Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Americans on Sin, Part 3

So far I’ve put up two posts (#1 and #2) on the recent Ellison Research study of American views of sin. Today I’ll wrap up with a few more observations.
Differences According to Religious Perspectives
Ellison distinguished different views on sin according to one’s religious perspective (Born Again; Not Born Again; Evangelical; Not Evangelical; Attend Protestant Worship; Attend Catholic Worship; Attend Other Worship). Most of the differences are predictable. For example, the vast majority of Evangelicals consider homosexual activity (93%) and sex before marriage (92%) to be sin, whereas non-Evangelicals disagree (homosexual activity – 47%; sex before marriage – 39%). The widest disparity between Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals, curiously enough, was found with gossip (98% to 41%) and getting drunk (90% t0 35%). Only two behaviors were considered sinful by more non-Evangelicals and Evangelicals (spanking children – 8% non-Evangelicals to 3% Evangelicals; making a lot of money – 4% non-Evangelicals to 1% Evangelicals).
The Ellison Study pointed out discrepancies between church teaching and individual belief. One sees this especially for Catholics, who differed from official teaching on abortion (28% of Catholics didn’t view as sin), homosexual activity (51% not sin), sex before marriage (53% not sin).
You can see interesting differences between Evangelicals and Catholics over certain types of behavior:


Homosexual activity (93% Evangelical to 49% Catholic)
Gossip (98% Evangelical to 45% Catholic)
Sex before marriage (92% Evangelical to 47% Catholic)
Smoking marijuana (80% Evangelical to 38% Catholic)
Getting drunk (90% Evangelical to 28% Catholic)
Gambling (65% Evangelical to 15% Catholic)
Spanking your child (3% Evangelical to 11% Catholic)

Obviously, we’re seeing the impact of cultural differences, as well as a tendency among Evangelicals to be more strict in applying biblical teaching to moral judgments.
Differences Owing to Gender, Age, or Ethnicity t
By and large, there are not major demographical differences in views of what constitutes sin. For the most part, people think about sin in the same way without regard to age, gender, or ethnicity. There are a few curious exceptions:
Adultery (White – 80%; Black – 94%; Hispanic – 74%)
Sex before marriage (White – 43%; Black – 55%; Hispanic – 36%)
Getting drunk (White – 40%; Black – 55%; Hispanic – 27%)
Differences Owing to Geography
las vegas strip nightDoes where you live impact the way you think about sin? No doubt there are certain differences among cities. San Francisco, California, for example, would be more accepting of homosexual behavior than, say, Abilene, Texas. And Las Vegas, Nevada, at least along The Strip,  glories in what other people consider sin. But are there significant regional differences as well? (Photo: The Las Vegas Strip: Plenty of sin happening down there, though the rest of Las Vegas is not at all like the Strip.)
For the most part, no. There are slight regional differences, but nothing unexpected. In general, the South and the Midwest are more strict about sin than the Northeast and the West.
As someone who recently moved from the West (Southern California) to the South (South-Central Texas), I was not surprised to see the South generally more apt to regard questionable behavior as sinful. There were only a couple of behaviors which reversed the trend:


Not taking proper care of your body (35% – South; 36% – West)
Being significantly overweight (17% – South; 17% – West)
Working on Sunday/Sabbath (12% – South; 15% – West)
Spanking your child (6% – South; % – West)

The body related “sins” make sense, given the tendency for folks in the South to enjoy eating large quantities of unhealthy foods. And the spanking difference, however slight, would reflect general cultural moods. I can’t quite figure the difference with respect to the Sabbath, unless the survey had more Jewish people in the West than in the South.
Wrapping Up
There’s much more in the Ellison study than I have summarized here. If you visit their website, let me know your observations.

  • Evan

    In college, there was a never-ending presentation by nearly every professor of Religion, Psychology and/or Sociology to convince the students that behaviors deemed “sinful” were nothing of the sort. Sometimes it was hair-splitting and sophistry (“Situation Ethics”), sometimes it was mockery (1 Cor 7:1 was a favorite), sometimes it was Learned Condescencion Toward The Simple Hicks Who Think There Is A God… but one of the favorites was that in essence, “We are the same age as your parents, in fact, most of us are parents ourselves, and we are here to tell you your parents are full of bull. (Particular Sin Under Consideration) is NOT sinful or harmful– it is enriching and great. Declare yourselves, be authentic people and do it a lot! Get off the “guilt trip” and onto Real Living.”
    It is just more of the same from the Garden of Eden.
    Let me give you one quick example: premarital sex. The professors explained that the ancient culture demanded pre-marital chastity due to difficulties in determining paternity (etc, etc) but now, as long as 1) no one got a disease and 2) no one got pregnant, where is there any harm? Use protection and go to town.
    The desperate evil in that reasoning is that it ignores the spiritual aspect of sexual relations that Jesus and Paul discuss. But since that aspect is not directly visible with the human eye, ergo, it does not exist. Yet under that reasoning, I could urge you to quickly open and shut the shielded reactor door, and to your senses, nothing happens. Then later, when your hair and teeth fall out and you die from radiation poisoning, it is a big mystery as to what happened. From what I have observed in others, premarital sex has triggered untold suffering in many, many lives, especially in females.
    Contrary to my professors’ views, the rules on sin were NOT designed to “make sure nobody ever had any fun,” but they are SAFETY RULES, like “Do not smoke while pumping gas.” You ignore them at your considerable peril.

  • Kirstin

    I suppose that the study results do not surprise me. I sometimes wonder what I would know if my only exposure to the Bible was during weekend worship services.
    What is the role of the Holy Spirit in convicting believers of sin? Going back to Evan’s comment, if premarital sex is wrong in God’s eyes and a Christian engages in premarital sex, would the Holy Spirit guide him or her into the truth about that?

  • HenryH

    As for the differences based on demographics, it’s hard to know, without much more information, if those are real or are the result of differences in sample. That is, the sample included more women who also identified themselves as evangelical then that would probably account for the higher percentages who consider various activities to be sin. Likewise for the racial component.
    I’m slightly confused by the grouping of people by Evangelical, Non-Evangelical, Born-Again, and Non-Born-Again. Perhaps I’m just not up on the latest titles but is there a strictly defined difference that I’m missing? Or are these groups seriously overlapping?


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