Seven Deadly Sins
9 min read

Reverse psychology: understand goodness then sin

Psychologist Roger Bretherton concludes our series on the seven deadly sins with a subversive proposition: we don’t understand sin because we don’t understand goodness.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

An abstract shadow of a human reaching an hand skyward is overlaid by a trace of orange line that becomes a circle
Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

Over the last month or so, here at Seen & Unseen, we have been writing together about the seven deadly sins: greed, lust, gluttony, pride, sloth, anger, envy. If you have seen the David Fincher film, you probably have the grisly murders that illustrate them etched on your retina. But if there is one theme that comes up in all our articles on the subject, it is the fact that sin as a concept no longer carries any weight in our culture. A word that once bore all the heft of heaven and hell, is now the branding for a mildly indulgent discount day at the local health spa.  

One way of responding to the downgrading of sin as a meaningful and useful term, is to argue that we need a return to sin. Sin needs a come-back tour, a conceptual rehabilitation. We need to re-populate the word with meaning to make it current and plausible again. Without a consistent shared language of moral failure, of falling short, of ethical deficiency, it is difficult to imagine how responsible human community can be viable. Alasdair MacIntyre, the virtue ethicist, suggested that the problem with our culture is that multiple ethical games are being played. We are not just disagreeing about what the rules should be, but moreover what game it is we are meant to be playing. Our culture is a babel of voices, proposing conflicting versions of what a good life looks like. Consequently, in moral dialogue, we often fail to understand one another. As MacIntyre puts it: ‘my move to queen-bishop-three, is countered by your lob over the net.’

The etymology of the word sin is that it is an old English word originally derived from archery, meaning to miss the mark.

I am no etymologist. Very occasionally I dabble in a bit of New Testament Greek. But to be honest, I don’t know what I’m doing, and whenever I pronounce Greek root words they sound like items from the IKEA stocklist. And, given my tendency to talk to myself when I write, it’s almost inevitable that sooner or later the ever-attentive Alexa will accidentally order me a bedside lamp in response to what I thought was the Greek for bowels. That said, my understanding of the etymology of the word sin is that it is an old English word originally derived from archery, meaning to miss the mark. Miss by an inch, a foot, a mile – it’s all called sin (assuming archers in Old England preferred imperial units of measurement). Shoot the entire quiver in the opposite direction – that’s sin too. Linguists may tell us that this is an apocryphal origin myth, but it doesn’t matter. Whether in archery or ethics, the point remains the same. Sin is a relative term. It is relative to whatever it is we wanted to do, or aspired to become, but missed. 

Could it be then, that the root of our current cultural anomie is not so much that sin as a concept has been emptied of meaning (though it has), but that we no longer have any consensual agreement on what a good person should look like? We have no shortage of imagination when it comes to inventing new contents for the empty container of sin, but our thinking about goodness is woefully uninspired. Without a target to aim at, sin becomes vacuous. To illustrate this point, I’d like to tell you about two of the most eminent psychologists of the last hundred years. 

Hobart Mowrer and the psychology of sin 

Let’s start with a history lesson. O. Hobart Mowrer (1907-1982) is perhaps one of the most eminent, innovative and bemusing contributors to the short history of academic psychology. At the pinnacle of his career in 1953, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest and most esteemed society of psychologists in the world. But as a life-long sufferer of recurrent depression, the announcement sent him into a deep psychological crisis that left him incapacitated for nearly four months. In 1959, he addressed the APA convention in Cincinnati with one of the most unusual and controversial papers of the decade, Constructive Aspects of the Concept of Sin in Psychotherapy, in which he argued that the euphemisms for sin preferred by psychologists (wrongdoing, immorality, irresponsibility etc.) were not sufficiently powerful to convey the distress of a guilty conscience. He had an ambivalent off-again/on-again relationship with institutional religion, but he was nevertheless impressed with the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that we should do our good deeds in secret. This principle – you are your secrets – became central to his development of Integrity Therapy, a group approach to psychological distress through confession. In the 1970s, the tide of cultural opinion turned against Mowrer, his Integrity Groups were accused of brainwashing their participants, and their popularity waned. Some say he subsequently retracted his views on sin. His episodes of depression continued to dog him, and in 1982, at the age of 75, he died of suicide, having long advocated this as a reasonable course of action in certain circumstances.    

This thumbnail sketch hardly does justice to the sensitive suffering genius of O. Hobart Mowrer. There is no space to recount the academic innovations that make him still one of the most cited psychologists in history. He coined the term ‘pathogenic secret’, the idea that sin – by which he meant the things that secretly bother our consciences – makes us sick. I think he was probably right about that. Take for example a freely available open-access list of what might be considered sin. It includes sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, intoxication, orgies, and things like that. It is not a particularly systematic or comprehensive list. It just happens to be the list of examples that Paul the apostle came up with in a first-century letter to residents of what is now central Turkey. They hardly make pleasant reading, but they make a great episode of Succession. 

Paul called these ‘works of the flesh’. Works, because they are things we do, situations we manufacture.  Flesh, not in opposition to physical pleasure, but because these kinds of responses (strife, envy, rage etc.) seem to be patterned bodily reactions, part of our conditioning, written into our muscle. The fact that Paul refers to them in plural (works of the flesh) is more significant than it initially appears. For him the unethical life is an incoherent ragbag of reactions, a series of plays and tactics designed to gain immediate personal gratification. As long as we come out on top, or at least think we have, they have done their job. But if we live by them, if we hand ourselves over to the universe of their self-centred cynical logic, our identity fragments, our sense of coherence shatters. We can no longer imagine who we would be if our greed, pride, lust or whatever, was taken away from us. Our appetites become our identity.  

This is why I tend to think that the instincts that led Mowrer to develop a therapy emphasising integrity was right.  Provided of course, that we embrace the full definition of integrity, rather than simply taking it as a synonym for honesty. The integrity to which Mowrer’s groups aspired was not just the truthfulness that comes from the disclosure of secrets, but the inner harmony that comes from the restoration of wholeness. What looked superficially like an unhealthy preoccupation with sin, was in fact Mowrer’s pursuit of the unified state of self that accompanies goodness. A sentiment that leads us to psychologist number two.  

Martin Seligman and the psychology of goodness 

Fast forward four and half decades from Mowrer’s election as APA president. It is 1998 and another newly-minted APA president, Martin Seligman – arguably the most famous clinical psychologist in the world – is making his inaugural address. Seligman is unique among world-famous psychologists in many ways, not least of which being his claim that he was ‘called’ to be a clinical psychologist. He later told a conference at Lambeth Palace that as a young research scientist, during his deliberations on whether to follow the path into clinical practice, he woke one night from a dream of visiting the Guggenheim Museum in New York. As he admired the architecture of the iconic building, God himself – a giant bearded old man – lifted the roof and boomed: I want you to be a clinical psychologist. Of course, as a secular Jewish academic, Seligman doesn’t believe in God, but this doesn’t deter him from openly admitting that his vocation in clinical psychology was not wholly chosen but issued from the unspoken depths of his being. 

This deep-seated sense of vocation may go some way to explaining why his 1998 inaugural address has gone down as a turning point in the history of psychology. His central assertion was that up until then psychology had been obsessed with the negative (what’s wrong with us) and that it was time to rebalance the discipline with a refocus on human flourishing, which at the time he formulated as the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life. This is viewed by some as the birth of Positive Psychology, which according to Seligman was a corrective to the ‘rotten to the core’ view of human beings that had dominated the discipline since Freud. It is difficult to imagine a proposal more diametrically opposed to that of Mowrer. While Mowrer argued for a renewed awareness of ‘sin’, Seligman asserted to the contrary that it was the vast ignorance of goodness that bedevilled contemporary psychology. We already had a rich, ever-expanding science of what was wrong with people, what we needed was an equally detailed, every bit as expansive science of what was right with us. The explosive growth of positive psychology over the last few decades has been a response to that call, to develop a full-blown science of goodness. 

In the years that followed, Seligman revised his idea of the good life multiple times, perhaps his most ambitious proposal being the concept of Prospective Psychology; the idea that we as a species are best defined not by our past but by our future. He held this future-orientation to be so characteristic of human nature that we could name the species after it- homo prospectus.  We are defined not by what we have been, but by what we are yet to be. It is an insight he shares with many of the thoughtful people who have pondered ethics over the years. Take for example a freely available open-access list of what might be considered virtue. It includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. It is not a particularly systematic or comprehensive list. It just happens to be the list of examples that Paul the apostle came up with in a first-century letter to residents of what is now central Turkey. I often feel better about life, just reading it. 

Paul called these beautiful qualities, ‘fruit of the Spirit’. It is significant that in the original New Testament Greek, the word fruit is singular: καρπὸς (No! Alexa! I don’t need garden furniture!) He doesn’t write fruits, but fruit of the Spirit. He points toward some kind of unity, harmony, consistency in these qualities. Mowrer no doubt would have called it integrity. Goodness is much more than the avoidance of naughtiness; it is the restoration of wholeness to our shattered and divided selves. Sin is much more than the cheeky indulgences we succumb to at the end of a bruising day at work; it is the misdirection and derailment of all we could become. And this is where the tale of two psychologists terminates. Contrary to what the marketing executives may have conspired to tell you, sin is not your friend; it is the enemy of your genuine divine magnificence. That’s what makes deadly sin so deadly. 

4 min read

No mercy on the Megabus

Why is sin such a sickly, sticky thing in the human heart?

Jenny is training to be a priest in the Church of England. She holds a PhD in law and previously researched human rights issues in extractive industries.

An upset man holds his hands on his head as he misses a bus.
Nick Jones/Midjourney.ai

“I’m begging you, I’m begging you,” pleaded the passenger. His two large suitcases lying around him, the Nigerian man knelt on the pavement outside the Megabus station. The bus driver stood surly-faced, arms crossed. The passenger’s jacket was ripped where the driver had shoved him off the bus. The passenger had one too many bags; he had not read the Terms and Conditions on his ticket.  

The man groaned – “I must get to Heathrow, I have a flight to catch! I’m willing to do anything – to pay for an extra ticket, to pay the extra bag fee, I have money, see?” He showed the driver his wallet pleadingly, demonstrating his possession of several bank cards.  

A few concerned passengers stepped off the bus. “We don’t have a bag in the hold; we’re happy for this man to have our space.” Another person said, “I booked a ticket but my friend didn’t come – there’s a whole seat’s worth of luggage space available in the hold.” Yet the bus driver would not budge. Even though Megabus has an excess baggage policy, it was down to the driver’s discretion. The driver alone had the power of life and death, to say “yay” or “nay” – to restore a man’s dignity or completely ruin it, along with his jacket.  

As the minutes ticked on, other passengers began to get irate with the Nigerian man – “just buzz off mate, you’re making us late!” “You should have read the rules!” “You’re making the bairns on the bus cry!” Stony faces pressed against the window as the man knelt on the pavement. Even those who had tried to help him left him in the harsh hands of the bus driver and his colleagues, tiny kings in a kangaroo court For the bus driver, there was no backing down – he was pacing, sweating and red-faced, repeating over and over again to himself his side of the story. And in the end, we left the Nigerian passenger in the heartless hands of bus bureaucracy, wiping our hands of the injury done to him – “we tried.”  

How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The whole experience on the Megabus that day left me feeling sick. We all like to think of ourselves as decent folks, as long as we do our “bit”. But on that bus I realized the difficulty: what is “my bit”? Who decides what is “enough”? How quickly a petty issue of baggage can descend into a power play. How quickly do ordinary nice people become a mob when they are outraged or inconvenienced. How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The only word that feels strong enough to me to describe this condition is “sin”. This word may sound like a relic of a bygone Britain, but I think it’s as relevant as ever. It’s a serious word, loaded with a sense that the things we do mean more than we know. Sin suggests that I am accountable for how I treat people – not just to my own perception but some higher standard that safeguards the dignity of all human beings. Christians believe that it is God who safeguards our humanity, who sets the standard for how we should and should not treat others. We are accountable “vertically” – to God – as well as “horizontally” to each other.  

It seems to me that “sin” is not a laundry-list of rules but more like a tangled knot of slippery threads – I can’t see where it begins and where it ends, in my own heart or in the world at large. The Christian Eastern Orthodox tradition often likens sin to sickness or a dis-ease of the soul; it infects our reasoning, our emotions and our actions. And that’s why the hurt and pain we cause each other is so “sticky” – no one is left untouched by the effects of the damage we cause each other.  

It was quite clear to me that there were some “sins of deliberate fault” on the Megabus that day – the bus driver’s behaviour was patently unfair and verging on abuse. But I would say sin also flourished in the self-defending logic of the passengers who just wanted to stay in their lane, and for the Nigerian chap to stay in his. Don’t bother me, with your problems. I look after me, you look after you. There were sins of ignorance too – I felt this sick sense in my stomach as the bus pulled out of the station that there was more I could have done, but I didn’t quite know what. All I know is that every person needed mercy on that Megabus, whether we knew it or not. Ironically, the Nigerian man was the most innocent of all.