The Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity

Lust, sloth, gluttony, anger, pride, envy, and greed: These are the sins which Christian teachers and preachers have long cited as “deadly,” that is, the ones most urgently to be avoided since they are vicious in themselves and lie at the root of so many other sins. Of course, precisely defining and delimiting these transgressions has occupied armies of casuists. For instance, just what is gluttony? As Bertrand Russell once observed, if gluttony is eating just for fun, then we risk damnation with every salted almond. Also, it might be more helpful to look at these failings in an Aristotelian way, that is, as the extreme ends of activities or feelings that in more moderate forms may be harmless or even good. A modicum of pride, for instance, in the sense of due respect for one’s own abilities and achievements, seems to be an ingredient of genuine well-being. It is only when self-esteem becomes overbearing and slides into hubris that it transforms into something censurable. Likewise, as Aristotle observed, anger is not a vice if it is displayed in a proportionate degree, at the right time and place, for the right reason, and is directed towards the appropriate object. Some things should make you angry.

At any rate, whenever someone presumes to instruct others on sin and its avoidance, attention is inevitably reflected back on the teacher. Of course, individual Christians are subject to the same temptations as everyone else, and they all too often succumb. Such individual lapses are not terribly interesting except in cases of gross hypocrisy—like a TV evangelist, famous for belaboring vice, who is found in a back seat with a cheap hooker. More interesting than the transgressions of individual Christians are the collective or institutional sins, those that arise within the cultures or shared practices of Christian groups. Christians behaving badly is a major part of any history of Christianity that aims to be a truthful account and not an apologetic whitewash.

One excellent example of such history, written by a Christian determined to tell the story “warts and all,” is Paul B. Johnson’s A History of Christianity (1976). Johnson is a politically conservative Roman Catholic who has recently written a book on Darwin, a detestable hatchet job which I had the misfortune to read. However, A History of Christianity is a masterpiece of scholarly popular history, and first-rate instruction on the sins of Christianity. From reading Johnson, and other historians, I identify the following seven deadly sins of Christianity. Not all Christian groups have committed all of these at all times, of course, but over the 2000 year history of Christianity each has resurfaced time and again and done much harm, not least of all to Christianity itself.

1) Certainty. I once heard a quip about cosmologists to the effect that they are often wrong but never in doubt. What puts the sting in this line is that it implies that scientists are acting like religious controversialists, pronouncing with dogmatic certainty on claims that nobody knows for sure. The ringing tone of apodictic certainty entered Christian controversy with Paul, and has resounded through the ages. Paul seldom suggested; he declaimed. In his letters he assures his readers that he is not speaking on his own authority, but on the Lord’s (Galatians, 1: 11-12). Though he sometimes adds the qualification that he speaks by “permission” and not of “commandment” (I Corinthians, 7:6), he generally commands.  When he commands he will brook no discussion or debate; there is nothing to be decided; it is his way or the highway to hell. When you speak for the Lord, why tolerate the cavils of mere humans? He even reproached Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11). And what justifies Paul in his assurance that he speaks for the Lord? Well, you see, he was on his way to Damascus and he saw this really bright light and thought he heard a heavenly voice…While this may strike us as rather flimsy justification for claims of divine authority, note that very many others have adopted a Paul-like tone of God-like certainty—without seeing or hearing anything!

            When people adopt an attitude of absolute conviction about unsure matters, bad things happen. Montaigne said, “We rate our conjectures highly if we burn people alive for them.” You rate them even more highly if you damn people to everlasting hell for disagreeing with them. When dealing with the most recondite matters, like the fine points of metaphysics or theology, the appropriate attitude would seem to be one of humble, hesitant, even diffident inquiry and openness to dialogue with fellow seekers. Instead, all too often, precisely the opposite attitude holds. The Christian virtue of humility seems to stop short at epistemic humility. Surely, Montaigne was right to note that our views on such abstruse matters must be conjectural. If we say that we are certain because God tells us so, then, obviously, we need to show why we can say this but not others. Clearly, what is happening here is that a strong religious need, the craving for certitude, trumps the epistemic duty not to feel more strongly about a belief than the evidence warrants.

2) Servility. Jesus consistently supported the down-and-out. The Christian Church, however, has all too often truckled to the up-and-in. Christianity is most attractive as a counterculture, a community of protest against the business-as-usual system whereby the strong victimize the weak, the rich exploit the poor, and the insiders exclude the outsiders. Christianity is least attractive when it carries water for the rich and powerful, even offering them the blessed assurance that their wealth and power are not illicit, but are divinely ordained or even rewards for their superior virtue. You know:

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate;

God made them high or lowly,

And ordered their estate.

When the Church became part of the establishment in the Fourth Century, it naturally began to support the establishment, and vehemently, even violently opposed all revolutionary movements and uprisings. The Reformation did not change that. Luther realized that the success of his movement depended upon the support of the German rulers, so, when the peasants rose in revolt, he penned the tract “Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” which contains some of his finest invective:

Therefore, let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don’t strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you.

Serving the privileged and the powerful certainly has its rewards, and takes a good deal less courage and character than championing the oppressed or marginalized. Of course, some exemplary Christians have dedicated their lives to the poor and outcast, and they are rightly praised. Far too often, however, the churches have served as cheerleaders for the political and economic elite. This is why progressives and radicals have long seen secularism and anticlericalism, if not atheism, as essential for fundamental change. Kings and tycoons, on the other hand, almost always endorsed religion because it taught obedience to rulers and submission to employers. In our day, the unholy alliance continues. “Free market” fundamentalists are very often also religious fundamentalists (Ayn Rand’s militant atheism is conveniently swept under the rug.). Jesus admonished building up heavenly riches and cautioned against the accumulation of earthly ones. It is clearly an ideal situation if you can do both! Surely, the smug and self-righteous enjoyment of privilege is one of the most sublime pleasures life has to offer, and this is one earthly delight that the Church has too seldom discouraged.

3) Dis-enchantment. Perhaps the greatest sin of Christianity was to put the sacred under lock and key. For pre-Christian pagans, the sacred was where you found it, and you could find it everywhere—in water, earth, and sky. For the pagans, the world was literally enchanted, shot through and through with the divine. Pagan spirituality is essentially pantheistic. Though pagans recognized individual gods like Zeus or Odin, the numinous could be found in the cycle of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, the mysteries of sex and childbirth, the surge of the sea, and the whispering of wind in boreal forests. Christianity stripped the world of its sacredness and placed all holiness in a distant deity, one that could be approached only through the Church and its appointed sacraments, rites, and ministers. Christians, of course, can be inspired by nature, but it is sin and heresy to regard the creation as holy rather than the Creator.

The numinous belongs collectively to all sentient creatures. It belongs no more to the Pope than it does to you and me. It cannot be shrunk to a creed or parceled out into dogmas. Most of all, it cannot be reduced to a single anthropomorphic super-person as Christianity and the other Abrahamic religions futilely attempt. Pagans wisely had many gods because they recognized that the divine is too large to be enclosed in any one being, however many grandiose titles and attributes are lavished upon him. For far too long Christianity has claimed that the sacred is its exclusive possession and has made it available only on its own terms and under its control. There are subtle signs that perhaps the tide is turning. In Iceland, a temple to the Old Gods will soon open:

For the first time in a thousand years, the Norse will openly worship the gods of their ancestors—Odin, Thor, Freya, and Fricka. Perhaps the conquest of paganism by Christianity is not permanent.

4) Sexism. In many ways the arrival of Christianity was a boon for the status of women. In most ancient cultures (Egypt was a partial exception) women were little more than chattel, goods that a man counted along with his cows and camels. Even the great Aristotle, whose work represents the acme of pre-Christian intellectual achievement, regarded a woman as a sort of defective man. In that context, the Christian view was comparatively (but only comparatively) enlightened and egalitarian. Consider Paul’s advice to husbands and wives from Ephesians Chapter 5:

Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord; for the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ also is the head of the church.  Christ is, indeed, the Savior of the body; but just as the church is subject to Christ, so must women be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for it, to consecrate it…in the same way men also are bound to love their wives as they love their own bodies.  In loving his wife a man loves himself.  For no one ever hated his own body: on the contrary he provides and cares for it; and that is how Christ treats the church, because it is his body, of which we are living parts.  Thus it is said in the words of Scripture “a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”  (verses 22-31)

So, a wife must defer to her husband’s authority (“in everything”), just as the church must defer to the authority of Christ.  So, the man is still the boss. Yet, just as Christ selflessly loves the church and seeks its good always, so must the husband exercise his authority towards his wife.  The husband leads to serve, just as Christ led to serve (Southern Baptists regard the husband’s role as that of a “servant leader.”)  In the end, the relation of husband and wife is so close that they are really “one flesh.”

Unfortunately, Paul’s comparative—but very incomplete—egalitarianism was not adopted and expanded by some of the most influential later theologians and teachers. Quite the contrary, in fact. Uta Ranke-Heinemann was the first woman to hold a chair in Catholic theology at a German university (a position she later lost due to her interpretation of Mary’s virgin birth). In 1988 she published Eunuchen für das Himmelreich (trans., Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, 1990). In this powerful study, backed by enormous scholarship, Ranke-Heinemann demonstrates that fear of sexuality and hatred of women were built into the foundations of Christian theology.  She notes that Augustine’s attitudes were codified by Aquinas and continue to influence Christianity today:

Women may well have been astonished to know that they were good only for reproduction, and unqualified for anything having to do with mind and intelligence. This idea was formulated by Thomas Aquinas…in connection with Augustine as follows: Woman is simply a help in procreation…and useful in housekeeping. For a man’s intellectual life, she has no significance. Thus Augustine was the brilliant inventor of what Germans call the three K’s (Kinder, Küche, Kirche–children, kitchen, church), an idea that still has life in it, in fact it continues to be the Catholic hierarchy’s primary theological position on women. (Ranke-Heinemann, 1990, p. 88)

For Augustine, by the way, sexual pleasure was so horrible that even married couples should endure it only if, both before and during the sex act, they are wholly motivated by the desire for children (Ranke-Heinemann, 1990, p. 92). As he put it with casuistic precision: “What cannot occur without lust should not, however, occur because of lust (quoted in Ranke-Heinemann, 1990, p. 92).” Ranke-Heinemann comments on such doctrine: “It has warped the consciences of many men and women. It has burdened them with hairsplitting nonsense and striven to train them as moral acrobats instead of making them more humane and kinder to their fellow human beings.” (Ranke-Heinemann, 1990, quoted on back cover) Sex-phobia, in addition to being bad in itself, also leads to sexism since women are blamed for men’s lust.

5) Theocracy. For the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity was marginalized, outlawed, and sporadically persecuted. The Christianization of the Roman Empire was both the greatest and the worst thing to happen to Christianity. On the one hand, it guaranteed that Christianity would become one of the world’s major religions. On the other hand, as Johnson notes, the Late Roman Empire was an absolute, oriental-style despotism that crushed antinomian elements with ruthless cruelty (116). As the imperial religion—in an age that had no concept of the separation of church and state—Christianity naturally adopted a theocratic ideology. The theorist of theocracy was Augustine. For Augustine, the total Christian society could tolerate no disunity, and physical coercion was justified to suppress heresy and dissent. Johnson sums up Augustine’s reasoning:

If the State used such methods for its own miserable purposes, was not the Church entitled to do the same and more for its own far greater ones? He [Augustine] not only accepted, he became the theorist of persecution; and his defenses were later to be those on which all defenses of the Inquisition rested (116).

For Augustine, then, the use of state power to crush religious dissent was not only justifiable but laudable and necessary. He did demur at the employment of some of the harshest tortures. For instance, he held that heretics need not be racked, burned, or torn with iron claws. He thought that beating them with rods would probably be sufficient (Johnson does not record whether they could be iron rods or had to be wooden) (116). Sadly, some of Augustine’s inquisitorial successors did not display his delicate sensitivity. Augustine’s vision of a total Christian society was enthusiastically adopted by the Church and practiced vigorously for many centuries. It has not yet been extirpated. We still struggle with church/state separation issues, and the United States certainly contains its own neo-Augustinians who would love to use the power, prestige, and authority of the state for theocratic purposes. The rhetoric of today’s religious right is often a dim and distant echo of Augustine’s theory of Christian totalitarianism.

6) Fanaticism. These days, if asked to imagine a fanatic, the individual most would probably picture to themselves would be a Muslim. However, any religion or ideology can foster fanaticism. There are fanatical Buddhists and fanatical Hindus. I have met fanatical atheists, feminists, communists, libertarians, and vegetarians. On second thought, some of these may have just been crackpots, and you have to distinguish between a crackpot and a fanatic. A crackpot is someone who develops an irrational obsession to meet a psychological need, like those who are convinced, beyond all evidence and logic, that the moon landings were hoaxes, that Elvis lives, or that JFK was killed by the CIA, the KGB, and the Martians. A fanatic is not illogical, but, on the contrary, one whose logic is impeccably consistent and who does not shrink from the full implications of his premises, however odious. You cannot debate with a fanatic, not because, like the crackpot, he is illogical, but because given his initial premises you will find no flaw in his reasoning. Consider Augustine again. Once you grant his concept of a total Christian society and the efficacy of physical force in obtaining it, he has you and you are along for the whole ride.

If, then, any ideology can become fanatical, why pick it out as a particular sin of Christianity? The reason is that some doctrines are more prone to be taken to extremes, and Christianity is one of those, as are all monotheistic religions. Monotheism may well be the worst idea anyone ever had because its inherent logic makes religious conflict inevitable. From the assertion that there is one God, the all-powerful creator of all things, who has provided us with a definitive revelation, it follows that nothing can be more important than to know the nature of that being and his will for us. Naturally, his followers attempt to define his nature and articulate his demands, and they urgently want to get it right. When disagreement about these matters arises, as it inevitably will, no more than one party to this argument can be right about any particular tenet. All others must be wrong, and wrong about matters of supreme importance. For instance, Christians say that God’s nature is triune, that he is three persons in one substance. Muslims, on the other hand, say that God’s nature is absolutely unitary with no distinction or division. Christians and Muslims cannot both be right on this matter. At least one side must be wrong. Further, since such disagreements appear absolutely impervious to rational resolution, then there is no choice but for proponents of such irresolvable theological differences but (a) to agree to disagree, or (b) to attempt to eliminate the other side. The problem with (a), coexistence, is that it appears to concede, tacitly at least, that a fundamental difference in belief is rationally and morally tolerable. Many have been unable to accept this consequence, and so are led to (b), i.e. fanaticism.

7) Anti-Judaism. Of all the Church’s sins, this one is the most bizarre. After all, Jesus was a Jew–born of a Jewish woman, he worshipped in the Temple and observed Jewish holidays. Two of the four Gospels provide lengthy genealogies to establish Jesus’s descent from King David. In fact, Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism. Yet by the late first century the Church was largely gentile, and these gentile Christians saw the Jews as perversely stiff-necked in their rejection of Christ. The Gospels themselves begin the demonization of the Jews. John 8:44 literally calls Jews the children of the devil because they will not believe in Jesus. Matthew 27:25 depicts the Jews as saying that the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion should fall on them and their children. Thus did the inflammatory charge of deicide–the murder of God–become Christians’ excuse for the persecution of the Jews.

Catholic layman James Carroll, in his book Constantine’s Sword, carefully shows how the Church “Fathers,” vilified the Jews, sometimes in the crudest terms. For instance, St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Antioch in the early fifth century, said “…a place where a whore stands on display is a whorehouse. What is more, the synagogue is not only a whorehouse and a theater; it is also a den of thieves and a haunt of wild animals…(quoted in Carroll, p. 213).” Small wonder that after such calumny riots broke out against the Jews and the great synagogue at Antioch was demolished. St. Augustine, the most influential of the Fathers, argued that Jews should not be killed, because, he said, their own scriptures testify to the truth of Christianity. Yet, they should be scattered throughout the earth, to live as exiles everywhere, and to have a home nowhere. In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Contra Gentiles, a compendium of Christian apologetic. His aim was to make the case for Christianity rationally compelling, and therefore to deny Jews any excuse for their unbelief. At the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther expressed sympathy for the Jews, but reverted to his specialty, rabid denunciation, when they proved no more receptive to Lutheranism than to Catholicism. Here is one of his gems:  “Know, my dear Christian, and do not doubt that next to the devil you have no enemy more cruel, more venomous and virulent, than a true Jew (quoted in Carroll, p. 368).”  Carroll leaves no doubt that the hatred sown by such diatribes was abundantly harvested at Auschwitz.