Sin: Making Sense Out of Nonsense

Love the sinner, hate the sin? That doesn’t work for atheists. But even we can make sense of sin.

First, the nonsense: original sin.

Much of the Christian world believes that a talking snake convinced Adam and Eve to eat a piece of fruit forbidden by God, who then became so angry that he condemned all humankind to be born with what Christians call “original sin.” But then came the “good news”: God’s sinless son, Jesus, who is also God, paid a brief visit to earth to redeem us for that sin committed by Adam and Eve. So God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself, and when we die we will be rewarded or punished for eternity based on whether or not we believe this unbelievable story.

But rather than just make fun of such fables, I also think it’s important to read the Bible and try to understand why it has so deeply influenced our culture. Even non-religious people can find meaningful messages in “holy” books. In a previous piece, I gave a few moral lessons from the Bible, including the snake fable. My take was that Adam and Eve were correct to follow the snake’s advice to eat forbidden fruit in order to gain knowledge, because ignorance is not bliss and blind obedience is not a supreme virtue.

The concept of sin has evolved beyond the so-called “original” one. In Orthodox Judaism, the religion in which I was raised, I was taught that sin is violating any of the 613 Commandments found in the Hebrew Bible. Some seem reasonable (don’t murder, steal, or lie), some seem silly (don’t mix wool and cotton; don’t eat meat with milk), and some impossible (offering animal sacrifices at a Temple in Jerusalem that no longer exists). But at least we had a choice about whether to sin, rather than having been born with it.

My wife, Sharon, who grew up Catholic and is now an atheist, recalls how frightened she was as a child when she was required to go into a shadowy booth with a man hidden behind a screen and told to confess her sins. In order to comply with the pressure, even when she had no sins to confess, she made them up, like saying she had lied to her mother when she hadn’t. At the time, young Sharon failed to see the irony of committing the sin of lying to a Father (priest) about lying to her mother. Sharon’s early life was filled with warnings and worries about sin in all its many Catholic categories, including mortal, venial, and occasions of sin, which threatened to send her to hell, or at least purgatory after death.

Sin is sometimes described as an offense against God or as violating an individual’s relationship with God. By these definitions, I‘m pleased to say that this atheist is sinless. There is no such thing as sin for atheists, if sin is about doing something that displeases an imaginary figure. However, sins can be whatever religious figures say they are. Eating meat on Friday used to be a sin for Catholics, but no longer is.

My secular definition of sin, which could serve as a workable guideline for both theists and atheists, is hurting people, animals, and the environment. Those uncomfortable with the s-word can still be comfortable with a guideline.

A larger challenge for me this time of year is to come up with a secular version of Lent.

Several years ago, I asked a Catholic friend what he was giving up for Lent. He said that Catholics don’t just give things up; they take on positive actions, too. That sounded reasonable, but when I asked what positive thing he would be doing, he smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m giving up smoking for Lent.” (When Lent ended, he resumed smoking.)

I also have an Orthodox Jewish friend who was a chain smoker six days a week, but abstained on Saturday because it was a sin to ignite a fire. Interestingly, both my Catholic and Orthodox Jewish friends had a greatly diminished desire to smoke when they had a religious incentive to refrain.

As an atheist, during Lent I can’t forget that some people are fasting or denying themselves harmless pleasures because of atonement for Adam’s original sin, while others might be actively engaged in positive actions that I admire. If, for example, a group of Christians decides to help homeless people during Lent, I’d be pleased to see atheists join the project because it’s the right thing to do. Incentives to break bad habits and form good habits might be stronger for some during a special time of year, but that could lead to theists and atheists working together more frequently at any time of year.

Christians often say that they “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Based on some of their actions, usually pertaining to the LGBT community, I suspect that some Christians hate both. As for me, I hope atheists will look for ways to love and work with well-intentioned people — including people who believe in original sin. We can respect individuals without respecting their strange theologies.


Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.
  • ChucktownCharlie

    Politics is how powerful people control knowledge. Religion is how powerful people control the lack of knowledge. Religion can at times under the right stewardship give us a framework for good. This is more often displayed in positive religious childhood lessons and experiences. As one matures in the church one discovers that the framework we have been given as children is easily twisted to support the prejudices of the people who have come to power in the church over time.

    My own experience as a former practicing LGBT Christian led me to the belief that there was far more of twisting and manipulation going in the adult religious world than the furtherance of the common good. Over time I have been able to shed much of this manipulation from my own life, isolate it and disarm it…at least as it affected me personally. The good lessons remain, but I have much more clarity in my life now where the manipulation is concerned. The “scales have fallen from my eyes” and as an adult I see religion for all that it is…good and bad…and I have opted out. I choose to practice the good lessons and have “faith” that if I am doing all that I can do in that vein that some good will come of it. For me that is enough. I no longer need the answers to all the questions of life. I realize that life is what happens when you do your best and let the chips fall where they may. It’s always going to be a mixed bag.

    I LOVE your secular definition of sin! It’s really hard to manipulate that.

  • Dangerous Talk

    Religious believes give up negative habits and take up positive habits during Lent. For a humanist, every day be Lent. We strive to do that everyday; not for God, but for our fellow human beings.

  • RichardSRussell

    Years ago, I finally hit upon the ultimate bad habit to give up for Lent: religion.
    Never looked back.

  • Deborah Kaplan

    It is always thought provoking and worthwhile to read Herb Silverman’s columns. Also – - – it’s no sin to be entertained by his thoughts!

  • Ed Buckner

    Herb Silverman speaks here, as he usually does, for many other atheists such as me. His thoughtful approach, firmly rejecting the supernatural, nonsensical bits while respecting those who don’t, reflects a balanced, intelligent approach not always found among my other irreligious or religious colleagues and friends. Thanks, Herb.

    • Jan Polissar

      I guess it must be Herb’s training as a mathematician that organize his remarks in a precise logical argument that must give believers heart-burn. He also makes it all so clear that one does not need to be a believer to lead a good and respectful life.

  • Sujittrachat

    I think Herb has a point when he’s trying to emphasize us being humane to each other, in this case both theists and atheists working together on some humanitarian days. For theists, God exists, and he is supervising, guiding, directing. For atheists, it’s the humanity and the community that count. Virtually and practically, it turns out the same, why arguing? The problem of the world is that we keep bickering on some subjective points.

  • pennyroyal

    The original meaning of the word ‘sin’ is different from today’s meaning. It comes from archery and means to aim and shoot an arrow and to miss the mark, the equivalent of a mistake, something we all do, not something that is irredeemable and so shameful one can never escape this consequences. One error marks one for life.
    I found my ‘salvation’ in Big Bird who sings, “Everyone makes mistakes so why can’t you??!!!” Not the end of the world, we all err, why make a huge deal about it?

  • Rational Conclusions

    “South Carolina’s most famous atheist has announced that he will no longer write for On Faith, a religion blog started by the Washington Post. ” January 9, 2014. Hmmm, why changed his mind? Donations started to dry up? Hmmm?

    • Rational Conclusions


    • Herb Silverman


      • Rational Conclusions

        Wishy-washy or writing to fill the coffers of your “non-profit” with donations from your readers? Hmmm !!!

        • Rational Conclusions

          From IRS Form 990 …., Herb’s “non-profits” paid out $288,000+ and $179,000 + in salaries in 2012. $100,000+ went to an accountant. So where did the other $367,000 + go????

    • Herb Silverman

      I contributed regularly to On Faith when it was affiliated with the Washington Post. It is now affiliated with Faith Street, which is more supportive of religion. I wasn’t sure how often they would want me to write for them, and am pleased that they invited me to write a piece about sin and Lent. I’ve never been paid of write for On Faith.

  • Tom

    I’d never thought how Adam and Eve were right to eat the apple. You’re absolutely correct. Funny how otherwise-weird concepts get through to my brain unchallenged. A great and thought-provoking article.

  • Dianne Leonard

    I also grew up Catholic. Plus my parents added two precepts: Never cross a picket line, and Never tell a lie. When I was about 9 I started lying to the priest in confession because I had nothing to confess. I was bothered by this and told my mom. She said, “Oh, everybody does that.” Huh. Then a couple of years later came the big revelation for me: I was lying to them, but they were even more lying to me! Atheist at age 11, I never looked back. I consider the catholic church to be the most dishonest, most corrupt organization in the world–and considering its competition, that’s saying something. Oh, didn’t you know? Ex-Catholics always joke about giving up stuff for Lent. Nobody I’ve talked with considers this or original sin to be serious. Really.

  • David Manhart

    Christianity is a huge gimmick. Convince someone they are broken, from birth, and say you can cure them (well not cure, but provide treatment for life). Just give them money.

    • ZEPHANIAH54321

      And lets wait till the winds come along and test your roots. Life and death is set before all and what ever they choose will be granted. And when trees don’t bend they risk being broken.

      • David Manhart

        Nice words.. Too bad they are completely irrelevant to my accurate assertion. Now, how about quoting “Candle in the Wind”? It is also just as relevant.

  • ZEPHANIAH54321

    What’s been seen going on in the church or churches is one of the biggest and most deceitful and fraudulent scams that’s probably ever been seen before.

    The Bible actually calls it treacherous deceit. A cover up, to pillage, deal deceitfully.

    Do a word search at blue letter bible on the internet. (treacherous) (Glutton) Keep filling the belly and get blown down. Matt 7:24, LK 6:46

    And the only reason it went on as long as it did is because of the people’s generosity, And food intoxication. Either make the tree good and it’s fruit good, or make it corrupt and it’s fruit will be corrupt. Matt 12:33 LK 6:33

    As the leader, so the people? There own lifestyle and tongue tells on them. SIRACH 1;25-30 How do you get hypocrisy to reveal itself? FILL their bellies and you fuel their tongues. The tongue of hypocrisy is its own worst enemy, eventually it betrays him. PS 64;7-8 SIRACH 23;8

    And if what I’ve said is false then only the ignorant would believe it. Put the word Into practice or you’ll only learn lessons of your folly.PRO16;22 Fill the people with meat and drink, itch quenched, they think, they have only fueled there loose tongue, to reveal thoughts secret counsels and hearts secret desires.

    The church that belittles and makes light of the Law will eventually fall. ECCLESIASTICUS 19:20 How hard is it to make a decent effort? Sounds like the church needs to straighten up before it’s found corrupt. Would your contribution to society be to feed hypocrisy? It’s like kindling a fire.

    What sin would be greater then hindering the people from entering heaven. How dangerous and wicked is it to use THE HOLY BIBLE to deceive your neighbor to get ahead in life? What is a viper? What is a deceiver? MATT 23:15 What is a pisstacrite? An angry bunch who got caught.

    Which one goes thru life both ways to get ahead ?Which would be the embodiment of deceit?

    Could you discern a call from Heaven? How do you know when to answer the phone? Are you done polluting and plundering yourself, what about the little ones ?

    What value has any church put on the HOLY BIBLE? The good seed. HOW many other books has it encouraged you to read? I’ve seen a lot that have put very little faith in THE HOLY BIBLE. And I’ve already heard how many other books it’s tried to sell you that confirms that. PSALMS 124: 7

    The reason I say that is, some churches take advantage of the people’s desire to worship THE LORD JESUS, and their hopes of salvation.

    But to them THE LORD JESUS, the HOLY BIBLE and salvation are tools used to lure you to a church. Then the bait and switch takes place . When seeking the GOD of compassion, we need a heart of humility !

    And the next time you hear a sermon on radio or TV ask yourself a question. What does he know that he’s keeping from others. And here’s a little study for the religious, what is the meaning of the word sarcophagi, sarcophagus , whitewashed ( eaters of flesh ) Matt 23: 27 That’s something some Churches did not want you to know.

    The Old Testament sacrifices were symbolic of what all would be called to do. Have you ever noticed that when some churches try to make light of or belittle the Law it runs to the letters of Paul ? And you probably never thought about why did you ?

    No one who hates the Law is Wise. Would you like to know what you’re not being told ? Especially if you attend church. Read a blog. type blog, youneed toread, type as 2 words critical. Some people have missed the message of the cross and the washing of the feet.

    And if you can grasp that then you know why. Have you ever heard the church speak about a rapture? Paul thought he would be alive when it was to take place. But he died waiting for it. Hopefully you won’t.

    The church has said that a true prophet must be 100% accurate 100% of the time. Seems that was something else Paul and the church missed ? OR did they ? Paul also spoke about a lot of unpredictable afflictions. Now what would be the significance of all the healings that took place on the Sabbath IN THE Gospel’s?

    Suffering is a call to repent not the results of repentance. Paul’s suffering was the results of his own disobedience. Click on user name for more. Would you like to know what the churches haven’t told you ?

    One of their most popular sayings seems to be, you are saved by Grace not works. Are you saying that you’re to wicked to ever do any good ? Think about how that sounds.
    It’s Better to listen to silent covert warnings or you could wait for the mindful and physical ones. And here’s something to be mindful of. The physical ones usually heal it’s the mindful ones that you can’t do anything about.

    Some have reached for a pill to avoid the mindful ones. But that usually seals their fate unless they find healing. You probably know many who didn’t find that. And now you realize how important a name is.

    If you avoid the name, who brings the healing.

    And something to keep in mind ! When seeking the GOD of compassion JESUS we need to have a heart of humility. And everyone thoughtful and loves life holds him in AWE.

    Or you’re living a life that’s unpredictable. More about that later.

    AND check out, Open Your White Umbrella ORG | The White Umbrella Campaign

    And before giving a thumbs up or down you may want to wait for the next comment.
    Or Click on user name and read it before I post it.

  • ZEPHANIAH54321

    A lack of self control concerning food and drink goes Hand in Hand with a lack of self control concerning all areas of life.

    What is the reason for sicknesses, are you spiritually or morally unsound or corrupt? TV ?
    What about being mentally or emotionally unsound or disordered? TV ?

    The more you eat the more You REVEAL, about self, and a weakness. Fill their bellies and you fuel their tongues.

    Your conscience is the audience of your thoughts and thanks to your tongue others are. The tongue can reveal knowledge or the very cause of ignorance.

    And that lead to cultivating some thoughts that lead me to see, The busy tongue is the guard against Wisdom, and by holding your tongue you cause the mind to investigate. ISAIAH 30: 15

    Bless the people with discernment and what remains in the Dark ?

    Do you really know what discernment is ? Pay attention to discernment she is your silent teacher and reveler of understanding what others cannot put into words. Reveal your WISDOM and hold your tongue.

    With a tongue I can keep the simple from patting me on the back. And that same tongue can keep the wise at a distance. A life of ignorance the tongue confirms. When you take time to listen you reveal an eagerness to learn. HOSEA 4 : 6

    Your soul yearns for knowledge. But the flesh gets in the way and fills the belly. There’s something else that you need to understand. THE MORE YOU FEED YOUR FLESH, the more your flesh in return is going to demand satisfaction.

    Anyone who lacks self control has already proved that to be true. And it’s revealed in other ways. With some it’s more food and when that fails to satisfy it can lead to chasing the humbled dollar or sex, sports, drinking, TV. internet, CELL PHONE and so on.

    And when all that fails to satisfy, and it will , some get presumptuous and ambitious and start looking for recognition (POPULARITY) The dangerous one, because it reveals a yielding to the others, a yielding to the demands of the flesh. Namely food. Give thanks for the Grace that helps you to over come those demands.

    Your eyes and ears are the door to your soul, and what you put in your mouth can destroy both. WISDOM 6;12 Be careful of what you feed them. PRO 20 : 13 Do you know what it is that causes people to relinquish exercising their own powers of investigating? Food a busy tongue and a busy life.

    Now, what are the thoughts today ? How do you feel today? What did you eat yesterday?

    The thoughts of the mind, the tongue reveals, both are the results of yesterdays appetites. A little stormy? SIRACH 39:28 Put your meats on trial and see if they turn and try the Mind ? Food for thought.

    It’s Better to listen to silent covert warnings or you could wait for the mindful and physical ones. And here’s something to be mindful of. The physical ones usually heal it’s the mindful ones that you can’t do anything about.

    Some have reached for a pill to avoid the mindful ones. But that usually seals their fate unless they find healing. You probably know many who didn’t find that. And now you realize how important a name is.

    If you avoid the name, who brings the healing. A moderate diet ensures sound sleep, and a clear and sober mind will lead you to temperance. SIRACH 31 :20

    You could also start with silent prayers, with the mind, three words, help me JESUS or help us JESUS, PLEASE.

    Your moral state has a big influence upon your physical condition. A warring mind or a peaceful one.

    Watch the appetites. And I’ve also seen that some of the bitter foods in life do the most good. And to hungry souls even the bitter taste sweet. PRO 27:7

    Self control and self discipline reveal a desire to learn and to be lead further. Have you ever wondered why kids behave the way they do?

  • bm

    Nonsense? Great definition of religion.

  • Patrick7Gormley

    Sin means a crime against the law of God. As a law isn’t a law at all unless it says the sinner must be punished unless he repents, belief in sin is vindictive. It is accusing you of crime without proof that there is a God to sin against or without proof that he even made a law.

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