In a strict religious environment, sin is like an unspoken rule; everyone knows of it but no one questions it. Sin has vast amounts of terminology, but generally it is known as an act or desire against God or divine law. Many beliefs teach that thoughts can be sin, and this concept can strongly impact our lives if we are questioning our beliefs- for by questioning, we are sinning. (Granted, some beliefs state an immoral single thought is not a sin, but dwelling on something immoral is.)
For example, the culture that is developed among Jehovah’s Witnesses breeds guilt for having doubts or curiosity about the religion, especially from outside sources. They discourage their members from reading apostate¹ material. Even if a member discussed a curiosity with another member, the consequence would be unpredictable. This article would be a terrible sin in their eyes, starting with my thoughts to write it. By restricting information about their own beliefs and other basic human curiosities under the guise of ‘spiritual safety,’ they are producing a distorted thought process which heavily influences the way their members see and interact with the world.
Accepting this version of the concept of sin means that one accepts a law or authority. In this case, that would be the doctrine of religion. One may argue, stating that it is the law of God Himself, not the religion, but I strongly disagree. Many religions tend to present themselves as the mouth of God while simultaneously preaching that individuals should have their own personal relationship with God. So to whom then, are members worshiping? This presentation of sin is a conundrum.
What is a thought then? Simply, a thought is a reaction to stimuli, the demand of the moment. A robust description of thought is: “A thought is a representation of something…The mind is a kind of map. The brain, and its functional product the mind, evolved as a map of the body’s relation to its external environment. Fundamentally, our thoughts are maps representing and corresponding to things that our brains have either perceived with our senses, felt with our emotions, or formed as an action plan.” -Ralph Lewis, M.D
I do agree that thoughts lead to behavior, but to put simplistically, actions are the result of a cognitive choice, not a mechanical² one. Although we have a level of control at times, most thoughts are not chosen. We do not have absolute control. By that logic, thoughts would be considered a part of identity, and that’s incredibly dangerous to the human psyche. To that end, I don’t believe equating ‘bad’ thoughts as sins, and they should not be treated as such with an excessive punishment. I believe most humans are born with a moral compass yet ‘bad’ is subjective in this type of environment. Moral and immoral behavior are defined by the belief system you are subscribed to. Please note I’m not speaking on obvious egregious behavior, like murder, I’m speaking on the unnecessary label of equating a thought, like those that struggle with intrusive thoughts, as a sin as great as murder. It’s not loving nor fair to punish someone who is struggling with mental anguish. It’s also likely that members will find themselves in chronic turmoil simply believing in this severe fashion that thoughts are sins. Many cults may not explicitly teach this, but with doctrinal and cultural conditioning, this is a common learned thought process.
If we are defined as imperfect humans, then we will commit a direct act against God, or sin, everyday, even without realizing it. However, we are taught not to sin so that we do not disobey God. This conflicting interpretation leads to the feeling of being under scrutiny for thinking and therefore shame³ develops from anything that seems to oppose their teachings. This is where the theory of cognitive dissonance⁴ comes into play.
If one sins, the next step is to follow their ritual of asking for forgiveness or repentance. Different beliefs have different avenues of this, and although I think the general message makes sense, (i.e.: If you make a mistake, apologizing is a favorable choice), oppressive belief systems create an environment that ultimately induces the feeling of unworthiness. The loop is as such: have an immoral thought, feel guilty about it, repent, have the same immoral thought, feel guilty about it again, repent. If you cycle through this enough times, the guilt turns into shame. Can you see how symptoms of mental illness can easily grow in this rigid mental prison? If one wants to actively change their mindset, guilt without appropriate action is not the key. Thoughts eventually feel as if they are policed by God.
If one believes in an all-loving God, do you really think he operates as a dictator? What if the notion of sin is simply a guide? Wouldn’t it be more loving to simply show examples of consequences rather than enact a strict rulebook? Haven’t we seen the violent results of extreme thought control? Wouldn’t an all-loving God want his worshippers to lead better lives for themselves and others without forced compliance and fear? It can be proven that fear isn’t the most successful motivator. Unfortunately, those in cults do not realize that they are acting in fear as they are taught that their doctrine is based in love.
In summary, sin is taught in various ways. I believe the concept of sin is harmful if followed in a rigid method. Thoughts are not under ownership, so to speak, they come and go and should be separated from personal identity. Therefore, thoughts are not inherently sins.
- An apostate is someone who abandoned or rejected their religion. Jesus is not thought of to be an apostate, but by definition, could be considered an apostate by some Jews since he strongly disagreed with Jewish leaders in his time. Food for thought.
- This brings up the topic of free will, which is related, but that discussion will be honored at another time.
- Guilt is the feeling of doing something bad, shame is the feeling that you are a bad person.
- Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors.