As an atheist who participates in debates online I hear lots of Christians tell me about sin. I frequently hear them warning me that I’m a sinner and that I need to repent. I understand that this is a part of the way they think they’ll win me over to Christianity and thus fulfill in a modern sense the great commission but it’s also a bit nonsensical to me. In today’s post I want to give my perspective on sin as an atheist and I also want to begin a conversation with Christians who think that they can convince atheists, skeptics, and other variously labelled nonbelievers about the dangers of sin.
What Is A Sin? What Do I As An Atheist Think Of Sins?
The definition of a sin is: an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law. Throughout the Bible sins are said to be among other things: lying, idolatry, using the name of God in vain, adultery, murder, theft, and various other acts. Are these actually immoral acts? Typically this depends on context.
As an atheist I accept that these things are sins. I accept that they are considered transgressions against the “divine” law of the Bible. I have no issue acknowledging that the Bible says these things are immoral. But an important question is: are they actually immoral? One of the few things that I actually consider to be fairly immoral generally independent of the context is adultery but even that can be considered neutral and in fact should be at least when someone first learns of an affair, because of the exact circumstances under which a married person has an affair can render any sort of judgement about the initial statement either partially or completely wrong. For instance if the person is in a forced marriage and is committing adultery by sleeping with someone they love who is not their spouse, I don’t believe that’s immoral although I do think it’s something I wouldn’t advise and be careful to keep a secret.
Circumstances matter in real life but in the Bible with a few exceptions circumstances are disregarded. That being said there are exceptions to this such as when circumstances matter for thieves who steal to survive. That right there (Proverbs 6:30) is surprisingly a good passage, although of course even then the punishment for getting caught is severe which is to repay what they stole seven-fold even if it costs them everything they own. Despite this rare example of a time when context matters all in all throughout the Bible there are demands of perfection and even a single sin which was not made right can and will theoretically lead someone to hell.
I am unsatisfied with someone telling me that something is a sin and then not going any further than that. I am perfectly capable of accepting that something is a sin but that doesn’t actually make it immoral. Lying is not immoral by definition. Theft is not immoral by definition. Using the name of God in vain is not automatically immoral. When I hear declarations that something is a sin I understand the implication but I don’t accept that a sin is immoral just because it’s a sin. I can be convinced that these supposedly immoral things are actually immoral but someone telling me that they are won’t convince me as a critical thinker that they just because I was told so.
If you are a believer and you want to engage atheists in conversations about sins you need to be ready to expand on simplistic declarations that some things are sins. I’ve met plenty of other atheists who are ready to have these conversations with believers but we won’t be and aren’t satisfied with how simplistic many Christians (in my experience anyway) dismiss this topic. To me as a nonbeliever it’s not enough to simply shout that something is a sin. I will accept that the act in question is a sin but if I ask you what’s wrong with it it’s because you declaring (no matter how loudly you declare it) that something is a sin isn’t you telling me why it’s immoral. I need more than that because my understanding of morality isn’t grounded in something as unyielding and absolute as the Bible but rather based off of a combination of context and cultural understanding. Before I pass judgement on the morality of an act I typically need some understanding of the context in which the act took place. I don’t think that this is a bad thing nor do I think it’s unreasonable.
I want to have better conversations about this and I want to encourage anyone who reads this be they a Christian, a nonbeliever, or some other type of believer to think more carefully and more critically about things that they consider immoral especially if there are things that they always consider immoral independent of circumstances (and the reality is that there are probably some things that can theoretically be done which merit this type of reaction even if those things are unrealistic or rare). I also want to warn against simplistic reactions to things based off of cultural beliefs such as religion. Context really matters and it’s quite easy to frame something in whatever way someone wants people to feel if they are skilled communicators. A skilled communicator can frame something in a way that takes into account cultural and religious beliefs and position people in a way that makes them inadvertently support things and people that shouldn’t be supported or turn them against something or someone who if they looked a bit more into they’d likely be supporting.
How Can We Challenge As Skeptics Challenge The Concept Of Sin?
I think that a challenge we as skeptics can be ready to use against Christians who simplistically declare that something being called a sin automatically makes it immoral is to ask them to explain how a specific sin is immoral especially if we ask them to think about why we as skeptics should consider something to be immoral so they can’t weasel out and say that it’s immoral because God says so. I want to challenge Christians to explain why they think that certain things, generally harmless things, such as saying the name of their deity in vain would be immoral for a skeptic.
Another critical challenge (in my opinion anyway) would be to ask them why context doesn’t seem to matter for the sake of one’s soul in the Bible. As an example of this think of the “righteous lie” that Bodie Hodge talks about in Answers In Genesis. In this case opting to do what would be more likely to save the life of another is arguably deemed less important than obeying God, despite the fact that it’s readily apparent to many including at least some Christians that the morally righteous thing to do is to do what might end up saving someone’s life. And of course a righteous lie doesn’t need to be so dramatic to be worth doing. In this case lying would put a soul in danger, but why? Why does acting selflessly require such a grand risk? Why can’t someone both obey God and also protect their neighbor in the example that Mr. Hodge talks about?
As a skeptic I want to learn how to better move believers to think more critically and honestly about the demands of their beliefs and the impact those beliefs have on their thinking. I want to push believers to question these things not only internally but also externally, visibly, and vocally. I understand that this probably won’t push more people to disbelief but I hope that it’ll at least push them towards a more limited version of their beliefs that they use less as a way to interact with others and more as a way to control and think about their own actions. I believe that by challenging Christians on this and other aspects of their beliefs we can push the religion in a different direction than I and many other Hispanics and Latin Americans have experienced it and towards a more personal direction.
What sorts of challenges do you, as skeptics, have for Christians when it comes to sin? What sort of responses do you, as Christians, have for skeptics like me that want to engage in serious discussions about sin? I’m being sincere in this post and would love to engage anyone who reads it in conversation be it through comments or through posts entirely dedicated to continuing this conversation with anyone who enjoyed it. If you want to continue this conversation I’d be delighted to do so just let me know down below or by private correspondence with me by email.