The Other I

October 10, 2012

Original Sin as a bad idea

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion — theotheri @ 3:00 pm
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Raised as a Catholic as I was, I was taught that the original sin committed by Adam and Eve stained the soul of every human being ever born.  As a child, I thought of it as a big black mark streaked across my soul which was a sort of diamond-shaped translucent light somewhere around my heart.  Since I had been baptized, the streak wasn’t so black anymore, but the stain was still there.  I was still fundamentally and inescapably a sinner, potentially a bad person caring more about myself than about God.

With the biblical studies we received at Maryknoll, I did come to understand that the Hebrews saw the story in Genesis as a metaphor, as an expression of a sense that somehow something seemed wrong with the world.  But for the millennia in which it was solely their Holy Book, the Hebrews did not see it as a story about original sin.

The theory of original sin as it is presently taught by the Roman Catholic church was developed not by Jesus, but by Augustine, a 4th century Roman convert who was trying to explain, above all, his own sexual lust which tormented him apparently relentlessly.   With the adaptation of Christianity as the official Roman religion, the celebration of communion was no longer a coming together of the faithful to witness to their faith.  Instead, the communion table was transformed into a sacrificial altar in which the faithful were reminded that we are all sinners redeemed by the death of Jesus.  We were guilty of that death, and if God the Father had not been propitiated by the execution of his Son, we would have had to serve an eternal punishment for our sins.  As it was, we were fortunate that we only have to suffer while we are still on Earth.

With time, I dismissed the theory of original sin as a misunderstood literalist interpretation of Genesis which nonetheless proved useful for those wishing to convince us of the fundamental sinfulness of human beings.  Original sin is pagan in its origins, developed by people trying to understand why they were being punished by natural disasters like hurricanes and droughts, illness and fire, starvation and disease.  But today, it is a manifestation of hubris.  It assumes that we humans are responsible for everything that happens in the universe, a view of human control which would be laughable if it weren’t so delusional.

As I recently finished reading Tony Equale’s Religion in a material universe,  it dawned on me that this idea of original sin is still more pervasive and destructive in Western thought than I’ve appreciated.  How often we explain behavior that seems gratuitously cruel or blatantly unfair as a result of inherent sinfulness   or selfishness that the person has failed to overcome?  Judges not infrequently will sentence prisoners found guilty of some particularly heinous and inexplicable crime as “evil.”  The death penalty is often justified on the ground that the perpetrator is irredeemable.

I don’t think that’s how it is.  This might sound bonkers, but I think we are all doing the best we can.  I’m not advocating some poly-anna free-for-all tolerance when I say that.  But I am saying that we would be much better off trying to understand why we and others do the things we do before we start trying to change them or ourselves by whipping the sinfulness out of our systems. If sinfulness isn’t the problem, then whipping it out isn’t going to be the solution.

My own hypotheses about this question at the moment is rather Buddhist:  we are incomplete.  I come to that from an extrapolation, though, of what I know about evolution.   Like all other organisms that we have ever encountered, we are driven by a survival mechanism.  To live is our first and foremost drive.  And life is our first and foremost responsibility.  Not always our own lives, which we may endanger for the sake of others.  But nonetheless, life is our highest value, driven by an inescapable impulse to preserve it.

If we start out with this assumption – that survival, not sinfulness – is our most fundamental impulse, we will approach our own behavior and that of others from quite a different perspective, with different questions and searching for different answers.

Okay, I wake up in the morning, turn on the news, and sometimes everything looks so horribly bad.  Sometimes it looks as if we are nothing besides stupid, and self-serving, and violent, and arrogant, and bigoted.  Sometimes resident evil looks more than proven by the manifest evidence.

But I do think that’s the wrong end of the stick.

And the more we believe it, the less we are going to be able to bring our best talents and abilities to address the real world in which we find ourselves.



  1. Great post, with – as always – much food for thought. As someone with a similar Catholic background to yourself, it’s perhaps not surprising that I also felt myself moved to think about the whole Christian concept of original Sin. Our analyses also show parallels …


    Comment by Francis Hunt — October 10, 2012 @ 3:34 pm | Reply

    • Your own post on Genesis that you have flagged is intriguing. Well worth reading for anybody interested in understanding how we got from where we were to where we are now. I was not familiar with the heritage of “Golden Age” thinking that pre-dates Genesis, but it is not a surprise. So many of our ideas that we think have sprung out of our own inspiration have been handed down to us.

      You suggest, however, that you do not think most people take the story of Genesis literally. I wish I were more confidant that you are right. But research suggests that 45% of Americans believe in creationism and dismiss evolution on the grounds that it’s “only a theory.” The most frequent question I have received in relation to the first edition of my book The Big Bang to Now was “but where was the garden of eden?”

      I found many of the comments following your post also quite interesting. As a cognitive psychologist, two in particular strike me. The first is the suggestion that belief in a Golden Age may spring from the nature of human memory. I am now old enough to be getting a glimpse of the thinking that so often characterizes the thinking of the elderly. We tend to block out the unpleasant, and remember the positive things. If we do that enough, we can turn the past into a Golden Age without any help from Genesis at all.

      I also thought the comment on the possible bi-cameral nature of early human thought is intriguing. The fact is that we can only experience the world with the capacities we have. So the world looks different from different perspectives, as well as for different organisms, and even for humans themselves with different capacities. My brother, for instance, has not idea of what green looks like as opposed to red. I, on the other hand, am incapable of depth perception, my cousin cannot hear the difference between a major and a minor chord of music. Kant understood this: perception is always the result of the interaction between subject and object.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — October 11, 2012 @ 1:13 pm | Reply

  2. I suspect, based on what I’ve read, that sin as we think of it is a Middle Eastern construct and inimical to the mentality of pre-Christian Europe (I’m thinking of the barbarians here rather than the Romans or Athenians). I understand the Sumerians even had a form of confession. They weren’t Semitic, but the cultures that overcame and copied them–Babylonian, Assyrian, et al.–were, and it is out of that matrix that we were passed on the religion called Christianity, a religion that was fiercely hostile not only to the established Greco-Roman cults but to the country or “pagan” beliefs that persisted for so long in Europe among the people despite the Church and its wrath.

    I found Augustine’s Confessions interesting in many ways and on many levels, mostly as a case study of a very neurotic guy who managed to have an enormous influence on an entire civilization. I suppose one could say the same thing about other major religious figures like Luther and Calvin. I think your analysis suggests or implies the possibility of a return to a simpler and truer vision of reality. Odd that science should lead us back to a more “primitive” attitude in that sense. “Odd” only because, I suppose, we were taught to believe science was the enemy of everything that isn’t materialistic and crass.


    Comment by pianomusicman — October 11, 2012 @ 4:01 am | Reply

    • I agree with your assessment of Augustine – a highly neurotic man who was also highly intelligent and in a position that made it possible for his ideas to be adopted as part of the power structure being constructed by both Romes – Caesar’s and Peter’s.

      I am not familiar with the details of Sumerian culture, and would be interested if you have anything you would especially recommend that I* *read. Now that I’ve finished The Big Bang to Now, V 2, I’ve been wondering what new topic to concentrate on, and have thought that a deeper exploration of the great civilizations which have come and gone in the last 10,000 years would be enlightening. Obviously, it would help understand how we got from being hunter-gatherers to where we are today.

      “Odd” that science should lead us back to some of the primitive insights we have lost. Perhaps it is because science is only now really freeing itself from the authority of the church. In order to survive – literally – Renaissance scientists made a clear distinction between the material world which was their domain, and the spiritual world which was the domain of the church. But that allocation of domains required that the material world be stripped of any intrinsic dynamism, and Newton’s theory provided a powerful springboard for that assumption. It is now possible to deny the relevance of a spiritual world (in the Platonic meaning of the word), and many of the initial assumptions of science are now being questioned. Thank goodness.

      Thank you for your comment. It’s always so refreshing to learn something new.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — October 11, 2012 @ 12:55 pm | Reply

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