On Paganism and Sin

I’ve been pagan for twenty years now. I was raised Roman Catholic, went to Catholic school for eight years, and I was even an acolyte well into high school. I discovered paganism in my latter teens; I was instantly intrigued by the notion that nature could be the source of the sacred, rather than just being a lower level of reality to be used and abused til Kingdom Come.

For the first few years after my conversion I would sometimes have this fear that really, the Catholics were right and anyone who wasn’t in the right religion would be condemned to an eternity of torture and flames. I think a lot of that worry, ironically, came because I was trying to plug pagan deities and practices into a fundamentally Catholic structure. I was supposed to be devoted and pious to my gods, and follow a schedule of rituals and observances throughout the year, and I wasn’t allowing myself to simply explore my path without worry I was “doing it wrong”. I was essentially swapping one dogma for another, fear of mistakes and all.

In Catholicism, fear of mistakes manifests itself as the fear of sin. To sin is to go against divine laws, however those are defined. The whole point of Christianity in general is this idea that humanity is by its very nature sinful and we need to be saved by God, through Jesus, or else we’ll suffer in hell forever, alongside murderers, and babies who died before they could be baptized.

And I realized that at this point in my life I simply don’t agree with that basic concept–that humans are inherently flawed. In my world, humans are just another sort of animal. We’re pretty amazing–we evolved these big, complex brains and opposable thumbs, upright walking and refined vocal apparatus, all as responses to the same challenges all animals face. But we’re not above other animals. We’re no more evolved than any other species that’s here with us today. We all got our same start 4.5 billion years ago, and each species of animal, plant, fungus, protist, etc. has a lineage that was equally successful in bringing it up to this very moment in time.

What we think makes us better than other animals is actually just our awareness of our choices and our ability to assign meaning to things. Sure, we’re really good at using these big brains. We have the ability to imagine what our actions are doing to another being. When a tiger attacks a deer it’s not thinking about how much its claws are hurting the prey, or how much fear the prey feels as it dies. But we can do that, with other humans and other beings. And because we have empathy, we create conceptions of “good” and “evil” that roughly correlate with “don’t hurt people” and “hurt people”.

The fact that we are capable of harming others doesn’t make us inherently evil or sinful, though. Every baby comes into this world a blank slate; each develops into an adult through a combination of genetic signals, and learned behaviors and social structures. We ALL have the ability to make decisions. There are mitigating factors–certain personality disorders and mental illnesses can have serious impacts on decision-making capabilities and risk awareness, for example. But even the best of us make some mistakes sometimes. We all lie, we cheat, we feel jealousy and envy, we hurt others either intentionally or accidentally. We also all feel love and care, we do kind things, we experience joy, we bring healing to others.

The concept of sin only looks at the errors, and if there’s even one tiny flaw you just aren’t good enough. I’m reminded of a Catholic school book I had that said sin was like contaminants in pure, white bottles of milk. A sinless person was pure and spotless, someone who had committed venial sin had some black splotches all throughout, and someone who had committed mortal sin was black all the way through. That image stuck with me for many years, and I hated myself for not being pure and spotless.

It took me a very, very long time to undo that unhealthy idea that if I made any sort of a mistake it made me a terrible person. I spent entirely too much of my life racked with guilt that I wasn’t perfect, and it made me hypersensitive to any sort of criticism. And yes, it made me miserable–I wasted a LOT of time being unhappy over my flaws. The other thing that this whole idea of sin did to me was it robbed me of opportunities to learn from my mistakes. When you’re trying really, really hard to avoid messing anything up because mistakes reflect on your character, you don’t allow yourself to dwell on your screw-ups any longer than is necessary, and so you don’t take the time to learn from them.

And that ability to learn from mistakes is part of what makes us human! In my martial arts class I learn more from my mistakes than from my successes, just like I’ve had to train myself to be okay with making mistakes in other areas of my life. Other animals learn from their mistakes, too. Young blue jays that eat monarch butterflies learn very quickly that bright orange and black butterflies will make them sick, and so they avoid them. Baby elephants that are still drinking their mother’s milk will still watch what plants she eats so when they, too, eat solid food they know what’s safe. Juvenile cheetahs have to chase many antelope before they catch one–and they have to catch several before they actually figure out how to kill one.

This concept of sin erases our animal heritage, where we learn from our experiences, good and bad. We’re not allowed to be dirty and aggressive and full of mistakes. We have to feel guilty about enjoying sex and must speak of it in hushed tones. We aren’t allowed to have conflicts which are just normal parts of any social species’ existence, and we aren’t allowed to learn from resolving those conflicts because they aren’t supposed to happen in the first place. We aren’t allowed to be of this world.

Look, I know that this world can be really harsh and difficult and full of pain. That’s just the way it’s been ever since life began in hot, lava-tinged oceans billions of years ago. And with more complexity in life comes more complexity in suffering. So yeah, it’s really tempting to daydream about a “perfect” other world where nothing ever goes wrong and everything is safe and comfortable. It’s tempting to want to push people toward your idea of “goodness” by threatening them with sin and hellfire.

But I have no evidence that any religion’s afterlife is actually going to come to pass–I’m waiting til I die before I form any opinions either way. I have a limited time here, and for all I know this may be all I get. I’m not going to waste this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity being miserable because I make mistakes, or worrying that I’m not doing what someone else in my religious community says I should be doing, or trying to make people believe the same things I do because I think they’re wrong and I’m right. I accept this world and every being I share it with as they are, neither inherently good nor evil, neither perfect nor flawed. There is no sin tying us down the moment we’re born, putting us at a disadvantage before we’ve even opened our eyes for the first time. There’s only a lifetime apiece: a lifetime of experiences, mistakes, and choices. Each moment is an opportunity to appreciate and absorb this world in all its parts, and if we so choose, to try to ease others’ suffering and to bring about joy.

Isn’t that a wonderful thing?

If, like me, you find your path in nature’s beauty, consider picking up a copy of my newest book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up!

16 Comments.
  1. Jane

    I appreciate you. This touches me. Thank you

  2. I joke in a “Ha Ha, no really” way that we can tell what kind of Christian someone was by what kind of Pagan they become, but also that we can tell what kind of Pagan a culture was by what kind of Christianity they created.

    I think it’s important to remember at both ends that Christianity and Paganism are not so entirely separate that we can assume we’ve left every bit of Christian influence behind when we convert, nor can we assume that Christianity got all of it’s foibles from the ether rather than finding them in surrounding Pagan cultures.

    We don’t get to just walk away, we have to actually work through it. That includes actively questioning which aspects of those influences need to be reconsidered.

    Which is to say… good work!

    –Ember–

    • I agree with you on your assessment. As much as we’d like to just leave the baggage of our previous religions behind, they can fundamentally shape us, especially if we were raised with them during formative childhood years.

      I don’t think it all has to be bad, though. I love the ritual of Catholicism, and I appreciate it still in paganism.

  3. Moving On

    Thank you, I needed this. I recently made a terrible mistake. It is tough to look at it as a learning experience, because people (including myself) got hurt, but I am trying. It is so easy to let guilt consume you.

  4. I’m so glad that you posted this! I’m the only pagan in my family. Although my mom has a few pagan friends. Anyway, I thought I was the only pagan who grew up chatholic for years! Do you have any tips for a beginner pagan? I’m having a hard time celebrating the Sanats as well as doing other pagan things. I feel like I shouldn’t be doing them while I live with my parents. They’re ok with me being pagan but I don’t want to push it.

    • Well, you have a couple options. You can try having a conversation with your parents if you think they’d be open to it. Some parents are really leery about their kids exploring different religions, but others are more accepting. If you don’t feel ready to have that conversation, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with practicing your spirituality quietly. Celebrating a Sabbat can be as simple as going for a walk/etc. and noticing what changes have occurred in nature since the last Sabbat–what are the animals and plants doing, what’s the weather like, how late does the sun set, etc. I know the books make a big deal out of things like spells and rituals and such, but you can be pagan without doing any of those things. And then once you’re out on your own you can shift to a more “active” practice, if you like.

  5. Lupa, this is so beautiful. And it describes so many of my own early experiences in Paganism that it leads me to want to really examine my relationship with religion, perfectionism, and sin (if you were also, like I was [and I suspect you were], an “exceptional” child, there’s perfectionist crap layered in there, too… can’t win for losing, some days). Thanks for giving so much food for thought.

    • You’re welcome! It’s not entirely down to theology, but it did contribute a lot to my sense of “not allowed to do anything wrong”. I’m much happier now that I allow myself to trip and fall sometimes, because I can dust myself off and keep going while knowing how to keep my balance a little better next time.

  6. I still find the Christian concept of repentance useful for making up for mistakes. (I don’t believe in Hell, of course). When I do something wrong, like express disappointment that someone with a chronic illness can never go out, I then have the opportunity to repent (apologize, pray to the gods, and then redeem myself by changing my actions and words.) I do not expect others to forgive me, of course. Repentance, for me, is an end in itself, for it creates and strengthens good character. (Of course, I am not saying I have good character.)

    • My problem is the idea that trying to right wrongs has anything to do with religion, Christian or pagan. I don’t apologize and try to make amends because of my path; I do it because I want to foster strong social bonds with those around me, and because I have empathy for the person I’ve harmed. I’ve also met too many people who use their own guilt to crush their sense of self-worth, and repentance becomes an opportunity to self-flagellate and wallow in bad feelings.