10/25/2013 04:46 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What Sin REALLY Is (The Human Propensity to F**k Things Up)

Paradoxically, one of the obstacles to communicating what belief feels like to those who don't share it, is that our culture is so thoroughly smudged over with half-legible religious scribbling. The vocabulary that used to describe religious emotions hasn't gone away. It's still in circulation, but repurposed, with new meanings that make people think that they know what believers are talking about when they really, really don't.

Case in point: the word "sin," that well-known contemporary brand name for ice cream. And high-end chocolate truffles. And lingerie in which the color red predominates. And sex toys and cocktails. There's a brand-management agency in Australia called "Sin." There's a fish restaurant in Lima, Peru, called Los Pescadores Capitales, which is a Spanish-language pun on the similarity between the words for sinning and for fishing. (An English equivalent would be calling it The Seven Deadly Fins.) Taxes on cigarettes and booze are "sin taxes." Sin City, in Frank Miller's comic book and the movie adaptation of it, is a locale where the population are entirely occupied in lap-dancing and extreme violence. Keep piling up the examples, and a picture emerges -- meaning congealing from a pointillistic cloud. It isn't tidy, this definition-by-use, and the cloud of meaning clearly has a light end (truffles) and a noir end (Frank Miller) but it's entirely comprehensible all the same.

"Sin," you can see, always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something. Also, it always preserves some connection to sex, which is why it would seem creepy for it ever to appear in the branding of a product aimed at children. Sometimes the sex is literal, but usually it's been disembodied, reduced to a mere tinge of the atmosphere of desire and transferred from sex itself to another bodily satisfaction -- to eating or drinking or smoking or greedy looking (all of which are easier to put on sale in bulk quantities than sex itself). The other universal is that "sin" always encodes a memory of ancient condemnation: but a distant memory, a very faint and inexplicable memory, just enough of a memory to add a zing of conscious naughtiness to whatever the pleasure in question is. Whether the thing you're consuming is saturated fat spiked with mood-lifting theobromines (truffles again) or the spectacle of non-existent impulse control rendered in moody black and white (Frank Miller again,) you kind of know you shouldn't. But not in a serious way. The pleasure comes from committing an offence (against good nutrition or boring old good taste) which is too silly to worry about.

Everybody knows, then, that "sin" basically means "indulgence" or "enjoyable naughtiness." If you were worried, you'd use a different word or phrase. You'd talk about "eating disorders" or "addictions"; you'd go to another vocabulary cloud altogether. The result is that when you come across someone trying to use "sin" in its old sense, you may know perfectly well in theory that they must mean something which isn't principally chocolatey, and yet the modern mood music of the word is so insistent that it's hard to hear anything except an invocation of a trivially naughty pleasure. And if someone talks, gravely and earnestly, about what a sorrowful burden one of those is, the result will be to be to make that speaker seem swiftly much, much more alarming than the thing they're getting worked up about. For which would seem to you to be the bigger problem, the bigger threat to human happiness: a plate of pralines, or a killjoy religious fanatic denouncing them?

If I say the word "sin" to you, I'm basically buggered (as we like to say in the Church of England). It's going to sound as if I'm bizarrely opposed to pleasure, and because of the continuing link between "sin" and sex, it will seem likely that at the root of my problem with pleasure is a problem with sex. You will diagnose me as a Christian body-hater. You'll corral me among the enemies of ordinary joy.

So I won't do that. Because that isn't at all what I mean. What I and most other believers understand by the word I'm not saying to you has got very little to do with yummy transgression. For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to fuck up. Or let's add one more word: The human propensity to fuck things up, because what we're talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It's our active inclination to break stuff -- "stuff" here including moods, promises, relationships we care about and our own wellbeing and other people's, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.

Now, I hope, we're on common ground. In the end, almost everyone recognizes this as one of the truths about themselves. You can get quite a long way through an adult life without having to acknowledge your own personal propensity to (etc etc); maybe even all the way through, if you're someone with a very high threshold of obliviousness, or with the kind of disposition that registers sunshine even when a storm is howling all around. But for most of us the point eventually arrives when, at least for a hour or a day or a season, we find we have to take notice of our HPtFtU (as I think I'd better call it).

Our appointment with realization often comes at one of the classic moments of adult failure: when a marriage ends, when a career stalls or crumbles, when a relationship fades away with a child seen only on Saturdays, when the supposedly recreational coke habit turns out to be exercising veto powers over every other hope and dream. It need not be dramatic, though. It can equally well just be the drifting into place of one more pleasant, indistinguishable little atom of wasted time, one more morning like all the others, which quietly discloses you to yourself. You're lying in the bath and you notice that you're 39, and you don't have children and that the way your living bears scarcely any resemblance to what you think you've always wanted; yet you got here by choice, by a long series of choices for things which, at any one moment, temporarily outbid the things you say you wanted most. And as the water cools, and the light of Saturday morning in summer ripples heartlessly on the bathroom ceiling, you glimpse an unflattering vision of yourself as a being whose wants make no sense, don't harmonize: whose desires, deep down, are discordantly arranged, so that you truly want to possess and you truly want not to, at the very same time. You're equipped, you realize, for farce (or even tragedy) more than you are for happy endings. The HPtFtU dawns on you. You have, indeed, fucked things up. Of course you have. You're human, and that's where we live; that's our normal experience.