Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

"Can't Put My Finger on It": A Research Report on the Non-Existence and Meaninglessness of Sin

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

"Can't Put My Finger on It": A Research Report on the Non-Existence and Meaninglessness of Sin

Article excerpt

In the process of working on another research project (e.g., Cragun, Sumerau, & Williams, 2015; Sumerau & Cragun, 2014; Sumerau, Cragun, & Mathers, 2015), the first and third authors observed that religious leaders often spoke about "sin," "sinful behavior," and the dangers of "sinning" on a regular basis without ever defining these terms. Intrigued by this observation, the first and third authors sought to ascertain what this term meant in both the Protestant religious tradition at the heart of the aforementioned study and existing social scientific literature. Unexpectedly, the first and third authors quickly learned that neither the religious tradition nor the social science literature provided an answer. Rather, in both cases the word drifted around without a definition as if people somehow naturally knew what it meant. Since people act towards things based on the meanings those things have for them (Blumer, 1969), the first and third author began to wonder what sin actually meant to religious people.

To this end, the first author began surveying research for any mention of the word sin, and analyzing such studies for meanings. In so doing, ze (1) came across studies in the 1970's where researchers had proposed the need for understanding the meaning of sin (see, for example, Lyman, 1978; McConahay & Hough, 1973), but no follow up to these studies. Further, ze located research articles wherein scholars discussed the impact of sin upon individuals, social policies, minority rights, and other social arenas without ever actually defining what sin was for the organizations that and individuals who utilized this term (e.g., Barton, 2012; Heath, 2012; Robinson and Spivey, 2007; Rose, 2005). Finally, the first author noted that discussion and analyses of the term was rare in social scientific and empirically-based journals, and again found that when used the term did not generally include a definition.

Surprised by these observations, the first author then decided to seek guidance from other researchers. To this end, ze began asking everyone ze encountered at conferences, workshops, and on academic message boards where to find a good definition of sin. Unfortunately, the results of these efforts mirrored the literature search wherein no one was able to offer a shared definition or a citation for such a definition that came from empirical study. Although some scholars vaguely suggested theology (i.e., an area of study where meanings of sin are regularly debated outside the context of people's lived experiences of religion, see Moon, 2004) and others pointed to "deviance" in general, no one offered a concrete definition of the term itself that people actually might use in concrete settings (for a similar critique of the studies in the 1970's, see Palencia-Roth, 1979). After all these efforts, the first author continued to ask the same question--how could a term that shows up in almost every political and policy debate exist almost completely unexplored in the social sciences? How could we not know what actual religious people think the term means?

Considering that the term "sin" is utilized in a wide variety of public policy debates to advance or forestall the advancement of many religious and non-religious people alike, it is safe to say this term carries some kind of meaning in both secular and religious ideological frameworks. While there is considerable disagreement about the origin of the term, many believe it to be a term initially created by religious traditions to serve religious ends (Lyman, 1978). Given this possibility, one would assume it would be impossible for non-religious people to sin or for public policies that effect religious and non-religious people to be justified through the use of a term that only has meaning within the context of religion. Even so, a casual glance at our world reveals that this term is often utilized well beyond the symbolic boundaries of any given religious tradition, which suggests that at some point the term became a "generic" (Schwable et al. …

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