The Geography of Sin

Sep 18, 2016 by

[This post was originally published in February 2012]


As discussed in earlier posts, abstract concepts such as personality or happiness can be mapped. A few years ago, geographers from Kansas State University tried to map the spatial distribution of another such abstract notion, that of evil. Geography research associate Thomas Vought and his colleagues used certain statistical measurements to quantify transgressions and came up with a county-by-county map purporting to show various degrees of the “seven deadly sins” in the USA (illustration on the left is a painting by Hieronymus Bosch). As UCLA statistician Nathan Yau pointed out on, “these types of maps are always kind of iffy as they draw from data from various sources gathered with different methods and usually use some kind of researcher-defined metric”. Abigail Goldman of Las Vegas Sun is even harsher in her evaluation: “this is a precision party trick—rigorous mapping of ridiculous data”. Yet, these maps are instructive as they highlight and juxtapose a number of interesting social issues.

In Christianity, especially in Catholicism, a distinction is drawn between mortal (or cardinal) sins and the lesser, venial sins. What is included under which heading has changed over the years, but today’s list of the cardinal sin, dating back to the 590 CE version created by Pope Gregory I, includes wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. The understanding of what each of the seven deadly sins actually encompasses has also evolved over time. Keep in mind that the quantifiable per-capita statistics chosen by the Kansas State team, such as theft (envy) and STDs (lust), may not correspond closely to any historical or modern definition of a given sin.


Let us start with wrath (Latin, ira), a word defined by Dante as “love of justice perverted to revenge and spite. Today the term “wrath” is perceived as somewhat archaic, with “rage” or “anger” generally used instead. It is best described as inordinate and uncontrolled feelings of hatred and anger. Such feelings need not be engendered by self-interest and can manifest themselves in different ways, including impatience, revenge, and vigilantism. The Kansas team calculated the “wrath” quotient as the total number of violent crimes—murder, assault, and rape—reported to the FBI per capita. Interestingly, in its original form, the sin of wrath encompassed not only anger pointed externally, but also rage directed internally. Thus suicide, deemed to be the ultimate rejection of God’s gifts, was counted as a wrathful act. But suicide rates were not included in the “wrath” metric by Vought and his colleagues. As can be seen from the map on the left, wrath in this sense is concentrated in Florida and surrounding states, Louisiana, east and south Texas, Delaware, central Michigan, New Mexico and Northern California. While some areas notable for their “rage” are urban (e.g. San Francisco Bay Area), others are rural. Overall, the Midwest and northern New England are classified as the least “angry” regions.


Another sin calculated in this study by using crime rates is envy (Latin, invidia). Originally derived directly from the Ten Commandments, specifically the injunction that “neither shall you desire… anything that belongs to your neighbor”, envy was defined by Dante as “a desire to deprive other men of theirs”. In his Divine Comedy, the punishment for the envious is to have their eyes sewn shut with wire because they have gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low. Thomas Aquinas described envy as “sorrow for another’s good”. In the Kansas study, “envy” was calculated using the total number of thefts—robbery, burglary, larceny, and grand theft auto—per capita. The envy hot zones include southern states, particularly Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, and large metropolitan areas such as Detroit, Michigan; Dallas, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Phoenix, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; Seattle, Washington; and Portland, Oregon. Surprisingly, San Francisco Bay Area is among these “envious” urban areas, but Los Angeles is not.


Like envy, greed (Latin, avaritia) is characterized by an insatiable desire; it is essentially a sin of excess, applied to a rapacious desire for and pursuit of material possessions. Envy has been classified as a mortal sin, that is sin against God, “in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things”, as Thomas Aquinas put it. In Dante’s Purgatory, the penitents were bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated too much on earthly thoughts. Greedy behaviors include disloyalty, deliberate betrayal, or treason, especially for personal gain, for example through bribery. Scavenging and hoarding of materials or objects, theft and robbery, especially by means of violence, trickery, or manipulation of authority are all actions that can be inspired by greed. The statistics used by Vought and his colleagues to represent greed is a curious one: they compared average incomes with the total number of inhabitants living beneath the poverty line. In one sense, this is a measure of social inequality, rather than of behaviors inspired directly by greed, such as bribe rates or the number of convicted con men per capita. Unsurprisingly, the highest rates of “greed” are found in urban areas such as the northeastern coastal strip extending from Boston to Washington DC; the extended “Chicagoland” in northern Illinois and Indiana, southeastern Wisconsin and southwestern Michigan; and the metropolitan areas of Detroit, Denver, and Seattle. Hotspots around the large cities of Dallas and Houston in Texas stand out, as does Clark County, Nevada, home of Las Vegas (more on which below). In California, both San Francisco and Los Angeles are “greedy”, as is indeed most of the state. Though “angry” and “envious”, most of the Southern states are not “avaricious”, with the exception of southern Florida.


Like greed, lust and gluttony are sins of excess. Lust (Latin, luxuria) today is defined as excessive sexual wants; however, the word originally denoted the intense desire for money, fame, or power. (Hence, the English word luxury refers to the best and most costly things that lead to any form of comfort and satisfaction.) In Dante’s Purgatory, those guilty of lust walk within flames to purge themselves of lustful/sexual thoughts and feelings, while in his Inferno, the unforgiven souls guilty of the sin of lust are blown about in restless hurricane-like winds symbolic of their own lack of self-control over their lustful passions in earthly life. In the Kansas study, the modern definition of “lust” as having to do with sexual passions alone has been employed, with the degree of “lust” calculated by compiling the number of sexually transmitted diseases—HIV, AIDS, syphilis, Chlamydia, and gonorrhea—reported per capita. Needless to say, this measure incorporates not only “lust” (even if in the narrowly defined modern sense), but also a certain degree of recklessness. The hot zone of lust extends along the Atlantic seaboard from southern New Jersey to Georgia and from there westward into northeastern Texas. Unexpectedly, Florida, a popular vacation and spring break destination, is not particularly “lustful” (except the western panhandle part of the state, adjacent to the “licentious” states of Georgia and Alabama); neither is California. An interesting contrast is presented by South Dakota: the western part of the state ranks much higher in “lust” than its eastern counterpart. Another mystery is a peculiar hot zone of “lust” in eastern New Mexico and the adjacent parts of Texas.


Another sin of excess, gluttony (Latin, gula), derives from the Latin verb gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow; it is defined as the over-indulgence and over-consumption of anything, but especially of food and drink, to the point of waste. In Christianity, gluttony was considered a mortal sin because it was interpreted as indicating selfishness, as the excessive desire for food leads to withholding it from the needy. Medieval church leaders like Thomas Aquinas took a more expansive view of gluttony, arguing that it could include not only eating too much (Latin, nimis), but also an obsessive anticipation of meals (praepropere), and the constant eating of delicacies and excessively costly foods (laute). Even matters of good manners entered into this concept, as eating too eagerly (ardenter), too daintily (studiose), or too wildly (forente) were all considered gluttonous acts. The Kansas study again takes a narrow definition of this sin, which runs counter to the historical view of gluttony as daintily eating expensive foods, and calculates it by counting the number of fast food restaurants per capita. There are three such “gluttony” hot zones in the U.S.: one in the rural areas of west-central Texas, another in eastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, and a third at the confluence of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee. On the state level, Texas ranks highest in gluttony. Along with North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, Texas is also one of the biggest spenders on fast food, as can be seen from this map.


Crucially, it is the number of fast food restaurants per capita that counts, not the total number of such eateries, which are most numerous in urban areas in zones that do not stand out on the “gluttony” map, as the map reproduced on the left shows.





While previous sins can be described as stemming from passion, sloth (Latin, acedia or socordia) is decidedly lacking in zeal or enthusiasm. While sloth is often defined as physical laziness, the Christian tradition emphasizes spiritual laziness, or a rejection of grace and God. Sloth has also been defined as a failure to do things that one should do, as evil exists when good people fail to act. Over time, this sin was reinterpreted to encompass a failure to utilize one’s talents and gifts. Already in Dante’s Purgatorio, the penance for sloth was running continuously at top speed. In the Kansas study, the measure of sloth is perhaps the weirdest of all: it is calculated by comparing expenditures on arts, entertainment, and recreation with the rate of employment. As the statistical measure of “sloth” is odd, so is its the spatial distribution, with several small hotspots, some in urban areas and some in rural ones. There is no clearly defined “laziness” belt, nor a particularly hardworking zone.


Nor is there any apparent negative correlation between the sin of sloth and the personality trait of conscientiousness, as mapped by Renfrow and colleagues. Texas and South Carolina, which are mapped as having the least slothful areas, are not among the top 10 states when it comes to conscientiousness. The most dutiful state, New Mexico, has some of the counties most noted for their rate of “sloth”.



The seventh and final sin, considered the original and most serious of the seven deadly sins, and the source of the others, is pride (superbia in Latin or hubris in Greek). Pride is identified as a desire to be more important or attractive than others, failing to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self. Dante defined “pride” as the “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbor”, but a more spiritually serious aspect of pride is putting oneself out of proper position toward God, making it a mortal sin. The best-known example of this sin and the consequences is the story of Lucifer, whose pride and desire to compete with God caused his fall from Heaven, and his resultant transformation into Satan. According to Dante, those guilty of pride were forced to walk with stone slabs bearing down on their backs to induce feelings of humility. In accordance with the view that pride is the root of all other mortal sins, the Kansas geographers calculated it by aggregating the data from the six other sins, averaged into an overview of all evil.


When it comes to pride, there is a clear north-south divide, which correlates roughly with the general crime rates, as can be seen from the map on the left. Yet, the discrepancies are instructive as well. For example, Nevada, one of the most crime-ridden states is relatively low on “pride”; conversely, Mississippi, which is very “proud”, is not noted for a particularly high crime rate.

One final note pertains to Las Vegas, Nevada, which bears the nickname of “Sin City”. Vought and his colleagues made a detailed study of the level of sin in 10 top casino markets around the country and discovered that the moniker of Las Vegas is not entirely deserved. While the Las Vegas Strip ranks highest in greed, it comes only second in wrath (after Shreveport, Louisiana, one of the most unhappy urban areas in the country, according to a different study). Las Vegas could muster no better than third place for pride, the aggregate of all sins; it was the southern gambling cities—Lula in Mississippi and Shreveport, Louisiana—that came out on top of the bottom. Despite all the strip clubs, sex shows and the like, Las Vegas ranked only fourth in lust (after Tunica, Mississippi; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Biloxi, Mississippi). When it comes to sloth, envy and gluttony, Las Vegas is a mere fifth, “bested” by such places as Atlantic City, New Jersey; Chicagoland (Illinois/Indiana); and Detroit, Michigan.

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