Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sin Defies Definition

Something’ Smith and the Redheads once sang a song with the following words: 

Be sure it's true when you say “I love you”
It's a sin to tell a lie …

Maybe yes, maybe no.

Everyone thinks he know what sin is, but a quick investigation shows that sin is a confusing mass of illogical and implausible ideas that vary across multiple faiths.  The topic arose because, in the eyes of our religious zealot friends, seemingly everything from expanded health care to unrestricted voting recently has been labeled a “sin.”

Not according to Mordred, King Author’s wayward son, who lists several sins in a song from the Broadway show Camelot: honesty, charity, fidelity and humility that “free and happy little me has not been cursed.”

Other people have different ideas. 

Jews define sin as doing something in defiance of God’s laws, not something against man. There are three types: intentional, uncontrolled and unintentional.  During Jewish High Holy Days later this month, for example, dutiful believers will sit together in synagogues worldwide and ask for forgiveness of sins.

Congregants ask God for atonement for 48 general and specific misdeeds, such as:

For the sin which we have committed before You under compulsion or of our own will,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by hardening our hearts;
For the sin which we have committed before You unknowingly,
And for the sin which we have committed before You with utterance of the lips;
For the sin which we have committed before You by unchastity,
And for the sin which we have committed before You openly or secretly;
For the sin which we have committed before You knowingly and deceitfully,
And for the sin which we have committed before You in speech …

That’s marginally better than relying on the Bible.  Some sins are listed in the 10 Commandments: have no other gods, remember the Sabbath and don’t take God’s name in vain.  Other Commandments, such as not committing murder or coveting something a neighbor owns, are interpersonal and have nothing to do with God.

The Bible contains other commandments, such as sacrificing animals, not wearing clothes with different kinds of threads but with fringes as well as keeping a written prayer in front of your eyes at all times.  No one does any of that.  Have we all sinned?

In the Roman Catholic faith, however, such ideas have no place.  For them, everyone is born with a sin that began when the first humans, Adam, and Eve, were tossed out of the Garden of Eden for defying God’s law.  In that theology, Jesus died to atone for that terrible sin. Moreover, sin requires knowledge and consent of the person sinning, in the Catholic view.

Of course, with hundreds of sects, not all Christians agree.  For example, Evangelical Christians argue that all behaviors not perceived as good are, by definition, sinful. Accidental sins, then, don’t exist.

To help clarify what exactly is a sin, an early Catholic theologian came up with the “seven deadly sins:" pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.  A quick glance shows that almost everyone has violated one or several of those terrible behaviors.

Paul, the prominent advocate for Jesus in the first century, came up with a whole bunch more, ranging from uncleanliness and hatred to drunkenness and thievery.  In fact, his list is so extensive that no one could have avoided violating something on it.

Besides, to Christians, not believing in Jesus is a sin.  That means more than 70 percent of all humans are currently sinning.

In Islam, sinners are simply people who wandered away from Allah’s path, which has been laid out in the sacred book.  That list is pretty extensive, too, ranging from atheism and immorality, depravity and adultery to a general “misdeeds.”

Of course, that depends on who is defining a sin.  A Muslim who converts to Catholicism has committed a misdeed in one faith and made a blessed decision in the other. 

The difficulty of identifying sin expands when the definition changes.  For example, for centuries, Catholics who deliberately ate meat on Friday were condemned for committing a mortal sin.  The bishops of the church abandoned that concept in 1968, making a steak for Friday dinner a minor transgression. 

Hell must have a revolving door.

In reality, sin is simply a human way of restricting actions and binding believers to a single behavioral code.  It has no meaning beyond that.

Go and sin no more, Jesus is quoted as saying (John 8:11).

If it were only that easy in the political realm or everyday life.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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