Tuesday, 11 March 2008

even more deadly sins

As if catholics were not already sufficiently obsessed with sin, their church has invented some new ones. Specifically some new 'deadly' sins. The catholic church divides sins into two categories: venial sins, which are just a bit naughty and mortal sins, which cause you to be transported immediately to hell the second you die. I'll come on to the new mortal (or deadly) sins in a moment, but first I have to say something about the sheer audacity of the catholic church in propagating this kind of nonsense.

There are two things that gall me: the first is the obvious point about terrifying children with threats of eternal torment in hell, solely to frighten them into behaving in that same way their parents were frightened to behave. This is so obviously, grotesquely evil that I don't think I need to say much more about it.

The second is the fact that this stuff is all so gratuitously, unashamedly made up. I don't mean made up in the sense that all religion is made up, but in the exasperating sense that the vast majority of catholic doctrine does not seem even to pretend to come from the bible. There are lots of examples, but we should probably start with the claimed infallibility of the pope. This is an extraordinary statement, especially since popes always seem to be reversing the statements of their supposedly infallible predecessors. I'm not sure how that works. But the point is who says the pope is infallible? Well, as it turns out, it's the pope. If that were written down in the bible somewhere, I would have a little more sympathy. Other examples are the absolutely bizarre hierarchy of angels, which is just breathtaking in its absolute lack of a source, other than simple invention and of course the hierarchy of sins.

For your information, here are the original deadly sins, along with their suggested punishments. Yes, that's right: the catholic church suggests to the devil how he ought to punish people who commit particular sins. If I were doing this, I would be tempted to go for the Blackadder-style 'court martial followed by immediate cessation of chocolate rations', but of course we have to factor in the church's bloodthirstiness. Here they are:

Pride: Broken on the wheel
Envy: Put in freezing water
Gluttony: Forced to eat rats, toads, and snakes
Lust: Smothered in fire and brimstone
Anger: Dismembered alive
Greed: Put in cauldrons of boiling oil
Sloth: Thrown in snake pits

I'm intrigued by the relative lack of severity for envy and gluttony. Nobody really likes being put in freezing water, but it's hardly that bad. I used to be taken for holidays in Redcar and was regularly forced into the freezing North Sea. It was unpleasant, but nowhere near as bad as being in Redcar itself. Being sent to Redcar would be a much more appropriate punishment. As for being forced to eat rats, toads and snakes, I can't see a problem at all. I myself have eaten snake and frog. They were perfectly nice. The frog was a bit rubbery, but having to chew quite hard doesn't seem quite in proportion with being dismembered alive. I haven't eaten rat, but plenty of cultures do, with apparent relish. The catholic church itself famously advocates eating various other rodents, of course, including beavers and capybara, which are deemed honorary fish in order to bizarrely get around the equally bizarre prohibition on eating meat on Fridays.

By the time they got to sloth, they had clearly lost interest. For one thing, they'd already used snakes and for another, its such an obvious torture. It's just not very imaginative.

And speaking of lack of imagination, here are the brand new deadly sins, hot off the press:
You offend God not only by stealing, blaspheming or coveting your neighbour's wife, but also by ruining the environment, carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments, or allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos
(Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican body which oversees confessions and plenary indulgences.)

I'm glad, but hardly surprised, that he managed to get sex into this as quickly as possible. The prohibition is about coveting, not about coveting a wife (and presumably the question of women coveting husbands doesn't come up, because her punishment is dealt with here and now by beating or stoning her). But that aside, let's look at the new ones:

1. Ruining the environment. This is a bad thing, alright, but what does it mean? Do you actually have had to completely ruin the entire environment for this one to kick in or is throwing a fag packet out your SUV's window sufficient? At what point does the sin of littering become mortal?

2. Carrying out morally debatable scientific experiments. Again, we have a lack of guidance here. It seems to be saying that if anyone can even debate the morality of an experiment, then the experimenter is going to hell without question. This seems harsh at best and rather open to abuse at worst. But of course I'm thinking like an atheist. I'm assuming that morality is not absolute and depends on consistencies of human psychology and the requirement for people these days to live within societies. Catholics, of course, don't think like that at all. They see morality coming directly from the bible....which makes it all the more odd that their church feels the need to 'interpret' what is in the bible by blatantly making all kinds of stuff like this up. In all seriousness, of course, this is a pernicious rule. The idea that science should abide by dubious interpretations of bronze-age ideology is nothing less than an outrage.

3. Allowing genetic manipulations which alter DNA or compromise embryos. I would have thought this would constitute an instance of 2, but apparently it deserves special attention. Presumably this is because of the bogeyman of DNA. DNA is uncomfortable for catholics and for many religious people. It calls into question the whole idea of souls, which is the very basis of every type of christianity.

And that's it. Unimaginative, unintelligent and above all completely invented and contrived. This is the cutting edge of the church's moral guidance. Can you imagine a more lame response to the very real troubles afflicting the world today? No justification on why it's OK to lie to africans about condoms and HIV. No explanation of the church's stance on abortion, which at worst contributes greatly to human misery and at best takes absolutely no account of what might be best for reducing suffering.

I'm going to resist the urge to post my own set of 'deadly sins'. I just can't bring myself to be so patronising, even to catholics.

EDIT: the full list of new deadly sins is apparently:

1. "Bioethical" violations such as birth control
2. "Morally dubious" experiments such as stem cell research
3. Drug abuse
4. Polluting the environment
5. Contributing to widening divide between rich and poor
6. Excessive wealth
7. Creating poverty

It's a shame they didn't specify the punishments. It is interesting to think about these sins in connection to the catholic church. Especiallly 1, 6 and 7.

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