Sin goes back to the earliest days of humanity; it was not called sin then, but breaking a taboo. These taboos were put in place for practical reasons, rather than spiritual reasons -- incest, fouling waterholes, and killing clan members were not good for the tribe.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have elevated taboos into sin: a crime against God. In Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, the closest they get to the concept of sin is that wrong deeds have to be purged, usually by some unpleasant process.

When God created humans, She gave them an instruction: do not eat from the apple tree (the tree of knowledge). But Adam and Eve disobeyed, thus they became the first sinners and -- rather unjustly -- all who were born after them were declared to be sinners from the moment of birth. That doesn't leave us with much free-will!

At least with Islam they do not believe everyone is cursed with original sin. We each create our own sin by 'disobedience to God', rather than inherit it.

The concept of original sin did not appear until about AD 200 and has been disputed within the Church ever since. Although the essential element of sin is universal: sin is the breaking of God's laws as determined by the clergy. The basis of God's laws are the holy books.

These books, we are told, are the word of God. Although there seems to be constant disputes between the various religions about which is the TRUE word of God, or more often which is the TRUE INTERPRETATION of the TRUE WORD of God.

If God wanted to give us a holy book full of instructions, we can be sure that it would be written in a language common to mankind; it would not be open to different interpretations; it would not need to be translated; it would not cause arguments; and everyone would understand precisely what every word meant.

Since the holy books fail all these tests, it would seem that they were not written by God, but by man. And if they were written by man, then perhaps they are not that holy. Of course we will be told that they were 'inspired' by God, or 'dictated' by God. The fact that they were written by people does not mean they are not worthwhile, it just means we should not pay too much attention to claims that they are infallible.

These holy books were intended for the people who lived at the time they were written, just as taboos were daily-living rules for the tribe. Both taboos and holy books contain instructions about marriage, incest, what may be eaten, settling disputes, caring for animals, and obeying those in authority.

Before the priests and holy books, people -- often called savages -- believed in gods. Their gods were themselves at their best, and their devils were themselves at their worst. If they were black, their god was black. If they were Hindu, their god might ride an elephant. If they were Asian, then their God would have slanting eyes. The gods had the same characteristics as men: they were jealous, they demanded respect and obedience, they punished those who did not obey their commands, and they rewarded the true believers.

Priests arose to explain what the gods wanted, they brought revelations and books 'dictated by God'. They were always in contact with God. Heaven and Hell had to be created, like a carrot and a stick, holy days were proclaimed, temples were erected, and of course money was collected.

This conception of God, was suitable for the people at the time. It was the best the people and the priests could do. Some priests were sincere, and they tried their best, but too often they fell back on threats of devils, eternal punishments, sins common as flies, and if the worst came to the worst: burning at the stake.

In the beginning people had a multitude of gods -- polytheism which Islam sees as the worst sin. 'Primitive' people saw each god as portraying some aspect of God, some emotion, perhaps a god for spring, a god for winter, a god of rain, and a god of destruction. Because spring was different to winter, a storm different to a drought, they could not make the connection that there was one God, but saw these separate things as individual gods. As the generations passed, they changed their conception, they amalgamated their gods, eventually into one God.

Even then, much as the case today, these gods or God had human attributes. God had the same colour of skin as they did, God made humans in his image (or vice-versa); God is on our side, God requires sacrifices, God wants obedience, God becomes angry, God wants you to honour your parents, your clergy, God must be obeyed, God must be praised, and of course God must be believed in.

God is invariable a man; can you picture God as a woman? A black woman? Then maybe it is time you questioned your conception of God. Why is God a white man? If triangles believed in God, then God would have three sides. It is okay to see God as similar to yourself, so long as you realise this is not the big picture.

Of course we pretend otherwise, but if sin is offensive to God, if God wants us to praise Him, worship Him, Obey Him, isn't our conception close to the 'savage' one? If we imagine that God is going to divide the world into 'friends and enemies' rewarding His friends, punishing His enemies, aren't we stuck with a primitive concept of God? Does our God require that we kill our enemies? In war bombs are blessed, warships are blessed, and rockets are blessed.

Columnist Ann Coulter, writing in the National Review Online, Sept. 13, 2001 wrote: "We should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

Rev. Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said: "(Islam) is a very evil and wicked religion wicked, violent and not of the same god (as Christianity)." November 2001.

Not only are these views primitive, they misinterpret Islam, which it can be argued is a more devout religion than Christianity, and over the centuries no more violent than Christianity. (Considering the Crusades, the torture of 'witches', the Spanish Inquisition, the destruction of South America, the abuse of African slaves, and the persecution of 'heretics' and scientists). Not that any religion has a clean slate! But as it happens, Islam is a religion which worships the same God as Christianity and Judaism.

The main purpose of sin is to introduce clergy between you and God. No doubt that will sound an exaggeration to many people, but consider: If there was no sin, would there be any need to be saved? If there was no sin, then there would be no need of a Hell for the sinners. The clergy is the guide to salvation and eternal life. To go to heaven, you must follow instructions laid down by the clergy, which they have interpreted from holy books.

It is the clergy who make up the rules of sin. The Roman Catholics have devised subcategories of sin and have had arguments lasting for centuries about being born as a sinner, and the 'scale' of sin. Sins change over the centuries; having sex for enjoyment, and not for procreation has been a sin with many religions -- probably since they day celibacy was invented! Sex seems to attract sin like flies. Maybe because it is enjoyable, and religion traditionally has never been that keen on enjoyment, but more into punishment.

The ultimate reward for obeying the clergy is Paradise, and the penalty is Hell. Many religions still teach that Heaven and Hell are literal places of existence, not a figment of imagination. Paradise is achieved by acceptance of Jesus, or God's mercy, or obedience to God's will (according to the particular clergy, at a particular period in history).

And Hell, we are advised is an eternally horrible place beyond imagination, burning fires and torture. And yet all these religions teach that God is merciful, God is understanding, God is forgiveness, but severe in punishment; the word 'anger' is sometimes mentioned.

Doesn't that seem rather like a carrot and a stick? Doesn't this seem like what you would teach a recalcitrant tribe who you needed to plant the spring crop?

The carrot and stick is not the best way to get people to behave -- it is the way of the pre-iron age, or at least pre-education. The only way to get people to build pyramids, trek through the desert for forty years, or fight Roman gladiators, was to use threats and rewards.

It is better for people to do the right thing because they value it, rather than from threats and promises. Which is the better: having a father financially support his children because the law will jail him if he does not, or have the father support and care for the children because he loves them and wants to nourish them?

Sin is mostly ignorance, an undeveloped mind. A person stealing is ignorant of the pain of having property stolen from them, a person who cheats or lies, is ignorant of the pain this causes others. You could even say a person who willing disobeys God's laws is ignorant of the true value of God's teaching, ignorant of the real meaning of Heaven and Hell. If they were truly aware of the punishment awaiting them would they still sin?

Some people willingly commit crimes (sin), but an examination of their early life often reveals they have been child victims of sexual or physical abuse. They have been hurt by the actions of the world around them, and now they feel a need to hurt the world in whatever way they can. If it means their own destruction, then that does not matter because they believe they are doomed to death and pain anyway.

A person who commits murder will do so for a variety of reasons: greed, revenge, anger, love, hate, patriotism, self defence, fear. What is common to them is that each reason is actually an emotion, an overwhelming emotion. That is an emotion that overwhelms the intellect, the reason, the higher nature, the better sense. The more emotionally developed the person is, the more self-assured, the more 'grounded' the person, the less likely is the person to fall to these passions. In other words it is not sin, but lack of development, lack of knowledge, lack of experience: ignorance.

Murder is usually a fairly clear cut case, but it can become blurred when we think of euthanasia, self-defence, or suicide. Other sins, particularly those proclaimed by the Church, can be very grey and shifting areas. Less than 40 years ago some major Churches refused to marry people who had previously been married, or were of a different religion, or were of a different skin colour. Not to mention if they were the same sex! Things have changed. Many things that were sins, are no longer sins.

The dictionaries define sin as: An act that is regarded by theologians as a transgression of God's will. So this is where the clergy come in -- they advise you on just what is a sin.

You could define sin as imperfections inherent in humanity . That would make a sensible definition, but imperfections can be corrected or worked on without intervention from God. Sin can only be removed by the acceptance of Jesus or submission to God's will, or following some advice given by the clergy. In other words, imperfections do not require a religion; sin requires religion and clergy to achieve salvation.

In the American civil war, both sides prayed to their God, in each case a Christian God, they prayed for victory (death) over their enemies. Yet each side, whatever the religion, was worshipping the same God: the One, the Eternal, the Absolute. Fortunately, our conception of God is growing with each generation. God is more forgiving, is less given to punishments, is less demanding of strict obedience, less easily offended or likely to become angry. Our society is becoming more open, less hypocritical, and more understanding. The teachings of today's Churches would be heresy to Church leaders of 50 years ago.

But not everyone is changing. Most religions have factions called fundamentalists who -- like the Amish -- do not want to change. They want to keep their black and white concepts, particularly of sin, and their belief that their religion is the one true religion. Fundamentalists usually believe that all other religions and gods are false or evil, and nonbelieiver should be destroyed. And if God is not willing to do it, then they are happy do the killing! Not surprisingly fundamentalists exist in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Communism, and most probably in the bloodletting religion of the Aztecs.

We need to understand that our concepts of God are steps on the ladder. Our conception of sin and God change as we change, they are not fixed, because as our minds open to wider ideas we are able to enlarge our concept of God.

What was sin a hundred years ago is not sin today. Good things become 'bad' and bad things become 'good'. For a thousand years the Catholic church proclaimed it was a sin to eat meat on a Friday, but now it is okay -- no sin. In the 1950s rock 'n' roll was considered by many to be 'the music of Satan'. And the big one that many Christian Churches are struggling with now is the concept of homosexuality. Once it was an unmentionable evil, hidden away in the bowels of the Church -- along with sexual molestation of children by priests and nuns -- now it has been 'outed'.

An undeveloped person does not have the right to commit crimes or attack other people. A fox is not 'bad' who kills chickens, but steps must be taken to stop it. There is no need to condemn the fox for being a fox, just restrain it.

Nor should we feel superior and criticise those who are less developed. The other person is not looking through our eyes; they may be living closer to their ideals than we are to our own lofty ones! Once we were in the same position as they were. You are only criticising the kid in the class below you; there are many more classes above you. Our development is relative, it is not cut and dried, but a process of climbing, falling back, climbing. Those behind you today may pass you tomorrow. Those who practice their narrow religion are doing the best they can. We should not condemn them for their limited view (so long as they are not trying to burn us at the stake).

One-hundred-and-eighty-years ago people devised the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals so that animals were not treated harshly, even for an hour, let alone all eternity! It is hard to believe in a God who is so much lower than our standards. God is more than this pitiful illusion! It has been said: God is Great! A great God does not carry out torture for all eternity! There is no point in saying that God is punishing disobedience, animals can be disobedient, but we do not torture them for it! We understand that it is the stage that they are at.

This concept of cruel punishment does not reflect on God, but on those who proclaim that God demands cruelty. Indeed, is this not the same concept of punishment and sacrifice that the Aztec priests claimed?

God is not cruel, not petty, not judgmental, not demanding of praise, not demanding of obedience: these are all human attributes projected onto a limited concept of God.

Some people might wonder what would happen if sin were abolished. Does this mean we can do whatever we want? Of course not! Many people do not believe in sin, do not go to church and yet they are compassionate, kind, caring, industrious, and moral. Religion has no monopoly on virtue, but a firm grip on hypocrisy -- especially when we think of the sexual abuse of children by clergy, while telling the flock what was sinful. The clergy want us to believe they are closer to God than mortals -- and perhaps many are, but some are worse than the 'sinners' they shepherd.

So what is sin? Sin is ignorance, ignorance of others, ignorance of ourselves, ignorance of our higher values, sin is lack of development. Sin is learning through mistakes.

God does not require us to obey, to worship, to believe, any more than gravity requires us to worship, to believe, or to obey! The sun does not require our praise, the sun does not need our prayers, the tides and stars do not require that we love them! The moon does not become angry or revengeful if we do not worship it. And surely God is greater than the sun? If we should praise God, pray to God, or obey God, we do these things not for the benefit of God, but for the benefit of ourselves.

The purpose of our existence is unfoldment, evolution, development. We are moving step by step from the lowest to the highest: from being separate atoms, to being one Cosmos. All that aids our progression is helpful, all that hinders this progression is unhelpful. There is no 'good' or 'bad'. It simply depends on our stage of development. It is right for hyenas to attack the weakened animal and tear it to shreds – because that is their stage of development. But it is not helpful to our evolution for a developed human to revert to this stage. Evolution leads forwards, not backwards.

What is right for us as a child or a teenager is not necessarily right for us as a mature adult. There are no easy rules -- as most of us have discovered -- there is only learning. A successful person learns through experience, and experience is gained by making mistakes, so these 'mistakes' are rungs in our ladder of development. Without mistakes there would be no progress. Sin is just another step on our ladder.

© Marcus Clark
10 December 2003