A Pagan perspective on Sin

There’s a thing that happens in social dynamics, where a person “breaks the rules,” or says or does a thing that’s wrong. This causes the person to lose social standing, and be treated as if they have a “black mark.” (For example, watch a recent season of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.)

If we upset a person, they might have an emotional (angry, upset) response. They may set a boundary. They may take action against us. They might tell other people about the transgression.

If we upset a group, we may lose our status in that group. This could mean being shunned, or removed entirely. Our participation in the group may be limited.

This is a normal thing. (Well, by normal, I mean it happens all the friggin time without us even realizing it.) If we were talking about this from a religious (Christian) perspective, we might call this sin. It happens when we do the wrong thing, and it leaves a lasting mark on us – personally, and either from the person we injured or from a group.

Now, I want to tread lightly. The term [sin] is … loaded. A lot of folks, myself included, have baggage with the term [sin]. Also, [sin] has a lot of different meanings. Still, I’m not sure if there’s a better word, so I’m sticking with this one.

Also, think of this as a thought experiment: Does the concept of [sin] have a place in modern Paganism?

How Sin works

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately.

I experience a lot of anxiety. When I do something that I know a person won’t like, I experience feelings of guilt and shame. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the person, or don’t speak to the person – simply doing a thing they don’t like generates feelings of guilt and shame.

For me, those feelings of guilt are washed away when I “confess.” Even if that’s just confessing to a therapist, something about speaking them out loud and articulating my regret makes me feel better.

I can see this dynamic playing out in other areas.

For example, many Pagans – especially those of the LGBTQ+ community – believe that J.K. Rowling has sinned in her opinions about transgendered people. Some people feel like it’s a sin when you charge money in exchange for magic. I’ve even heard people treat criticism of a spiritual path as a sin.

So some the features of sin, from a human-psychology perspective, include:

  • A person breaks a rule or social norm
  • The sinner may or may not be aware of the rule they are breaking
  • The sinner seems to incur a sense of debt to those they sin against
  • The sinner loses social standing as a result of their actions
  • The sinner is expected to express guilt, shame and reparations to restore their standing with the group
  • Some people like to see the sinner experience punishment or suffering
  • Some people use the guilt of the sinner to extort additional concessions on behavior or materials

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should get us started.

Sin in Paganism

A lot of Pagans like to think we’ve left the idea of sin behind. That’s part of what many of us reject about Christianity – the idea that we are bad and dirty just by being born. We tend to reject the idea that our actions can result in a “stain” on our “soul.”

But, as I mentioned in the introduction, rejection of the concept of [sin] doesn’t mean that human behavior doesn’t still happen. For example, in Paganism, many people feel like it’s a sin to criticize their teacher. Some Pagans consider it a sin to criticize another person’s spiritual path. Many magical practitioners consider it a sin to charge money in exchange for magic.

Paganism, however, doesn’t have a good mechanism for dealing with social transgressions. Most Pagan groups seem to look away uncomfortably from the sense of social debt that’s incurred when someone offends someone else, or breaks a social rule.

We’re rejecting the concept of sin, while at the same time holding people accountable for their sins.

So just because we reject the theological concept of sin doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in our groups. It seems like it would be helpful to have a term for it that wasn’t loaded with religious baggage. (I don’t have any suggestions, but I’m open to them.)

Who adjudicates sin?

Generally speaking, the victim of a transgression is the one who determines whether a sin was committed. Consider the term TERF – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist is a label that’s used to identify feminists, usually women, who don’t conform to transgender-inclusive culture.

With the term TERF, it’s not straight white guys who are labeling someone a TERF. They have no skin in the game. Rather, it’s the people who are affected – the victims, usually transgender people – who are labeling a person a TERF.

(This is not intended as any kind of criticism, but rather an example of how the process works.)

Sometimes, it’s a group that decides whether a particular action is a sin. This may be deliberate, where a specific action is labeled inappropriate. Sometimes, the rules just evolve unspoken.

In our group, it’s a sin to be convicted of a violent felony or a sex crime. People who have done those things are not allowed to be part of our group. Committing that kind of crime against a child shows that a person a) cannot be trusted with the safety of children, b) puts their own interests above the health of children, and c) is just an icky person we don’t want to spend time with. We decided that these are the rules, and we adjudicate them by refusing entry to people who have broken them.

In the case of most groups, there’s no formal method for identifying and adjudicating sin; it happens organically. The group tacitly agrees on whether an action is coherent with the group identity, or whether it violates the group.

This creates problems when people aren’t made aware of the group rules beforehand. Many people have been kicked out, blacklisted, shunned, or had other action taken against them for transgressing, without ever knowing what the transgression was.

It also creates problems because of the imperfect nature of humans. Here on the political left, there’s this idea that everyone should be perfect paragons of equality and social justice. If a political candidate (or any famous person, really) has ever written something that could be seen as racist, sexist, or any other -ist, it is a sin.

But something that is a sin today might not have been a problem 30 years ago. Consider the TV sitcom Friends. Insanely popular show. However, many of the jokes are rooted in homophobia, which would be taboo today. Judged by the culture 30 years ago, the jokes were just funny. Judged by the culture today, they are offensive.

Humor is like that. Try to read comics from 100 or 150 years ago, and they probably won’t make sense. Language and culture change, making it harder to understand. Without a current context for the language and the subtle social understanding, something may look wildly inappropriate when it’s actually benign.

(Historical ideas can also be just as bad as they appear. Rhetorical arguments promoting slavery, for example.)

In most circumstances, the victim of a particular sin is the best person to label and adjudicate it. If a woman lies to me and manipulates me, I get to decide if that rises to the level of sin, and what response is appropriate. However, I’m probably not an appropriate adjudicator to label someone a TERF, because I’m not transgender.

Is the adjudicator of sin always right?

People have the ability to be horrible to each other. This is a human thing, not restricted to gender or skin color or any other class category. So it’s probably not appropriate to adjudicate and label sin by class. In other words, women and trans people aren’t the only ones who get to decide what’s a sin.

Traditionally, however, certain protected classes have been the target and victim of a disproportionate level of abuse. That’s why we have protected classes – we recognize, as a society, that members of certain classes of people have had it rough. Granting additional protection helps to level the playing field.

This is a good thing. We want to believe victims when they tell us they’ve been harmed.

But as soon as there are rules in place, there are humans who seek to bend or twist those rules to their advantage. Like the white guys who oppose affirmative action programs in college, claiming that it creates a bias against them by their race. Logically, it seems sound. But it opposes the very spirit of affirmative action, which is to invite a more diverse student base to universities.

So we want to believe victims, except when they aren’t really victims. And we want to have organic rules for behavior, but we want people to know about them ahead of time. We don’t want mob rule, where anyone can sling an accusation to ruin a person. (Well, maybe some groups do, but this is an unhealthy dynamic.) But we don’t want an authoritarian group micromanaging people’s behavior, either.

Talk about a bunch of contradictions! How on Earth can we establish what is sin, and what’s not sin? And what if someone is using the label [sin] in bad faith, to achieve a personal or political goal?

Moreover, how do we guard against people hijacking a group’s sense of [sin] in order to persecute a member of a group?

There is no perfect group or moral standard

Here’s where perfect inclusivity breaks down. If I say my group is inclusive of everyone, that means it’s inclusive of people of color, and it’s inclusive of white supremacists. Either one has a claim to be part of my group, if I’m trying to be perfectly and universally inclusive.

I think we would all agree that it would be bad to include both people of color and white supremacists.

A better method is to establish what is OK and what is not OK. This means that some people will be excluded from the group. If our group doesn’t allow sex offenders, sex offenders simply have to find another place to go.

Being up front and transparent about those values up front sets people’s expectations. They know ahead of time what behavior is acceptable, and what’s not. People then have the option to self-select in or out of the group. If they behave inappropriately, then they can be removed from the group with a minimum of grief.

This only really works for private social groups. Public groups – the kind who access community-owned resources, like parks or City Council – cannot have restrictions by class without marginalizing people. We don’t want that.

But it is OK to say that your group prohibits marginalizing transgender people. You can kick people out for being anti-trans. You’ll send a clear signal that anti-trans people aren’t welcome in your group, which is good because you don’t want them there. You’ll also send a clear signal to transgender people, that they are safe and welcomed.

This will lead to all kinds of different private social groups. Not all of these groups will get along.

The price of having a coherent and healthy private group, is making peace that other people have different morals and values than you. What you consider to be a sin might be no big deal to someone else. Setting the morals and values for your group means relinquishing any right to set those values and morals for another group.

Which is why we laugh at Christians who say we’re going to hell. They’re the ones who have that moral code, not us. They don’t get to say what’s a sin for people who aren’t Christian. (As much as they would like to.)

So. Transparent, clear guidelines for behavior. Clear boundaries. And a clear course of action if someone crosses those boundaries. And a realization that if they’re not part of your group, you can’t really hold them to your standard of ethics.

Coming back from transgressions

Sometimes, a person commits a sin and feels bad about it. They want to atone, to make things right, to re-establish their place in the community.

Right now, Paganism doesn’t really have a way to do that. We don’t seem to want to talk about sin, even though we have people committing personal and social transgressions.

Consider the case of the child molester who wants to go to church. Some studies show that they need community support in order to not re-offend. They want to change, and they need the help of other people to make that change.

On the other hand, other people’s kids are at risk if the child molester is allowed into the church. Child molesters are extremely skilled manipulators – how can we justify the risk to children, and risk allowing ourselves to be manipulated? And how can we know if the child molester really wants to change, or is just telling us that to get us to lower our guard?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this. I wish there were.

For some of the people we’ve asked to leave our group, there was no sign that they would ever change their behavior. They were toxic, and for the health of the group they could not be allowed to continue. The transgression was deliberate, unremorseful, and ongoing.

But I wonder. If someone came back to us and said “Hey, I’ve done a lot of work, and I’m trying to change. May I rejoin the group?” How would we respond? Should we let them back into the group?

I’ll expand it a little further. Say a popular author said something 30 years ago that was sexist. Someone finds it today, and calls them out, and rallies their group to boycott that person. Support grows, and suddenly that author is a pariah. They are blacklisted from speaking events, their daytime job is threatened, and they receive threatening phone calls.

There has been no legal ruling. The rules that person violated didn’t even exist when their statement was made. They may not even believe those things anymore. What then?

As it stands right now, it’s mob mentality. All you have to do is use the right buzzwords, and you can rally your army of social justice keyboard warriors to your side, and decimate your opponent. We’ll see to it they never work in this town again.

But what if the mob is wrong? What if the statement was taken out of context? What if they grew, and became a better person in the last 30 years?

I feel like the Pagan community is missing something important, if we don’t have a ritual to atone for our sins.

Atonement

In Catholicism, as I understand it (since I’ve never been Catholic), when you commit a sin you confess to a priest. The priest may grant forgiveness, or they may set a series of actions a person must complete to earn forgiveness.

Clearly, this is a system that has been abused throughout history.

I think a better way to think of this is using the concept of debt.

Debt (and credit) have been theorized as originating not as a way of exploiting other people, but rather of tracking the fairness of a particular trade. It goes like this: I promise to trade you 10 loaves of bread for 5 pounds of beef. But I don’t have 10 loaves of bread right now, and if I did they’d go bad before you can use them. So you give me the beef, and I give you 2 loaves of bread, and I owe you the other 8.

Similarly, if I make a joke that offends you, I’ve hurt your feelings. Now, I’m in your debt, because my actions caused you discomfort. My atonement is to apologize, and make an effort in the future to avoid making jokes that offend you. If you accept the trade, my debt has been absolved.

In Anglo-Saxon England, there was a concept called were-gild, or man-gold. This was the price of a man’s life. If your actions caused a person to die, this was the price you paid to make things right with the family.

So. In our social groups, it might be helpful to think about degree of transgression, and proper repayment. What are transgressions that a reasonable person should be able to shrug off? What transgressions incur a debt to another person? And what transgressions are unforgivable?

I can’t make that determination for you. I think that in Pagan spaces, transgressions should be directly related to Pagan topics. For example: psychic vampirism, contributing to the group, exploiting other members of the group, and following through with commitments.

This could apply to a gender group. Lots of LGBTQ+ people find their home in Paganism. Their groups might add dead-naming, being a TERF, or using the wrong pronouns to their list of transgressions.

Once you have a rough idea of the transgressions, set your atonements appropriately. For an egregious violation, maybe it’s removal from the group. A mid-level offense might mean an apology or mediation/conflict resolution. A minor transgression might only require an apology, or it might require the victim simply to exercise resilience and let the transgression go.

Again, I can’t make that determination.

But what I see, is many Pagans and Pagan groups blacklisting allies, because the allies don’t perfectly align to those groups’ ideals. (I’m looking at you, Pantheacon.) If you want your social movement to fail, start attacking your allies because they aren’t performing perfectly according to your social codes.

Gotcha moments

Contemporary American culture now, especially online and in business transactions, seems to be rooted in the “gotcha.”

A gotcha works something like this. First, a person does the wrong thing. This might be something illegal, or against the group morals, or even something that costs another person time or money. The wrong thing can even be something as simple as causing offense.

Once a “wrong thing” has been committed, this incurs a social debt. This allows other members to marginalize or exploit the person who did the wrong thing. That person was “got,” and now they “owe” the group.

For example. Say a person is driving through the parking lot. The cut a corner a little close, and brush the fender of another person’s car. If the owner of the second car sees it, they have a “gotcha” on the first driver. The first driver is now liable, and can be held for damages to the second car.

Another example. A group sets up an event for women at a major Pagan convention. To create a balance between inclusivity and safety, the group creates events for anyone, for people who identify as women, and for women born as women. Because their whole event isn’t perfectly and universally inclusive, some people take offense. They have a “gotcha” on the group, and use that to stage protests and have the group removed from the event.

The “gotcha” is a quick way for a person to get something they want. This is a predatory approach – just like the owl that catches a mouse that makes a mistake fleeing across a field, wielding a “gotcha” lets one person benefit at another’s expense.

However, the predatory nature of the “gotcha” means trouble for a community. Once a community allows predatory behavior, it becomes competitive. Competition leads to a loss of safety, compassion, and cooperation. When a group becomes competitive, a few people benefit greatly, while the rest of the group suffers. This creates an unhealthy community.

The “gotcha” is also related to tit-for-tat, scorekeeping, and revenge. There are many, many blood feuds going on in the world right now, because both sides are unable to let go of their desire for revenge over a grievance. Many times, the original offense has been forgotten; only the debt and the pursuit of a “gotcha” against the enemy remain.

The spiritual side of sin

As with most human behavior, the concept of social debt expands into our spiritual space. Most religions include the concept of transgression against non-physical entities.

Also, as with most human behaviors, this is a tricky space to navigate. On the one hand, we’re dealing with non-physical phenomena, and it’s easy to make up bullshit transgressions to put people in debt. On the other hand, spirits and deities actually can take offense to some human action, and require reparations to restore and repair standing.

So, first the bullshit. In case some readers have never been Catholic, or have never studied the history of the Catholic church, here’s how it used to work. Humans would sin, and be required to atone (make amends) to God (via the priesthood) for those sins. If a person died before atoning, their soul could not proceed to Heaven. Instead, it would go to an in-between realm, called Purgatory, to purge the sin from their souls.

So the Church would label certain biological human behaviors to be sinful (aka, sex). When people naturally behave that way, the Church labels it a sin. Now the Church has a “gotcha” against the person. The person has to perform a certain behavior in order to make amends for the transgression.

You can see how this could be abused by a greedy or lecherous priesthood. And it gets worse.

If a person dies with unaddressed transgressions, they are stuck in purgatory. But the Catholic church has a fix! The living can atone for the dead, and pay off their debt so they can enter heaven. Or, instead of atonement, the living can pay a fee (called an indulgence) to the Church, who then puts in a good word for the deceased to get into Heaven.

As Pagans, Witches, and other alt-spiritual people, most of us probably have a strong feeling of revulsion to this sytem. And rightly so.

However.

The other side of this, is that sometimes you actually can piss of spirits and deities. In Mongolian spirituality, it is highly offensive to local water spirits to urinate in rivers. In Eastern spiritual traditions, snake spirits called Nagas act as helpful magical spirits. However, they are strictly vegan, and they will take offense if offered animal protein.

Here in the US, the most frequent transgressions for magical practitioners come in the form of angry land spirits and ghosts.

Many magical traditions also deal with a thing called crossed conditions. Sometimes, shit just goes sideways. Maybe you’re on the outs with a land spirit, or in your daily actions you run afoul of some invisible and unknown force. Suddenly, your spiritual (and sometimes physical) sphere gets weird. Strange things happen, spells may fail or backfire.

Taking spiritual action to clear crossed conditions – or to make reparations for offenses – is central to some magical traditions. And they work! This may include a cleansing bath (to wash away the yuck), a ritual to clear crossed conditions, or even offerings and atonements to specific spirits or deities in reparation.

Now – you might be thinking, this seems a lot like the bullshittery that the Catholic Church engaged in. And you’re right (kind of) – there’s not really a good way to distinguish between a bullshit spiritual condition and a real one.

Personally, I think this is an area where we as magical practitioners have fallen short. In our effort to excise all the Christianity from our sphere, we’ve tossed out some important material. Like the idea of incurring a spiritual debt.

Healthy sin vs. Unhealthy sin

I never thought I’d be writing a section title like this.

I think that, in a lot of circumstances, sin is a bad thing. It’s mostly used for exploitation of others, and I am firmly against that kind of bullshit.

I would define unhealthy sin to be:

  • External – you are labeled or “gotcha’ed” by another person
  • Coercive – certain specific behaviors or payments are required to “atone”
  • Unrepentant – a person who wrongs another person or group feels no regret, or has no intention to change
  • Predatory – actions that treat other members of the group as prey, or which foster a sense of unhealthy competition
  • Punishing – if the focus of reparations is on punishment, instead of reparations
  • Arbitrary – the group changes its values to selectively target individuals for violating them
  • Class-based – the sin is based on your gender, skin color, or other genetic variable that people have no control over

I would define healthy sin to be:

  • Guilt – you feel bad for doing the wrong thing to a person or spirit
  • Reparations – you want to make things right with the person or spirit you wronged
  • Motivating – the transgression moves you to work to be better in the future
  • Cooperative – the focus of identifying the transgression is on helping a person behave better as a member of the group
  • Genuine – you’re not simply apologizing or acting as if you’re sorry, you are genuinely trying to make reparations for the situation
  • Action-based – you have acted in a way that is offensive, or failed to act in a way you agreed to act (as opposed to sin rooted in identity)

The right way to address transgressions

Or at least my suggestion for the right way.

First, everyone should be acting in good faith. If you suspect someone is acting in bad faith – either the person who sinned or the person sinned against – that should be sorted out first. Examples might be being overly dramatic and taking offense where none is intended, claiming to be a victim without actually being a victim, or labeling a person “cursed” in order to sell them an uncrossing remedy. If one side or the other is acting in bad faith, this whole process is being hijacked.

Second, both sides need to feel like they are seen, heard, and understood. The aggrieved person needs the sinner to understand the impact of their actions. The sinner needs the aggrieved to understand their intentions, and what they are doing to make amends.

Third, both sides need to agree on a remedy. This may be a 5-part apology, a specific action, or even a mediated solution.

The 5-part apology:

  • Acknowledge the transgression
  • Say the words “I’m sorry”
  • Acknowledge how the transgression made the other person feel
  • Articulate the plan to prevent future transgressions
  • Follow through with action and behavior change

Fourth, the remedy is implemented. This may be changed behavior, or it could be a peace offering (apology cookies, buying a drink). Whatever the agreed-upon action, this is the point where it has to be followed up on. In some cases, this may be an “agree-to-disagree,” especially where people have different and irreconcilable views. In extreme cases, this may include one person leaving or being removed from the group.

Finally, both sides need to find a way to forgive, let go, or move on from the transgression. Once the apology and reparations are made, the sinner must regain their full status in the group. Any scorekeeping or holding grudges will only serve to turn the group predatory and competitive.

Calling in vs Calling out

I wanted to draw special attention to this article. Especially with the trend of social justice in Paganism, Witchcraft, Wicca, and alt-spiritualty, Professor Ross has addressed call-out culture in an excellent, compassionate, and effective way. I especially appreciate that she works to bring the focus back to a healthy community, instead of a “gotcha” moment.

What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?
Prof. Loretta J. Ross is combating cancel culture with a popular class at Smith College.

Creating a culture of safety and compassion

The whole idea behind this article on sin is to help the magical community develop better communities.

It’s pretty hard to have community if people don’t feel safe. This goes back to Skinner’s basic writings on the Hierarchy of Needs. Even though it has its flaws, it still acknowledges that people need a sense of safety in order to achieve the levels of trust and vulnerability that create strong social bonds.

This is not to say that everyone in a group has to be exactly the same. Rather, this is a model for addressing the hurt feelings and disagreements that inevitably erupt in a group of strong, independent, and empowered people.

One way that we create that sense of safety, is by being accountable to each other. This happens through working cooperatively toward the group’s coherence. It also happens by tracking the social debts we incur with others, and addressing those in a healthy way.

It works to our benefit that the same model we use to maintain healthy social relations also work for our relations to the spirit world.

Like many things, a lot of this advice boils down to, the world is already hard and shitty, and we don’t need to make it harder and shittier for other people by being an asshole.

But I think it goes a bit further than that. We actually are assholes – sometimes accidentally, sometimes deliberately, and sometimes unavoidably. But being an asshole doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. By addressing our assholery, we can build a sense of trust with one another such that, even if someone acts like an asshole, they can still make up for it and be treated as a trusted, cooperative member of the group.

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