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Reflections on Ethics 24
The Meaning of Sin

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In Dermot Healy's novel, Sudden Times,[1] there is the following exchange between the narrator and a German psychiatrist:

I have something for you, he said, something special.


Do you know, he asked, the meaning of the word sin?

I have an idea.

You are thinking of religion.

I suppose I am.

I mean the meaning of the word.

OK, I said, fire ahead.

It means, in most languages, he said, to be. To exist.

Go 'long

It is true, and he nodded emphatically. Yah. I found it in a dictionary in Berlin and I thought of you.

I found that to be a fascinating passage. While I have been unsuccessful in confirming that in most (or indeed any) languages sin does indeed mean "to be" or "to exist", it certainly seems to express a religious "truth."

Nearly all of us have all heard of "original sin."

Original sin may be taken to mean: (1) the sin that Adam committed; (2) a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam.[2]

Just by virtue of being born, we are automatically deemed sinners. By that logic, existence and sin are synonymous. And believers are only too fond of telling us that "We are all sinners."

And there is no getting away from sin. In addition to being born in sin, many of our natural acts in our day-to-day lives are considered sins, whether they come about willingly or not. Many of our dreams, our thoughts, our desires, even though they may arrive unbidden, are considered sins. Menstruation, natural though it is; masturbation, whether awake or asleep; the sex act, even within the confines of marriage; are all sins. With no intention or wish to do wrong, to be evil, we have no choice. We are automatically sinners.

The whole religious panoply of sin exists solely to put us continually in the wrong, to make us permanently guilty, to blackmail us into seeking unneeded and unnecessary forgiveness just for living our lives.

So much that is considered sin has nothing to do with morality, nothing to do with right and wrong.

The first definition of sin in most dictionaries links the word to the breaking of religious law.

As agnostics, let us banish the word "sin" from our vocabularies. Agnosticism promulgates no laws for you to break. Consequently, as an agnostic, you cannot sin.

This is not to say we banish morality. This is not to say we shouldn't endeavour to choose right over wrong, to do good rather than evil.

Morality, right and wrong, good and evil are important concepts which I hope to discuss further. But sin? It has no relevance to pursuing a good life.



  1. Sudden Times by Dermot Healy, Harcourt 1999: p 33
  2. Catholic Encyclopedia