The Framing Game

By | May 2nd, 2015 | Upfront, web-featured

Exploring the role of sins in modern society

There are six things the Lord hates,
seven that are detestable to him:
17 haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
18 a heart that devises wicked schemes,
feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19 a false witness who pours out lies
and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
Proverbs 6:16-19

We all sin.

Most of us probably sin before we leave the house in the morning, if we base it off of the seven deadly sins. While there is no specific list in the Bible that names the seven deadly sins, each of them are established in various ways. The seven deadly sins include gluttony, pride, lust, envy, sloth, wrath and greed.

The deadly, or capital, sins, were originally established by a Greek monk, Evagrius Ponticus, who created a list of eight evil thoughts. These were then brought to Pope Gregory the Great, who altered the list slightly, combining some of the original eight into pride and sloth, and adding envy. This is the list that remained consistent until 2008 in the Catholic theology and was popularized by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy.

In 2008 the list of seven deadly sins received an update from The Vatican due to the increasingly globalized world and the lack of commitment by the Catholics to attend confession. According to an article on Bloomberg.com, the sins are qualified in a social category and include: bioethical violations, morally dubious research, drug abuse, polluting the environment, excessive weatlh, contributing to widening division between rich and poor and creating poverty. Though this list of sins is relevant to today’s society, they did not gain widespread popularity or catch on in popular culture.

Both people who are religious and non-religious have opinions and perceptions about the seven deadly sins. In 2012, Douglas Stenstrom and Mathew Curtis published “Pride, Sloth/Lust/Gluttony, Envy/Greed/Wrath: Rating the Seven Deadly Sins,” which used survey results to rank the sins. The participants had to rank the sins’ severity on a scale from 0, being not a sin at all, to 100, being a complete sin. Based on data, Stenstrom and Curtis determined the ranking of the sins from least severe to most severe was: pride, sloth, lust, gluttony, envy, greed and wrath. This pattern was consistent over the different demographics they used to analyze their data.

The survey participants also indicated their degree of religiousness, which displayed another interesting aspect to the research. There was a consistent correlation between how severe people ranked the sins and their degree of religiousness. People who indicated they were not religious at all had the lowest sin severity and the people who were very religious had the highest sin severity, except for wrath.

The researchers concluded: “It is possible that the perception of SDS [seven deadly sins] is both a religious phenomenon and a cultural one, partly owing to popularization of the SDS in modern culture as well as SDS being expressions of basic emotions and desires (such as lust and greed), attitudes and cognitions (such as pride and envy), and behaviours (suchs as gluttony, sloth, wrath) that are relevant to everyone’s lives.”

While the origins of the seven deadly sins have a strong Catholic history, they have also evolved to mean much more. They come into play in different parts of society, and not just in the way they were originally imagined.

The broad idea of “deadly sins” has been used to describe business practices, DNA coding, computer research and leadership styles. When these concepts are described by deadly sins, they frequently have nothing to do with the actual codified sins; instead, different sins are developed to encapsulate things that should be avoided.

As described by the Catholic Church, if these sins are committed, the only way to reach salvation is through repenting; these sins are the most severe. People should feel bad if they commit one of them. But what happens when these sins make you feel good psychologically or physically?

There are some people who argue the sinning can actually be beneficial or cause people to feel good. Simon Laham, senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne and author of The Science of Sin: The Psychology of Seven Deadly Sins (And Why They Are So Good for You), argued in his book that sinning isn’t necessarily all bad and broke his reasoning down by each sin. He doesn’t shy away from the idea of sinning and gets right to the crux of the role the sins play in our daily lives in his introduction.

“I confess it; I am a sinner. I greet most days with a mix of sloth and lust (which, coincidentally, is also how I end most days); this morphs into mild gluttony over breakfast and before I know it I’ve been condemned to hell several times over, and it’s not even nine A.M. Pride, greed, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, and anger, the seven deadly sins — these are my daily companions,” Laham wrote.

Laham goes on to explain in his book that most people, if not everyone, is not void of at least one of these sins throughout each day. Each chapter of the book examines each sin and how it can actually benefit people. Laham wrote an abbreviated explanation of each sin for an article in The Huffington Post.

Laham said:

Gluttony can be beneficial because the boosts of energy are beneficial to cognitive function.

Pride can be seen as an encouraging aspect of life that pushes people to engage in more difficult tasks and achieve further success.

Envy can be looked at similarly, by looking up to someone as inspirational, there is the potential to be motivated.
The most basic way to look at sloth is sleep, which as a necessary part of life improves daily action.

Anger, or wrath, while tied to violence, more commonly results in adaptive response to an obstacle or injustice.

Lust can result in the more commonly thought of physical pleasure, but lust also initiates detail-focused thinking, which can assist people with problem solving.

Greed is oftentimes tied to money, and research suggests spending money on experiences instead of material objects can lead to more happiness.

Laham’s analysis of the seven deadly sins exemplifies how they have evolved from their definition in the Catholic Church. They have also infiltrated popular culture through plays, television shows and young adult novels. Robin Wasserman, a young adult novelist, wrote her first book series about the seven deadly sins. The sins were not something she was particularly familiar with; she started with the idea of seven deadly sins and then did research to create a basis for her story.

Wasserman said she sat down with her friend at bar and was brainstorming book or series titles when the idea of seven deadly sins came up. She originally assumed a series must have already been written, but she was surprised when she found out there was not one. Each sin is represented by one book in her series, and she said the plot and subplots of the book are thematically related to each sin.

“Over the course of the series and the course of doing nine million interviews, I sort of developed my own philosophy of the seven deadly sins … that they are putting a name to some of the most fundamental human impulses,” Wasserman said. “The sin comes from taking it to the extreme, which is what happens when you try not to acknowledge having them at all.”

She said the deeper she got into her characters while writing the villainous acts, it was easier to see the reactions as rational and comprehensible. The sins weren’t necessarily far off or abstract from daily life, and it was easier to be sympathetic to her characters.

“[The sins] are at the core of our humanity, so you can’t actually expunge them and shouldn’t be expected to,” Wasserman said.

The book series was published in 2005, and then Lifetime adapted them to a television miniseries in 2010; the seven deadly sins infiltrating another entity of media. Wasserman’s television series was followed by another television series on Showtime produced by Morgan Spurlock, known for the documentary Supersize Me.

Spurlock’s show was also a documentary, chronicling different people’s lives who actively participate in one of the seven sins. These people aren’t just occasionally lazy or eat too much every so often; these people take the sins to the extreme. The woman in the gluttony episode eats past the point of feeling full, to the point where she is aroused; the man in the lust episode lusts after elderly women; and the man in the envy episode believes he was born in the wrong body and thinks he should have disability, so he lives his life in a wheelchair.

While these examples may have been more exaggerated versions of the sin, is it fair to qualify their way of lives more sinful than what someone would deem “normal”? There is no concrete way to define the severity of a sin, just like there is no way to define what is good and bad, yet it is widely accepted that people should strive to be “good” and avoid sin.

The John Templeton Foundation recently released an essay series through Slate, titled Why Be Good? Professors of biology, philosophy, psychology and ethics tried to explain why humans have the desire to be good. They grappled with the ideas of theology and evolution, trying to distinguish why the desire to be good is never absent.

Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard University, wrote one of the essays about how goodness comes from evolutionary competition. In his essay, he wrote: “The call for goodness is central to every culture and can be considered a human universal. We recognize goodness and prefer good to evil … We find it uncomfortable to break with goodness and goodness is a desirable and attractive feature in our loved ones.”

Nowak’s ideas about being good and the attractiveness of goodness can be related to why the examples of sin on Spurlock’s show were portrayed as obscure and dark. The ways of life that were depicted could not be universally accepted and were displayed to make the viewers uncomfortable. When this is the way the seven deadly sins are portrayed in society, it makes it that much more reasonable that there would be the desire to avoid them — avoid evil and strive for goodness.

To combat the seven deadly sins the Catholic theology also established the seven Christian virtues, which include a combination of the cardinal virtues established by Aristotle and Plato, and theological virtues. These virtues include: prudence, justice, temperance, faith, hope and charity. Pope Gregory also established these to counteract his declaration of the seven deadly sins.

Following these seven virtues is another way people can strive to be good. Similarly to the seven deadly sins, these are ideas that are simply part of everyday life, and not necessarily something people think about trying to perform.

There is no clear way the seven deadly sins or the seven heavenly virtues should be interpreted, especially considering the different ways people have decided to use them in society. In the end it comes down to determining how good or bad someone wants to act, and if reaching salvation is even an attainable goal.


Taylor Barker is a junior journalism major whose favorite ice cream flavor is Bittersweet Sinphony. You can email her at tbarker1@ithaca.edu.

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  • One Comment on “The Framing Game”

    1. Lorey

      Fascinating. Well done Taylor! I’ll stick with aspiring to the positive aspects of virtues. I have steered clear of Catholic guilt for quite awhile?It is much healthier. Very interesting and enlightening research! Up next NYC? You will rock!

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