Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Real Evil of Original Sin

Is disobeying a commandment immoral? 2,500 years ago in the Euthryphro, Socrates showed that the question of whether or not God commanded something is conceptually distinct from the question of whether or not it is good. The mere fact that God commands or forbids something doesn’t render it good or bad, and it doesn’t provide one with sufficient justification for doing it or refraining. It’s always an open question whether the command is a good one. Or, a person always has to invoke some other criteria and apply them for their own reasons to the case to decide whether following the commandment is worthy. Consider the difference between obeying the speed limit which is 65 mph, and abiding by the law that forbids kidnapping. Both are the law, but only the latter one has a clear moral justification too.

What criteria can one apply to commandments to decide their morality? Moral theorists for centuries have provided us with lots of plausible answers: Aristotle argued that we strive to increase our virtues to maximize human flourishing, Kant argued that an action isn’t moral unless it is done on the basis of a universalizable, rationally consistent principle as its motive, Mill argued that actions are right or wrong to the extent that they promote or diminish happiness or utility, and so on. Presumably, when believers make their choices about which commandments they will follow—maybe you try to honor your mother and father, but you opt not to obey the commandment that mandates execution for anyone who does not—they already apply some criteria like Aristotle’s, Kant’s, Mill’s, or others. Clearly, it won’t do to simply justify an action on the grounds that it has been commanded. God has commanded a lot of morally abhorrent things like the rape of virgin girls and the wholesale slaughter of whole races of people.

Adam and Eve, we’re told, disobeyed a commandment. And because of that error, they and all of the rest of humanity (who had nothing to do with that choice) are condemned to an eternity of horrible suffering unless they rectify the mistake. But the commandment, “Don’t eat from this tree,” as I argued in “The Sin of Original Sin” is one of those examples, like the speed limit, or cleaning up your dog’s poop in the park, that may have been the law, but there’s nothing clearly moral or immoral about it. Aside from God’s capricious threat, there doesn’t appear to be anything about eating from the tree that might justify classifying it as immoral. No one will be evidently harmed, it doesn’t obviously violate any Kantian principle to respect persons, it doesn’t seem especially selfish or negligent. In all the centuries that we’ve been hearing about how wicked and deserving of torment humanity is, have we even paused to ask the question: What exactly was wrong with eating the fruit off of that tree? And now that I ask it, it’s plainly obvious that there was nothing wrong with it evident in the details of the story we’ve been told. And there’s certainly nothing so wrong with it to warrant the infinite punishment that Christians so smugly threaten us with. In fact, you’d think that in general obtaining as much knowledge of the world as you can, including knowledge of good and evil is a positive thing. How can you know to do the right thing if you don’t know the difference? Ignorance is obviously harmful, willful ignorance is even worse.

Of course, believers will insist that eating from the tree WILL cause great harm—if Adam and Eve do so, then they will bring enormous suffering down on humanity. But it’s not the act that actually creates any harm to anyone—it’s God’s seemingly random creation of the rule and his subsequent willingness to subject humanity to hell that causes the harm, not the act itself. The harm that befalls humanity as the result of the fall isn’t humanity’s fault, nor does the fruit from the tree cause it. God is the cause of the resulting suffering. God is the one who chooses to inflict (presumably he could refrain) eternal suffering on humanity.

People made a similar mistake when they focused all of their blame for 9-11 on American foreign policies that supported Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the past. Lots of critics responded that we had it coming. That’s forgetting who’s directly and immediately to blame: the guys who freely and deliberately flew the planes into the buildings (we’ve also largely overlooked that 17 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian, not Afghan or Iraqi). Doesn’t blame fall first and foremost on them? To focus instead on other surrounding and sometimes remote elements like the CIA or the American contributions to anti-American sentiments in the Middle East, suggests that the hijackers themselves are not autonomous, moral agents who are directly responsible for their actions. It’s like saying, “Oh they couldn’t help themselves—look at how mad we made them with our policies afterall.”

The Christian who touts Adam and Eve’s mistake in Eden as justifying God’s wrath on us makes a similar mistake, like the domestic abuse victim who after being beaten by her despicable husband, defends the guy and justifies his action: “You can hardly blame him for beating me. I didn’t have his dinner ready, and I didn’t clean the house. I really deserved it. He warned me that if I didn’t do what he said, he’d beat me. So really it’s all my fault. I had it coming.”

Could it be more obvious that the mere fact that some tantrum throwing tyrant issues a command and then threatens to punish disobedience severely doesn’t make that act immoral? And his warning that he will punish you forever doesn’t render that punishment just. Notice also that several of the famed 10 commandments aren’t remotely moral at all—they seem only to be designed to sustain God’s threats and secure his position of authority: Don’t worship any other gods, don’t worship idols (because I am a jealous god), don’t misuse my name, don’t do anything except worship me on Sunday.

No doubt the abusive husband would like to get his vicimtized wife and familty to abide by some similar rules so he can sustain his tyranny. And perhaps he’d even punish infractions severely. But again, his doing so clearly doesn’t make his behavior moral and infractions immoral.

Being a mature, responsible, morally autonomous agent can’t come from commands. It’s got to come from making reasoned, principled, informed decisions. We don’t need commands from God, we need explanations, reasons, and arguments. We need to be convinced that doing X is the right thing, not threatened, berated, or inflicted with guilt and fear of not doing it.

So we should be outraged, morally incensed that Christians would have us accept this perversion of real morality. We should be shocked at their presumptuousness. We should recognize the petty, juvenile, and insulting nature of the original sin model. And we should reject their attempts to foist blame on humanity (and their distant, unsuspecting offspring) for hellish punishments, instead of the volatile and capricious tyrant who would inflict them. The real evil is in Christians’ propagating this perverse misanthropy. The original sin doctrine spreads humiliation, sorrow, self-loathing, and lies about the real human nature.


Anonymous said...

I am sorry but I am unfamiliar with an atheist doctrine of morality> perhaps it would go something like "do what ever you think is right" which inherently presumes thru moral agent has knowledge in the first place. Commandants and taboos are in place because they serve to guide the very epistemological problems associated with moral knowledge. Humans did not have to partake in eating of the forbidden fruit no more than a child is warned not to wander off onto A freeway.

Also, you preclude the fact that original sin could have been a genetic altering of the human species. Why would a creator do this? A test some may say. But aren’t test needed if ones most precious creation is to be perfect? I digress but there are interesting implications for how a creator would make a creation with free autonomy and yet be perfect at the same time. U less the value of perfection exist inherently in being a free agent and not in the totality of its actions.

Eric Sotnak said...

philstudent wrote:
"I am unfamiliar with an atheist doctrine of morality> perhaps it would go something like "do what ever you think is right""

As a matter of fact, the great majority of ethical theories are compatible with an atheist or agnostic worldview. There are consequentialist, deontological, contractarian and contractualist, virtue-ist, and other sorts of ethical theories to consider.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry but I am unfamiliar with an atheist doctrine of morality...

There are many proposals for moral systems that do not depend on the existence of any gods. Categorical Imperative, Utilitarianism, Social Contract... BTW, it is entirely possible for theists to accept that morality does not depend on God, but that people should nonetheless be moral. See "autonomous ethics."

Also, you preclude the fact that original sin could have been a genetic altering of the human species...

This appears to be a very liberal usage of the word "fact."

Anonymous said...

I think you are mistaken to think that those ethical doctrines are atheistic. Nowhere in them is there any premise excluding god.. They may not hinge on a belief in god but they are not denying god either. So wouldn’t an atheistic moral system need to be wholly atheistic? I guess what I am getting at here is what exactly motivates atheist to be moral? For me being moral ultimate appeals to a much higher cause i.e. to serve the lord. But for an atheist it would seem that they need to appeal to doing good for goods sake. I don’t think the atheist can just say they are doing good for humanity because as a theist I can also make that claim. So there appears to be not a single moral system that is atheistic. And this I find very interesting.

Anonymous said...

On another note there are christians who do not believe in original sin. The mormons for example:

"We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression"

An excerpt taken from the pearl of great price.

Also, there are many more interpretations of original sin that are not so easily attacked. It seems that the central theme to this thread is beating a dead horse.

Anonymous said...


You say, "So wouldn’t an atheistic moral system need to be wholly atheistic?" The answer is no. A moral doctrine is theistic iff the moral doctrine positively depends or utilizes God or something divine in its principle. Since atheism is a negative statement, i.e., a-theism means not-theism, then a moral doctrine is atheistic iff the moral doctrine does not positively depend or utilize God. It does not need to exclude God. This works in any theory, even scientific ones. They are atheistic but that does not mean God is excluded from being involved in physics, for example. It simply means, in this case, a theory of physics does not depend on God. I've articulated similar sentiments as these here.

Anonymous said...

So an atheistic doctrine can be adopted by a religious person? I just fail to see that somehow.

Anonymous said...

I think Bryan that you would be using the term "atheistic' incredibly loosely to proclaim that an ethical system has been founded on such. Now, maybe it is acceptable to call the set of ethical systems (Mills, Kant’s etc) agnostic in a sense that they do not hinge on a belief in god but they cannot be considered atheistic. However, I am confused by some of you willing to claim that atheistic ethical doctrines even exists. Perhaps some questions are due as to elicit what assumptions are being made here.

What precepts of atheism are embedded in any ethical system?

How can atheism, which is admittedly a single stance e of denial, contribute to any ethical foundation?

Anonymous said...

A very abridged version of an atheistic (by philstudent's and theist's definition) theory for morality:

In the beginning there was NO GOD, only nothing, a void, because of the quantum principle this void was inherently unstable, bubbles began to form and expand into universes. One of these bubbles was our universe, atoms began to coalesce followed eventually by stars, and planets. One of these planets was earth, As molecules gained complexity they eventually began to self replicate. Eventually animals emerge that from social groups to survive, within these social groups certain norms needed to be observed such as: thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, etc. these norms eventually worked themselves into the fabric of the social interactions between these animals. Eventually these animals gained language, invented artificial light, and traveled to the moon. Still they held onto these norms because nature had selected them for their ability to promote the survival of in groups, and they did the job.

Eric Sotnak said...

Theist wrote:
"What precepts of atheism are embedded in any ethical system?"

There is a misunderstanding here. The thesis at issue is whether or not there can be a theory of morality that is a-theistic. That is, it is not theistic. That is, it does not have as part of its explanation the claim that God exists.

In this way, an atheistic theory of morality may be one that is CONSISTENT with the claim that God does exist, as well as with the claim that God does not exist.

By analogy, consider Superstring theory in physics. Such a theory is atheistic in that it does not posit the existence of God. Theists as well as atheists may happily embrace the theory. If you would like to call such theories "agnostic" instead of "atheist" I would be happy enough to go along with you, but notice that the primary point stands. If an agnostic theory of morality is coherent, then it is false that any satisfactory account of morality MUST posit the existence of God. And that is the point at isue.

Unknown said...

SOMEONE FINALLY GETS IT!! I'm glad that someone had it in them to be open minded on the flaws of the christian religion while still pushing towards being good and moral in this world... because the fact is that it is in our nature to not hurt ANYONE no matter what race religion of beliefs they hold. We are all equil. The ONLY reason why life is in this spin of sorrow and agony is because the POLAR OPPOSITE exsists and is all to real. There is no satin... evil is something we cannot comprehend or something we will ever see. Our abilities and intelligence are beyond even our understanding in this world because of our flesh. Its a lot to go into but the christian religion concentrates more on conforming people to there exact faith instead of simply giving back to people that are suffering and not even immoral or doing bad things. In my opinion church should be less about preaching the same thing out of the bible and more about makeing a plan to help people in need. It should be less about conforming people to a religion and more about giving hope and giving them understanding about why the world is the way it is and most importantly its not the way we really are. No one is going to hell. Granit its definitly wrong to hurt or kill someone but we all have come to a time in society where we all know that... Deep down we know what is right and wrong but greed of power overpowers us, thus we do not care about how it effects others... But in our true how our actions effect others will be our first priority... our not even a priority because its just the way we live (without hurting others). I think the christian religion has hindered faith in the next life from proclaiming that if you do not believe in Jesus christ or god and believe in our religion you will not be saved and go to hell. That rashness pushes people away from those beliefs. I mean how are you suposed to give people hope in 3rd world countries where they've never met this god or jesus and expect them to conform to something they've never believed. Not to mention all of the Evil that stems from the religion from the desgusting Raciest Cult the KKK... Which is something that aint a joke to day... the 29th President was a member of this hate group and i have no doubt that parts of our country are still run but the group if not largly run by it. These Groups not only effect the people they hurt or influence the whole religion and its believers are effected by this group. But i'm done writing this comment i could write for hours on this subject and many others pertaining to it but i'm not about to do that. Have a good day! :)

Anonymous said...

Aren't you overlooking the fact that the tree was the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil"? I take the scenario to be symbolic of humans learning and embracing the greatly unfortunate habit of labeling all things and events as "good" or "bad" Before this, everything simply "was". Without this constant judging humans were grounded in the present moment and felt more unified with the world (everything).

Unknown said...

Nothing wrong with eating from the tree? Really? I had expected a great deal more insight and comprehension from the author into the biblical account of the fall of mankind.

What is wrong with the act of eating from the tree? One thing, and the most fundamental in the history of man... the creature knowingly rebelled against the creator. Through this one transgression, sin and death entered the world, a world which prior to had no such tragedy.

Further, how selfish must you be to not perceive the moral component of the speed limit! The limit is there because the roads are a system composed of a multitude of users of varying capabilities. Through practice and time, we've arrived at the fastest velocity that results in the largest tolerable risk to the lives and safety of your fellow human beings.

This truly is a case of "love your neighbor as yourself"

"I didnt come to condemn the world but that through me the world might be saved" said...

All I will say is this, once you get your mind outside of the natural and what YOU see as right, you'll get somewhere. Since everyone will have different views on whats right, who actually has the right answer? Im talking about life for those of you who say "That's what science is for!" . There has to be one view that is abosutely correct. The only thing absolute are laws of nature. Who made these laws since it seem it was here before humans. Humans FOUND geometry and state that we advanced it. Humans FOUND out the theory of natural selection. All the information we have has been here. since the beginning of time. The topic you should be discussing is, who put it there? Honestly, God isn't that confusing of a topic there isn't ONE PERSON in this universe that doesn't know there is a god. If you don't listen to me that;s not my problem, I love you and god even more. However, if you will be the idiot to steer people away from God and not listen to logic( also another thing that contributes to the existence of god) that is not my problem. CIF
you wish to go to hell, be my guest just know this THIER IS POWER IN THE NAME OF JESUS " Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.And I will give you rest." Good luck trying to find your "purpose" in life.

Unknown said...

Interesting that you should say the creature "knowingly" rebelled against the creator, immediately after you said he ate from the Tree of KNOWLEDGE of Good and Evil. Just let that sink in for a second. Without having the knowledge to understand that eating the fruit was wrong or bad or evil or whatever, how could that creature have possibly been "knowingly rebelling" against his creator?