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Let’s Talk About Sin, Guilt, and Human Behavior

jesus spanking sinners

Repost from 2015. Edited, rewritten, and corrected. 

Several years ago, Ewan asked: 

Do you have a philosophical view of the word ‘sin” anymore?

How is homosexuality defined in your worldview? What of extramarital sexual relationships? or premarital? Are they ‘sin’?

What is an atheistic view of sin? Does it really matter? If there is no sinful behaviour, where does guilt come from?

The power of sin in a Christian worldview is guilt. If I were to have an extramarital affair built on love, is this sinful? What the heck is ‘sin’?

I do not use the word sin in defining certain human behaviors. Sin is inherently a religious term, and since I am not a religious person, I have no need for the word and its theological consequences. Based on cultural and societal norms, humans act in ways that are considered good, indifferent, or bad. What we consider good, bad, or indifferent behavior changes with time, circumstance, and place. Currently, these things are still deeply influenced by religion, yet religion is losing its primacy and this is why we see religious zealots raging against perceived sins and slights of God and his supposedly timeless moral code.

Homosexuality is a scientific term, a word used to describe same-sex attraction. It has no inherent moral quality. Once we remove religion from the discussion, there is less need to concern ourselves with sexual attraction or whom someone marries.

Marriage is a contractual agreement between two people. If this contract includes a commitment to monogamy, then I would consider it bad behavior to commit adultery. However, many people marry for reasons other than sex. I pastored a few couples over the years who had sexless marriages. One woman thought sex was for having children. Once her children were born, she was done with having sex, and she had no problem with her husband seeking sexual gratification elsewhere.

When it comes to premarital sex, I see no reason to consider it bad behavior. We have laws that govern the age of consent, and as long as the sex is consensual, I see no reason to demonize teenagers and young adults for acting on (and enjoying) their biological needs and urges. Our goal should be to make sure every person receives state-mandated, science-based education about human sexuality and birth control. The overwhelming majority of teenagers engage in premarital sexual activity, so it is in everyone’s best interest to make sure teens are properly educated and on birth control until they are ready to have children. Doing so would greatly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, a goal all of us support.

There is no atheist position on sin. Atheism is a belief about the existence of deities, not a statement about ethics or morality. It is humanism that gives many atheists, including myself, a moral and ethical framework. The Humanist Manifesto III states:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

(If I have a “religion” it is secular humanism. My religion’s code is summarized in the Humanist Manifesto.)

The question of guilt is a good one, one that I am not sure I can adequately answer. Some guilt is driven by the pervasiveness of religion and its sin-punishment-reward system. However, I think guilt also flows from being a part of a particular culture and tribe. I am sure there are some behaviors that elicit guilt among my children that might not cause guilt in a different family’s children. Guilt, as with morality, can be, and is, quite subjective.

The more absolute one’s moral beliefs are, the more likely one is to feel guilt. As I have stated many times before, my sin (bad behavior) list now fits on a 3×5 card, and I suspect by the time I die it will fit on a post-it note. Once the church, the Bible, and sin-loving — yet sin-hating — preachers are removed from the equation, guilt often assuages. In other words, remove religion from a person’s life, and guilt levels recede. Pretty good reason for ditching Christianity, don’t you think?

I grew up believing drinking alcohol was a sin. I was fifty years old before I took my first drink. Now that God and the Bible no longer factor into my moral and ethical beliefs, I am free to drink alcohol, as much or as little as I want. In the past, I have spent time with friends who love to drink. While I didn’t drink as much alcohol as they did, I did drink some and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did my wife. At no time did I have a twinge of guilt over drinking the devil’s brew. I drank responsibly, and acted in a way that did not harm others; no sin, no guilt.

What atheism and humanism have given me is personal autonomy and freedom. And a very small sin list.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    Haha, is it bad that I thought “that whole scenario seems very kinky.” Then realized the girl was underage and got creeped out. Clearly, this is the result of a heathen mind.

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    I would actually encourage kids to experiment with pre-marital sex, in a way that is responsible and not promiscuous. It is too important to marriage and long term wellbeing to be left to chance. The trouble seems to be very often, of course, that those in the most repressed families tend to have the most hang ups, and it becomes self fulfilling prophecy.

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    Aram McLean

    This is a great write-up on sin. That’s often where I start with believers by pointing out that sin isn’t real. It’s a human construct. We don’t need to be cured from something imaginary. Of course they never get it.
    And that picture hits me as one I saw when I was kid, though no idea when or where. It’s absolutely horrible. Why are her pants pulled down? Disturbing.

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    Daniel Wilcox

    You wrote that your “bad behavior) list now fits on a 3×5 card, and I suspect by the time I die it will fit on a post-it note.”
    I agree that some religious rules ought to go away and ought to cause no guilt.

    But it would seem that as humans evolve, the opposite as far as a wrong list will result. As we become (hopefully) more aware, more rational, more sensitive, more aware of what ought to be–that the card will enlarge.

    The Enlightenment did away with numerous religious guilt-producing rules, but it actually increased the wrong list.

    For instance for thousands of years, hundreds of thousands probably, slavery, inequality, slaughter, rape and all manner of other ‘using of other humans’ was taken for granted or worse supported, condoned, even commanded.

    But in the last couple hundred years, and especially the last 50 years, many humans have rejected those wrong views. Sure there are still enslavers, still those who justify or command the slaughter of humans, still the intolerant, the prejudiced, those who use other persons sexually, etc…but more and more humans are increasing their wrong lists.

    And, recently, some humans have become aware of animals in a new way, especially animals with higher levels of sentience. They think we ought to consider the needs of animals.

    And, there are relatively new oughts related to the impersonal, and even, inert environment. When I was a kid, there were throw-away cans. I don’t recall anyone being concerned about throwing a can into a lake, etc.
    Now, out here, in California, cities and counties are promoting the use of reusable bags, so it appears that plastic throwaways are on the way out.

    I could go on and on;-) but I’m sure you get the idea.

    I don’t see why you think wrong lists will, or should, lessen.

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    I think it was Sam Harris who noted that for the religious questions of right and wrong are about what offends God rather than what is most likely to increase human well being. Once seen from this perspective the flaws of religious morality are shockingly clear.

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    When I was a kid, my elementary school had only two rules. Respect other people, and respect other people’s property. I think almost every law and moral principle can be broken down to those points.

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    I have a friend who is Episcopalian, and he stated that “sin” in their tradition is any behavior that keeps you from being close to God, or anything that keeps you from being the best version of you. Evangelicals see “sin” as behavior (or thought) that must be punished and controlled. Those are very different viewpoints on the concept of sin.

    I can’t comprehend the concept of sin outside of the framework of religion, or rules and guidelines supposedly from a deity. For myself, I see that my actions and words have consequences. If those consequences are harmful to another or to myself, I need to stop doing those behaviors or saying those words. As a rational adult, I should be able to make that determination. And as a parent, it is my responsibility to teach my children so they can learn to rationally evaluate behaviors and words.

    As for guilt, I rarely have it. If I do make a mistake and say or do something harming another, that is when I may feel guilt, and then make an apology.

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      As an evangelical the word “sin” is defined as “missing the mark.” You often hear pastors talk about how “sin” was an archery term in the original language that meant missing the bullseye on a target. (This sort of academic preaching is common in the tradition I was raised in.) Our target is supposed to be matching God’s holy perfection. I have heard this so many times. Curious as to what other traditions had to say.

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    Isn’t it nice that we don’t have to feel guilty over transgressing “sin?” My denomination had a pretty extensive list of stuff that was bad: short skirts, cleavages, jewelry, alcohol, movie theaters, blah blah blah. None of which actually affected other people in a negative way. I don’t consider myself an atheist and I may be more of an agnostic theist (think there is some divine being, but no way to prove). Because “God” can’t be proven in any way, I do feel free to allow others to believe or not as they may, and don’t care as long as they are good people. So my beliefs are “be kind to each other as possible.”

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    Reynard Ransack

    I’ve long believed in the sort of spanking being given to the girl in the illustration as a purely natural form of educative correction. If a misbehaving child is going to be spanked, declining to spank on the bare bottom is like choosing to eat a fine roast beef dinner with your fingers. It doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.

    When I was caught stealing money at home as a boy, and was only threatened with a spanking, I eventually stole again. In addition to shoplifting at least once (which I got away with), I also defrauded an ATM (they caught me). My banking privileges were restricted, and more than once, an unsympathetic teller commented loudly on the negative effect of my wrongdoing.

    What if I’d been dealt with as a sometimes mischievous boy the way Jesus dealt with that girl? Punished with the shame and pain of a bare bottom spanking instead of being left to feel bad about myself. Shy as I was, I already had issues with self-esteem. The withdrawal of affection wasn’t exactly helpful.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser


      Please stop with the spanking stories. I get it, you believe your mom should have dropped your pants and beat you; that had she done so you might not have done some of the things you did. However, I am of the opinion that such treatment of children is child abuse; that no child should ever be stripped and beaten.

      If you have not done so, I encourage you to seek professional mental health care. It’s evident that your relationship with your mom is a real issue for you.

      Be well.


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      Reynard, corporal punishment is simply not necessary. Meaningful consequences, nonviolent but stringently enforced (e.g. grounding, doing chores until a debt is repaid, cancellation of a movie outing) work fine.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    Well, the punitive direction of Christianity is clear and long-standing even though there are many Christians now who have managed enough enlightenment to realize it is harmful behavior. I have long been astounded that grown beings can speak of harming children as if it was okay but if they ever acted that way with another adult they could soon learn how wicked their assauting of a child is… Hitting children is disrespectful, ignorant behavior taught in churches and by sick, unaware non-believers too. To shame and demean only teaches shaming and disrespect. I heartily second Bruce’s advice to the writer: Get some counselling to begin to understand whay it is so welcome to you to hurt children.

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Bruce Gerencser