The Thinking Person’s Seven Deadly Sins

Recently the Catholic Church has been talking about updates to their original list of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. The updates stress communal rather than individual sins, and specifically target scientific endeavors, including “genetic manipulation.” I guess we’re back to the theme of Frankenstein: Man is not meant to play god, at least according to the Catholic Church.

Bullshit.

Nature manipulates our genes all the time, and not always for the better. If you’ve got a predisposition to breast cancer, say, or a likelihood of passing on some really horrendous genetic disease rather than a mere predisposition, is it really a sin to prevent it? Why should that be considered any more sinful than passing on a good habit to your kids, like brushing your teeth?

The answer is that it shouldn’t be. Fiddling with ourselves is certainly risky and should be approached with caution, but I don’t see from any rational perspective that it can be considered sinful. It would be sinful to be able to help people in such an overwhelming manner and refuse to do it.

If you’re Catholic, realize I’m not attacking you directly, but I’m very much criticizing your leadership. If you’re a good rational person, you should, too. When the Church has a recent history of protecting child molesters, working to restrict condoms and sex education in the fight against AIDS, and publicly questioning if Harry Potter is evil (three easy communal sins to identify among a long list that extends back a long time), I don’t think anyone should be taking their ideas seriously until they clean up their act.

Enough bashing on an easy target. Let’s move on to something more creative and productive. What should be sinful in this modern age where there are rational, thinking people who are not rare in this world? I’m talking about you, science fiction readers!

Here’s my list of the thinking person’s seven deadly sins:

1. Succumbing to fear. US politics, and US news, has become dominated by fear mongering. Violent crime, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, immigration. Just because you see a story about a violent crime doesn’t mean you’re likely to be the target of a carjacking or that tougher penalties are the smart thing to vote for. Related to this issue is how some thoughtful people imagine the bad things that can happen in response to a given action, and therefore take no action at all. I’m talking to you, forlorn nerd boy. Tell her you like her, and if she doesn’t reciprocate, move on. Don’t waste years pining. Start that company, make that move. Don’t let your base emotions conquer your reason.

2. Willful ignorance. Smart people, and I’m around them 24/7 in academic environments, hate to admit they’re wrong. They may be clueless about why the moon shows phases (see Harvard grads in “A Private Universe”), but rather than admit that they’ll invent a theory on the spot and defend it to silly lengths. Suck it up, do a little research, and change your mind if necessary and tell people so. Not everyone is right every time. The smartest among us change our ideas and learn, continuously, through life.

3. Failure to learn. In some instances, this sin is a combination of the above. For instance, some smart people have limited vision and fear of new circumstances. They don’t go to college, or grad school, or pick colleges and majors below what they could handle. They fail once, and instead of trying again a different way, settle for that failure or repeat it. Or they simply fail to realize that even if they’re the smartest person in the world, they can still learn something from the generations of smart people who have come before.

4. Acceptance of dogma without question. No one can learn or check every fact out there, and it is useful that we have authorities and experts we can go to. Facts and understanding should be questioned, however, especially when bias is present or contradictory evidence emerges. In science, there’s no such thing as dogma or unquestioned belief. Anything and everything is subject to checking, and double-checking. Other claims to knowledge should have similar checks. If they don’t, I don’t see how someone with intellectual integrity can accept them, at least not absolutely. Too often positions are held based on some underlying philosophical or political position and are not sufficiently examined regularly. Maybe school vouchers are a good idea, maybe not, but instead of maintaining the same positions for decades, take a look at places where the experiment has been run and how well it has worked or hasn’t with predetermined measures. Or abstinence-only sex education. Or a million things that could actually be empirically tested.

5. Failure to produce, AKA intellectual masturbation. This is a particular case of how the thinking person may not be productive, and so seductive and common that it deserves it’s own slot. I’ve had friends skip their college classes for semesters at a time to become the world expert on a video game. Marilyn vos Savant, “smartest person in the world,” writes an insipid column for Parade magazine. Some mensa members obsess unhealthily over their IQs or logic puzzles rather than actually doing something constructive. Being able to win 300 games in a row at Freecell demonstrates something, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but if that’s the only accomplishment you have, you need to wake up and try harder to make a difference in the world.

6. Use of intellect for malfeasance or misdirection. I see people out there in the world that would appear to be smart people: articulate, well educated, reasoned. And then I see them putting forward totally outrageous positions with such deadly seriousness I can only ask myself, “Evil or Stupid?” There are scientists that can be bought by tobacco and oil companies to promote particular unsupportable positions for short-term economic gain. There are pundits and columnists who accept government money to promote political positions, without always telling anyone. There are gays who lie about their orientation and promote discrimination against gays, sometimes from positions of political power. Anyone writing a book to exploit the gullible on some issue they should know better about are just plain evil. Fox News and Anne Coulter come to mind.

7. Silence. Tolerance of the beliefs of others in society is a good thing, but only up to a point. When those beliefs threaten medical research, world health, who you can publicly love, what books you’re allowed to read, what cartoons you can draw, what science you can teach, those beliefs are in conflict with what I consider basic human rights and become intolerable. Don’t be politically correct and give them a pass. Question the foundations and reasoning of those positions. If they’re shaky, don’t be shy about kicking them over. The human enterprise at this point is too big, too complicated, and too shaky itself to rely on anything less than thoughtful reason.

I actually have a few more that didn’t make the cut (e.g. analysis paralysis), but I’m sticking with seven. There are an infinite number of ways to fail in life, but there are also an infinite number of ways to succeed. One way of succeeding is by learning from the failures. Give it a try. It only took the Catholic Church some 350 years or so to forgive Galileo for being right, so even they can do it if given enough time. It’s a faster world today. Give them and others some help and don’t be silent when important policies require thoughtful input. Enough people have died and suffered.

Sorry if I’ve offended anyone, but tough. Convince me I’m wrong, using reason. I could have picked any number of individuals or organizations as a starting point, but the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church is pretty egregious at the moment and in particular I’m offended by their unwarranted attacks on science. Science is our best way of generating reliable knowledge and is very well tested. I’ll take it over alternatives, and believe it should be used to shape policy over ancient superstitious dogma. If you don’t, you can just turn off your computer right now, or accept my point.

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  1. 1. Laura Castelli

    Very interesting and to the point. Out of your 7 I am guilty of #7. Probably a couple of more but that is the one which stands out.

    I was raised a Roman Catholic and ever since it became my choice, I have never returned. This is because of their strict rules which are extemely out-of-date.

    However, in general, I have no problem with peoples ‘faith’ it’s religion I can’t stand.

    And I agree with what you say about science, but beware the trap. Science is a great tool, but it isn’t the ‘end-all’ and ‘be-all’ of life.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    Gee, I always kinda liked the original 7 Deadly Sins. I liked the idea that I could be sinful just by eating a big meal or sitting back and doing nothing. Being a literally-minded person, I also thought it was interesting that “lust” was named as the sin–the wanting, and not the doing. I don’t know if they were trying to be inclusive or giving someone an out. Made me wonder if it wasn’t a sin if you didn’t actually want to do it. It would sure let prostitutes off the hook.

    And I love the above commenter’s statement about having no problem with peoples ‘faith,’ it’s religion she can’t stand. Very true!

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    And here I thought I was a smart guy because I once won a hundred freecell games in a row.

    On the other hand, I’d say there’s something to be gained, especially in the creative subconscious, with letting the mind doodle at the keyboard from time to time. Not all the time, mind you, but all work and no play does make Jack and Jill dull boys and girls.

  4. 4. Michele Conti

    Dangerous grounds that. :)

    Moderators are fantastic things for the potential responses for such a post.

    I particularly liked Number 5. I shall have to remember that for the next time I’m in one of my debates with a dimwit.

    I don’t think I’ve ever won a game of freecell. Shucks.

  5. 5. Radish

    You, sir, are my new hero.

  6. 6. Jonas

    Absolutely brilliant!

    A friend of mine, now deceased, once told me something that I think is related to number seven (the topic then was the riots in Gothenburg in 2001): your right to punch around you ends where my nose begins. Some people argue that they have the right to e.g. riot since it is necessary to further their goals, but as number seven states, it is a sin to just stand back and let them.

    I absolutely love that quote, if just more people could understand it.

  7. 7. Morgan Quinn

    You are correct, sir. I am a prodigal son, in your eyes. 9th grade education, I work 9-5 for minimum beans, and everyone I know has been kicking me in the pants to stop wallowing in my own misery and do something relevant with my brain, I don’t know why they laud my mind so much. (My self esteem is horrendous, doesn’t help matters, but this is a very anti-intelligence culture I must navigate.)

  8. 8. Dom

    I applaud you for this article, being raised a catholic but now considering myself an agnostic I have spent the few years of my new intellectual life examining the teachings of my childhood and have found them to be in lack of a better word “insufficient. I like to call my self a man of science, and am luckily enough to have a collage major to support my new “philosophy”. I have found in my short time as a “thinking man” as you call it, that I am in large alone in this state of being. Reading this I realize that I in fact am not alone, and I only hope that others read this and if only in a small degree adopt these thought processes in to their own life. Once again I thank you for this article, and I hope you forgive any sense of undue grandiose I have demonstrated in my reply as well as any grammatical errors as I have been drinking, a small vice that helps me concentrate after a long stressful week.

  9. 9. Carolyn Kay

    You can’t learn anything if you already know everything.

    Carolyn Kay
    MakeThemAccountable.com

  10. 10. itspast

    Too bad they don’t teach logic in school. We could avoid all 7 of these if people understood logical analysis.

  11. 11. A piquant glance

    Please note that these were not new sins. Here is a link explaining how the news media got it wrong. Again.

    http://www.inforumblog.com/?p=1456#respond

    The seven deadly sins have not been replaced, and really what the Archbishop was trying to do was to show how in modern times these sins are being committed. There is no new sin under the sun, just more inventive ways we can fall into them.

  12. 12. Doug Cadmus

    I’d like to add another. I believe it’s tangled up in a number of the sins you mention, but merits specific attention all its own… indifference.

    When you have a decent job it’s easy to ignore the plight of the working poor. When you have food on your table it’s disturbing to consider those who don’t. When you’re able to go to the doctor whenever you feel the sniffles coming on, it’s unnerving to think about the vast numbers of uninsured. And when you pull into your driveway to enjoy the safe comforts of home, the plight of the homeless is probably the furthest thing from your mind.

    And yet… most of us are only a paycheck or two away from becoming the poor, the hungry, the uninsured and the homeless. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to be indifferent to these issues: because it’s monstrously terrifying to consider them.

  13. 13. Sue W

    Right on. It’s time the smart people stood up to be counted.

  14. 14. Giles Smith

    Number 7 could be considered the prime sin, as failure to point out other peoples sins allows them to keep happening.

  15. 15. Katie

    Ahhh! Mike! Your love of intellect is pride itself. Talking about sins is beneath you…you’re obviously God.

  16. 16. S. M. Payne

    While I agree with many of your points, I disagree on one strong point: Just because I’m a Christian and believe in creation and love finding out how science goes along with it (they are not always mutually exclusive), the ones most intolerant are to quote you, the ones who “tell us what kind of science we can teach.” It’s intolerant in this world to be me, but we are required to be tolerant of everyone else.

    You imply in that paragraph that liberal folks (which I have nothing against) should be intolerant of us because we’re stepping on your rights. Not necessarily (some do and get rightful consequences, but many do not) and perhaps that’s not what you mean. But that’s what you said.

    I also recognize the danger of reading archives may be that you never read this, but I couldn’t let that pass.

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Mike Brotherton

Professional astronomer, science fiction novelist (Star Dragon, Spider Star). Visit site.

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