There are certain topics that arise in discussion within Paganism which have so thoroughly associated with cultural or religious baggage that there is a great difficulty in cultivating an ordered and reasoned critique of that topic. The concept of ‘Sin’ has recently been brought up over on Patheos in a post by John Beckett. Titled, “Are We Bringing Sin into Paganism?” [1], Beckett explores the connections between the increase of concern with displays and attitudes towards piety, the confluence of those ideas with what is considered “purity”, the necessity of piety and purity within a Pagan context, and other such themes. Beckett concludes that while “Sin” is not part of Paganism, it could be if the collective Pagan world did not tread lightly, leading to the potential for the intrusion of a Christian-style “sin” within a wider theological paradigm.

His commentators agree with him, continuing with the theme of Christo-centric baggage. In a comment on the piece, one “Woods Wizard” states that “Sin is definitely a Christian concept related to judgement [sic] after death. It also involves forgiveness by a Deity who seems insulted that we would break his rules. But Pagans have no commandments, only guidelines like the Rede or the Noble Virtues. Pagans have no one who sits in judgement [sic] of them at the end of their lives. We have concepts like karma, fate, or the Wyrd. So we have no need of the concept of sin.” [2]

Beckett and his commentators have fallen into the all-too-typical trap of speaking for the whole of “Paganism”, without understanding the implications of doing so, or the facets of the myriad religions which exist underneath the umbrella of Contemporary Paganism. They declaim, quite vociferously, that there is no sin in Paganism and, indeed, that it has no place within Paganism, because their attitudes towards what is, or is not, sinful are colored by their exposure to the all-prevalent concept of what embodies “Christian Sin”. In doing so they forget that there are traditions which do have deep, important, concepts of “sin”.

What is sin? Without going into the myriad iterations of what might be considered “sin” in a Christian, Mosaic, or Islamic context, we should take a quick look at the etymology of the word. Ultimately, the modern word “Sin” comes from Old English (sinn, senn, synn), and is defined as:

  • (theology) A violation of God’s will or religious law.
  • A misdeed.
  • A sin offering; a sacrifice for sin.
  • An embodiment of sin; a very wicked person. [3]

Important for this discussion is the exploration of the Old English antecedent, for it provides the foundation for the understanding that pre-Christian peoples might have had when approaching this terminology. Bosworth-Toller’s Online Dictionary accounts “Syn” (also: Synn) as:

  • With reference to human law or obligation, misdeed, fault, crime, wrong
  • With reference to divine law, sin [4]

We see the multifaceted concept of what, tongue-in-cheek, can be considered the “original sin”. It is both the violation of divine law as well as it is a misdeed or wrong as considered in the light of more mundane, human affairs. The phrase “synne stǽlan” literally means “to charge with a crime” [5]. While a seemingly pedantic counterpoint to John Beckett’s critique of the concept of “Sin”, it is an important one nonetheless, for in the whole of Contemporary Paganism it does come up with some frequency in reconstructionist Heathenry.

Heathenry is a religion established on the basis of law, over disorder. These laws, known as thews in some Heathen circles, form the basis of social understanding and govern interpersonal relationships and ritual practice alike. This is buttressed by the understanding of the Heathen worldview, which is one of concentric rings of duty and obligation which focus from the individual heorþ (hearth), to the sibb (kin), and finally to the folc (folk). This forms the basis of the innangeard – the inner yard – which is cultivated through a series of reciprocal relationships for the betterment of the unit as a whole. Everything outside of the innangeard is known as utangeard, the outer yard. The inhospitable wilderness is as much utangeard as a neighboring, yet unfamiliar, tribal body or people. [6]

“Sin” is an important concept in Heathenry, because it represents a violation of these laws and a fundamental imbalance in the nature of these relationships, leading to discord and disharmony among the people. It creates a debt between the offending parties, which must be righted with some form of recompense. Violating an oath to one’s folk is as much a sinful act as the violation of ritual mandate or religious precedent, both of which ultimately require restitution in order to correct the imbalance [7].

Beckett propagates the Pagan misunderstanding that sin is intimately connected to morality, and failure to abide by someone’s potentially strict codes of moral understanding is what causes sin. Further, he sounds an alarmist response that the overt emphasis on concepts like purity and piety only damage the relationships which are to be had between Pagans and the Gods, which devolves into fear mongering the rise of some form of eventual Pagan Ayatollah Khomeini.

Is it not in the best interest of Paganism to dispense with the persistent baggage and hanging on of Christian themes which otherwise pollute our conversation? Do these fearful conflations really have a place within the wider discourse of Paganism as anything more than a nuisance and distraction?

The reconstructionist wing of Paganism is, by large, is a group of religions which places a great deal of emphasis on reciprocity, proper ritual forms, and the nature of obligation. In a religious expression which places as much emphasis on these concepts, how can the misdeed of violation of law not be construed as sinful? What is the difference between religious impiety in this sense, and the violation of an ordered system, as Beckett seems to wish there to be?

John Beckett goes on to say that “avoiding sin requires perfection”, and that is perhaps true if we approach “sin” from something resembling a Baptist or otherwise Protestant perspective. However in a Heathen, and thus a form of Pagan, context avoiding sin requires “following the law”. It requires understanding the dynamic relationships between people and their peers, people and their gods, and the whole of the ordered cosmos. For failing to recognize the vagaries in debt and obligation can cause all measure of impiety, or impurity, or otherwise damage and harm the connection which is made between the mundane and the sacred.

Some Pagans, especially Heathens, understand that “sin” is not some state which can be conferred due to attitudes towards morality. Instead, it is recognized that the world is made up of a series of obligations and laws, webs of obligation and  of responsibility, of which the violation of such edifices can cause imbalance and lead to disharmony.  That is the nature of “sin”.  But to claim that “Paganism does not have sin” is objectively incorrect.


[1] John Beckett, “Are We Bringing Sin Into Paganism?.” Under the Ancient Oaks Blog, Patheos. August 11, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016,

[2] John Beckett, “Are We Bringing Sin Into Paganism?.”

[3] “Sin,” Wiktionary, last modified August 8, 2016, accessed August 11, 2016,

[4] Joseph Bosworth, “Syn”, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, Ed. Thomas Northcote Toller and Others. Comp. Sean Christ and Ondřej Tichý. Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, 21 Mar. 2010. Web. Accessed August 11, 2016

[5] Joseph Bosworth, “Syn”.

[6] Wodgar Inguing, “Innangeard-Utangeard”, Larhus Fyrnsida Online Resource, Accessed August 11, 2016

[7] Ashli, “Sin, Thew, and the Bones of Innangeard”, Real Heathenry, July 13, 2016, Accessed August 11, 2016.