The inclusion of the habit of smoking among the others seems at first incongruous. Whereas the preceding “deadly sins” involve ideological aberrations, this describes merely an unhealthy pastime. However, the connection becomes more obvious when we frame the issue in terms of what bounds there should be to seeking pleasure. The secularist says that smoking is evil because it harms one’s health, but also because it harms the health of those around. What does the Church say?
The Church agrees that smoking is harmful and that it is a sin. Clergy are especially admonished to avoid it, but ideally no Christian should practice it. Yet the reasoning of the Church on this matter differs subtly from that of the secular moralist. The secularist sees bodily health as the primary goal of existence, and on this ground objects to smoking, because long-term health is sacrificed for momentary pleasure. The Church also teaches that we must safeguard the health of our bodies, but She differs from the world in not making bodily health the ultimate goal of existence. The martyrs put the salvation of their souls before the safety of their bodies, and many ascetics sacrificed their own health in order to achieve complete freedom from the passions of hunger and sloth, by depriving themselves of the food and sleep which their bodies demanded.
Therefore, the reasoning behind the Church’s condemnation of smoking, or other harmful forms of carnal pleasure such as excessive drinking, does not lie solely in the harm it does our bodies. More importantly, it lies in the harm to our souls, in that we seek pleasure that serves no other purpose than self-indulgence. One might drink a glass of wine for the sake of health, but no such argument can be offered for smoking, at least not in most cases (there is some evidence that nicotine can soothe an upset stomach, for instance, but this is not applicable to most people).
That being said, the Church does not view every sin as equally grave, and therefore does not agree with the excessive opprobrium secular moralists now heap on smokers, even as they wink at such serious immoralities as sodomy or abortion. There have even been saints who have smoked in moderation, such as Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II. This is not to condone the vice, but rather to point out that even a saint may suffer minor faults (think only of the weaknesses that St Peter showed in the Gospels). By all means avoid this habit, the Church says, but do not forget that ultimately it is your soul, not your body, that determines your salvation.
This “sin” does not denote either a wrong opinion or a bad habit, but simply the characteristics of the body. At first this would appear to contradict the secularist’s condemnation of racism, since it focuses on superficial physical characteristics. However, it should be evident to most that the “sin” of obesity lies in the poor habits that lead to it, namely excessive and unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. As with smoking, the secularist condemns an unhealthy diet and lifestyle, but for reasons that again differ subtly from those of the Church.
Gluttony is one of the true deadly sins, and to the extent that obesity is a direct consequence of gluttony, obesity is evidence of an un-Christian life. But gluttony is wrong not only because of the harm it visits on the body, but also, and more importantly, because it characterizes a life focused on the body and the wants of the body, not on the needs of the soul. In that sense, the distinction between the secular lifestyle of healthy diet and exercise vanishes, since the secularist is only concerned with health and good looks, and is no more concerned about his soul than the most obese gourmand.
In addition, it should be recognized that some individuals are more predisposed to obesity than others. The secularist falls into hypocrisy to the extent he does not allow genetic predisposition to excuse excessive weight gain, while at the same time appealing to genetics to excuse homosexual behavior, for example. We may even note that some saints have been obese, such as St Olaf the Fat of Norway, even as most saints have been thin as a result of their ascetic and self-denying lifestyle. While making every effort to control our own appetites, we do not have the authority to judge others who have weaker wills or stronger urges. Indeed, in the cases of smoking and obesity, it is the secularist who appears more censorious and judgmental than the Christian.
This last one is particularly interesting, since it relies on a careful explanation of what “belief” can mean in different contexts. The typical secularist is an atheist or agnostic, and certainly has nothing but contempt for traditional beliefs. However, a good many “liberal” believers of whatever persuasion may be found in the ranks of the politically correct, so at first the secular “sinfulness” of religious belief may appear to be a red herring.
The key to understanding is that it is only “liberal” faith that is tolerated by the secularist, i.e. the believer must abandon every traditional teaching that falls into the categories of the other secular “sins” mentioned above (as interpreted by the secularists, of course). This means rejecting every saint of the Church who can be accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, elitism, and so on. To put it another way, religious belief is only permitted if it represents merely a “spiritual” flavor of secularism. Any doctrine or saintly figure that fundamentally contradicts secularism is dangerous and should be ostracized, if not outright banned.
But the contradiction runs deeper even than this. What characterizes all the other secular “deadly sins”? As noted in the beginning, they are all concerned with outward conformity to secularist dogma; the inner spiritual state of man is not important. But the way in which these sins are understood reflect a mind that is completely focused on this world. Racism, sexism, homophobia and elitism are all condemned not so much out of genuine love for all people, but because these attitudes interfere with the progressive program of secular democracy, which seeks to remake humanity into its ideal of self-sufficient perfection, a perfection that is completely free from bonds of tradition or obedience to a power higher than itself. Even smoking and obesity are “sinful” only insofar as they obstruct the cult of the body and of worldly happiness.
True “religious belief”, which is only fully realized in the True Orthodox faith, cannot be reconciled with this faith in progress and the possibility of human perfection without God. True belief rejects the world and its desires. True belief recognizes that we cannot attain perfection by artificially remaking humanity, whether by social engineering or eugenics, but only by humility and repentance. True belief maintains that we must first perfect ourselves, not other people, and so it does not occur to the true Christian to pick over the relatively minor prejudices found in some saints, while ignoring his own enslavement to the real seven deadly sins.
What does all this mean for the believer? The first thing, I believe, is to avoid falling into the trap that many more secular-minded conservatives fall into, which is of trying to defend or excuse the seven secular “deadly sins”. It is certainly irksome when liberals, who claim to be so tolerant, turn out to be as intolerant as any Victorian prude when they moralize on the evils of prejudice and cigarettes. But do not take their bait. This urge usually comes because our own conscience is pricked: perhaps we harbor certain unreasonable prejudices or sinful habits, and do not like to be reminded of it.
The better option is to keep as silent as possible. We recognize these seven “deadly sins” to be sins indeed, but we understand that they are only sinful insofar as they are manifestations of the more fundamental deadly sins that the Church warns about. We should not be seen to defend them, but by our own lives of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we should provide examples of what it is actually is to live without sin, and how this differs from the cheap, substitute “sanctity” offered by modern political correctness.