I am going to bore myself with this topic quite soon, but I’m compelled to go just a bit further due to a comment I received. Whether one agrees with my position not, I would’ve thought my somewhat idiosyncratic differentiation of sin and evil was clearer than some others think it was.
However, I may have learned something from being asked for further clarity. For persons steeped in—or better still, reared with—frequent dialogue on and concern about sin, it is tricky to grasp a system that is unconcerned about sin, but quite concerned about ethics. (As a quick restatement: Ethics in my differentiation covers a morality in which neither gods nor supposedly god-generated sins are relevant. Specific religion-based morals and ethics may occasionally overlap, but be driven by different sources or rationales.)
Presented with the sin/ethics distinction I’ve drawn, persons might honestly struggle with trying to marry the two systems, to define one in terms of the other, or to pick and choose cafeteria style. Good luck with that. Perhaps it can be done, but I’m happy to have a simpler task.
The easy approach is merely to disregard sin entirely as if you have never heard of such a concept . . . no god(s) laying down the rules about how we should behave toward our fellows. Start merely with that challenge and see where a naturalist search takes you. By “naturalist” I mean a process that does not depend on entities or phenomena presumed to exist outside the natural world, therefore not amenable to being proven or disproven.
Contrary to religious claims, this is a task within your ability if you are careful not to start the assignment by adding up sins religion has taught you. Most religions tell you that you can’t do what I’ve prescribed because you need an unseen supernatural source to do it for you. That is patently false. A divine dictator is no more critical for us to have a sense of ethics than it is for us to then live by that code.
For persons who’ve largely been handed their religion’s pre-packaged list of sins, I recommend at least an hour concentrating seriously on a hierarchy of ethical principles (again, with no consideration to what your God is said to have imposed). You might begin with the broadest (the Golden rule isn’t a bad place to start), working your way into more specific, less grandiose principles. Don’t worry if a sin or two slips temporality into this work as long as you proceed the way I’ve said. After all, it isn’t as if all religious sins are useless in a consideration of humanistic ethics, but their reason for inclusion cannot be their religious pedigree.
If you are brave enough to go deeply and conscientiously into this pursuit, then (but only then) read to see what other thinkers have said. Maybe they can be helpful, but don’t treat them as God substitutes. Remember, this is your endeavor. With that proviso, sources like these may help: American Humanist , Free Inquiry, and American Atheist magazines; books such as James Q. Wilson’s The Moral Sense, Michael Martin’s Atheism, Morality, and Meaning, an English translation of Immanuel Kant’s Grundlegung, and parts of Dale McGowan’s Atheism for Dummies. There are many more useful sources, for philosophical inquiry into ethics has a long history and a wide expression. You might also see what came from the pens (keyboards?) of modern secular humanist philosophers like the late Paul Kurtz.
I have done this for years from the top down, so to speak (starting from the broadest level as just demonstrated), but also from time to time calling to account something in my own code left over from my Christian rearing, much like dust under the bed that escaped cleaning. Such unnecessary baggage doesn’t make one more ethical. It isn’t as if the more restrictions a person can put on oneself the better; that would be tantamount to self-flagellation. Not only do unnecessary, self-imposed limits (like many sins) rob some of the rich color and joy of life, but easily contaminate one’s human interactions by unintentionally guilt-tripping others.
I hope these comments help with whatever was not clear in the previous posts. Still to come is a post upon an actual listing of my own personal understanding of secular humanist ethics, though not, as I vowed, further explication of the differences between (secular) ethics and (religious) morality; I am leaving that behind. Now I want to focus, as the phrase as evolved, on being good without God.