Americans overwhelmingly believe in the concept of sin whether they are religiously involved or not, according to a new Ellison Research study released Tuesday.
"Sin," as defined by the research organization, is "something that is almost always considered wrong, particularly from a religious or moral perspective." The study questioned more than 1,000 American adult respondents whether they believe in such a thing as "sin" and then asked them whether 30 different behaviors were sinful.
Out the list of 30 behaviors, adultery was most often described as a sinful behavior by American respondents (81 percent).
Following adultery was racism (74 percent); using "hard" drugs such as cocaine, heroine, meth, LSD, etc. (65 percent); not saying anything if a cashier gives you too much change (63 percent); abortion (56 percent); and homosexual activity or sex (52 percent) rounded out the top five behaviors most often considered sinful by Americans.
Other behaviors with significant moral objections included reading or watching pornography (50 percent); swearing (46 percent); sex before marriage (45 percent); harming the environment as a consumer (41 percent); smoking marijuana (41 percent); getting drunk (41 percent); and not taking proper care of your body (35 percent).
Not surprisingly, religious people are much more likely to believe in sin, with 94 percent of Americans who regularly attend religious worship services saying they believe in the concept of sin. The number drops to 80 percent among those who do not attend service, although the percentage is still a large majority.
But perhaps more surprising is the differences in the belief of sin between political divides. Political conservatives (94 percent) believe there is such a thing as sin. The number remains high among moderates (89 percent) but then drops to 77 percent among political liberals.
Among Christian traditions, Protestants are more likely than Roman Catholics to include most of the 30 different behaviors as sin. The biggest differences included gambling (50 percent of Protestants compared to 15 percent of Catholics); failing to tithe 10 percent or more of one's income (32 percent to 9 percent); getting drunk (63 percent to 28 percent); gossip (70 percent to 45 percent); and homosexual activity or sex (72 percent to 42 percent).
However, Catholics are more likely than Protestants to believe that not attending church is a sin (39 percent to 23 percent).
The percentage gap widens when evangelical Christians are stacked against the general American population. Ninety percent of evangelicals believe getting drunk is a sin, compared to 35 percent of all other Americans. Likewise, 92 percent of evangelicals believe sex before marriage is sinful, compared to 39 percent of the general U.S. population.
But only a minority of evangelicals believes it is sin to work on the Sabbath, not attend church, drink alcohol, dance, play the lottery, watch an R-rated movie, or not tithe 10 percent of their income to church or charity, according to Ellison Research.
Furthermore, the study reveals how Americans weigh sinful behaviors differently. While 81 percent feel adultery is sinful, only 43 percent say that having sexual thoughts about someone to whom they are not married is sinful.
Although 41 percent of Americans believe getting drunk is sinful, only 14 percent believe drinking even a little alcohol is a sin. Gambling is a sin to 30 percent of Americans, but only 18 percent feel this way about playing the lottery. And while 65 percent feel doing hard drugs are a sin, only 41 percent say this about marijuana.
"We can see numerous inconsistent patterns of thought and belief throughout the responses," Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, 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 highlighted by Sellers include:
• Over four out of 10 evangelicals believe it is a sin not to tithe, but other studies 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.
Sellers suggests that religious leaders look at the findings of the study and compare it 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," Sellers said.
"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," the Ellison Research president commented.