Three billboards lined my route from home to school, a gravel road that, on a dusty day, covered the messages with a soothing patina. The first sign was a snorting bull and the simple message ‘Bull of the Woods Chewing Tobacco’. The bull signalled the end of our farm and the beginning of McCroy land. The next sign was on the town line and was a stark reminder of urban danger: ‘The Wages of Sin Is Death. Romans 6:23.’ For years, I worried over this grammatical bump in the road, but as Bible-stuffed children, we always finished the verse: ‘But the gift of God is eternal life.’ The final sign showed a mother, father, son and daughter, gazing at a ray of light. ‘The family that prays together stays together’, a phrase that’s stuck in my ear for half a century.

The Jesuits might not have got it right about destiny, but the language that goes into young, uncluttered brains takes root. I know the Ten Commandments because they were drilled into me at age six, along with Bible verses and Psalms that gave me a bracing sense of right and wrong, a package tied with the ribbon of sin. I trembled just hearing that ‘we are all born sinners’. But now, it seems that sin, along with gravel roads and chewing tobacco, has become a relic of olden days, intellectually embarrassing, bad taste, and, well, rather common. Even the new Pope has warned: ‘We are losing the notion of sin.’ Those little two-way closets called confessionals, so prominent in Mafia movies, are now used to store mop buckets. The original seven deadly sins pride, gluttony, sloth, lust, greed, envy and anger can all account for the apocalyptic headlines of Holy Week: bank failures, terrorist bombs, abductions, rapes, murders. But these are merely troubling aspects of the world we live in, not ‘sins’.

The waning of the notion of sin is seen as intellectual progress. Lusting after your neighbour’s wife, like booking a prostitute online when you’re a crime-fighting governor, is risky as well as tacky. But not a sin. When the governor says he’s ‘atoning’ to his family for his sins, he means his folly, not a sin that ate at his heart. Salvation is avoiding the divorce courts and criminal prosecution. Still, I was interested in the Vatican’s new range of sins for the modern age. I agree that ‘Polluting the environment’ and ‘Promoting social injustice’ are sinful (mea culpa, diesel Volvo), although I blanch at the interpretations of biotechnology. Excessive wealth feels pretty sinful when you look at the rich bankers who created the sub-prime disaster that’s leading to so many people losing their homes, but Warren Buffett and Bill Gates seem saint-like in their commitment to the world’s ills compared to Gordon Brown and George Bush.

And there is a sin worse than the social injustice called poverty: the sin of creating emotional chaos. I’m thinking of a child whose five siblings have four different fathers, the child who has access to swimming pools, but not to emotional stability and protection. But who’s the sinner? The mother? The Government that doesn’t protect the child? The society that sees it as progress that the stigma of fatherless children has at last been removed? Sin is complicated, but without any notion of it, we lose a sense of the price we pay for aimless, selfish, and ultimately destructive lives. I don’t believe that the wages of sin lead to death, only to a dusty life, a dusty soul.