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Writer's Block: Seven

Which of the seven deadly sins—sloth, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and pride—are you most likely to commit?

Y'know, this is a really interesting question--but not for the reasons you might think.

Let's take a look at these seven deadly sins. Sloth, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and pride. Trust the Catholics to come up with a list of affronts against man and God, but not to list things like, for example, "murder" or "rape" or "genocide."

"But Tacit!" you might say. "You're barking mad, or at least splitting semantic and theological hairs. Wrath can lead to murder! Rape can be caused by lust! And genocide--"

Well, I'm not sure what on this list really matches up with genocide. Not sloth, certainly; genocide is damn hard work. Pride? Those who commit atrocity usually think they're better than the person they commit it against, but that's not exactly pride, precisely; it's something else.

Which is exactly where this list falls apart.

You see, of the seven things on the list, five of them are not actions. They're emotions. And here's the tricky bit--as human beings, we choose our actions. We choose our actions, even when we feel emotions.

Many people can feel angry, without acting on that anger. Many people can feel lust, without violating anyone because of it. It's actions, not feelings, that carry moral weight; we are, each of us, responsible for the things we do, but to assign moral value to a feeling seems a little absurd.

Hell, read Song of Solomon in the Bible. The whole damn book is an ode to lust. The lust that a man feels for his wife is perfectly normal; I would say even positive and healthy, especially if one believes in the Catholic notion of being fertile and popping out pups multiplying. On the other hand, the lust a priest feels for an alter boy? Not cool.

You see that? You see what I just did there? Context. Moral value depends inexorably on context.

Even folks who claim to despise "moral relativism" still believe it. Alice shoots Bob in the head with a .50-valiber Desert Eagle, spreading his intelligence and his awareness all over her living room wall like a demented Jackson Pollock. Is that morally wrong? I bet a lot of folks would probably say it is. Now let's add to the scenario a bit; she did it because he was in the process of attempting to murder her children. Is it morally wrong now?

You see that? Context. The moral value of an action depends on its context.

But let's go back to the list. Anger; who hasn't felt it? It's a feeling; an inevitable human emotion hard-wired into the limbic system of every one of us.

Count on the Catholics to turn a feeling into something to be guilty about.

Look, the guy who gets pissed off and smacks his wife around is an asshole, no doubt about it. But the guy who gets pissed off and yet manages to keep his cool in spite of it? That guy is not a sinner, and indeed there is greater virtue in doing the right thing even in the grip of an emotion than in doing the right thing when the right thing is easy to do.

We can flip this list on its head, too. The Mob hit man who whacks sixteen people in cold blood--which deadly sin is he committing? Not sloth, certainly. Not greed--as it turns out, hit men don't usually get paid very much for what they do. Far less than a lawyer, or a plastic surgeon, or a professional basketball player. Hell, they probably make less money than a computer help desk operator! Hollywood aside, shooting people really doesn't pay the way you think it would.

Lust? Doesn't fit. Gluttony? If eating too much is the worst thing you ever do, they should give you the VIP entrance into Heaven. Anger? A good hit man is cool and collected; he's not motivated by rage. Angry people get sloppy.

How about envy? He might not even know the target, much less envy him. Pride? Well, I suppose he might take pride in a well-executed job (Ha! I slay me!), but then I think most professionals take a certain pride in their craft.

So the guy who gets pissed off but doesn't act on it is a mortal sinner, but the guy who whacks people for a living isn't? Who is this god, and how did he get the job? I gotta say, if I were a god, you can bet the list of deadly sins would look a whole lot different. A little less with the "feeling" and a lot more with the "doing," if you ask me.


( 48 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 6th, 2009 07:03 am (UTC)
That's what the commandments are for, I thought.
Feb. 6th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)

Since in the catholic religion, thinking about something is as bad as doing it ("You have to wwaaannnnnaaaa" - George Carlin), I've always considered the deadly sins as the mental part and the 10 commandments as the actions part.
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I'm skeptical of the commandments, too.

Some of them are good,reasonable guidelines ("Thou shalt not bear false witness"). Some of them are highly situational (one commandment is often rendered "Thou shalt not kill," yet even the most Evangelical of Christians will still say that the moral value in killing is contextual). Some of them are just silly ("Thou shalt not have any other god before moe"). Some of them are not really moral certainties ("Honor thy father and thy mother"--what if thy father is a drunk and thy mother is an abuser? Honor and respect are earned, not automatic). Some of them are highly socially dependent ("Thou shalt not commit adultery"--in the time of the Old Testament, "adultery" was defined exclusively as sex between a woman who was married and a man not her husband. A man could not commit adultery by definition, but instead would be guilty of "fornication"--a sin not listed in the Ten Commandments).

And one of them, like the Seven Deadly Sins, is about thought, not deed. "Thou shalt not covet" is a commandment of thought crime, not of action.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 6th, 2009 07:10 am (UTC)
Feb. 6th, 2009 07:10 am (UTC)
I haven't been angry for years now. Cranky yes, a bit pissed off, but not genuinely angry. I don't like being angry, so I don't.
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC)
I'm right there with you. Yet you have been angry in the past, yes? That means you have, in the eyes of Catholic doctrine, committed a mortal sin, even if you were angry in the solitude of your own home and did nothing with that feeling.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:27 pm (UTC)
*snerk* I have less of a problem with "sins" that are sins of action rather than thought, and even less of a problem with the notion of sins that have a measurable, quantifiable effect on others.

I like what Robert Heinlein had to say on the matter, even though I like almost nothing else the man ever said: Sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily. All other “sins” are invented nonsense.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 6th, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
You are correct. Also, it is 'Avarice' not 'Greed'. Many people don't know the difference so they use the latter in both cases. Then someone comes along and makes a semantic argument based on common usage that denigrates an entire group of people for their beliefs.

Another common misuse is to equate killing with murder. While murder is not on the list of '7 deadly sins' it is certainly a mortal sin. The difference between the two using Tacit's example; Killing in cold blood is murder. Killing in defense of life, yours or some other, is simply killing.


Feb. 10th, 2009 08:29 pm (UTC)
Perhaps, though I would tend to think it's a difference of degree rather than kind.

The notion still stands, I think, that criminalizing emotional states rather than criminalizing deeds is foolish. Certainly, folks in the grip of wrath are capable of doing appalling things--but it's those things themselves, not the feelings of the person doing them, that matter.
Feb. 6th, 2009 08:59 am (UTC)
You are so right!
And yet... For example, imagine that you catch yourself being very happy about something that is pretty bad -- like, you're satisfied to see someone's relationship go sour, because you predicted it would and you like being right. (I'm not saying you'd actually feel this way -- but imagine you do, and you catch yourself at it). Or, I don't know, you're happy about someone dying, or something in this vein.
Wouldn't you feel guilty about having such feelings? Even if there's no action involved?

- Ola
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:31 pm (UTC)
I don't know that I would feel "guilty," per se. I do recognize that scadenfreude is an unhealthy emotional response, and that taking satisfaction at someone else's misfortune makes me feel pretty horrible. But ultimately an emotion not coupled to an action hurts nobody else, and I think the best measure of "sin" is in that which hurts others.

I police myself against schaudenfreude, but that's because I don't like the way it feels, not because it actually harms others.
Feb. 6th, 2009 10:57 am (UTC)
well, Catholics have a list of mortal sins, too, which includes things like murder, rape, genocide. We wouldn't leave those out :)

"A sin" is basically anything that leads you away from God. Of course the Catholic view of what will do that is highly dependant on the Cathoic view of God. It's hardly surprising that any religion would have a list of do's and don'ts, doncha know.

:::But the guy who gets pissed off and yet manages to keep his cool in spite of it? That guy is not a sinner, and indeed there is greater virtue in doing the right thing even in the grip of an emotion than in doing the right thing when the right thing is easy to do.:::

You get brownie points for that. But the purpose of listing the sins is in the identification of them, so that you can work towards a more calm, peaceful, spiritual, you. We're all called to be saints; but we are also expected to fail at it, time and again. Doesn't mean we should stop trying to improve ourselves!
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:37 pm (UTC)
"A sin" is basically anything that leads you away from God. Of course the Catholic view of what will do that is highly dependant on the Cathoic view of God. It's hardly surprising that any religion would have a list of do's and don'ts, doncha know.

Yep. And within the framework of those beliefs and premises, the Catholic view on sin is internally consistent.

I just don't think it's terribly useful, that's all.

I am somewhat suspicious of the notion that something can bring us closer to or take us farther away from God, because to me that implies a knowledge of God, and I don't think that's reasonable even if one accepts the premise that God exists.

I know that one of the most basic tenets of Christianity in general is that God writes books, that the books God wrote tell us what brings us closer and what brings us farther away, and that by studying this book one can gain enough knowledge of God to make those choices--but in practice, even this idea, I think, falls down.

If God writes books, he sure seems to have trouble making his exact meaning plain, given all the various ways the Bible has been interpreted even in Catholic history. Seems to me that if an omnipotent God actually wanted us to know something, we'd know it--that's kind of what "omnipotent" means, right?

As far as mortal sins go, I think it's interesting that in the Catholic view, the greatest and most evil of all sins--a sin so heinous that committing it causes immediate excommunication, without the need for a priest to perform the excommunication, and that is so great only the Pope himself can offer special dispensation to reverse the excommunication--isn't genocide, or murder, or anything like that. It's desecration of the Host.

Put six million people into an oven, and a priest can absolve you of your sins. Spit out the wafer during Communion and it's over--you're instantly and automatically excommunicated, and only the Pope can save you.
Feb. 10th, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC)
well Catholics also have living tradition to call upon, in addition to the Bible. It's not just the Bible. And the changes in interpretation is seen more as "us growing up spiritually over time, so we understand it better." Not saying I agree with that explaination, but that's how it's viewed. I do think if anyone has the authority to interpret the Bible, it would be Catholics, as well.... they were the ones who wrote it :)

As to the other - I guess you're referring to the Apostolic Peniteniary? I dunno *why* it can't be absolved on the local level, unless the Church considers it not just as sin against the self or another, but sacriligeous. But yeah - desecration of the Eucharist is considered particularly heineous because Catholics don't view it as just a wafer, or wine, but the real body and blood of Christ.
Feb. 13th, 2009 06:05 am (UTC)
Perhaps. A strong argument can be made that the Anabaptists and the Gnostics have a greater claim on legitimacy of the 'true' Christian church (whatever that might mean), but that's a whole 'nother conversation altogether. :)

I've always been a little skeptical of the notion of an ever-evolving understanding of God. The way I see it, either God wants to be understood or he doesn't. If he does, then he can make himself understood to cave men; that's part of what being omnipotent is all about. If he doesn't, then we ain't gonna get there any more than a dog is gonna understand calculus.

Given the thrashing around in Catholic history that passes for evolving understanding of God's will (in the 1500s, the Pope evolves an understanding that says torturing suspected heretics is kosher as long as it saves their souls; in the 1600s, another Pope evolves an understanding that, wait, no, that's not true), a more parsimonious explanation might be that the church is making stuff up as it goes along.

As for the other, though, the current Pope has, in an effort to be more transparent, opened the tribunal that ranks sin. There are two classes--lesser sins that can be absolved by any priest, and greater sins that involve automatic excommunication if the Pope doesn't intervene.

On the former list are things like murder, rape, child molestation (I wonder if a priest can absolve himself?), and genocide; the latter includes desecrating the Host.

I gotta say, if I were a god, the list would look a bit different.
Feb. 13th, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)
(I wonder if a priest can absolve himself?)
short answer, no. Even the Pope has a confessor. (that is NOT a job I would want)

A little longer version is that it's not priests who do the absolving; it's Jesus. Priests are just the stand-ins, the human face to the forgiveness of sins. That's why, for instance, the Catholic Church will never allow female priests; part of the duties of a priest is to be the visible face of Jesus; as he was male, so must be his priests.
Feb. 14th, 2009 05:39 am (UTC)
Re: (I wonder if a priest can absolve himself?)
We as a species do draw distinctions in strange and sometimes arbitrary ways. By the same logic that says Catholic priests should only be men (because Jesus was a man), one could easily argue that Catholic priests should not be black, or Asian, or even have blonde hair; Jesus was, after all, a Middle Eastern Jew. :)

Now personally, I think that if a god wanted to take human form and be represented through the agency of a human being, he could do so through any human being. Part of that whole "omnipotent" thing.

The god of Catholicism seems awfully constrained for an omnipotent being--can't make himself plainly understood without the intercession of a priest caste, can't represent himself through any human being save for a male...if I were of a more cynical bent, I might suspect these limitations had something to do with political power. Not that, y'know, I'm cynical or anything.
Feb. 6th, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)
Trust the Catholics to turn a feeling into something to be guilty about.
That's not just Catholic. At least one of the gospels (they all kinda run together) has Jesus saying that if you lust after some woman who walks by, you've committed adultery. That's how the protestants pull off the line about no one being good enough to get into heaven on their own, without being redeemed by quasi-human sacrifice.
Feb. 10th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
Yep, that's a good point. (The quote in question is Matthew 5:27-28.) All of Matthew 5 is filled with instances of criminalizing thought and feeling, in fact:

Matthew 5:21:
"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'
22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother[b]will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Feb. 6th, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)
It all boils down to "impure thoughts". I, for one, do love my impure thoughts. :D

And while I'm on the subject, I may as well admit that Gluttony is my major downfall. I can never seem to get enough of a good thing.
Feb. 6th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
Let's turn this around into a writing prompt: "What, in your opinion, are the seven deadly sins?"

I note that the seven principle Christian virtues (faith, hope, love, prudence, justice, courage, and temperance) are almost entirely mental states. And those weren't made up by the Catholics, they're from 1 Cor 13:13 and Wis 8:7.

On the other hand, nobody ever said these were the only deadly sins, as you point out. And I'd expect a religion in which the only way to heaven is to have a mental state B (believing that Christ died for your sins) or, in some versions, to have had a mental state B at some previous time, to also classify other mental states as sinful.
Feb. 10th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
Yep, I think you've made an interesting point about the notion of belief being a necessary part of redemption carrying over to other mental states.

As for virtues, I frankly would be more inclined to cast "faith" as a sin than a virtue, for reasons it'd take a very long time to describe. The notion of seven virtues is something I'll have to chew on.
Feb. 10th, 2009 11:31 pm (UTC)
There's nothing wrong with seven, but it seems to be an arbitrary number. There could be more than seven sins or virtues, or less. I'd rather think there's less. Some unified theory of right and wrong.

There ought to be some duality involved. There's the "Thing" and it has two sides. Like a coin. Charity on one side and selfishness on the other.

When I was on "Tribe.net" I joined a group called "Responsible Hedonism." I think that group was on the right track.
Feb. 11th, 2009 01:38 am (UTC)
It'd take a very long time to explain "intellectual laziness"?
Feb. 11th, 2009 09:26 pm (UTC)
Heh! For me, the problems with faith go beyond intellectual laziness. Once you've set aside a part of your brain for "things I believe without evidence," you open the door to being manipulated--sometimes with horrifying consequences--by anyone who cn manage to insert a belief into that space.
Feb. 6th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
there was an interesting tv show (i know, oxymoron) on cable a few weeks ago on the "sin" of "sloth" and how it really wasn't laziness, as we define it, but clinical depression- that the ancients didn't have the vocabulary for defining the depression that absolutely immobilizes a person- that there was a lot of "casting out of unclean spirits" and such, and, which surprised me, a lot of midieval art depicting Sloth which was either depression or catatonia...

did i have a point? not really..but it did make me realize that perhaps our modern defs of those 'sins' are not as we see them now.
Feb. 6th, 2009 05:17 pm (UTC)
Man, I *LOVE* you.

this is beautiful and so very cogent

Laura, the former Catholic
Feb. 10th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
Why, thank you! :)
Feb. 6th, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC)
Then you're gonna love this site!

http://www.p4cm.com/p4cm/ - Note the "Ex-Masturbator" t-shirt at the top. Then, if you scroll down, there are videos of a girl explaining why she's an ex-homosexual and two videos that I couldn't even finish watching about girls explaining what's wrong with atheism.

But the first video about why they came up with the ex-masturbator shirt is all about being in "bondage" to their passion.

I just thought "wait, I'm supposed to not like that? Man, I think you guys are just doing it wrong!"
Feb. 6th, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
zensidhe sent that link to me. I looked but did not play videos because, well, I knew it would send me into despair. You know? You're a braver woman than I, joreth!

They've taken their ideas so very far around the bend into wacko-land, I can't even adequately lay out my opinion about it. It's just freakin crazy.
Feb. 6th, 2009 08:00 pm (UTC)
I had to laugh out loud. It's the only way I could prevent either anger or despair. I actually had to ask zensidhe if this was for real or one of those parodies that you can't always tell are parodies because the original is just that wacky. There's a term for that, but I forget it.

I'm still not entirely sure this is for real, and I'll just keep laughing at it, otherwise I might cry.
Feb. 6th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
Feb. 6th, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC)
no, there's some word that I think was taken from a guy's name and specifically invented in the internet age. Something like "godwin" was invented to mean invoking hitler in a conspiracy theory argument.

This word I can't remember means "a parody or satire of something so over the top that it is often confused for true". The Onion falls into this category often, like the article about the pro-abortionist who threw an abortion party that got passed around by some right-wing fruitcake who couldn't tell it was fake.
Feb. 6th, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC)
I particularly loved the bits on this page: http://www.dasouth.com/features/drty/450-masterbation

He created the fibers of sex to be so strong that it could only be contained in the confines of marriage. What is marriage, that only It can contain the orgasm? Because only a contractual covenant can contain something so strong...Anything outside that method would self destruct. Any other orgasm achieved outside of marriage couldn't handle its intense, explosive, addictive, domineering, gripping force without repercussions. Yes, you could very well achieve and very much well, enjoy one, but not without suffering the impact of its climactic aftershocks. Yes, I just said it, Church! Yes, the tremors may feel good, but the aftermath, the consequences of an illegal orgasm is traumatic. - Yay climactic aftershocks!


Most people who have engaged in masturbation know that the culmination of this sexual act ends in shame. ... Curled up in a fetal position, crying, because your bed is even more empty and you're lonelier than you did before you violated yourself...Because God never created sex so that you could gratify yourself. - I seemed to have missed the memo that I'm supposed to be ashamed after masturbating. Maybe I was at home masturbating that day?


You want to stop but you can't. You cry, you repent and say you won't do it any more but you find yourself molesting yourself again...When will it ever end? - why would I ever want to stop?


Its three second ecstasy will put you in a stupor and numb your faculties, your senses and sensibility...Your receptivity and emotional response. It will control your intellect, your reasoning, your judgment of things, and your own significance and leave you trapped in a mind full of warped sexual fantasies. It will overpower you, subdue and suppress you, hold you back, paralyze your forward movement and hinder you from walking in what God has for you. Is having sex with yourself even worth it? - 3 seconds? Methinks you're doing it wrong.
Feb. 6th, 2009 08:28 pm (UTC)
Your last comment was precisely my thought when I read that part, LOL. Actually, I echoed all your comments. :-)

Why do these people so hate hate hate pleasure? Why criminalize fantasy? And what on this earth makes them think they understand what an all powerful Deity has in mind for each of Its creations? Blatant ego, that is.

The only time an orgasm made me cry, it was out of utter joy, with my first lover/husband. We're not legally married, and yet, there were no repercussions that were not themselves joyful. So, if nothing bad happens, does that mean you're married? That's as much logic as they seem to need for their own arguments...
Feb. 10th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
Dear God. I don't know WHAT to say about that...
Feb. 8th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC)
Feb. 8th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)
You are very very right!
I added you, by the way, hope you don't mind. You seem very interesting :-)
Feb. 10th, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
Howdy, and welcome aboard!
Feb. 9th, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)
i thought the idea was that these deadly sins were supposed to prevent medieval serfs from throwing off the chains of oppression or whatever.

envy, greed gluttony might be what u feel when your kids are starving, sloth when you're too sick to work, pride and wrath, well they're obvious, aren't they? lust may be just put in for good measure? another way to keep the po' folk down (or not pagan)?

anyway, that's the way i heard it. but what do i know; i live on the Left Coast ;).

hi, tacit. *waving*
Feb. 10th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
Heh. You might just have something there. A great deal of the teachings I see in many organized religions carry that faint whiff of "get the serfs to believe this so they don't rise up against us" subtext.

One of those is in the bumper stickers I see all over the place that say "Don't let the car fool you--my real treasure is in Heaven." I can't help but notice I've never seen it on the back of a Rolls.
Feb. 11th, 2009 12:55 am (UTC)
oo! oo! speaking of, do they still have those bumperstickers with a stick figure of a person in pants, a plus sign, then a stick figure of a person in a skirt, and "= marriage", or some such?

i always wanted to get a bunch of them and doctor them :)))). poly ones, beard and penis on the one with the skirt, woman + cat, etc....
Feb. 11th, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
They do! I made my own parody of that bumper sticker, in fact, using CafePress. Even posted a blog article about it here.
Feb. 18th, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC)
Now new! and Improved!
I think you might find this interesting: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article5755481.ece The article talks about how there are gender-based differences on who commits which sin. And the Vatican has added 7 new sins to the list.
Feb. 18th, 2009 10:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Now new! and Improved!
So "genetic modification" is now a mortal sin, eh? Well, I guess we know where the Church stands on transhumanism, then!
May. 16th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)
Whether this list of sins is meaningful or not, turns on the definition of "sin", or so it seems to me. In modern usage "sin" often means roughly the same as "crime", a deed that is wrong. Consequently the list of "seven deadly sins" seems like a list of thought-crimes. That is of course a rather unhealthy attitude towards thoughts and emotions. But the original greek word for sin, "hamartia", does not mean "crime", it means something like "shortcoming" or "missing the mark". With that in mind, this list of "shortcomings" makes much more sense. Being very prone to one of those emotional states, can indeed be a problem. Perhaps it would be better to call them "The seven attitude-problems"

Stefán Jónsson
( 48 comments — Leave a comment )