Prior to reading Langston Hughes Salvation, I defined sin as something that you have done wrong. But, in reading Langston Hughes essay, it used sin to mean something like not believing in god. So, my question is whether sin means the first, second or both of the definitions.

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    Obviously quite a lot of people who do believe in (their) God will think it's a sin not to. Besides which, sin is a highly loaded term that usually refers to offenses in a theological context. You wouldn't normally hear the word in a modern British courtroom where the intended meaning was simply "wrongdoing". – FumbleFingers Nov 16 '13 at 23:22
  • @FumbleFingers But I believe it to be a relevant discussion since the bible and the Christian ethos have played a monumental part in the evolution of the system of jurisprudence, across the English-speaking world. Many British people may not believe in God any longer but, as sure as night follows day, they will tell you when someone is acting like a hypocrite! – WS2 Nov 17 '13 at 0:59
  • @WS2 Unfortunately, the Christian ethos that you can commit an offense simply by thinking about something is somewhat taking its time in completely working its way out of jurisprudence. So is the ethos that someone other than you owns you and your body. If not God, then the state. So that taking narcotics and suicide are de facto sins. – Kaz Nov 17 '13 at 3:01
  • @Kaz As Thomas Hobbes rightly observed in the reign of Elizabeth I, life in a 'state of nature' is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. The only alternative to the state of nature is to adhere to a 'monarch' (which he accepted to include a republican government). The monarch to all intents and purposes 'owns' us, and our allegiance. Now if you would prefer to walk out into the woods and live and die as the squirrels do, you have no need of being 'owned'... – WS2 Nov 17 '13 at 8:48
  • This question appears to be off-topic because it is better asked on a related Q&A site. – Kris Nov 17 '13 at 9:44

The short answer to your question is both.

from Merriam-Webster:

  • 1
    • a. an offense against religious or moral law
    • b. an action that is or is felt to be highly reprehensible
    • c. an often serious shortcoming : fault

If not believing in a god is a violation of a religion's law, then in the eyes of that religion the act of not believing is sin. In this sense, your second example would actually fall under your first umbrella. However, the exact list of what constitutes sin will vary between belief systems/religions, so what one group/individual may view as sin may not be seen as sin by another group/individual.

Apart from religious connotations, definition 1b that I quoted above is probably the most likely/reasonable definition.

  • Thanks, I've never thought about it from this angle. I've always thought both definitions as two definitions. – NickelMonster Nov 16 '13 at 22:06
  • Webster's 1828 def is general:" The voluntary departure of a moral agent from a known rule of rectitude or duty, prescribed by God; any voluntary transgression of the divine law, or violation of a divine command; a wicked act; iniquity. Sin is either a positive act in which a known divine law is violated, or it is the voluntary neglect to obey a positive divine command, or a rule of duty clearly implied in such command. Sin comprehends not action only, but neglect of known duty, all evil thoughts purposes, words and desires, whatever is contrary to God''s commands or law. "goo.gl/bBOfkE – Wayfaring Stranger Nov 16 '13 at 22:30

Sin, like beauty and obscenity, is in the eye of the beholder.

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    While cos() works for everyone – mgb Nov 16 '13 at 22:06
  • @mgb Is cosplay a sin, by the way? – Kaz Nov 17 '13 at 2:06
  • @kaz - I think we are just going off on a tangent() – mgb Nov 17 '13 at 7:12

In religion, sin is a concept not only of doing something wrong (and doing something wrong includes not believing in the right ideas) but also condemned state. Someone who has committed a sin is in a state of carrying sin, like a dirty stain, which can be "washed away" when God forgives. In Christianity there is also the concept of "original sin": carrying sin from birth, having done nothing wrong (or nothing at all, really).

So sin is a word which denotes both the offense and the "criminal record", so to speak.

There is no difference between your two definitions: not believing in God is doing something wrong, among those who believe in that type of religion and use use sin in its context.

You're only disagreeing that simply not believing in something is doing something wrong; but that is irrelevant to the definition of sin. Two people don't have to agree on what is sinful in order to agree on the definition of the word "sin".

A secular use of the word sin is to denote something which is irrationally wrong due to offending someone's preferences or tastes, or whatever:

Did you hear? Jack committed the grave sin of making fun of golf within earshot of the vice president. He can pretty much kiss that promotion goodbye!

Example from a technical context in the field of computing:

Assignment to variables is considered a sin by adherents of pure functional programming, and so they invent and use languages in which it isn't possible.


Langston Hughes is not a theologian. He may qualify as a philosopher, or even as a pretty smart guy, but I seriously doubt that he's the final arbiter on the definition of sin.

I think SnoringFrog has a good case: that there's a religious definition of sin, and a secular one. If it were only religious, it would be a meaningless concept for atheists.

One religious definition of sin is that it is a moral evil. So now we have to figure out what "moral" and "evil" mean. "Evil" is a complicated subject, but we can simplify to the basics as "that which harms". Murder is evil; theft is evil; lying is evil. I believe that there are degrees of evil; the Holocaust is one of the greatest evils; lying in order to have your little sister get the blame for something you did is a lesser evil. Lying to protect someone from harm (as in, during the German Reich, saying, "No, there are no Jews here") is usually good.

"Moral" is also a wide concept. Almost every society has (or had) some concept of morality - there are things that are OK, and things that are taboo. Those concepts vary widely, and unfortunately, we have fallen victim to the error of "moral relativity": the idea that whatever society A holds a moral, is OK.

You can learn a lot more by reading C. S. Lewis, for example, "The Abolition of Man". (Read the non-fiction books first.) One thing that comes out of Lewis' book is that there are concepts of good that are common to almost every religion and philosophy. Confucianism, for example, says "Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you".

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    -1, sorry. The OP asked what the English word sin means, and your answer is mostly an explanation of your personal philosophy of evil. That is unhelpful, irrelevant, and inappropriate to this site; I'm amazed that anyone upvoted it. – ruakh Nov 17 '13 at 2:56
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    What is or is not moral is a wide concept, but the word moral is not a very wide concept: it just denotes having rules for what is right or wrong. You're confusing the definition of the word "moral" with the set of things that someone particular considers moral. The meaning of the word does not change between people who live by different rules. They disagree on what is moral, but they usually don't disagree about the word "moral". Most of this is not an answer to an English language question about "sin". – Kaz Nov 17 '13 at 2:56
  • @ruakh Oh you'll continue to be amazed at what gets upvoted and downvoted. – Kaz Nov 17 '13 at 2:57

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