For several hundred years, the great innovations in science, technology and engineering--the wheel, the bellows, the cotton gin--were focused on reducing the amount of backbreaking labor humans must endure.
More recent technological innovations--the three-in-one remote, the sit-down lawn mower, the clapper--have seemed somewhat less momentous. By the time cruise control was invented, we had clearly run out of things to make more efficient. Pushing one’s toes on a pedal was too arduous, someone at the General Motors apparently thought, perhaps assuming the ultimate goal was allowing us to sleep while we drive.
In other words, for some time now, progress has moved beyond preserving human dignity to encouraging human sloth. Far from being a sin, it has become an aspiration.
Why was it put on the list in the first place? Originally, the term used was “sadness,” not sloth. The Catholic Church changed it to “sloth” in the 17th century, just in time for the industrial revolution. Both qualities were deemed sinful because they meant we were not sufficiently energetic in doing good deeds and therefore working towards salvation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains: “The slothful person is unwilling to do what God wants because of the effort it takes to do it.”
Then, Protestants came along, with their annoying “work ethic,” teaching that mopey people don’t just help fewer lepers, they build fewer gizmos--and they impede progress. Sloth hurts God, God’s creations, and your fellow humans.
And sloth can still cause great hardships for others, at least according to my wife. A slothful person forces labor on to others (“Where’d you put the remote?” “Over there” “Can I have it?” “That would mean me getting out of my chair…”) Lethargic people can suck the energy out of a room. In that sense, sloth isn’t the completely victimless crime we might think it is.
We should start recognizing the benefits of lethargy. Laziness is a costless protection against the really serious sins like greed, lust and wrath, which, say what you will, do require great amounts of energy. If the Enron executives hadn’t been quite so peppy, would we be facing today’s financial crisis? And few truly slothful people have the stamina to be wrathful, lustful or envious (except to envy one’s neighbor for having a better three-in-one remote)
At first I thought, given Christianity's critical view of sloth, I might get the ammunition for my argument from Buddhism. After all, there’s the old joke, "I've taken up meditation--beats sitting around doing nothing." Any religion that has heated debates about whether it’s better to chant or sit (during meditation), clearly sees the splendor of inaction. But it turns out the Buddhists are anti-sloth too. A sacred text called “The Five Mental Hindrances,” part of the Pali Canon, exhorts us to “rouse one’s energy” and gives helpful hints: less overeating, better “bodily posture,” contemplation of “the perception of light,” fresh air, “noble friendship,” and “suitable conversation.”
Most of the world’s religions seem to be down on laziness, apparently believing that we have an obligation to affirmatively take advantage of what God has given us and improve the lives of those less fortunate. Go figure.
Still, if we're going to point fingers, I think the emphasis should be shifted away from the slothful and towards those encouraging us to be this way, i.e. whoever invented the electric tooth flosser. As they say in the War on Drugs, go after the dealers, not the users.
Sloth ultimately seems to be less a sin than a run-of-the-mill negative personality trait. But by that token, the list of sins should also include “Laughing at Own Jokes,” or “Frequently Repeating Same Story.” Better yet, just delete sloth from the list of sins and make the list shorter. Then it would take less time to read.