What is the worst sin? It’s an interesting question to ask yourself or indeed to throw into a faltering conversation. On the occasion I did this in my local pub the initial reaction was a stunned silence, as people struggled to understand how the topic of conversation could possibly have been changed from racing.
Once on to the topic, people ran through the usual list of crimes – murder, blasphemy, adultery, paedophilia – before they focused on the less well defined offences such as bankers’ bonuses, indifferent care for the elderly and the FA’s failure to utilise goal line technology.
What became clear is that sin still has a meaning in our daily lives. It is used entirely within its definition¹, derived from the Old English synn and related to Latin sons/sont meaning “guilty”, as an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law or an act regarded as a serious or regrettable fault, offence, or omission.
Sinning is not necessarily illegal but it is a transgression against our fellow human beings.
So in answer to the question – which is the greatest sin – I offer a choice of three.
First up is Excess. This is an amount of something that is more than necessary, permitted, or desirable and is driven by greed or power.
Excess was the major driver for expansionist wars and underpinned the exploitation of colonialism. It brought about the collapse of the financial markets and is currently draining our planet’s resources. As Goethe wrote “ unlimited activity, of whatever kind, must end in bankruptcy”. There is a strong case for excess as it may well lead to the destruction of our planet and the demise of mankind.
Next up is Self Interest, which is defined as one’s personal interest or advantage, especially when pursued without regard for others. Many people see nothing wrong with self interest on the basis that it is merely looking after yourself, but the key issue is “without regard to others”.
It is this aspect that makes self interest so pernicious because it deprives humans of the generosity of spirit and politeness that oil the gears of society. As Jean-Paul Sartre observed “Hell is other people”.
Self interest ignores other people’s desires. It blinds individuals to the wider issues, destroys debate and undermines democracy. As Gough Whitlam so eloquently pointed out “the punters know that the horse named Morality rarely gets past the post; whereas the nag named Self Interest always runs a good race.”
Finally, there is Betrayal which is defined as the action of betraying one’s country, a group, or a person; treachery.
Betrayal is a highly emotive subject because it cuts at the very heart of trust and friendship. It is no surprise that “Et tu, Brute?” are the final, highly charged words uttered by Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of that name.
It is no surprise that Judas Iscariot became infamous for his betrayal of Christ, despite being preordained to do so. Benedict Arnold is still reviled for his treachery against the young America fighting for independence. Traitors and informers are subject to the worst possible sanctions.
Betrayal is an attack on trust and trust, once broken, fully can never be restored. The actual elements of betrayal may be small in themselves but the act creates ripples disproportionate to the events.
It undermines every level of relationship and belief – personal, business, establishments and politics. It reduces the group cohesion and ultimately the group’s chances of survival.
There are two very interesting manifestations of this today with the waning support for the British Conservative party, over the introduction of gay marriage, and the Catholic Church’s crisis over child abuse.
Neither issue is cataclysmic in itself but both have become highly destructive because they are perceived as betrayals. One because the gay marriage never featured in the election manifesto: the other because the Church betrayed those individuals entrusted to its care.
So there you have the three great sins against humanity – excess, self interest and betrayal – but which is the worst?
Excess has created more misery and will eventual destroy us, unless we can find Aristotle’s “green mean of moderation in all things”. Self interest will drive us apart, undermine our democratic ideals and set the conditions for excess, while betrayal will attack the bonds of trust, friendship and belief.
I back betrayal because it destroys our group cohesion that has been fundamental to man’s survival and development over the millennia.
You, however, may have other views.
Just be careful where you ask the question. Do so in a pub near closing time and you may well be declared the worst possible sin against humanity. Good luck.
¹ All definitions taken from the English Oxford Dictionary.