Monday, April 23, 2012

Original Sin

Often, atheists who want to note the "injustice" of Christian doctrine cite the concept of original sin as an example. (They rarely note that they are using a concept of justice that they have borrowed from Christianity in the first place, but never mind that for now.) "How," they ask, "can a just God possibly be punishing people today for something done by two people thousands of years ago? The idea is barbaric!"

As I understand original sin, such questioners have gotten the concept all wrong. And I do not think this understanding is merely mine: I also think it is the correct understanding of the doctrine. But I do realize this will not be held universally.

So what does original sin mean, as I see it? Well, what happened to create this sin? (And in the following, I think it makes little difference whether you take this story literally or metaphorically, so do whichever you wish.)

God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But they did. Again, whether you take this as a literal tree or not, the meaning is clear: before this action, their behavior was in some sense "natural," not subject to guilt, regret, conscience, hesitation, and so on. But once they have eaten of that tree, evil enters their world, in that it now enters their consciousness. They now need to "toil" for their food, since they now can view labor as having disutility. (Think about it: do you think a honey badger cruises around thinking, "Man, I can't believe I need to keep digging all of these holes in the ground. Wish I could just go have a beer instead." No way: the honey badger doesn't give a s*&t.) Death enters the world, in that death is now an evil looming in the future. Adam and Eve are, for the first time, capable of sinning regularly. (Prior to that moment, they were only capable of one sin: eating of the tree!) In short, they have fallen out of paradise: the paradise of natural existence, existence without the idea of evil.

Having so fallen, how is it even conceivable that the primal couple would not pass this "original sin" on to all of their descendants? Adam and Eve will be bringing up their children, and every time they shout, "Little Cain, watch out for that serpent!" or "Able, put down those loaded dice this instant!" the parents will be conveying their knowledge of good and evil to their offspring. And so on down the line. it is simply an inevitable consequence of the way human culture works, that once this piece of knowledge entered human consciousness, it could not be dislodged. Which is, of course, why redemption was needed -- but that is another topic.

So, the notion that God punishes modern people for something that their remote ancestors did is a symptom of a failure to pay attention to and think about the elements of the story properly. Which points to a common atheist malady, by the way: On the one hand, they often declare religion is all superstition, and refuse to waste any time studying it. On the other hand, they absolutely will not stop spouting off opinions on this topic that they refuse to study!


  1. Very interesting. At the conference I attended last week, one of the points they brought up was that work is *not* a consequence of the fall. So it's true that work is painful now, because of the fall, but that we shouldn't think that in paradise there would be no labor. That seems related to your cool point about the honey badger.

  2. The disutility of work has straightforward causes in evolutionary psychology. "The fall" in this case is the fact that humans developed brains that can adapt new behaviors very quickly. Animals are adapted to do the things that help them survive in the environment they evolved in, but humans have created environments and strategies that are very different from where we evolved. Note that “work” is more than just exertion and trying hard at something – people do that in sports, too, for example. Work is when I make a conscious choice to direct my exertions to something that my instinctual brain doesn’t think is very important.

    1. OK, master, sorry if I was too harsh there... let's try again. This comment is not very apt, for two reasons:

      1) Evolution cannot explain why things "feel" any way to anything at all. Why not have all of the same movements go on without any internality about them whatsoever?

      2) Even if evolution could explain intentionality, that would not contradict my explanation at all. That would merely show how a spiritual state came about when viewed from the standpoint of biology.

  3. Gene,

    I agree with both your points, as it happens. I didn't mean my comment as a refutation of your main point. I wanted to make a side comment concerning honey badger and the disutility of work, viz that it doesn't need any additional explanation beyond evolutionary psychology. Internality is another matter entirely.