Most Americans believe in the concept of sin, but differ widely on just what it is

(Original release date: March 11, 2008) Study results released from Grey Matter Research & Consulting (formerly Ellison Research) of Phoenix, Arizona show the vast majority of Americans (87%) believe in the concept of sin. “Sin” was defined in the research as “something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective.”

The findings are from a study independently designed, funded, and conducted by Grey Matter Research among a representative sample of over 1,000 American adults. Grey Matter Research is a full-service marketing research firm.

People who believe there is such a thing as “sin” were asked whether they would personally define each of thirty different behaviors as sinful.

The behaviors a majority of all Americans describe as sinful are:

  • Adultery 81%
  • Racism 74%
  • Using “hard” drugs such as cocaine, heroine, meth, LSD, etc. 65%
  • Not saying anything if a cashier gives you too much change back 63%
  • Having an abortion 56%
  • Homosexual activity or sex 52%
  • Not reporting some income on your tax returns 52%

A number of other behaviors are considered sinful by a significant portion of all Americans, although not a majority. These are:

  • Reading or watching pornography 50%
  • Gossip 47%
  • Swearing 46%
  • Sex before marriage 45%
  • Homosexual thoughts 44%
  • Sexual thoughts about someone you are not married to 43%
  • Doing things as a consumer that harm the environment 41%
  • Smoking marijuana 41%
  • Getting drunk 41%
  • Not taking proper care of your body 35%

Then there are behaviors that fewer than one-third of all Americans see as sinful:

  • Gambling 30%
  • Telling a “little white lie” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings 29%
  • Using tobacco 23%
  • Not attending church or religious worship services on a regular basis 18%
  • Playing the lottery 18%
  • Watching an R-rated movie 18%
  • Being significantly overweight 17%
  • Not giving 10% of your income to a church or charity 16%
  • Drinking any alcohol 14%
  • Working on Sunday/the Sabbath 14%
  • Spanking your child when he/she misbehaves 7%
  • Making a lot of money 4%
  • Dancing 4%

A clear majority of just about every type of American believes in the concept of sin, although there are a few differences. For example, 97% of Black Americans believe in the concept of sin, compared to 86% of Whites and 80% of Hispanics.

Not surprisingly, religious people are much more likely to believe in sin, but the concept is commonly accepted even among those who are not religiously involved. Among Americans who regularly attend religious worship services, 94% believe in the concept of sin, although this only drops to 80% among those who do not attend services. Among those who attend services, the concept of sin is fairly universal among Protestants (96%), Roman Catholics (91%), and those who attend other types of religious services (94%).

One of the biggest differences in whether people believe in the concept of sin is actually not even religious, but political. Among political conservatives, 94% believe there is such a thing as sin. This is also true among 89% of moderates. But only 77% of political liberals believe in the concept of sin.

These kinds of differences can also be seen in whether people define various behaviors as sinful. Overall, people who attend religious worship services not only are more likely to believe in the concept of sin, but they are more likely to include numerous behaviors under that heading than are those who are not religiously involved. However, there are also differences within the religious world.

Protestants are more likely than Roman Catholics to include most of the thirty different behaviors as sin – sometimes dramatically so. The biggest differences include gambling (50% of Protestant churchgoers define this as sinful, compared to just 15% of Catholics), failing to tithe 10% or more of one’s income (32% to 9%), getting drunk (63% to 28%), gossip (70% to 45%), and homosexual activity or sex (72% to 49%). Catholics and Protestants are equally likely (or unlikely) to list as sin having an abortion, spanking, and making a lot of money, while Catholics are more likely than Protestants to believe that failing to attend church is a sin (39% to 23%).

Evangelical Christians are far more likely than almost any other group to include numerous behaviors under the definition of sin, and the difference between evangelicals and other Americans is often quite large. For instance, 90% of evangelicals believe getting drunk is sinful behavior, compared to 35% of all other Americans, and 92% believe sex before marriage is sinful, versus 39% of all other Americans. Still, evangelicals do not consider all types of behavior sinful – only a minority believe it is a sin to work on the Sabbath, not attend church, drink alcohol, dance, play the lottery, watch an R-rated movie, or not tithe 10% of their income to church or charity.

The findings also show that Americans tend to define sinful behavior partially by degree. For instance, 81% feel adultery is sinful, but only 43% say the same thing about having sexual thoughts about someone to whom they are not married. Forty-one percent believe getting drunk is sinful, while only 14% believe drinking even a little alcohol is a sin. Thirty percent say gambling is sinful, but only 18% feel this way about playing the lottery. And while 65% feel drugs such as meth or cocaine are a sin, just 41% say this about marijuana.

There are also numerous demographic differences in what people define as sin. Women tend to have a longer list of what is sin than do men – women are more likely than men to include racism, gossip, use of hard drugs, marijuana, adultery, pornography, not reporting income on taxes, abortion, failing to say anything if given too much change, and swearing as sinful behavior.

African-Americans are also significantly more likely to list many of the different behaviors as sinful than are people of other racial or ethnic backgrounds.

There are also differences by age. People under age 35 are less likely than Americans in other age groups to believe adultery, getting drunk, not reporting income on taxes, homosexual activity, pornography, and gossip are sin. At the same time, younger people are more likely than others to say using tobacco and working on the Sabbath are sinful.

There are also strong differences of opinion according to political perspective. Conservatives are almost always the most likely to name each of the 30 behaviors as sinful, while liberals are almost always the least likely to do so, with moderates somewhere in the middle. The only activities liberals were about as likely as conservatives to categorize as sin are harming the environment, dancing, making a lot of money, and spanking a child.

Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, noted how many inconsistencies Americans show in their answers. “We can see numerous inconsistent patterns of thought and belief throughout the responses,” Sellers stated. “For instance, over a third of all Americans believe failing to take proper care of their bodies is sinful. Yet far fewer believe tobacco or obesity are sins – even though medical science consistently shows using tobacco and being overweight are two of the most harmful things they can do to their bodies.”

Other inconsistencies Sellers pointed out:

  • Over four out of ten evangelicals believe it is a sin not to tithe, while other studies consistently show relatively few evangelicals actually do so.
  • The Roman Catholic church consistently teaches that sex before marriage, abortion, pornography, and homosexual activity are sins, yet as many as half of all practicing Catholics do not personally define each of these as sinful.
  • Forty-three percent of Democrats believe homosexual activity is sinful, and half believe this about having an abortion, even though their political party consistently supports gay rights and access to abortion. While most religions teach that lying is morally wrong, the vast majority of Americans – including a third of evangelicals, a majority of all Protestants, and three out of four Catholics – don’t feel telling a “little white lie” is a sin.

“But then inconsistency of thought is fairly common in this country, when studies consistently show a majority of Americans simultaneously want increased government services, decreased government debt, and lower taxes,” Sellers observed.

Sellers cautioned that the study only measured what people define as sin, not necessarily what they believe to be positive behavior, or what they feel is okay to practice in their own lives. “Because only 23% believe tobacco use qualifies as sinful behavior doesn’t mean the vast majority feel it’s perfectly okay to smoke – it just means they do not believe smoking is actually sinful.”

He also suggested that religious leaders take a hard look at how the findings of this study compare to their own teachings. “If your church is teaching that working on the Sabbath is sinful, or that drinking or abortion or gossip are sinful, it’s likely that many of your own people don’t agree with you. Leaders need to understand why this is, so they can figure out how to respond. Rather than just teaching, they need to discuss these issues with people – getting feedback on why so many of their own people differ with them may help them understand how to reach those people more effectively with their teaching.”

Study Details:
The study was conducted by Grey Matter Research & Consulting (formerly Ellison Research), a marketing research company located in Phoenix, Arizona. The sample of 1,007 adults is accurate to within ±3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level with a 50 percent response distribution.

The study was conducted in all 50 states. Respondents’ age, household income, geography, racial or ethnic background, and gender were carefully tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.


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