During the recent election in the UK, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Tim Farron, was asked if he thought gay sex was a sin. Farron is a born-again Christian and instead of answering the question, he hedged round it. Predictably, this meant that journalists returned to it, with the politician dodging it each time.
In all probability, Farron does regard gay sex as a sin. The bible teaches that all behaviour that offends God is sin, causing a rift between mortals and the deity. This, biblically speaking, is what defines sin. Tim Farron would have been better being honest, saying that his faith leads him to believe that sex between people of the same sex is sinful but that personally he is a supporter of equal rights for all. His voting record indicates this to be the case; he has consistently voted in favour of LGBT rights while, presumably, maintaining his faith. Perhaps if he had answered in this way, he might not have felt the need resign as Lib-Dem leader on the grounds that his role as party leader conflicted with his personal beliefs. Predictably, evangelical groups have claimed he was hounded out of office because of his beliefs, but it seems far more likely he was, as he said himself, finding it difficult to reconcile his faith-induced worldview with his public duty. It must be difficult defaming your colleagues when you’re supposed to be demonstrating Christ’s love.
Whatever the reason, those who believe that human behaviour is sinful are wrong. Nothing humans do is a sin. Nothing we do, gay sex included, offends God because there is no God to offend. Sin is an entirely religious concept that has outlived its usefulness, if it ever really had any. Which is not to say human behaviour cannot be immoral. It can, but immoral behaviour and sin are not the same thing. As a rule of thumb, morality is determined by the extent to which our behaviour adversely affects others. Deliberately harming them physically, materially or emotionally is (likely to be) immoral behaviour. Murder, theft and abuse are immoral – but they are not ‘sin’.
Morality is not always clear cut, however; arguably it would not be wrong to murder a terrorist or suicide bomber before he can embark on a killing spree. Aborting collections of cells in a woman’s uterus, if that is what she wants, is also not an immoral act. Similarly, victimless behaviours such as sex – both hetero and homosexual – between free, consenting adults is neither wrong nor immoral. Nor is masturbation, gender fluidity or transgenderism. And as for the betes noir of the church of my youth (and who knows, they may still be) – listening to rock music, having the odd drink and dancing – they’re not either.
On the other hand, some of the activities indulged in by religious people are immoral: attempting to impose their beliefs on others; misrepresenting and denigrating those different from themselves; pressurising gay people to deny their sexuality; advocating the death penalty for homosexuality; covering up fellow-believers’ criminal activity; teaching children that creation myths are true; dismissing science; persuading people that prayer works; convincing others they are sinners.
We all behave immorally, thoughtlessly and carelessly, from time to time. But we are not, as a consequence, destined for hell, nor are we in need of a saviour to magically wash away any wrong-doing; if that really worked, we would see no immoral Christians. No, when we have behaved immorally we need to make reparation to those we have harmed, not ‘repent’ by begging forgiveness of some irascible god. What we should never do, whatever the Righteous ones tell us, is regard ourselves as sinners. We are not: it is impossible to offend a deity that doesn’t exist.