Explainer
Creed
Seven Deadly Sins
7 min read

Sloth’s languid lack of passion

In the appropriately last in a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Graham Tomlin looks at what’s lost to life when sloth sets in.

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

Illustration of unmade bed

Sloth is the most perplexing of the seven deadly sins, and the one that is hardest to define. Most people would probably think first of laziness when they think of sloth. On the other hand, sloth is often related to the older Latin idea of ‘accidie’, which is sometimes translated ‘spiritual weariness’ or ‘despair’. But these two definitions indicate the problem we have with sloth. If it is just sheer laziness, it might be considered as a slight moral failing, but most of us would hardly classify a little idleness as one of the great threats to human life. Sleeping in just a little longer in the morning hardly promises to bring western civilisation to its knees. On the other hand, if it is defined as ‘despair’, that sounds very close to ‘depression’, and we know that depression is usually an illness that afflicts some people without their choosing – it is not a freely chosen pattern of life, an act of disobedience to God or anyone else. By this understanding, sloth hardly counts as a sin either. Sloth is either too trivial to worry about, or too involuntary to blame.  

Clinical depression is an illness that can hit people for no apparent reason and for no fault of their own. The symptoms are similar, but it is important to distinguish depression from sloth. Depression can be caused by genetics, a traumatic event or the misuse of drugs. Sloth is not depression – it is another form of despair that starts with small things, a deliberately chosen shrug of the shoulders, a turning away from someone in need, a switching off of something in the heart. Sometimes it can be caused by disillusionment with life, but it sets in a pattern of allowing yourself to drift towards a languid ‘couldn’t be bothered’ approach that in time becomes a habit of life.  

Once sloth, or spiritual weariness, gets hold of you, it is hard to shake off, and it can lead to disaster. Sloth is essentially a giving up on life, and it leads to finding no pleasure in it, a dull, steady torpor that expects nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing worth getting out of bed for. Dorothy Sayers wrote of sloth:  

“It is not merely idleness of mind and laziness of body: it is that whole poisoning of the will which, beginning with indifference and an attitude of ‘I couldn’t care less’, extends to the deliberate refusal of joy and culminates in morbid introspection and despair.” 

When we lose the passion for life, goodness, laughter and joy, then it may be a sign that sloth has fixed its grip on us. 

Our culture is the most over-stimulated in history. Only a generation or two ago, children had to make do with a football, a doll, a game or two and a few friends. Then black-and-white computer ping-pong was born, closely followed by Space Invaders and we all thought the ultimate in entertainment had arrived. We were never to be bored again. Those games now look stone age. Yet with the arrival of unlimited information at the click of a mouse, games with graphics enabling you to fly the world, fight the Second World War and create your own civilisation, have we eradicated sloth or boredom? If anything we have increased it.  

Peter Kreeft comments:  

“how do we explain the irony that the very society which for the first time has conquered nature by technology and turned the world into a giant fun-and-games factory, a rich kids’ playroom, the very society which has the least reason to be bored, is the most bored?” 

The problem is that however intricate the technology, however scintillating the entertainment, it soon gets superseded by something else. Hence, it’s hardly surprising when we turn our noses up at the triumphs of yesterday, as we have something better today, and when we even get disillusioned with today’s wonders, knowing they will soon be consigned to history as well.  

But to dig a little deeper into the origins of sloth, Thomas Aquinas describes it as “sadness and abhorrence or boredom regarding a spiritual and divine good”. He refers to what happens when through numerous small choices and turning points, a person becomes incapable of being stimulated by anything good or beautiful or wise. Or worse, when goodness, beauty or wisdom evoke a response of disgust or a cynical smirk. When we lose the passion for life, goodness, laughter and joy, then it may be a sign that sloth has fixed its grip on us. It happens when there is nothing left, outside ourselves, to really believe in. 

Looking at the other sins, we might be forgiven for thinking that they are a long list of restrictions, a denial of some of the fun things in life, a restriction on our pleasure-seeking, a dampener on passion. It is the inclusion of sloth on the list that gives the lie to this once and for all. Sloth is precisely a lack of passion, a settled laziness that for whatever reason fails to get worked up about poverty or cruelty or the threat to life on earth through climate emergency. It is a dullness that fails to wonder at green rolling hills, brooding mountains, an act of sheer unexpected kindness, the birth of a baby, Botticelli, Mozart or Taylor Swift (take your pick from the last three, or add more – beauty is naturally subject to taste). It is the spirit that reacts to cruelty, injustice and pain by shrugging the shoulders and switching the channel. Christianity encourages a passion for life and all that is good and beautiful. That is why it is fundamentally opposed to sloth, and puts it firmly on the list of habits to be shunned at all costs.  

According to the Christian account of life, we are beings created with a capacity for immense joy, passion, wonder, inquisitiveness and emotion. The world was created as an arena for all this enchantment. It was made so that we might regularly sit back in amazement at the fact that we get to live this life, this physical/spiritual life on this planet that is our home, a place of sheer beauty, the majesty of a lion, the speed of a hummingbird, the taste of pure water. We were intended to take delight in such things, to explore them and enjoy them, yet most of all we were intended to delight in their Creator, the author of all this goodness, the one from whom they (and we) all come, the most beautiful and desirable one of all. 

In his great autobiographical reflection entitled ‘Confessions’, St Augustine says of the human race: “they choose to look for happiness not in you, but in what you have created.” Now Augustine himself was never quite sure whether taking pleasure in created things was a good idea or not, however, he did at least make this one point supremely well: that our ultimate joy was to be found in God. The joy we find in sunsets, friends and apple tart are tasters, anticipations, to give us a taste for the very best, which is God himself. And conversely, when we lose our taste for God, we are likely sooner or later, to lose our taste for other good things, or even to develop a taste for things that are bad for us, like hallucinogenic drugs or the thrill of theft or even cruelty, that try to imitate the ecstasy of a close connection with God.  

I remember my first taste of Guinness.  The dark, swirling Irish drink had always had a fascination for me growing up, and I remember the first time I plucked up courage to look older than my age, and bought a can in the local store to give it a try. It was foul. I hated it – it tasted sour, bitter and unpleasant. It didn’t help that it was a hot summer’s day and the beer was warm, but that didn’t matter – it was the kind of experience that might have made me never touch the stuff again. It wasn’t until later on, a few years older, after a bit of perseverance that I began to appreciate the hidden flavours, the rich, full wheaty taste. I learnt that just because it didn’t taste like lemonade did not necessarily mean that it was bad. As I learnt to appreciate and enjoy it, Guinness soon became a favourite drink, something I would choose above all others.  

If it doesn’t sound too irreverent, for many people it is a bit like that with God. The idea of enjoying God is about as appealing as that sip of Guinness was for me aged 16. Yet in time, we can learn to appreciate things that have a deeper richness, a more profound taste. Guinness is a trivial example, but the same can be true of God – an acquired taste can take a while to come, but when it comes, it is the richest of all.  

The great past masters of the Christian way advise us that the surest way to combat sloth, the turning away from all that gives life, is to cultivate not just a zest for life, but an unlikely but deeply satisfying desire for the one who gave the gift of life in the first place. 

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.