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Are the Seven Deadly Sins Really Sinful?

Dr. Thomas Swan has a PhD in psychology from the University of Otago. He specializes in the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion.

Where do the seven deadly sins come from?

Where do the seven deadly sins come from?

History of the Seven Deadly Sins

Whether in Dante’s Purgatorio or the vibrant artifice that is modern cinema, the seven deadly sins have captivated western culture since their inception in the 4th century by the Christian monk, Evagrius Ponticus. His original list of eight vices was reduced to six in 590 A.D. by Pope Gregory because of overlapping definitions. Gregory then added envy to the list, beginning the Catholic Church’s era of fixation upon the seven key personality traits that supposedly manifest human evil. These cardinal sins are:

  1. Lust: Excessive thoughts of a sexual nature.
  2. Gluttony: Indulgence to the point of waste.
  3. Greed: Rapacious pursuit of wealth, power and status.
  4. Sloth: Failure to utilize one’s God-given gifts as a result of being lazy or despondent.
  5. Wrath: Uncontrolled hatred or anger.
  6. Envy: Jealous desire to deprive another person of something and to acquire it for oneself.
  7. Pride: Excessive love of oneself. Considered the most serious sin and the source of the other sins, having origin in the fall of Lucifer.

Pride is seen as the progenitor of the other sins, while vices that escape the list (e.g., drunkenness, forgetfulness, theft, dishonesty) are seen to be secondary, or derivable, from the seven sins.

This artwork by Peter Brueghel The Elder in 1558 depicts the horrors that supposedly await societies that embrace the seven deadly sins.

This artwork by Peter Brueghel The Elder in 1558 depicts the horrors that supposedly await societies that embrace the seven deadly sins.

Psychology of the Seven Deadly Sins

The general theme of the sins is abstinence and asceticism, which is consistent with the virtues of the Catholic Church and other religions of the era (e.g., Buddhism). Although these themes can be productive when embraced by some individuals, such as people with emotional disorders, the censuring of these supposedly licentious emotions is likely to be detrimental.

Emotions such as lust and greed would not be part of the human condition if they were not useful in some way. Natural selection would not have endowed us with these emotions if they did not help us to survive, such as by benefiting our physical or mental wellbeing.

For example, without pride, we may become depressive. Without greed and envy, we may become poor. Without lust, we may never find a sexual partner. Without sloth, we may not rest when we need to. Without gluttony, we may not save enough for the future. And without wrath, we may not confront and dissuade those who threaten us.

Does this painting attributed to Hieronymus Bosch (~1500) depict a wheel of sin or fortune?

Does this painting attributed to Hieronymus Bosch (~1500) depict a wheel of sin or fortune?

Can Emotions Be Deadly or Sinful?

All human emotions are variations or mixtures of pleasure and pain. Negative emotions such as sorrow, fear, shame, guilt, and anxiety are associated with pain, while positive emotions such as happiness, pride, and love are associated with pleasure.

Negative emotions deter us from behavior that causes pain, while positive emotions reinforce behavior that causes pleasure. For example, we experience fear when our well-being is threatened, which motivates us to take action to avoid the threat, and we experience relief (a positive emotion) when danger has been avoided, motivating a repeat of our avoidant behaviour if the danger should reoccur.

In general, emotions help us to do what is necessary to survive. If this was not the case, we would not have them: they would have been lost over millions of years in the course of natural selection because, with each generation, only the least emotional would have survived. In other words, we have greed, lust, envy, sloth, wrath, gluttony, and pride because they are useful emotions.

Sometimes emotions can lead to actions that societies regard as sinful (e.g., the "Original Sin" was an act). By themselves, however, emotions are not sinful, and there is no such thing as a "thought crime."

The Original Sin was an act, not an emotion. Here is that act painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo in 1512.

The Original Sin was an act, not an emotion. Here is that act painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo in 1512.

How Are the Seven Deadly Sins Useful?

We can now look at how each of the sins would have been useful in the course of human evolution.

  1. Pride: a positive emotion that reinforces healthy behaviour. We are proud when we do something well, and this encourages us to repeat that behavior and do more things well.
  2. Greed: a negative emotion that prevents personal poverty. We are greedy when we think we require more than we have. It encourages the accumulation of resources and gives us a better chance of survival. Greed is not sinful, but excessive greed may be careless if it evokes envy from others, such as by depriving them of what they need.
  3. Envy: a negative emotion. We are envious when we see ourselves as having less than another. Envy encourages behaviour that will improve our status, preventing domination by others and keeping the greed of others in check. Excessive envy is not sinful unless one endorses immoral methods (e.g., theft).
  4. Wrath: a negative emotion that prevents the harm and exploitation of oneself or those cared about. A demonstration of wrath will deter further attempts to harm and exploit. Wrath is only sinful when it is disproportionate or used without proper provocation.
  5. Lust: a negative emotion that prevents involuntary celibacy by encouraging behaviour that culminates in reproduction. Lust is not sinful unless one condones immoral acts to satiate it.
  6. Gluttony: a positive emotion that reinforces behavior that keeps oneself satiated and better able to survive. Gluttony may serve to keep oneself strong and competitors weak (i.e., selfishness), but it may also be a way to save for the future and to prepare for times when resources are in short supply. Like greed, gluttony may be careless if it evokes envy in others.
  7. Sloth: a positive emotion that reinforces regenerative behaviour. Such behavior may be required if someone suffers from an undiagnosed malady or is burned out after difficult times. It may also be a way of maintaining one's distance from distressing people or events and preventing further harm.

In other words, each of the Seven Deadly Sins promotes behaviours that can serve people well in life. By themselves, emotions only create the drive to receive pleasure or avoid pain. If an individual chooses to respond to this drive with immoral behavior, then it is not the emotion that causes it; it is the misbegotten knowledge that immorality is an appropriate response to the drive.

Why Does Religion Censure Emotions?

Although religion is not at war with all of our emotions, it does appear to conflict with those emotions that relate to social competition. Greed, envy, and lust motivate behaviour to defeat rivals. Pride and gluttony reinforce this behaviour, while wrath and sloth promote or preserve strength when faced by challengers. In discouraging these emotions, Christianity appears to prefer a world without competition.

Competition may be disliked by those who often lose out due to it, and Christianity has its origins in helping (and mobilizing) the poor and needy. By condemning the emotions that drive competition, Christianity condemns that which puts its followers in need of comfort and condemns emotions that are used more effectively by non-Christians.

Additionally, religion offers its followers several comforting propositions, such as an afterlife and a protective God. It resets the playing field by tarnishing everyone with the Original Sin, rejecting material possessions, and saying we are "all equal in the eyes of God." These beliefs and rewards, achievable through simple means (e.g., "you get to heaven by accepting Jesus"), are antithetical to competition and should appeal to those who cannot match the greed and tenacity of their rivals.

Ultimately, there is some merit to the Church's argument. The world needs more compassion and less greed, but, given the importance of our emotions, a world without either would probably be worse than a world with both.

Sources

  • Aquinas, T. (republished in 2013). Summa Theologica. e-artnow.
  • Dante (republished in 2005). The Divine Comedy. Gutenberg.
  • Parkinson, B., & Colman, A. M. (Eds.). (1995). Emotion and motivation. Longman Publishing Group.
  • Tucker, S. (2015). The Virtues and Vices in the Arts: A Sourcebook. Cascade.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Thomas Swan

Comments

Thomas Swan (author) from New Zealand on June 06, 2012:

Thanks for the comment! Glad you liked it!

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on June 05, 2012:

Very interesting hub, bookmarking for future reference.