If you are like many progressive believers, or the spiritual-but-not-religious type, you may not spend much time thinking about (cough, cough) sin. Oh, you’ve heard about those classic Seven Deadly Sins, if not in Sunday School then in that 1995 movie Se7en. That film made about $100 million by rendering the sins cartoonishly horrific. (I missed that movie, but not much.)
But what about the actual sins? Today, most of us would reject the movie’s camped up version and call those crimes the result of pathologies or Poor Life Choices. And most of us understand that not all sins are created equal — some are just worse than others. So I want to think about how we would all rank those classic sins today, in the hierarchy of Bad Things to Do and Be. Let’s give it a try and see what we can learn.
Would you rather…?
First question: If you were in charge, which sins would you punish the most? And which ones would you go easier on? Most important, how would those classic sins come out on Ranker?
As a reminder, here they are, in no particular order:
- Gluttony: Over-indulging. You know —that thing we never do except on holidays, weekends, cheat days, office parties, breakups, mental health days, “Me Time,” and vacations.
- Greed: That’s the sin committed by certain rich people. Not us, of course.
- Lust: Perhaps mostly outsourced to websites, but still a thing.
- Pride: A sort of personal exceptionalism, based perhaps on how successful we are and how many steps we took today. There are apps for both, I swear to God.
- Sloth: Look it up.
- Wrath: The emotion that driving in traffic evokes.
- Envy: The way I feel when I compare my “claps” to other people’s “claps.” Ugh.
You may already know that the Seven Deadly Sins are not the same as the Bible’s 10 Commandments but were identified later by church scholars. The Seven Deadlies omit sins like sassing your parents, worshiping statues or celebrities, stealing, swearing, or looking around for a better God. Killing is not even prohibited. I’m sure there is a very good explanation, but it seems weird to me.
Remember — these are the UN-Original Sins
The classic, most sweeping and non-negotiable sin isn’t even mentioned as one of the seven. I’m talking, of course, about Original Sin, which the infant church rolled out a few centuries after Jesus and, in my view, quite apart from the rest of the Jesus portfolio.
You don’t “commit” Original Sin; it’s just there, in your nature. The first humans disobeyed God, learned about Good and Evil, and boom! Here comes Original Sin, like pernicious malware that freezes your computer until you admit defeat and call that 800 number. So original sin is not prohibited, perhaps because the scholars understood that it’s not really fair to try to prohibit a sin no one can avoid.
I respect that for those who accept this doctrine, it’s serious. But that’s another story; we are talking about the un-original, DIY sins — deliberate, poor-life-choices sins and their relative merits. Let’s play.
Round One: Lust vs. Gluttony
In the Purgatorio section of The Divine Comedy, Dante ranks the Deadly Sins according to how severely the sinners are suffering in the afterlife. For Dante, the least evil sin was actually Lust, followed by Gluttony. Let’s see what we might think today.
Lust and Gluttony seem related, since they both prohibit going overboard on our most popular activities. But historically, Lust has been punished far more harshly than Gluttony. Garden-variety Gluttony hasn’t evoked nearly as much pious, perverse interest as Lust has. You know the old, irrational argument: sexual desire is filthy and disgusting, so you should save it for the sacred state of matrimony. The approval of the church changes that desire from garbage to gold. Your whore of a wife becomes a saint. Problem solved.
But that’s all changed now. Lust is fine, but overeating, or even eating wrong, has become deeply disgusting and shameful. Many people would happily proclaim their latest extramarital hookup but be too embarrassed to admit eating a Cinnabon. (Question for religious developers: Why can’t we have a sacrament for food, to turn those desires into something holy?)
Perhaps neither of these character traits ought to be treated as a sin anymore They are just part of our humanity, after all. But Lust is still intertwined with violence and injustice, as the #MeToo movement suggests. That makes Lust at least a co-conspirator with Wrath, and both are capable of causing pain. And Gluttony is a kind of Greed, and indulging it can have a similar effect on our peace of mind. This disquieting thought strangely makes me want a box of cookies right now.
Round Two: Greed vs. Sloth
Another troublesome pair. Which sin is worse: grabbing everything you can grab, using any means, and going well beyond your needs? That’s Greed, of course, famously praised by the reptilian character Gordon Gekko in the 1980s film Wall Street. Or is Sloth the worse sin, which we may define as doing as little as necessary to survive? Your answer to this might reveal something of your politics.
If you say that Sloth is the worse sin, then you probably have standards in mind for measuring whether someone is slothful — i.e., a complete underachiever. You may or may not allow for the individual’s being disabled, disadvantaged, or otherwise incapable. In any case, we should be cautious about making those judgments.
First, we can never really know someone’s circumstances. More importantly, people usually overestimate their own efforts and underestimate the efforts of others. Even more embarrassing, if you still see Sloth as the worse sin, you might convince yourself to oppose social programs that help poor people, even if those poor people include children.
But if Greed is worse than Sloth, then you will be more critical of those who accumulate massive wealth beyond their reasonable need, or by cheating, or even by stealing. You might see that unchecked Greed only hastens destruction of the infrastructure, the climate, the very earth. However, in your fury against Greed, you might also overlook or resent the positive programs and projects funded by the rich — like the late Paul G. Allen’s desire to make a better world. These are expenditures that your local community could never cover, no matter how many bonds they issued.
I see both sides, so once again, I can’t decide. I am, however, reflecting on the words of Ricardo Semler, when he was talking about people “giving back” to their communities.
“If you find that you are ‘giving back,’ you took too much.”
Round Three: Wrath vs. Pride
This one’s easy, you may say — Wrath certainly causes more havoc than Pride. Why, Wrath leads to wars and fights and duels and verbal abuse and steam coming out of one’s ears. Whereas Pride, we may think, mostly results in one’s simply becoming an assclown.
But I’ve just been watching Ken Burns’s documentary on Viet Nam, which follows the course of that war over the years. As early as 1965, Robert McNamara asserted in a memo that the main argument against withdrawal— with 70% of the weight — was that it would be humiliating. It would hurt our image. With a straight face, he justified the continuing destruction because to stop would hurt our pride.
So I might agree with Dante, who saw Pride as the worst sin of all. Pride leads to self-obsession and self-interest, an inflated idea of one’s superiority and importance, and a failure to realize how small one is in the big, wide universe. Pride, in the end, may be more destructive than wrath. With Wrath, the destruction can end when the wrath washes away. The Hulk eventually calms down. With Pride, there’s never an end. Once an assclown, always an assclown.
And All the Sins Left Over
I did not pit Envy against any other sin, because it happens to be one that I struggle with in especially irritating ways. Envy is the evil shadow twin of Pride; it whispers in a nasty voice, “You aren’t good enough; you don’t have enough; other people are better and wiser and happier than you.” Sometimes I think that Envy may be at the top of the chart for me.
People are strangely reluctant to discuss Envy. While people will proudly admit to their Pride, or excuse Wrath as necessary motivation, no one likes to admit being envious. Envy’s not sexy, or defiant, or titillating; it’s just small-minded, self-defeating, and stupid.
We bluffly hide our envy of the 1% by piously intoning that wealth can’t buy happiness. We channel our envy of successful people into our own determination to succeed. But it’s still hard to admit that the lives we see on Facebook make us dissatisfied with our own; it’s still a struggle to genuinely congratulate someone for surviving something that devastated us.
Furthermore, Envy is an existential sin. It’s just a flat insult to the cosmos. Envy says, “This life the universe gave me, these gifts, these moments? All this stuff I got for free? It’s not enough. My stuff is no good. I want what they have — even when I know it would not suit me at all.
A family story I was told long ago involved two sisters who apparently had a lively sibling rivalry going on. One day, the older sister seemed to be getting special, solicitous attention — the mother and the auntie had retired with her to the bathroom; there were hushed voices; important things were going on. The younger sister, furious, stood outside the door and yelled, “I want whatever she’s getting!”
So she got an enema, too.
Paula Poundstone said it best:
The wages of sin are death. But after they take the taxes out, it’s more of a tired feeling, really.
Figuring out which sins you believe are the worst in others is a good way to sort out your views on a variety of subjects.
Figuring out which sins are the worst in you could change your life.
I encourage you to give it some thought. If you feel you need to try some of these for comparison, that’s entirely up to you.