Like “evil” and “devil,” sin is a word that is almost immediately provocative - especially to those who do not see it as a legitimate descriptor of reality itself. Of course, to those who are religious, especially conservatively so, sin refers to a kind of real and legitimate form of betraying God's will (as something which is objective, and not merely subjective). Rather than somehow offending the personality or pride of Divinity, most religious communities see this betrayal to be an offense against the structured manifestations of God’s will - as reflected in the patterns, order and “laws” (variously called God’s law, natural law, universal law) by which the world works. For instance, if God’s will is that human beings should “love one another,” divine order or law would dictate that those who learn to love will be happier than those who refuse to do so (thus betraying God’s will). This unhappiness is thus a consequence of an individual’s sin of not loving.
From the Law of Moses (Torah) and Ten Commandments (Old Testament) to the Ten Instructions (Qur'an) and the Sermon on the Mount (New Testament), each account of God’s law specifies some sort of consequence arising from particular sinful acts. These consequences are characterized variously as Karma or the law of the harvest or blessings and cursing. Compared to those yielding themselves to God’s law, then, those betraying or denying that same law (consciously - which is usually required) can and likely will suffer some kind of personal consequences.
All the foregoing, of course, is usually understood by those outside of religious communities as variously punitive, fear-mongering, controlling, narrow-minded, unhealthy or even delusional. To these (usually secular) critics, the concept of sin and its fear has been effective for many religious leaders in exerting control and exercising power over their followers. According to this argument, that is the primary use and function of “sin” - and as far as its relevance and utility goes. As such, these would reject “sin” as a hindrance towards healthy human flourishing.
Orthodox religious individuals, of course, would also “reject sin,” in a more literal way - seeing the turning away from sin and back towards God (“repentance”) as itself crucial to human flourishing. From this vantage point, to “reject” sin by pretending it doesn’t exist and rejecting the philosophical concept alone is about as dangerous a thing as you can do. From a religious conservative mindset, this is precisely the kind of decision that may set someone up for a life of endless, unremitting sin - with all the associated consequences that would arguably arise. Only by acknowledging the damaging and eternally destructive reality of sin, they would say, can that ever change - and bring someone to a relief of suffering.
Other criticism of sin comes from religious or spiritual individuals who see themselves as attaining greater enlightenment than those who as yet believe in a concept of “sin” - e.g., if you understood God’s love as well as I do, you would realize your worries about sin are quite silly. For many Buddhist and progressive religious communities, for instance, there is a higher perspective from which the concept of sin ceases to exist. While rejecting the more conservative depiction of sin, this progressive religious view offers another account of consequence and causation. Namely, every action, good or bad, has an inevitable and automatic effect in a long chain of causes, an effect which is independent of the will of any deity. Even though this may leave no room for the concept of 'sin' in the sense of an act of defiance against the authority of a personal god, Buddhists still speak of 'sin' when referring to transgressions against the universal moral code.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
-Is “sin” a legitimate concept to you? If so, why? If not, why?
-Do you see the idea of “sin” as being helpful or valuable in lives of people you know? If yes or no, share examples.