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The “7 Deadly Sins” through a Humanist Lens by Hugh Taft-Morales

Sunday, April 05, 2020 7:20 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Dear NoVES Members and Friends -

I promised to post the Platform Talk given by Hugh Taft-Morales, the Leader of the Baltimore and Philadelphia Ethical Societies.

It was an excellent talk.  Here it is.

The “7 Deadly Sins” through a Humanist Lens, Hugh Taft-Morales – 3/29/20


As we struggle with the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, I read a blog by Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries who serves as one of Trump’s “faith advisors.” He wrote in our health challenge we were “experiencing the consequential wrath of God.” He continued, “Since God is just and sin must and will be paid for, wrath…is an inevitable consequence.” In my talk today about the “7 deadly sins,” Drollinger reminds me of what I have always rejected about this particular approach to sin. It only makes sense in the context of a god who allowed his own son to suffer crucifixion.  It’s simply awful.

But I reject this version of “sin.” I agree with Aviad Kleinberg who in his book, 7 Deadly Sins: A very partial list, states at the beginning, “Sin is a cultural construct.” I agree. I believe most humanists would agree as well. The word is used today colloquially in secular explorations of human psychology and ethics. But, Christianity did shape its meaning, so I’ll start there.

While people use different terms in naming the seven deadly sins, I will the traditional list offered by Dante: pride, sloth, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and greed. 

My plan for this talk is that after exploring sin in general as well as these particular sins, I’ll suggest that humanists respond to the angry god approach to sin as follows. First, rather than wasting time and energy punishing oneself for imagined sins, focus on approaching pleasures by cultivating moderation.  Second, while we may fall short of our own ideals, that’s a part of life. With humility and grace, we should continue reaching for our ideals.  And third, life offers enough good, pleasurable, fulfilling things for us all to live a flourishing life. We just need to learn how better to share.


Kleinberg states flatly that Christianity was “founded on sin.” It began with Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the garden for daring to eat from the tree of knowledge.  It came to this country through the fixation Calvinists had about inherent sin and wrathful divine punishment. As Great Awakening preacher Jonathan Edwards warns his followers, due to their sinful nature, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire….

He goes on and on threatening hellfire and inducing fear, guilt + shame. It can make life a living hell.  Professor Wendell Watters writes, “The Christian is brainwashed to believe that he or she was born wicked, should suffer as Christ suffered, and should aspire to a humanly impossible level of perfection nonetheless….. A true Christian must always be in a state of torment.” Again I say that this is a terrible way to look at life.

It’s a worldview that can have particularly devastating effects on young children. That’s why Dale McGowan, the author of Parenting Beyond Belief who once served as Director of Education for the American Ethical Union, told his children that there is no such thing as hell. To imagine that original sin condemns us all to intense suffering for all eternity can damage young psyches.  While Dale wanted his children to come to their beliefs on their own, he wanted the possibility of hell off the table. 


Given the self-isolation necessary during this pandemic, and the occasional urge to just curl up on the couch and do nothing, I’ll start with sloth.  Unlike the other deadly sins, sloth results from an absence of something.  It’s about the absence of love – love for self, or for others, or for the good things in life, or for god. Dante describes it as, "failure to love God with all one's heart, all one's mind and all one's soul." Without a love of god, or for anything else, an inertia sets in - physical laziness and psychologically paralysis ensue. It can lead to despair and even suicide.

In colonial New England where the Puritan work ethic ruled, sloth was condemned with particular venom.  In Dante’s Purgatorio, those guilty of sloth are sentenced to run as fast as they can at top speed forever, like gerbils on a running wheel – a particularly ironic punishment for sloth.


Unlike sloth, the other deadly sins are marked by the presence of some negative characteristic. Pride, wrath, and envy results from “hurtful desires” – desires to harm others and place yourself above them.

Pride is seen by many Christian as “the father of all sins” – the original sin. Some say that Adam ate the apple because he wanted to be “like god,” wise and self-sufficient as only “He” can be. Jonathan Edwards warned his audiences that “pride is the worst viper that is in the heart…. [I]t was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan's whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out….” It is a particularly infectious sin, one that author C. S. Lewis said was the most egregious affront to God. 

Not surprisingly, pride is seen as the devil's most prominent trait. Lewis writes, “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind."

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, those condemned by god for pride must wear heavy stone slabs around their necks so that their heads remain bowed forever. It’s the price they pay for their hubris.  Might Ralph Drollinger say that the virus we face is our divine punishment?

Let me turn now to wrath. Wrath is defined by Aristotle as “a desire, accompanied by pain, for a conspicuous revenge….” (Kleinberg 115) It is uncontrolled and indiscriminate. God of the Old Testament is an angry god, “vengeful, vindictive, irritable.” As Kleinberg wrote, “Christ himself often spoke and acted like an angry man, expressing rage toward the Pharisees, toward the money changers in the Temple, even toward a barren fig tree.”

Many warrior cultures embrace wrath as useful in maintaining order and winning wars.  Kleinberg explains that “[v]iolence…is a way of life in many societies. Anger in such societies is both feared and praised.”

But warrior cultures have wreaked havoc and caused much suffering. The god of the old testament gets away with wrath. But for us humans, uncontrolled anger can hurt even those who are angry. They can be self-destructive. As Henry Edward Manning, nineteenth century English Cardinal said, angry people are "slaves to themselves."

Envy is related to wrath in that it seeks to injure and seems insatiable. Human’s have always coveted what others have in terms of prestige, power or possessions. Cain killed his brother Abel just due to envy about Abel being God’s favorite. Envy corrodes relationships.

Envy can also be self-destructive. It’s not pleasant to be “green with envy.” When it persists, it can slide easily into a state of permanent self-pity. Kleinberg says of envy, “[t]he green-eyed monster, with its malevolent gaze, pursues us from cradle to grave.” Everyone has more than me, has better than me. Woe is me! And what punishment does Dante contrive for the envious? Having your eyes sewn shut! No more seeing what others have that you do not!


The final three sins – lust, gluttony, and greed - all flow from what some describe as “a distorted or excessive love of good things.” They connect with our animal nature and bodily desires. Lust usually fixates on sex, gluttony on food, and greed on money. To me, the pleasure of sex, food, and money are not bad in and of themselves. Most people welcome the pleasures of sex, food, and money. It’s when their place in one’s life becomes excessive or distorted that problems arise.

In many puritan cultures sex was a dirty word and lust was considered more dangerous than enjoyable. Eros has the power to corrupt us and drag us into debauchery. Cardinal Manning said that lust turns us into “a slave of the devil.” One of a number of instances of using slavery as a metaphor to describe our relationships to sin.

Because lust is so powerful, every culture imposes some limits on sexual choice. There are taboos against certain forms of sexual expression: sex with yourself, with others of the same sex, with family, with children, with unconsenting partners, with animals. Some condemn masturbation as “self-abuse”? What about sodomy, child abuse, incest, rape, or bestiality? 

Many conclude that, as Kleinberg puts it, “[t]he only safe way to avoid the slippery slope of lust is to abstain entirely from sex.” Dante wrote that to purge yourself of lust requires you to walk through flames. Unforgiven lustful sinners pay for their lack of control by being blown around by turbulent hurricane winds forever.

The humanist in me asks: why not just practice a little self-control and take into account the feelings of anyone else involved? Can’t a deep breath and some respectful conversation avoid that slippery slope?

Another sin of “excessive love of a good thing” is gluttony. Pope Gregory the Great wrote, “The glutton eats before he’s hungry and continues to eat when he is no longer hungry; he craves costly and gratuitously sophisticated dishes; he eats too much and with excessive eagerness; he seeks not sustenance, but pleasure; he becomes the slave of his stomach and of his palate.” Gregory believes we need sufficient nutrition to assure health, but nothing more. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca explained it, “The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs.”

Perhaps that’s true, but over-eating can have deep psychological roots and threats of hell may not work so well.  The anxiety it produces might even lead to more binge eating. Many people go to the marketplace for answers and spend some of the $22 billion dollars a year spent by Americans on weight loss products. 

I would encourage a combination of behavioral supports – drinking water before meals, keeping junk food out of the house, and using smaller plates – and individual or group counseling. Eating is such a primal part of being human that it may take time, but adding the threat of damnation for such a sin seems counter-productive.

Regarding the third sin arising from excessive love of good things is greed. According to the church, greed arises when materialism obscures things of higher value. Thomas Aquinas wrote that greed takes over when “man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things." Cardinal Manning explained that greed "plunges a man deep into the mire of this world, so that he makes it to be his god".

Perhaps. But isn’t the devil in the details? How much is enough? After all, people are hoarding toilet paper now.

Some may say that most – not all - of us in this room are guilty of the sin of greed. I know I have more than I need. Perhaps I should be punished as Dante suggests -  tied up and laid face down for all eternity, our faces mired in the dirt for our pursuit of earthly things. That will teach us that money is the “root of all evil.”

While I agree that personally I have more things than I need, I think the biggest problem with greed is that it has been encouraged by our system and taken to extremes.  So let me talk some about some problems with capitalism.


In much western culture, greed is encouraged. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argued that individual avarice leads to collective good. Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street, preached that “Greed is Good…. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind.”  Greed is good!

Advertisers promote the urges behind lust and gluttony and tell us not to worry about greed. “You deserve limitless sexual satisfaction, and we’ll sell you Viagra and pornography to help. You deserve the finest foods and the largest helpings. Go ahead – get an extra-large popcorn – it’s only ten cents more, for goodness sakes. In the drive through, make that a Whopper, and – what the heck - supersize me! In capitalism there are no sins of “excessive love” because there’s no such thing as excess.

Consumerism encourages envy. Advertisements glorify having better looks, better car, better lawn than your neighbor. With the illusion of unbounded abundance, capitalism promotes unceasing purchases and easy credit. On top of that, spending is patriotic!

Adler started Ethical Culture to fight raging capitalism and rampant materialism. To promote the best that we can be.


So, what are humanists to do with sin in general? I don’t think we should accept the Christian version of sin nor the capitalist rejection of it in favor of consumerism. But I think we have to address it more fully, especially because some think we humanists are most responsible for it. Had Adam obeyed God, we might still be innocently lounging about in paradise!  Ethical Culture Leader Joe Chuman links sin to the very birth of humanism in his book, Speaking of Ethics. He writes, “Adam’s eating of the fruit was therefore the first act of secularization, of creating a world in which God was not necessary. In a sense, Adam was the first humanist.” (p. 60)

While Adam is a fictional character, Petrarch is identified by many as the real father of humanism. Even though he was a Christian, he believed that human reason, creativity, and goodness gave our species tremendous potential and responsibility for building civilization. Such optimism inspired Renaissance humanism.

This optimism arises centuries later in “humanist psychology.” While it acknowledges the horrible things that humans do – we lie, we cheat, we pillage – humanist psychology rejects the notion of unforgivable original sin. Pioneers in humanist psychology, like Charlotte Buhler stressed the positive and self-regulating agency of human beings.  Another pioneer, Abraham Maslow, wrote, “As far as I know we just don’t have any intrinsic instincts for evil.”

Another humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers, sums it up this way: “For myself, though I am very well aware of the incredible amount of destructive, cruel, malevolent behavior in today’s world—from the threats of war to the senseless violence in the streets—I do not find that this evil is inherent in human nature.” Humanist psychology celebrates our many acts of random kindness.

The underlying optimism of humanist psychology is absent in much Christian portrayals of sin. In his article entitled, “A Humanist Looks at Sin,” Joe Chuman explains, “[t]he problem with the notion of sin is that it makes a fetish and a celebration out of a particular aspect of human experience. It seizes upon and dogmatizes pessimism. In this sense it partakes of its own romanticism. But it is a joyless celebration that we could well do without. I submit that life is hard enough without the additional burdens imposed by the concept of sin.”  

Indeed. Life is hard enough without beating ourselves up for being flesh and blood; for being animals with needs and desires. Do these needs and desires lead us astray now and then? Of course, but so too do our over-zealous attacks on them. No one is perfect, and we shouldn’t demand others be perfect. Isn’t that what Jesus was trying to get at when he confronted a mob about to attack an adulterous woman and called forth, “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 

In An Ethical Philosophy of Life, in a chapter entitled “The Shadow of Sin,” Felix Adler writes, “No one can escape doing evil. If not in its grosser forms, then in ways subtler and more complex, but not therefore less evil, every one is bound to make acquaintance with guilt. He need not go out of his way to seek occasion, let him see to it that he improves the occasion when it comes, as inevitably it will, to his spiritual advantage.” In other words, we should learn from our shortcomings.  It is to our “spiritual advantage,” Adler reminds us, to curb the excesses of our imperfect biological nature.

David Breeden, senior minister of the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis and a leading religious humanist, points out that the seven deadly sins are generally “internal, instinctive drives that — when over-indulged — lead to poor personal health and anti-social actions.” This is true regarding the sins of excessive love of good things: lust, gluttony, and greed. Over-indulgence is, for Breeden, not an affront to God, but a “failure in genuine love for nature and humanity.”

How do we as humanists responsibly check hurtful desires and nurture genuine love of good things? I conclude by exploring three suggestions: nurture moderation; humbly accept limitations; and keep working to share good things with others.


Let’s start by nurturing moderation.  One lesser known of the aphorisms etched into the Temple of Apollo is simply, “Nothing too much.” This spirit guides Aristotle’s ethics. I believe it flowed out of the fact that he was the most naturalistic of the great ancient philosophers.  He studied animals and plants. He saw how often they flourished when avoiding extremes such as drought or flood, burning sunlight or icy darkness.  Moderation helps us grow.

For Aristotle, reason is not in constant opposition to bodily urges, but rather functions as a guide to help bodily needs be appeased in the right way, in the right place, at the right time. For Aristotle, it’s good to enjoy pleasurable things. Regarding food for example, it’s best not to over-indulge and not starve. Find that middle ground which cultivates the virtue of temperance.  For Aristotle, Similarly, it is good to have a sense of self-worth. It is a healthy love of a good thing. Too little will lead into undue humility; too much will lead to vanity. The middle ground is appropriate pride, a “golden mean” between too much and too little. People sum up Aristotle teaching with the phrase, “all things in moderation.

Humanists often appreciate the wisdom of taking the “middle way” in navigating the Christian world of extremes - of light and dark, of good and evil, of god and the devil. In Humanism needs and desires of the body are not really “right” or “wrong”.  Perhaps they are appropriate and inappropriate, depending on the time and place.  But, sin is a social construct, and its meaning depends on context. In our lives let’s check hurtful desires and nurture genuine love through moderation.


A second piece of advice: in the light of our ideals let us also humbly accept our limitations. Thanks to Joe Chuman I understand how theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw sin arising from a paradox at the heart of human experience: while we live in this world, we can imagine a better one.  For Niebuhr, humans live between two worlds – the ideal and the actual. In our actual world we live in a world where we fall short of our goals, and where our president is unable to deal effectively with our pandemic, with global change, and with many other important issues. It our ideal world we live up to our all our goals and we have political leadership that does the same.  We have to learn to accept this inevitable gap between our ideals and our lived existence.

What, after all, are our alternatives? Here are alternatives: three false escapes, if you will. 1) We could deny the ideal, accept life for what it is, and do nothing to change it into something better.  2) We could turn to “mechanisms of escape,” as Niebuhr writes, “obliterate our anxiety or desensitize it by losing ourselves in drink or drugs.” A Christian might describe that as being lost in sin.

3) We try to escape the existential gap between ideal and actual by dissolving our selves into something greater than ourselves. We could deny individual autonomy and responsibility by giving up our will to God. We could do the same by joining a cult. Or a fascist group. Plenty of Germans escaped the painful dissonance of ideal memories of German glory clashing with the actual humiliation of World War I by joining the Nazi party. We choose too often to be led into deadly myth than be responsible for a painful presence.

A more noble path for humanists is to acknowledge the gap between the ideal and the actual, to carry the burden of unfulfilled aspirations. After all, for those of us privileged enough to have dreams in our lives, there is a duty to see the world as it is. As Teddy Roosevelt put it, “Keep your eyes on the stars, but feet on the ground.” What other choice do we have if we are to live fully?


Third piece of advice: let’s share good things with others.  In seeking a Humanist response to “sin,” it should be of no surprise to you that I will conclude with an Ethical Humanist moral: we need to share good things with others.  Too often classic Christian and western approaches to sin are self-referential.  It’s all about the purity of our own souls. It’s all about our own damnation or redemption. It’s going to hell or sitting at the right hand of god. 

Both sin and the extreme methods to purge ourselves of it distract from our relationships with other people. Let’s not revel in sins of the flesh nor waste precious energy punishing ourselves for being animals. Let’s work to extend the good life to the millions of people struggling to survive, struggling to enjoy the pleasures we are lucky enough to enjoy.

So as humanists working together, let’s reject the punishing concept of sin and instead nurture moderation, humbly accept our limitations, and work to share the good things in life 

Thank you.

The “7 Deadly Sins” through a Humanist Lens

Most humanists reject the concept of “sin” as it relates to divine judgment. Many liberal religions embrace the idea that human nature, as flawed as it is, is basically good.  So how do humanists process those personality traits condemned by the bible as “deadly”? How should we regard pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth? Come explore with Hugh Taft-Morales some of the different approaches to how we biological creatures might process these traits within the context of our lofty ideals. 

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