Section navigation

But … you mustn’t blame yourself

Category Articles
Date January 21, 2002


Since the Enlightenment the idea of ‘sin’ – an offence against God – was replaced by the idea of crime – an offence against man, today men find it difficult to attribute the act of sinning to human behaviour

Fred Furedi’s brilliantly perceptive article begins, “One upon a time there were seven deadly sins.” Great start. He went on to explain that they were called deadly because they led to spiritual death and therefore to damnation. What are they? Do you remember? Lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride. What has happened to them? Furedi tells us that with the exception of pride they have all become medical conditions. Pride has become a virtue. All this is found in his article in the Spectator (12 January 2002) entitled, “Making a Virtue of Vice.”

Reading it made us think of the C.S. Lewis essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” written over half a century ago. There he wrote, “Let us remember that the ‘cure’ of criminals is to be compulsory; and let us then watch how the theory actually works in the mind of the Humanitarian. The immediate starting point of this article was a letter I read in one of our Leftist weeklies. The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in jail, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgement on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts – and they are not experts in moral theology nor even in the Law of Nature – who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

“It may be said that by the continued use of the word punishment and the use of the verb “inflict” I am misrepresenting Humanitarians. They are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I have grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success – who cares whether this is called Punishment or not?
(C.S.Lewis, “First and Second Things”, Collins Fount paperback, 1985, p.100).

Since the Enlightenment the idea of ‘sin’ – an offence against God – was replaced by the idea of crime – an offence against man, today men find it difficult to attribute the act of sinning to human behaviour. The notion of personal guilt exists only in caricature. So Furedi points out, “Western culture can only make sense of the act of sinning as a symptom of a regrettable psychological disease. Actions that were once denounced as sin are no longer interpreted through the vocabulary of morality but are diagnosed through the language of therapy. The deadly sins have become behavioural problems that require treatment rather than punishment. There are no longer sinners, only addictive personalities.” What of the seven deadly sins?


“Those who would have previously been called lustful are now described as ‘addicted’ to sex and in need of therapy. The American Association on Sexual Problems has estimated that between 10 and 15 per cent of all Americans – some 25 million people – are addicted to sex … what used to be called promiscuity has acquired a medical label … Organisations such as ‘Sex Addicts Anonymous’ insist that this addiction is very difficult to cure. This was affirmed in a report written by an American doctor, Martha Turner, who claimed that sex addiction is the hardest psychological illness to treat, with high relapse rates and low levels of recovery. So what can you do? ‘Your sexual behaviour is out of control and you want to get help’, is the advice of Spirit of Recovery, an online organisation offering therapeutic advice.”


What about Gluttony? Furedi points out that, “Gluttony has also been transformed into an addiction. Gluttons not longer gorge themselves; they are simply suffering from one of a variety of eating disorders. Sections of the addiction industry even insist that compulsive eating is a psychological disease with a biological cause. One food-addiction expert contends, ‘It is a physical disease characterised by obsession with food, obsession with weight and loss of control over the amount eaten.’ These compulsions are represented as the outcome of a physiological or biochemical condition of the body, which creates ‘cravings for complex carbohydrates.’ Some go a step further, and argue that obesity is not really a problem since it is biologically based, and therefore natural. Charlotte Cooper the author of ‘Fat and Proud’, believes that people are fat because ‘genetic heritage determines our metabolic rate’, and the problem is that society forces people to diet. ‘I questions our ability to choose out body shapes,’ writes Cooper. So you might as well reconcile yourself to your genetic heritage.”


What about Anger? “Anger is deemed by some to be the most powerful emotional addiction. ‘have you ever been so angry that you felt like you could breathe fire?’ asks Spirit of Recovery. If you have, ‘you are truly addicted to this state of being, this emotional chemical trap that now determines your every action and feeling.’ Conditions such as ‘road rage’, ‘trolley rage’, ‘golf rage’ or ‘air rage’ suggest that this disease can afflict the individual in diverse settings. The therapeutic lobby claims that the solution to this emotional addiction is the application of stress
– in anger-management techniques. Major public and private institutions invest in anger-management therapy, and sometimes insist that employees go on course that allow them to come to terms with their emotions.”


What of avarice and envy? “So-called addictions to emotions such as anger often receive the medical label of an ‘impulse-control disorder.’ Avarice and envy have been recast as the inevitable consequence of modern consumer society, and are also sometimes diagnosed as an impulse-control disorder. it is claimed that ours is an addictive society that compels individuals to be envious of one another. Spending addiction, ‘shopaholism’ and compulsive gambling are represented as diseases that are comparable to alcoholism and drug addiction. Spending addiction, sometimes called ‘the plastic disease’, gets you intoxicated so that you simply cannot help what you are doing.”


What of Sloth? “Sloth has become medicalised. Conditions such as chronic fatigue continually invite people to make sense of their lassitude through a medical label. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder provides an all-purpose explanation for individuals who are reluctant to focus or concentrate. But sloth need not be a wholly negative condition. Some forms of sloth are upheld as an antidote to stress-related illnesses. Hard work is often castigated as a risky enterprise. There is a great risk of contracting workaholism if you take your job too seriously. The positive virtue associated with work has given way to the conviction that work makes you ill.”


What of Pride? “Of all the seven deadly sins, pride is the only one that has been completely rehabilitated. that is why pride is never diagnosed as a disease. The American sociologist Joel best has observed that it is the absence of pride that constitutes a serious psychological problem. These days virtually every social and psychological problem is blamed on low self-esteem. The solution to poor educational performance, teenage pregnancy, anorexia, crime or homelessness is to raise the self-esteem of the victim. In our self-oriented world, society continually incites people to take themselves far too seriously. That is why pride has become one of the prime virtues of our time.


As our civilization has absolutised the therapeutic model the concept of virtue has been affected also. Today some of the people who practise such graces as humility, abstinence, chastity, diligence are “just as liable to be offered counselling as those who are tempted to sin. Kindness? Too much kindness may lead to compassion-fatigue. Diligence is sometimes dismissed as the act of someone suffering from a ‘perfectionist complex’. Humble people lack self-esteem, and chastity if just another sexual dysfunction. Virtue is not so much its own reward as a condition requiring therapeutic intervention.


“A medical diagnosis is applied not just to the classic virtues but also to the religious faith that underpins them. If you have too much faith you may be suffering from religious addiction. Father Leo Booth is. He is a spiritual adviser at a psychiatric centre in Canada. As well as being a recovering religious addict, he is a a recovering alcoholic. In his book ‘When God Becomes a Drug’ he writes, ‘In essence we have become addicted to the certainty, sureness or sense of security that our faith provides.'” More of this attitude can be observed by dipping into ‘Toxic Faith: Understanding and Overcoming Religious Addiction’, by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton.

Fred Furedi concludes this observant article thus: “To be honest, as a humanist, I don’t much like the idea of sin. But given the choice of being powerless in the face of God or impotent client of a therapist, I side with the Church. Therapeutic definitions of addiction elevate the sense of human powerlessness to a level unimaginable in medieval times.” It certainly cannot live in the light of the Bible’s doctrine of man’s responsibility. Modern psychiatry’s philosophy of inability is very far from biblical teaching on that theme. Furedi sums it up, “From the standpoint of our therapeutic culture, powerlessness becomes not merely an episode in one’s biography but its defining condition. From this fatalistic perspective, treatment acquires a passive, even fatalistic, character. Addicts are told that they will never be completely cured. We have recovering sex addicts, recovering religious addicts and recovering alcoholics. No one ever really changes. that’s why I say bring back the idea of transcendence.”


Latest Articles

Finished!: A Message for Easter March 28, 2024

Think about someone being selected and sent to do an especially difficult job. Some major crisis has arisen, or some massive problem needs to be tackled, and it requires the knowledge, the experience, the skill-set, the leadership that they so remarkably possess. It was like that with Jesus. Entrusted to him by God the Father […]

Every Christian a Publisher! February 27, 2024

The following article appeared in Issue 291 of the Banner Magazine, dated December 1987. ‘The Lord gave the word; great was the company of those that published it’ (Psalm 68.11) THE NEED FOR TRUTH I would like to speak to you today about the importance of the use of liter­ature in the church, for evangelism, […]