Explainer
Creed
Seven Deadly Sins
7 min read

Sin: explained

From rottweilers to North African bishops, Graham Tomlin kicks off the Seven Deadly Sins series with an introduction to the unpopular idea of ‘sin’.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Seven Deadly Sins
Illustration generated by Dan Kim using Midjourney.

A little while ago I went for a health check. They took a blood test, weighed me on the scales, poked me around a bit. Soon afterwards, I got a printout of my general health. It told me that my blood pressure and liver function was pretty good, but I ought to watch my cholesterol, my calcium levels could be a bit higher, and my folate result was not great (whatever that is). 

It told me a lot about my physical health. What it didn’t tell me was anything useful about my spiritual and moral wellbeing. I began to wonder where I could get a spiritual health check? Is there a way of telling whether I am in danger of diseases that might affect my soul rather than my body?  

As it happens, the Christian church has long had a spiritual health check - a kind of ticklist for spiritual and mental wellbeing – it’s called the Seven Deadly Sins. And over the next few weeks, here on Seen & Unseen, we’ll be running a series on it – think of it as a chance to check out your own spiritual wellbeing.  

Of course, the word ‘Sin’ has a chequered past. Peccatio, Pèche, Sünde, Sin – whatever language it came in, it was once a terrifying word – a word that struck fear into the heart of almost every European. It had the same kind of emotional effect as words like ‘Nazi’, or ‘cancer’ do for us today. It was something you wanted to avoid at all costs, something dreadful and dangerous.  

Now, it has changed from a rottweiler into a poodle. ‘Sin’ has been calmed down, domesticated, neutered. The word is now usually spoken with a smirk, or a heavy dose of irony. Describing something as ‘sinful’ usually means you think it is naughty but nice, or even seductive. We get perfumes called ‘My Sin’, or even a bakery called ‘Sinful Cakes’. Po-faced people who denounce something as ‘sinful’ seem to just want to stop other people enjoying themselves.  

They waged a constant, subtle and undermining war against the inner self – they were the deadly enemy of the soul.

Yet there were reasons why the word ‘sin’ had such a ghastly aura about it in the past. Sin was not harmless transgression of some random moral code invented by repressed and frustrated medieval clerics. For our ancestors, ‘sin’ described a pattern of life that was quite simply destructive. Each of the seven deadly sins were a sign of spiritual poor health just like a raised PSI count might be a sign of prostate cancer, high blood pressure a sign of the risk of a heart attack and so on. Sins like greed, anger, lust and pride could destroy families, friendships, happiness, peace of mind, innocence, love, security, nature, and most importantly, our bond to our Creator. They wrenched us out of our proper place in the world, which is why it’s worth knowing whether you’re suffering from them or not.  

A passage in the Bible talks of “sinful desires, which wage war against the soul.” That captures it well. These impulses or patterns of behaviour were not just arbitrarily wrong, but self-destructive. They waged a constant, subtle and undermining war against the inner self – they were the deadly enemy of the soul. Sin was a like a virus that got into everything, so that although life carried on, it never quite worked in the way you felt it ought to. Life always had that grit in the oyster, the nagging soreness of a shoe that doesn’t fit, the reminder of a dark secret that wouldn’t go away.  

In many people’s minds, ‘sin’ means simply ‘breaking the rules or the law’. The difficulty with this idea is that it fails to get to the heart of the issue. An insistence on rules alone is often a sign of a shrivelled, arid moral vision. It’s what makes disapproving busybodies and prudes. Laws exist to protect things that are more important than laws, like human lives, families, marriages, reputations, communities and peace. They are not ends in themselves. Rules and laws are vital for the protection of goodness, but do not itself go to the heart of goodness – they simply try to ensure its survival.  

Life would be simple if things that were bad for us were ugly and things good for us were beautiful. 

One traditional way of thinking about sin was to classify it into types. Our ancestors were shrewd enough to know they needed to know their enemy. The idea of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ emerged from the early centuries of the Church as a neat way of remembering the some of the chief ways in which this deadly pattern of behaviour manifested itself.  

A glance through the traditional list of the seven deadly sins raises an obvious issue for anyone with any sense of contemporary life and morals: these are not the ones we’d identify as the chief causes of evil in our world. If anything, our culture tends to admire these qualities, not avoid them. Lust is a sign of a healthy sexual appetite, Pride a perfectly valid pleasure in our own achievements, and Greed an essential motor for the economy. Lust, envy and gluttony sell porn websites, cars and food, so naturally there are powerful forces dedicated to encouraging these habits to grow as rampant as possible in our souls and societies.  

Of course, our forebears were not all as innocent as we might think. Of course they didn’t all detest sin because it has always carried a very real and powerful attraction. And unless we grasp this, we will never understand it. Life would be simple if things that were bad for us were ugly and things good for us were beautiful. But life isn’t like that. As the great St Augustine said of his own younger tendency to steal just for the sake of it: “It was foul, and I loved it”.  

The great works that have dealt with sin in the past had a simple aim, to uncover the ugliness of sin, and unmask the veneer of attractiveness that it wears. Dante’s great Divine Comedy did it by showing what these patterns of behaviour led to. It showed how each received its fitting punishment in a vision of such elegant symmetry that it seemed so obvious. In Dante’s imaginary hell, the angry are condemned to fight each other for eternity; the slothful or indolent are condemned to running constantly and breathlessly; gluttons are made to lie in mud, exposed to constant rain and hail just like pigs, and end up eating rats, toads and snakes, as a parody of their excessive greed. 

Illustration by Jennifer Strange Keller 

Illustration of Dante's Inferno

Yet strangely, each sin always has at its heart something good. Medieval artistic depictions of sins portrayed them as misshapen and deformed versions of some good quality. The reason is not hard to find. Lust takes the delights to be found in sexual desire and satisfaction and distorts it into an uncontrollable, damaging enslavement. Gluttony twists the pleasures of succulent roast beef and a glass of dark red Beaujolais and turns them into bloated, sickly over-consumption.  

There is always something of the grotesque about sin. In old fairgrounds, there was always one stall where you would place yourself in front of odd-shaped mirrors, which would exaggerate parts of your body and shrink others. The result was on the one hand funny but at the same time, slightly frightening. Sin does the same thing. It takes something beautiful and makes it ugly by twisting it out of shape, so that it bears enough resemblance to the original to retain its attraction, but when seen in its full light, is as ugly as… well, sin. On one level, it’s funny. Most of our jokes revolve around the grotesque - things out of place, misshapen, strange. Yet there is a dark side as well and it is that that these medieval imaginative poems tried to unveil. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga says: “a sinful life is a partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life.” 

A woman in a hall of mirrors, circa 1935. 

Marilyn Monroe Funhouse Mirror

Although it can seem a monstrous and terrifying power that threatens to overwhelm everything, in the end, evil can only ever distort something that is at its heart good. Evil cannot create anything, it simply twists, caricatures, or destroys. Sin is always a parody, a type of behaviour that often looks vaguely like goodness, and often likes to pretend it is, and it sometimes takes some moral and spiritual discernment to tell the difference. Yet a difference there surely is, and the ability to tell good from evil is a real sign of human and personal maturity. But the reason why it is often difficult to tell is that sin always has at its heart something good. A fit of temper against a brother or sister or child usually justifies itself by the behaviour that provoked it in the first place, which probably was out of order; jealousy or envy persuades itself that it is really proper outrage against the deep injustice that has given to someone else what I really deserve.  

This means of course that however monstrous sin or evil are, in the Christian view of the world, they are ultimately trivial and pathetic when compared to real goodness. St Augustine struggled all his life to understand the nature of malevolence. Towards the end of that life, the reality of evil began to recede from his attention, to be replaced by something much bigger. As Cambridge historian Gillian Evans put it:

“Where first he had been aware of (evil’s) perverseness and emptiness, its huge darkness, its hopeless entangled knottiness, now at last perhaps he had come to feel its essential triviality in comparison with the light and power of the Good.” 

In the coming weeks, here on Seen and Unseen, we will be asking some of our regular contributors to write on each of the Seven Deadly Sins, analysing how they work their deadly poison, both in the past and in contemporary society. Keep an eye out for each article as they come – it might just be the spiritual health check you need.  

Explainer
Belief
Creed
7 min read

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

How we decide what is true rests on where we start from.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A man and woman speaker on a stage greet and embrace each other.
Friends reunited.
UnHerd.

If you want a deep dive into some of the big questions of our time, and a fascinating clash of minds, just listen to the recent conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  

In case you haven’t heard the story, as a young Somali-Dutch woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was drawn into Islamist militancy, then moved out of those circles to become a poster-child of the New Atheist movement, often mentioned in the same breath as the famous ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. When she announced she had become a Christian (or, as she described herself, a ‘lapsed atheist’) in November 2023, it sent shock waves through atheist ranks. A public meeting with her old friend Richard Dawkins was therefore eagerly anticipated. 

As the conversation began, Ali described a period in the recent past when she experienced severe and prolonged depression, which led her even to the point of contemplating suicide. No amount of scientific-based reasoning or psychological treatment was able to help, until she went to see a therapist who diagnosed her problem as not so much mental or physical but spiritual - it was what she called a ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. She recommended that Hirsi Ali might as well try prayer. And so began her conversion. 

Of course, Dawkins was incredulous. He started out assuming that she had only had a conversion to a ‘political Christianity’, seeing the usefulness of her new faith as a bulwark against Islam, or as a comforting myth in tough times, because, surely, an intelligent person like her could not possibly believe all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that vicars preach from the pulpit. 

He was then somewhat taken aback by Ali’s confession that she did choose to believe the reality of the incarnation, that Jesus was the divine Son of God born of a virgin and that for a God who created the world, resurrecting his Son Jesus was no big deal. With a rueful shake of the head, Dawkins had to admit she was, to his great disappointment, a proper Christian.  

Yet he was insistent he didn’t believe a word of it. The nub of the issue for Dawkins seemed to be his objection to the idea of ‘sin’. For him, all this is “obvious nonsense, theological bullshit… the idea that humanity is born in sin, and has to be cured of sin by Jesus being crucified… is a morally very unpleasant idea.”  

Of course it’s unpleasant. Crucifixions generally were. It’s where we get our word excruciating from. And from the perspective of someone who has no sense whatsoever that they need saving, it is distasteful, embarrassing, not the kind of thing that you bring up in Oxford Senior Common Rooms, precisely because it is just that – unpleasant. I too find the notion that I am sinful, stubborn, deeply flawed, in desperate need of forgiveness and change unpleasant. I would much rather think I am fine as I am. Yet there are many things that are unpleasant but necessary - like surgery. Or changing dirty nappies. Or having to admit you are addicted to something. 

And that is ultimately the difference between Dawkins and Ali. They are both as clever as each other; they have both read the same books; they both live similar lives; they know the same people. Yet Ayaan has been to a place where she knew she needed help, a help that no human being can provide, whereas Richard, it seems, has not.  

It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature. 

Dawkins responded to Ali’s story by insisting that the vital question was whether Christianity was true, not whether it was consoling, pointing out that just because something is comforting does not mean it is true. True enough, but then it doesn’t mean it is not true either. The problem is, however, how we decide whether it is true. Dawkins seems to continue to think that science - test tubes, experiments and the rest - can tell one way or the other. Yet as the great Blaise Pascal put it: 

If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being invisible and without limits he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is. 

Science can’t really help us here. It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature.  

Whether Christianity makes sense or not cannot be determined by asking whether it is scientifically plausible or logically coherent – because that all depends on which scientific or logical scheme you are using to analyse it. It is all to do with the place from which you look at it, your ‘epistemic perspective’ to give it a fancy name. From the perspective of the strong, the super-confident, the sure-of-themselves, Christianity has never made much sense. When St Paul tried to explain it to the sophisticated first century pagans of Corinth – he concluded the same - it was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.  

Christianity makes no sense to someone who has not the slightest sense of their own need for something beyond themselves, someone who has not yet reached the end of their own resources, someone who has never experienced that frustrating tug in the other direction, that barrier which stands in the way when trying and failing to be a better version of themselves – that thing Christians call ‘sin’.  

Why would you need a saviour if you don’t need saving? Would you even be able to recognise one when they came along? No amount of brilliant argument can convince the self-satisfied that a message centred on a man who is supposed to be God at the same, time, much less that same man hanging on a cross, is the most important news in the world. It is why Christianity continues to flourish in poorer than more affluent parts of the world, or at least in places where human need is closer to the surface. 

She found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described what he called ‘paradigm shifts’. They happen when a big scientific theory of the way things are gets stretched to breaking point, and people increasingly feel it no longer functions adequately as an explanation of the evidence at hand. It creaks at the seams, until an entirely new paradigm comes along that better explains the phenomena you are studying. The classic example was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, which was not a small shift within an existing paradigm, but a wholesale change to a completely new way of looking at the world.  

That is what Christians call conversion. This is what seems to have happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What marks her out from Dawkins is not that she has found a crutch to lean on, whereas he is mentally stronger, so doesn’t need one. It is that she found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her – it no longer could offer the kind of framework of mind and heart that could support her in moments of despair as well as in joy. It no longer made sense of her experience of life. It could no longer offer the kind of framework that can resist some of the great cultural challenges of the day. This was not the addition of a belief in God to an existing rationalist mindset. It was adopting a whole new starting point for looking at the world. When she first announced her conversion she wrote: “I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” This is a classic paradigm shift.  

Of course, Dawkins can’t see this. He is still in the old paradigm, one that still makes perfect sense to him. It’s just that he thinks it must make sense to everyone. It is surely the one that all right-thinking people should take.  

As the conversation continued, Ayaan Hirsi Ali often seemed like someone trying to describe the smell of coffee to someone without a sense of smell. Dawkins in turn was like a colourblind person deriding someone for trying to describe the difference between turquoise and pink, because of course, anyone with any sense knows there is no real difference between them.  

No amount of proof or evidence will ever convince either that the other is wrong. They are using different methods to discover the truth, one more analytical and scientific, the other more personal and instinctive. The question is: which one gets you to the heart of things? It’s decision every one of us has to make.