Digest of terms


an expressly religious characterisation of moral (and in some cases ritual -pollution) failing. It may also involve criminal activity, but sin entails a religious frame of reference whereas crime need not necessarily do so. In increasingly secular societies such as the UK and Scandinavia, for many morality has no such accompanying religious interpretation (humanist ethics). In Christian tradition it involves falling short from what is intended by God for humanity at individual or collective best, and has two aspects, a general condition, and specific transgressions.

In respect of the general condition there developed In Christianity, under the influence of Augustine in particular, the notion of original sin, an inherited tainted condition of separation from God originating in the 'Fall' of Adam and Eve, and overcome through the work of Christ and baptism. (In Jewish ethics this doctrine is seen as an unjustified distortion of the Garden of Eden story.) Various attempts have been made to offer modern interpretations of the doctrine, for example as 'alienation' (so Hegel) or 'estrangement' (so Tillich). On this account, sin is an original condition of being estranged from each other, from self and from God. Accordingly, humans generally lack wholeness and in this fractured condition, manifest for instance in socio-economic separatedness, may be even more susceptible to specific sins.

This second aspect of the term has been exemplified in the 'Seven Deadly Sins', namely greed, gluttony, sloth/laziness, envy, wrath, lust and pride. Again, by custom, some are more easily forgivable (venial) than others (mortal), the latter, in Roman Catholic thought, leading to damnation unless there is genuine repentance. Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount removes the basis for anyone to think that they are free from any sinning. Murder and thieving may be primary measures with which the law works. The true law, however, is deeper and more exposing than that. It extends to interior thoughts and feelings.

A sense of accountability before God for sin is strong for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Its consequences continue beyond death and there is debate within and between these religions as to the nature of judgement and extent of mercy and forgiveness ahead.

For Hindus too there are specific attitudes and actions which are sinful. These accumulate karmic consequences, which will impact on future lives, and Hindus are likely to understand this process as one of progressive refinement through interaction with divine reality. For Buddhists, with no belief in an underlying divinity, the concept of sin is not really applicable, only that of immorality, as for secular humanists.

There remains an open question as to whether or not there ought to be an equivalent term to that of sin as characterising the human condition. Are human beings born in some sense morally flawed, e.g. with endemic human or even some evil inclination? Or is individual perfectibility a simple given, capable of activation by daily thoughtfulness?

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