999 2:17 PM

Sin is disobedience to a god.

Christians go further than this, and treat sin like a "disease" or "condition" or "nature" that you're born with. You inherit the disobedient act of Adam and also inherit the punishment he deserves -- as if you yourself deserve to be punished for his disobedience (Rom. 5-6). Many Christians use this inherited "sin nature" to explain why people tend to want to disobey the Christian god (Rom. 7:7ff), and even to explain why camels and ducks and cedar trees die. A few even use the alleged disobedience of Adam as an attempt to explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

This is my understanding of the various meanings of sin. Although I understand the definitions of the word, I think the entire notion of sin and redemption is dangerous nonsense.

To teach a child the shocking story of Jesus's redemption on the cross is, to me, tantamount to child abuse. Crucial to this story is the notion that a little boy's just-born sister, if she were to die right now, deserves to spend eternity burning in hell. I think most young children can easily see that nobody deserves to spend even a minute in a place like hell. How many countless millions of people have wept over the very concept of hell, much less wept over whether they or their loved ones would be sent there. I know I have wept like this, and if you are human, you've probably wept like this too. The Gospel can callous our human emotions to the point where we no longer weep, yet we still believe that hell exists and that people actually spend eternity there.

Through repetition, the notion of sin and redemption sinks in without there having been much thought on the matter. We have heard it stated so many times, and have also been told that this is what we believe (on penalty of hell fire if we deny), but we have never given it a moment's thought beyond that initial shock of first having heard it as a child. We simply rattle off the creed, and then assert that this is what we believe. Most of us have never examined or questioned the creed.

I don't think it can properly be said that most people actually believe some of the creeds (like that of sin and redemption) because, when examined, these creeds make no sense. They are nonsense in that they are patently illogical (much like the notion of a square circle is self-contradictory). As such, we cannot possibly believe them. But we repeat them and say that we believe them. Why? Because we have been trained, since childhood and through social acceptance, to say that we believe the stated creeds -- but we never critically examined the creeds to believe them in the first place. I argue that the word belief properly applies only to propositions that make sense, propositions that can be conceptualized, and that nobody actually believes a proposition that is nonsensical (in the proper sense of the word).

If the doctrine of sin and redemption is true, if all men seek only to do evil continually, then who can you trust? Will anybody do good? If Paul could not control his members (his limbs) while present in this life (Romans 7), then who can? I spent over seven years teaching "alcoholics" that there is no such disease as "alcoholism" and that no problem drinker is powerless. I not only think I am right about "alcoholism" not being a disease, but I watched thousands find this outlook empowering: you can control your members. If I knew I was wrong about the disease and powerlessness, but found the outlook empowering nonetheless, I would be in a real quandary as to whether to teach it. I have found it impossible for me to state as truth something that I know to be falsehood. I would never be successful as a salesman, a preacher, a politician, a lawyer -- or a even successful at being a junkie.

There are better, more accurate (and thus more useful) explanations for people's behavior than those offered by the dogma of sin and redemption. We hear a lot of talk about school shootings and one church shooting; we hear about them in the news, on the campaign trail, and in the pulpit. There are two problems with this: First, the violent crime rates in America (including, specifically, school shootings) are actually going down according to the FBI. Secondly, the phenomenon of "running amok" has been with us for as long as we can remember. Individuals lose all hope and decide to take others down with them. Entire subcultures have been known to do this, too. All the rhetoric is, to me, being spouted by opportunistic politicians, preachers, and other extortionists trying to exploit a tragedy (and degrade the memory of the victims) for the purpose of furthering their pet agendas. None of this rhetoric comes close to offering a solution that has even a chance at improving the situation.

A good case can be made that at least some of the culprits in these incidents lost hope in their religious faith. A review of the backgrounds of these murderers shows -- time and time again -- they were raised with a strict religious upbringing. Most people who lose faith can handle the transition and the inevitable sense of betrayal that often marks losing one's faith. But some of us are already mentally unstable or never properly learned coping skills. (The same can be said for some atheists who get religion: some of us cannot make the transition to a life of faith. We are denounced rejected by our fellow church members, sometimes for something as natural to an atheistic upbringing as the tendency to raise questions, and some of us will never fit in with a culture that prizes blind acceptance.)

Many people have studied the phenomenon of running amok, and there are some things we can do to prevent it from happening as often as it does. There are measures we can take to protect ourselves if and when it does happen. However, we will never implement these solutions as long as the public keeps getting told -- again and again -- that the solution is more religion and more superstition.

John F. Kennedy was the only politician in recent years to win an election by stumping for science as the primary solution to our problems. Today, the way to win an American election is to appeal to the 45 percent who believe that the two radically different Genesis "accounts" of creation are both literally true. And neither Genesis nor Revelation nor any book in between has ever solved any of the complex problems we face today. Ancient myths can only divert our attention from the tough solutions required to change our world for the better.

Our murder rates have gone down in recent years only because we have studied the problems and have been able to implement some of the proposed solutions. Some of these solutions involve economic equality, an idea foreign to the institution of slavery that pervades the teachings in the Bible -- both Old and New Testaments. Another set of solutions involves nurturing a sense of implicit human dignity, which the doctrines of sin and redemption serve only to smash to bits. At the forefront of these solutions is a widespread realization that we are all here, and that this is our only crack at living. We don't get a second chance, and the murderers who talk about their hopes of seeing their victims in heaven are only fooling themselves. (I have posted dozens of such accounts in our Apocalypso section.) The notion of an afterlife serves only to cheapen the only life we know: this life here on earth.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: "Hazelton, Kathleen"
To: "'Positive Atheism'" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: RE: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Wednesday, September 22, 1999 4:17 PM

Bravo!!

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From: "ART HAYKIN"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Wednesday, September 22, 1999 3:50 PM

Well said, Cliff.

To our questioner, it must be said that "sin" in what ever definition you care to give it that indicates some act or thought that is counter to law, custom, or well being, is a relative term that does not have equal weight in all cultures and times. Yesterday's "sin" is today's accepted practice. The same applies to "law." The hallmark of a culture or belief system that is retrogressive is that it is static, ossified, and stagnant. I cite the Amish. They had to bring in secular anthropologist to find out why they were producing so many babies with serious defects. The simple, obvious answer was that intermarriage of close relatives in their small, constricted communities was tantamount to incest. They wisely acceded to enlightened medical technology and sent their young men and women to distant Amish communities to find spouses. The "sin" of incest and cruel deformities "miraculously" vanished. There are no absolutes where "sin" is concerned. Even murder, as Ambrose Bierce tells us, comes in four categories: "Felonious, Justifiable, Excusable, and Praiseworthy." A lie may be a "sin" but it's a crime only when uttered under oath. Stealing a loaf of bread may be a crime, but it's no "sin" if an otherwise honest man steals it to feed his starving family -- wouldn't you agree?

The concept of "sin" is largely a Sword of Damocles held over the heads of the controlled by the controlling. If you are a believing Christian, you are committing the "sin" of vanity if you use any makeup or wear decorative clothing. There are six others, equally foolish and largely ignored.

Without sin, life would be an utter bore.

Art

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From: "The Sociology Shop"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Sin
Date: Wednesday, September 22, 1999 4:20 PM

I've always remembered from my Seminary days...long ago...that "sin" means to "miss the mark." I've always liked this definition because it means that sin is a relative concept...not absolute. It's relative because the "miss" is relative to what the "mark" is. Change the "mark" and you'll change "sin". Problem is that whoever gets to do the deciding what the mark is also decides what the sin is. This is similar to the knee-jerk and formal logical definition of "deviance" being whatever departs from the "norm." Actually, nothing is deviant in and of itself...and nothing is "sinful" in and of itself. What is "normal" is a definition by those with the power to enforce their definition.

So, in summary...I'd say there is no such thing as sin. The working definition of "miss the mark" can be found in many areas. Another that comes to mind is, of course, crime. Crime is a definition created by "law." Nothing is inherently criminal...it's a decision. So is sin.

David H. Kessel

Please visit The Sociology Shop at:
http://www.angelfire.com/or/sociologyshop/index.html

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From: "MURRAY, Paul"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: RE: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Wednesday, September 22, 1999 5:23 PM

In the book "The Mind of the Bible Believer", a case is made that in the new testament, sin is being self directed. Jesus, who was sinless, did nothing of himself but followed the father in all things. By this view, Adam and Eve's sin lay not in disobedience to the command of God, but in having the temerity (or hubris) to decide for themselves whether to obey or not. The NT ideal is "It's no longer I that lives, but Christ who lives in me", and "He must increase, and I must decrease". The NT ideal is subjection to some other.

As an atheist, of course, my view of this is that these doctrines exist to allow a leadership to control a congregation. This is why any sort of deviation from the norm of a church which you attend can be construed as some sort of "sin in your life". Of course, the real sin is not the deviation itself, but the fact that you have decided for yourself that it's ok to deviate. That you have made up your own mind.

It's a fine book, and quite frightening in spots.

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From: "WwVelcro"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Wednesday, September 22, 1999 7:42 PM

I don't believe in sin.

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From: "Linda"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Wednesday, September 22, 1999 7:57 PM

Hi Cliff,

I come from the Jewish faith/culture and have recently attended some fairly liberal-thinking services. The Rabbis at those places define "sin" as "missing the mark" or making a mistake. They do not have the concept of original sin as I understand the Christians have it. Sin, as in marking a mistake, is inevitable and we all do it. Evil, nah, I don't think so, not with this interpretation.

Linda

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From:
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Wednesday, September 22, 1999 9:14 PM

sin-offense, transgression, trespass, misdeed, wrong, vice, peccadillo, damnation...
              -- Roget's Thesaurus

An offense, a wrong as defined in ones own definition of right & wrong. There is no such thing as a sin. Sin is the label that religious people have given to actions that are in some form damaging to another party. This, in my opinion, is done so that people will feel fear before the act or guilt after the fact in order to prevent them from happening. We are not only talking about physical acts but mental acts as well. As a child I was taught that thinking of some things was a sin.

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From:
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Thursday, September 23, 1999 2:54 AM

What is sin?

(My first stab and gut reaction to the definition)

Going against the standards and laws established by the culture within a community within which one resides. Going against the moral and ethical standards established within oneself. Both of these statements imply that standards, laws, morals, and ethics may not necessarily be the same for each individual.

This brings rise, of course, as to the individual and which one is right. And whether which one is "right" brings rise to the notion of what is good and what is right. So the first paragraph written stands on its own. There will always likely be a further discourse on the interpretation and theories that can arise therefrom. It appears to be a never-ending story.

Dena Neff

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From:
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Thursday, September 23, 1999 8:55 AM

This is the first issue of Positive Atheism I have received, and I must say, I'm quite pleased with it. However, I feel the urge to add my two cents, which I rarely do.

From conversations I have had with believers, I think many confuse the religion/sin/morals issue. Most that I have spoken with consider that if you are a-theist, you are also a-moral. To me, and most atheists I have met, the 'sin' issue is entirely religious, while the 'morals' issue is entirely secular. Morals, to me, are simply evolved guidelines on living in a society...needed for any community living. Sin, on the other hand, is breaking the 'rules' of mythology, rather than the rules of man.

Thank you,
Echo

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From: "Mary Cancilla"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Thursday, September 23, 1999 11:09 AM

Sin is something that a theist does that they think will cast them into hell (if they don't ask for forgiveness afterward).

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From: "James Call"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Thursday, September 23, 1999 9:32 PM

Of course, in my own life, sin isn't a particularly useful concept. I might define it as behavior that hurts yourself or others. People vary greatly tho, on what they think is hurtful. If you hit your finger with a hammer, is that a sin? Well, maybe. Maybe the sin would be the carelessness with which you wield the hammer. Would it be a sin to hit your hand purposely with hammer? Um. . . yeah. Altho, some people use pain to reach certain mental states. Is that a sin? I couldn't say. Is it a sin to murder? Yes. Is it a sin to kill? A much broader question. Say you are part of a group of people stranded in a wilderness. As part of a strategy for survival you have managed to plant some vegetables. A gopher begins to ravage the garden. You sin against the gopher if you kill it. But you sin against yourself if you don't. You are being attacked by a rottweiler dog. Do you defend yourself? Do you defend yourself by any means up to and including killing the dog if you are able? Of course. And here you probably don't even sin against the dog. The sin is on his head for misjudging his quarry. Is it a sin to lie? Under most circumstances, probably. But I can think of situations, say the Gestapo wanted you to inform on friends or confederates, where it would be a sin not to lie. The idea of sin becomes pretty complicated in interpersonal relationships. Some people have pretty thin skins and are hurt pretty easily. Others have unrealistic expectations and thereby hurt themselves when they expect things they shouldn't and then feel hurt because those expectations aren't met.

It seems to me that many people for whom the concept of sin is a useful idea, think of it as going against some religious authority. That there is a code book somewhere "in heaven" and "a judge" keeping tally every time a code is broken. Since that sounds like science fiction to me I certainly have to reject that notion of sin. Sometimes I encounter nonatheists who are troubled that I lack an absolutist's concept of sin governing my behavior. "Why don't you just go out and rob and kill?" Indeed. Why don't I? First off, that doesn't sound like my idea of a good time. Second, I don't think I'd want to live in a society where those things are common -- certainly any more common than they already are. In fact, I'm rather stunned when I hear the suggestion that the only reason we're not all running around killing each other is a big hammer up in heaven.

I think it's nice to be nice. I love to love and I love to be loved. I don't think I'm terribly unusual in this regard. Obviously, some people sometimes misjudge drastically what might be in their own best interests. I think, tho, that the idea of sin and a tally book in heaven and a judgement in the hereafter clouds the issue of goodness more than it clarifies it. In general, the benefits of being good are immediate. The absolutist would like more of a guarantee than that. All good behavior rewarded. All bad behavior punished. And the Judgement Day is when all debts become due. However, I can accept that karma works in a general way and not necessarily an absolute way.

My philosophy, if I had to come up with one, could probably be stated, similar to a mother admonishing her child going outside: Have fun, don't hurt yourself, play nice. Or: Have fun. Don't be stupid. Be kind so that kindness may be more likely to come back to you.

If there is a concept of sin in any of that, and there may be, I'll leave it up to others to find it.

James Call

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From: "Monica A. Harris"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: Question: What is Sin?
Date: Saturday, September 25, 1999 8:26 AM

I agree with your perspective on the conventional, religious dogma crap about sin, but I have my own fix on this matter. Forget sinning against the gods. We sin against ourselves when we violate our deepest convictions about right & wrong. Unless you happen to be sociopathic, and therefore without conscience, there will be times in our lives when we act against what we truly believe is the right thing to do. It is a lousy feeling. And because it makes you feel so bad inside, it gets your attention. We are all indoctrinated into what is considered right and wrong according to our cultural group. But there is also an inner voice that speaks to us, if we only will listen. I believe there is an "authentic morality" that each of us can discover for ourselves.

blue

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From: "Janet Voska"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: FORUM_What_Is_Sin_9835
Date: Saturday, July 08, 2000 11:36 PM

Sin is a word -- derived from the Bible -- which means an act that is not in accordance with the "Will of God." -- Who is the Creator of all things visible and invisible -- and Who is the author of "Sin" and the Bible. (for those who believe that "Satan" is the author of "Sin ", they by necessity of logic must ask who created "him?"

To those who have had no exposure to the Bible or those who believe the Bible is the "Word of "God", there is no concept of or word to describe "Sin". An example would be the tribe of natives found (were they ever lost?) i the jungles of South America not too many years ago. Not only did they have no word for sin, they also had no word for or concept of "God." Another is the babe at it's mother's breast or in it's father's arms who doesn't have a clue yet as to the depth of his/her preprogrammed proclivity towards depravity , mischief, mayhem and unworthiness. (derived from "Sin" -- not just any sin, but "Original Sin")

This is not me talking here, it's the very "Word" of "God", lest you think I'm making this up.

The word "Sin" has nothing to do with lack of nobility , character, kindness, mercy, justice or love of fellow man. It is "God's" word to describe actions or thoughts that go against 'His" will. For further insight one may wish to read the different versions of the "Ten Commandments" in the various translations of the Bible. Also reading the Book of Genesis would be enlightening, along with Paul's letters in the New Testament.

To those who have done the foregoing and choose to disregard the concepts of "God" and "Sin" they are left to their own conclusions as to what life demands or does not demand of them and "Sin" as it is no longer a viable concept to them.

Fortunately, if one proceeds to investigate this matter further , one would find a tremendous amount of information on other humans who have relied on their own reasonings to form ethics that work best for them in this unforgiving and and certainly unfair world of ours. Some have even given their lives to improve the quality of human life and through their quests in the areas of philosophy, medicine, science, art , technology and political action, have brought humanity to a new level of understanding of its rightful place in the universe. But none have placed judgment of their actions, thoughts or their value as humans upon the merciless, ruthless pronouncements and punishments of a "God" who is so devious as to make a human who "He" knows will disobey "Him" -- here's where the word sin comes in -- and then proceed to brutalize him/her for "eternity " unless he/she denies his/her innate intelligence, curiosity and his/her very body and it's needs and desires and does this in "humility " before "His" slaughtered "Son" (ahhhh, here's another word and another concept which is quite grisly but necessary to introduce) and gives for ever more loving praise to and undevided loyaly to"His" glory, will one be "Forgiven" and "Saved" from the consequences of -- you got it -- "Sin."

So, the word "sin" is part of a world vew that really has no meaning unless one believes in "God" -- not just any god, mind you, but "Him", the "One" behind the scenes, who authored the "Book", the rules, the playing field , the results and the little word, "Sin."

Fortunately for "unbelievers", they can look to themselves to find ideals to live by other than you know what and you know who, and even find in their neighbors of all persuasions and beliefs, reasons to live in the here and now and behave in ways that bring peace, comfort, joy, justice, mercy, self-fulfillment , and a willingness to suffer through the rough times with a firm resolve while sharing their little planet with a whole lot of other humans and creatures -- or, they may not. It's their call, same as with "believers".

Oh well, what can you expect from a Freethinker?

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From:"SUSAN ROUNTREE"
To:"Positive Atheism Magazine"<editor@positiveathiesm.org>
Subject: FORUM_What_Is_Sin_9835
Date: Tuesday, August 22, 2000 9:01 AM

When you know it is wrong, and, as an act of your will knowing it is wrong, do it anyway that is what sin is.

Susan

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Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.