Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Americans on Sin

Ellison Research has just released a fascinating study of American views of sin. There is much to chew on in this study. Lots of grist for sermon mills, Bible studies, and cultural reflection. I’ll put some of my impressions of what this study found, but first I want to lay out a few details about the study itself.
Ellison surveyed over 1,000 American adults, asking various questions about sin. The study defined sin as “something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective.” That’s not a bad secular definition, though I find a couple of things interesting about this definition. (Photo: Satan tempts Job, from the chapel at Duke University)
First, notice the qualifer “almost always.” The study was not asking if there are things that are always wrong. I guess that’s asking too much of Americans. It would be interesting to see how the results might differ if people were asked about whether or not certain behaviors were always wrong.
Second, notice that sin is defined as something that is “considered wrong.” Again, this is a subjective definition of sin. It’s not dealing with actual wrong, but rather with perceptions. It would be possible for somebody to say “I think X behavior is a a sin according to this definition, becuase it’s almost always considered wrong, but I don’t in fact think it is sin in the absolute sense.” So, though the Ellison study is helpful, it doesn’t quite get at what I would really like to know about American views of sin, namely: Do Americans think that certain behaviors are always wrong in fact (not merely almost always wrong according to human feeling and opinion)?
87% of Americans agreed that there is such a thing as sin, at least insofar as it was defined by Ellison. This means, by the way, that 13% of Americans do not affirm the existence of sin. We don’t know exactly why. Presumably they don’t believe in a God who determines what sin is, or they are simply relativistic in their ethics, or both.
Those Americans who agreed that sin exists were then asked to comment on which behaviors they believed to be sin. They were given a list of thirty behaviors and asked to weight in. The list includes many actions that Christians generally think of a sinful, including: adultery, using “hard” drugs, getting drunk, etc.  A couple of the proposed sins are not actions so much as thoughts or attitudes: racism, homosexual thoughts. And several of the sins are not actions but inactions: not saying anything if a cashier gives you too much change back, not reporting some income on your tax returns, not taking proper care of your body, not attending church, etc.
I have to run to a meeting, so I’ll save my reflections on this study for later. I’d encourage you to check out the Ellison Research report for yourself.  If you have any thoughts about it, feel free to share them in the comments.

  • James Arlandson

    Very interesting study. Actually, I’m encouraged by it. I thought the numbers would be a lot lower than this section of the study indicates:
    “One of the biggest differences in whether people believe in the concept of sin is actually not even religious, but political. Among political conservatives, 94% believe there is such a thing as sin. This is also true among 89% of moderates. But only 77% of political liberals believe in the concept of sin.”
    This is from a political angle. I assume that these numbers do not necessarily reflect the views of religious folks, tho’ the overlap, I’m sure, is large. I would have thought that from a political viewpoint people would have abandoned the “concept of sin” as outdated. Maybe over the decades the churches have indeed done their job.

  • Americans on Sin, Part 2 |

  • Americans on Sin, Part 3 |

  • Places I’ve Been ? A Place For The God-Hungry

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