The Genesis story and the Augustinian interpretation of original sin
Original sin holds that everyone is born sinful. We all have a built-in urge to do bad things and disobey God.
According to the teaching, original sin is the normal spiritual and psychological condition of human beings. Even a newborn baby, who hasn’t done anything at all, is damaged by original sin.
The doctrine is based on St Augustine’s (354-430 AD) interpretation of the story of Genesis. God originally made a perfect world in the Garden of Eden. God told Adam that he could do anything he wanted, except eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. He warned “neither shall you touch it, lest you die”. Later, God created Eve to be Adam’s wife. Eve was tempted by the serpent into eating the fruit. She gave some of the fruit to Adam and he ate it too. Adam and Eve then first noticed that they were naked and hid in shame. God banished them from the Garden of Eden and banned them from eating the fruit of the Tree of Life because they had disobeyed him; so death then entered the world.
Augustine taught that original sin was transmitted by “concupiscence”. This occurs when people have sex and conceive a child. Augustine’s interpretation is Western Christianity’s main explanation for the existence of evil in the world. It supposedly explains why we, and not an all powerful and all merciful God, are responsible for the existence of evil. Though we have always had some free will, we are tainted and distorted by Adam’s original sin.
Although the story of Adam and Eve forms part of the mythology of the other Abrahamic religions, neither Judaism, nor Islam, adopted the Augustinian interpretation. The doctrine of original sin does not form part of their belief systems.
“The term “original sin” is unknown to the Jewish Scriptures, and the Church’s teachings on this doctrine are antithetical to the core principles of the Torah and its prophets…the Christian doctrine of original sin is profoundly hostile to the central teachings of the Jewish Scriptures. The Torah loudly condemns the alien teaching that man is unable to freely choose good over evil, life over death”.
The concept of concupiscence fitted neatly with Augustine’s view that sexual desire was bad because it could totally overwhelm those caught up in it, depriving them of self-control and rational thought. This “bad” element in sex is associated with the means by which original sin is transmitted from parent to child. It transmits both humanity’s guilt for Adam’s crime and the defect that gives human beings a sinful nature.
Augustine did not write about the loss of control involved with sexual passion from an ivory tower built on personal chastity. He is a less boring character than that. He spoke from his own direct experience of promiscuity. As an 18-year-old student at Carthage, sex had become a compulsion for Augustine . “From a perverted act of will,” he wrote, “desire had grown, and when desire is given satisfaction, habit is forged; and when habit passes unresisted, a compulsive urge sets in.”
Yet it was not until the 16th century at the Council of Trent that the Catholic Church gave the “official stamp of approval” to Augustine’s idea that original sin was transferred from generation to generation by propagation. Thereafter the concept of original sin became part of Roman Catholic teaching. The new Protestant leaders, Luther and Calvin, also followed the doctrine. Calvin adopted the severest view of all, describing humanity as “totally depraved” and only redeemable through God’s predetermined grace, rather than through the performance of good acts during one’s life.
The absurdity of the Genesis Story
The Genesis story, even as metaphor, seems absurd and full of contradictions.
In the Bible story, God creates the world and, as the all-powerful creator, also writes the script. He leaves Adam and Eve in the garden, as innocent children, unaware of their nakedness and with no knowledge of right and wrong. He tells these innocents they can eat anything except the fruit from the tree of knowledge of right and wrong. What did God expect? Everybody parent knows that if you put young children in a room by themselves and tell them not to eat a sweet then, left to their own devices, there is a good chance that they will eat it. Actually as the all-knowing, author of the scrip, God must have already known the outcome?
Moreover the innocents were tricked into eating the fruit by the serpent who said to Eve, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
If Adam and Eve really were innocent, not knowing the difference between good and evil, because they had not yet eaten the knowledge fruit, why wouldn’t they be tricked by the serpent? Where is God’s justice in condemning them? Predictably, God’s children are easy pickings for the evil serpent, and so Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and all of humanity is thereafter tainted by this “sin”.
Further, if one of the major purposes of religion is to provide its believers with a moral code, a guide to right and wrong, why did God forbid his children eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of right and wrong in the first place? Shouldn’t he instead have encouraged them to learn the secrets of right and wrong conduct or created them already possessed of this knowledge? Without this knowledge they could not become morally responsible beings truly created in God’s image. Instead they would remain prisoners of their amoral animal natures, like all of God’s other creatures.
The Genesis story as an allegory for a fall- but a fall from where?
Fall from a purely imaginary world
The basic physiology of our brain stem is shared with other vertebrates. But the other vertebrates do not have a cerebral cortex which is as rich as ours. This is the important difference with the human brain. Our cerebral cortex contains our lived past as well as our anticipated future. It gives us imagination, creativity and language. It gives us the ability to imagine and to describe a better world or life. This is surely both our great strength and weakness. It fosters innovation and notions such as universal human rights. But it may also give succor to every form of absolutist ideology. Other animals cannot imagine a better world in the sophisticated way we can. A dog may feel it is better to eat than not eat. But dogs cannot imagine a doggy paradise where food is always available, or even if they can, they cannot describe it, let alone build political movements to try and achieve it.
In fact human beings, both believers and non-believers, seemingly cannot help but imagine a better world. The fall from Eden is likely nothing more than human beings imagining a fall from an imagined perfect world. This world is imagined to have existed in the past. But it also resembles the imagined world to which believers hope to arrive after death. Eden is really a kind of imagined heaven. Though nowadays there are endless ways in which contemporary human beings imagine a far more modern paradise.
Fall from hunter-gathering into agriculture
An alternative explanation is that the story of the fall from Eden is a metaphor for the fall, or passage, which humanity made from hunter-gathering into agriculture. About 10,000 years ago human beings invented agriculture. We passed from the hunter-gathering Palaeolithic age to the Neolithic age during which the Abrahamic religions were founded. Was the passage from hunter-gathering to farming regarded as a fall? Neolithic people were physically smaller and had shorter life expectancy than hunter-gathers. Neolithic women had more children because the lifestyle was no longer nomadic. Neolithic societies had private property. Hunter-gatherers had none.
In ‘A Short History of Myth’ Karen Armstrong writes:
“In the book of Genesis the loss of the primordial paradise is experienced as a falling into agriculture. In Eden, the first human beings had tended God’s garden effortlessly. After the fall, the woman brings forth her children in sorrow and the man has to wrest a living from the sweat of his brow….Farming is pervaded by violence and food is produced only by a constant warfare against the forces of death and destruction.”
Similarly, historian Yuval Harari argues:
“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. . . The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”
But the theory of the shift from hunter-gathering to agriculture as some kind of a disaster is contested. A major criticism is that the theory vastly underestimates the time and work that was involved for hunter-gathering communities to process their food.
And anyway, is the description of Eden prior to the fall of Adam and Eve a description of a hunter-gathering society? Not really.
Eden might have been a garden and might have been more easily tended and more abundant than the Neolithic farm. But it is a garden nevertheless. It is not a wild forest. Adam was put there by God to work in the garden. There is no suggestion of a nomadic lifestyle in which the inhabitants move on once part of the garden’s resources had been exhausted. Adam and Eve have language seemingly more sophisticated than might have existed in primitive hunter-gathering communities. The God with whom they converse is already the thoroughly monotheistic Abrahamic God, not an animistic spirit characteristic of the hunter gather’s world. There is already a concept of private property in Eden. Man is created in God’s image to rule over various animals including ” livestock”. And while God may have given the garden to Adam to work and tender, the garden is ultimately the property of God. Hence his ability to command Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
The single countervailing hunter-gather characteristic of Eden prior to the fall is that Adam and Eve were naked and felt no shame. But while some hunter-gathering societies lived naked, the wearing of clothes certainly began during the hunter-gather period. It seems people started wearing clothes some 170,000 years ago. Clothes do not fossilize. But a 2011 study found head lice and the lice that live in our clothes separated at around this time. While some hunter-gather societies undoubtedly wore clothes for protection from cold and sun, as well as for decoration and ceremony, we do not know if, and when, modesty became a factor or whether this only developed after the advent of agriculture. The shame factor may well have intensified after agriculture along with the new admonitions against adultery. With the advent of private property these admonitions became prevalent because fathers wanted to be sure that the sons to whom they would leave their cows and land really were their own offspring.
On balance, the fall from Eden looks far more like a fall from an imagined perfect agricultural world than a fall from a hunter-gathering world into agriculture. This also makes sense because the writers of the Old Testament were already living in an agricultural world. What did they know of hunter-gathering societies? Far less than we know through modern anthropology and archaeology.
To be sure, the transition for hunter-gathering to agriculture happened gradually. There would have been societies that maintained hunter-gathering activities after they had commenced farming. Aspects of hunter-gathering lifestyle and ritual would have remained somewhat present in the farmers’ collective memory. But there was no good reason for agricultural authors to promote their vision of God by idealizing hunter-gathering societies. The concept of Eden, which is also the heaven to where farmers would hope to be delivered, is a perfect farm with a farmer’s God in charge. It is not a yearning for a lost hunter-gather world.
But is sin inevitable?
If we strip away Augustine’s strange idea of concupiscence and the dangers of sexual passion we are still left with his underlying idea that evil, or at least human sin, or wrongdoing, is etched into our nature.
Whatever the flaws in the metaphors of the Genesis myth, there are a number of ways in which this basic idea seems plausible.
Sin as mess
In his book ‘A Short History of Progress’ Ronald Wright identifies how human societies commonly encounter what he refers to as “progress traps”- economic developments that starts off with positive consequences for humanity but eventually trap us with negative ones.
Hunter-gatherers seemingly made progress when they learned that by driving woolly mammoths off the edge of cliffs they could kill 200 beasts as easily as they could kill one. The hunters feasted for a good while. But the new method may ultimately have contributed to the mammoth being hunted to extinction, thereby depriving the hunters of access to this source of food. The hunters had fallen into a “progress trap”.
Wright says history is littered with examples of progress traps where environmental degradation occurs at societal level. He traces progress traps involving environmental degradation through many pre-industrial societies- Catal Huyek, Sumer, the Western Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization.
Wright says that in modern developed countries, progress traps are exacerbated by excessive faith in technology. He says that technology is addictive because material progress creates problems that seem to be solvable only by further technological progress.
Wright is critical of the Right’s war on redistribution which he says is a threat to civilization. But he says that the fundamental change required to put the world on a sustainable footing is not necessarily anti-capitalist. Rather it requires a transition from short term to long term thinking.
Wright does not see this transition as easy. Indeed at times, he appears to question whether such a transition is either likely or possible. He postulates that human inability to foresee or act with regard to long term consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth hunter-gathering.
Human-induced climate change is merely the latest and deepest of the progress traps that have occurred throughout our history. Other, or related, contemporary progress traps include forest reduction, soil erosion requiring the use of chemical fertilizers (which depend on burning oil) to replace depleted nitrogen and phosphorus, depletion of clean water sources, including lowering of the water table in many parts of the world, and ocean acidification and pollution by plastics. We use the biosphere as a sink for our waste products, for example by putting our rubbish into landfills, pollutants into rivers, estuaries and oceans, and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
It is arguable that our environmental crisis is the result of inertia, greed and foolishness all encouraged by a concentration of power which gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo from which they prosper, long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer. Under this analysis, we have a choice.
Importantly, Pope Francis suggests we do have a choice. He has stated that destruction of the environment is a sin and has accused humankind of turning the planet into a “polluted wasteland full of debris, desolation and filth”.
“We must not be indifferent or resigned to the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of ecosystems, often caused by our irresponsible and selfish behaviour. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence … We have no such right.”
But is the choice just a delusion? Is it in our fundamental nature to reproduce in numbers beyond what our planet can sustain with our natural propensity for reproduction urged on by religious doctrines and institutions? Is it inevitable that we are incapable of cleaning up properly after ourselves? Is it possible that it is in our fundamental nature to pollute and that our mess is our original and inevitable sin?
The sometimes elusive nature of ‘right’ conduct
The field of ethics is divided into different philosophical camps.
Duty ethics (deontology) emphasizes duty and good intention. It leads to more or less fixed ethical duties that are applicable no matter what the circumstances. These duties are based on “God’s will” for religious believers or, for Kant, upon “categorical imperatives”. Kant claimed his categorical imperative was derived from strict application of reason, from not using others as a mere means to an end and from the maxim that a particular course of action should be a universal law.
Utilitarianism or consequentialism emphasizes consequences over intention and duty. The consequences which the doctrine seeks to maximize are the greatest pleasure for the greatest number.
But there are even divisions within this school. Bentham was a utilitarian for whom the source of pleasure was of no real importance. It could, for example, include living one’s life by taking one’s dose of pleasure-inducing “soma” every day. Mill, on the other hand, was a utilitarian who insisted that some sources of pleasure are intrinsically superior in quality to others. He seemingly ranked intellectual pleasures higher than sensual ones. This is of course a value-laden position normally more associated with the universal imperatives demanded by duty ethics. Furthermore, it hardly seems consistent with what biologists assert about biochemical sources of happiness.
Still others, such as Sam Harris, assert that, while there may be a multitude of things that could lead different individuals to feel happy, it is not hard to think of things such as torture, starvation, extreme poverty or slavery, that are likely to be universal sources or pain or misery. This way of thinking leads to the doctrine known as “negative utilitarianism”. Ethics should not aim at producing happiness, which can mean too many different things for different people. Instead the aim should be to avoid those harms that are seemingly universal sources of unhappiness.
Existentialists adopt yet another position in relation to ethics. They suggest that there can be no hard and fast guides to ethical action and that we are all forced to choose our own course. It is through these choices that we define ourselves, for better or worse. The great weakness in the existentialist position is that the way choice is constrained by biology, poverty, and childhood experience, often proves more important than the highly constrained choices that remain open.
Philosophers have developed thought experiments to illustrate the problems and tensions between duty ethics and utilitarianism. The most famous of these is perhaps the runaway trolley problem.
In this thought experiment, first devised in the 1960’s, respondents are asked to choose to flick a switch to divert the course of a runaway trolley. If they flick the switch one way the runaway trolley will go down a route that kills five people. If they flick it the other way it will take a different route and only kill one person. The choice is easy. The utilitarian equation demands that it is better to kill only one than to kill five. 90% of respondents choose the kill only one option. But then, instead of flicking a switch, the respondents are asked whether they would throw a man off a bridge to stop the trolley. The utilitarian equation is the same- one death versus five. But the moral dilemma changes because of the increased directness and emotional intensity of the intervention involved in throwing a man in front of a train compared to merely flicking a switch. Now only 10% of respondents chose this option.
Princeton University researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to analyse brain activity in people who were asked to ponder a range of similar moral dilemmas.
They found that the two ways of thinking engage different parts of the brain. The idea of flicking a switch is impersonal; it is processed by a part of the brain that deals mainly with memory. By contrast, the notion of personally pushing a stranger to his death activates the part of the brain that deals with emotions, temporarily suppressing the memory areas.
Dr. Jonathan Cohen of Princeton says the results indicate that people with different cultural backgrounds can arrive at different conclusions about moral dilemmas. If people’s gut-level emotions are organized differently as a result of their backgrounds, they may reason differently about what is right or wrong.
The implications seem to be that, in practice, psycho-neurological and culturally based components may determine most people’s approach to “right and wrong” more than elaborate philosophical positions.
In any event, the philosopher Julian Baggini suggests that the distinction between utilitarianism and duty ethics exists mostly in academia. Most people can see the competing claims of the two positions- we want to do what results in the greatest good but we do not think people should be treated purely as a means to an end either. Baggini argues the differences between the two positions do not run as deep as it first appears. For example, if we say there is a general duty to ensure the best outcome for the greatest number of people we argue for utilitarianism in the terms of duty ethics. Conversely, if we say that the greatest good for the greatest number results from fulfilling duties and not using others as a means we argue for duty ethics in utilitarian terms.
Baggini says that, if he is correct, then most ethical questions should not boil down to a contest between means and ends, duties and consequences and the like. Rather, they should really be re-framed as dilemmas about the long term and the short term, certain and uncertain consequences, and diffuse harms and benefits.
But, at best, this approach seems to just replace one set of dilemmas with another. It does nothing to resolve the issues that arise in the trolley problem or the psycho-neurological or cultural issues associated in determining right from wrong. And if there are some circumstances in which we cannot be certain of the most ethical outcome, then the idea that sin is some sense inevitable for us, may contain at least a grain of truth. Either that or, if doing some harm or wrong is inevitable, it cannot really be “sinful”.
Freud’s “born sinner”
Freud thought that all babies are initially dominated by unconscious, instinctual and selfish urges for immediate gratification which he labeled the “Id”. As babies fail to get all their whims met, they develop a more realistic appreciation of what is realistic and possible, which Freud called the “Ego”. Over time, babies internalize and represent their parents’ and society’s values and rules. These internalized rules, which he called the “Super-Ego”, are the basis for the developing child’s conscience that struggles with the concepts of right and wrong and works with the Ego to control the immediate gratification urges of the Id.
Despite this process of socialization, aggressive impulses of the Id remain at the core of our being. For Freud:
“Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him. Homo homini lupus [Man is a wolf to man]”.
Stephen Hicks says that Freud is not making the innocuous claim that we can experience aggressive and anti-social urges. He is making the claim that such anti-social urges are inborn and dominant in us. By contrast, Freud believes, our rational and cooperative capacities are much weaker: “instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests.” Consequently, mankind’s history is dominated by crime, war, and atrocity, and “civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration”. The modest successes of civilization are a tenuously fragile veneer over a mutually predatory intra-species conflict. “Who,” Freud asks, “in the face of all his experience of life and history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?”
Not St Augustine, that’s for sure.
The Evolutionary Nature of Sin and Altruism
In his essay ‘Evolution and Our Inner Conflict’ Edward Wilson writes that at some point in our evolution a conflict arose between the consequences of individuals competing with individuals within the same group and the consequences of competition between groups. It was competition between groups that led to altruism- the need for co-operation amongst members of the group to defeat competition groups. Group-wide morality and a sense of conscience and honour (towards the group) developed.
Within groups selfish individuals tend to defeat altruistic ones. This provides an incentive for selfishness. Yet groups of altruists tend to beat groups of selfish individuals. This provides the incentive for altruism.
At the risk of over-simplifying, Wilson concludes individual selection (competition within the group) promoted sin whereas competition between groups promoted virtue.
Wilson says human beings are forever conflicted by these two contending forces. We can never yield completely to the selfish instinctual urgings of competition within the group because this would dissolve society. But neither can we surrender completely to the demands of the group lest we become unattractive “angelic robots”. Doormats are unlikely to attract a mate.
This eternal conflict is neither God’s test of humanity nor the machinations of Satan. It is just how things worked out. It might be the only way in which higher human-level intelligence and social organization could have evolved. And it is a source of our creativity.
Socialism and Original Sin
The Left is usually associated with the view that human beings are essentially good and are only bad because of the kind of the society in which they find themselves. It is the Right whose politics are most associated with the view, advanced by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, that human beings are essentially bad by nature and therefore need the coercive hand of the state to keep their bad impulses under control.
In his article ‘Original Sin v Utopia in British Socialism’, Andrew Hacker outlines the strong history of Utopian thought in British Socialism with Robert Owens and G.D.H Cole leading it. These thinkers believed that a society, free of class conflict, would preclude the necessity for coercion or arbitration by the state. Hacker points out that, although Marxists criticized the Utopianism of the social democrats as “non-scientific”, Marx also conceived of a classless society in which the state had withered away.
But there was also always also a stream of British socialists, especially in the union movement, who had no problem, whether consciously or not, in reconciling the dim view of human nature in the Church’s teaching on Original Sin. They directly witnessed the greed of employers across the negotiating table. This approach received support at a theoretical level from non-Utopian socialists. For example, C.E.M Joad, Reader in Philosophy at the University of London wrote:
“Original sin expresses a deep and essential insight into human nature. It is because so many of us who grew up in the intellectual Left rejected it that we were so constantly disappointed…we fell victim to a shallow optimism which caused us to think the millennium was just around the corner”.
Likewise, Patrick Gordon Walker, a member of the Labour cabinet between 1945-51, wrote that the state would never wither away and that if it was to serve a better society then-new offences would even need to be created and punished, “for a higher morality implies a wider concept of sin and crime”.
Relatively recent racial vilification laws come to mind.
While the doctrine of original sin runs contrary to the Utopianism that characterizes some socialist thought (as well as Nazi racial theories), it is neither fundamentally anti or pro-socialist or capitalist in nature. What it does say is that the individual building blocks for a better society are imperfect or flawed. This means, in turn, that a better society must also always be imperfect.