One of the many problems modern science poses for Christianity is the question of how to understand original sin. The traditional teaching, which holds that Adam and Eve were the only humans on the planet when they were created on day six of Creation Week, that the ground was cursed and they were expelled from Eden as a result of a specific sin they committed, and that this corrupted state was in some way passed down to all future human beings, is no longer tenable. A variety of lines of evidence make it clear that the human population has always numbered in the thousands and certainly never dipped down to two. Moreover, evolution makes clear that humans arose through eons of natural selection. There was no moment of creation, and there was no state of primordial perfection for them to sully.

So if we choose to reject the sensible approach of abandoning the doctrine of original sin altogether, then we must find some way of reconceptualizing it to bring it in line with what science is telling us. One possibility in that regard was presented by paleontologist Daryl Domning, in his book Original Selfishness (which also has contributions from theologian Monica Hellwig). His idea is that, in the light of evolution, we can understand our sinful natures as representative of the selfishness inherent in the evolutionary process. And while we do not inherit this nature from an original man and original woman, we do inherit them from the universal common ancestor. Domning writes:

What I have sought to show is that the overt selfish acts which, in humans, demonstrate the reality of original sin (by manifesting it in the form of actual sin) do indeed owe their universality among humans to natural descent from a common ancestor. This ancestor, however, far from being identifiable with the biblical Adam, must be placed in the very remote past, indeed at the very origin of life itself. It was the common ancestor not only of humans but of all other living things on Earth as well. However, it is not this ancestor itself that is of real interest, but the “natural descent” that proceeded from it: the very nature of physical life and the process of natural generation, which are governed by natural selection and the selfish behavior it requires

What can we say in response to such a suggestion? There is no fact of the matter regarding the correct interpretation of original sin. There is only what different believers and different faith communities say the doctrine means. So if Domning, or anyone else, finds it helpful to view original sin in this way, it is not for me to tell them they are wrong.

But I have to wonder, under this interpretation, what contribution is Christianity making to our understanding of anything? It seems that Domning is simply attaching a Christian label onto a body of knowledge produced by science. For what purpose should we do that? The traditional story provided concrete information that could only have been discovered by studying religious texts or by consulting a religious authority. Domning’s version just seems like an unnecessary add-on to a body of knowledge to which religion made no contribution whatsoever.

A different approach suggests that Adam and Eve were not the only human beings on the planet. Instead, they were selected from a preexisting human population to enter into a special relationship with God. Edward Feser defends that view. His argument is based on the idea that we should distinguish the creation of human beings from the creation of human bodies. He writes:

The implications of all of this should be obvious. There is nothing at all contrary to what Pius says in Humani Generis in the view that 10,000 (or for that matter 10,000,000) creatures genetically and physiologically like us arose via purely evolutionary processes. For such creatures — even if there had been only two of them — would not be “human” in the metaphysical sense in the first place. They would be human in the metaphysical sense (and thus in the theologically relevant sense) only if the matter that made up their bodies were informed by a human soul — that is, by a subsistent form imparting intellectual and volitional powers as well as the lower animal powers that a Planet of the Apes-style “human” would have. And only direct divine action can make that happen, just as (for A-T) direct divine action has to make it happen whenever one of us contemporary human beings comes into existence.

Supposing, then, that the smallest human-like population of animals evolution could have initially produced numbered around 10,000, we have a scenario that is fully compatible with Catholic doctrine if we suppose that only two of these creatures had human souls infused into them by God at their conception, and that He infused further human souls only into those creatures who were descended from this initial pair. And there is no evidence against this supposition.

I can think of some evidence against this supposition.

The first piece of evidence against it is that the Bible does not teach anything remotely like what Feser is describing. Let us recall Genesis 2: 4-8:

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up–for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.

Notice that, prior to the creation of Adam, we are told explicitly that there was no one to till the ground. Notice further that this account quite explicitly describes the creation of Adam’s physical body, and not just his mental endowments. Of course, later we are told of Eve’s creation from one of Adam’s ribs. This is further evidence that the story means to account for the origin of Adam and Eve’s physical bodies.

All of these points are in conflict with Feser’s account. Where in the Genesis story does he find a preexisting population of physically human but unensouled creatures? And how does he account for the Genesis language, which explicitly tries to account for physical bodies and not just for mental endowments? A story in which Adam is created as the first man and Eve is then created from one of his ribs is very different from a story in which Adam and Eve are singled out from a preexisting population to receive enhanced mental abilities. Is it not remarkable that the latter has so consistently been mistaken for the former? If the intent was to communicate a story along the lines Feser describes then the writing of Genesis 2 is pretty appalling.

As it happens, in his book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose, biochemist Denis Alexander defends an understanding of Adam and Eve that is nearly identical to what Feser describes. Alexander does provide a few Bible verses in defense of his view. I don’t find his verses remotely convincing, but I shall not discuss that here. Instead I would call attention to this statement from him:

Let us reiterate: of course the point with this model is not that the model itself is found within the Genesis text–it is not. The idea is to generate a working model that will explore the possible ‘narrative behind the narrative’, the events in human history that might at least be ‘consistent with’ the Genesis theological account.

“The model” refers to the idea that Adam and Eve were selected from a prior population of human-like creatures to have a special relationship with God. Alexander’s admission here is striking. If the model is not found in the Genesis text, then what reason do we have for thinking it is true? And why are we even looking for a ‘narrative behind the narrative’ or for events that are at least ‘consistent with’ Genesis? The narrative out there in front seems clear enough, after all.

The second line of evidence against Feser’s account comes from biology. His argument is based explicitly on the idea that it is biologically possible to have a creature that is physically indistinguishable from a human being, but which lacks certain higher reasoning abilities. He writes:

To make a human being, then, it is not enough to make something having all the sub-conceptual or sub-intellectual capacities of the human body. An animal having all those capacities may well look like a human being, and indeed have all the genetic and phenotypic attributes of a human being short of those phenotypic traits indicative of intellectual activity, such as language. Perhaps it would look and act like the apparently sub-rational “humans” in the original Planet of the Apes movie. But it would not be a human being in the sense in which A-T philosophers and Catholic theology understand “human being.” For our nature is simply not exhausted by whatever traits flow from our genetic endowment. “Human being” as used in A-T philosophy and Catholic theology is a metaphysical concept, and does not correspond exactly to (even if it overlaps with) the modern biological concept homo sapiens sapiens.

Leaving aside minor quibbles, like the fact that our traits are the result of the interaction of our genes with their environment and not just our genes alone, we should note that Catholic theologians have not the slightest basis for saying that our nature is simply not exhausted by our physical attributes. They assert that routinely, but there is no reason for believing that any human abilities are different in kind, and not just in degree, from things found in the animal kingdom.

Intelligence and rationality appear to be things that come in degrees. Dogs already have the ability to learn hundreds of commands. They can form complex emotional relationships with people. They can understand their place in a pack. All of this requires considerable mental processing ability. What basis is there for saying that purely physical processes in the brain can account for these, fairly sophisticated, mental accomplishments, but cannot account for abstract reasoning or rationality as well?

And that’s just dogs. Once we start contemplating apes the basis for Feser’s arguments gets very rickety indeed. Apes have sophisticated tool-making and tool-using capabilities. They can learn sign language and have shown an ability to combine signs in logical ways to express concepts beyond what they were specifically taught. Are you really confident they have no ability for abstraction or the use of logic?

So Feser’s argument is dubious for both Biblical and scientific reasons. But it also creates some very difficult theological problems. The traditional story has a certain logic to it. God creates the world in six days, with humans representing the highest aspect of that creation. He builds a special home for Adam and Eve, expecting them to populate the world with further creatures after their kind. Had Adam and Eve honored their obligations to God they could have lived in communion with Him forever, but instead they rebelled. As a result of that sin certain physical changes happened to the world. In this we have an explanation for why the world is as corrupt as it is, and why humanity falls short of what it could be.

Compare that with Feser’s story. Adam and Eve are just two members of a population of human-like but unensouled creatures. God then picks them out, on what basis is unclear, and endows them with an ability for abstract thinking and logical thought. Are they supposed to be grateful? I’m sure we all remember what happened to the smart kids in high school. Unless Adam and Eve’s unensouled brethren were exceptionally enlightened we can assume that the first couple immediately became social lepers. As a result of God’s gift, Adam and Eve are now completely unable to relate to their fellow human-like creatures. Their relationships with their former friends and neighbors is now similar the relationship I have with my cat. Then Adam and Eve were removed from the only life they knew and sent off to live by themselves in Eden. Again, are they supposed to be grateful? They are told to be fruitful and multiply, but after their first, really very small, transgression they are immediately expelled from their new home. To go where? Did they then rejoin their earlier population, forced to live out their lives among their intellectual inferiors?

I fail to see the logic in any of this. If evolution had finally produced a large population of animals now physically capable of receiving a proper human soul, what purpose of God’s could be served by singling out just two? Why not the entire population? Surely some people would then have made better use of the gift than others, and it would not have been necessary for all future humans to be tainted by Adam and Eve’s actions.

Feser does not address this point. But in a recent article in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, philosopher Kenneth Kemp offers this answer:

Second, would it not have been unjust of God to give to Adam and Eve the gift of a rational soul, a gift which would make them fully human (and immortal), with the additional prospect of eternal happiness with God in Heaven, while leaving in an animal state their siblings and cousins, who also … had a bodily constitution sufficient to sustain rational activity? I think not. A theology in which the existence of a Chosen People is a central theme in salvation history can surely accommodate the existence of a Chosen Couple. God did not owe Adam and Eve’s cousins a rational and therefore immortal soul. The hominization of Adam and Eve was a free gift.

But even leaving aside the question of how great a gift it really was, this answer is far too casual. The parents of two children may not owe them Christmas gifts, but having decided to give gifts at all most would think an injustice had occurred if they gave gifts to one child but not the other. Likewise here. God may not have owed anything to any of His creatures, but having decided to bestow gifts at all we must wonder about the justice of singling out just two people.

Also, the idea of a Chosen People is itself theologically problematic. Among Jews, a very common understanding of the notion is that the Jews are unique only in their willingness to accept a covenant with God. Which is to say, it is the Jews who chose God and not the other way around. On this understanding Kemp’s analogy clearly breaks down (unless the idea is that God offered ensoulment to everyone but Adam and Eve were the only ones to accept). I would argue that this is the only understanding of the idea of a Chosen People that does not raise serious questions about God’s justice and goodness.

Time to wrap this up. In science, it is fairly common to face the following situation: A theory works pretty well and explains a fair amount of data. But then some anomalies arise. Do we need to discard the theory completely, or is it just a matter of fine-tuning a few details? That is not the case with original sin. It is not as though we used to have really good reasons for thinking it is a valid and useful notion, but then modern science came along to provide a few distressing anomalies. Actually all we ever had was an ancient, Biblical account that told a pretty clear story about human sinfulness and its affect on the world. There was never any particular reason to think that story was true, and science now shows it to be completely false. But instead of throwing the idea of original sin straight in the garbage where it belongs, a lot of really smart people tie themselves into knots summoning forth strained reinterpretations of the doctrine. It is beyond comprehension to me that anyone could think this is a valuable use of time, or that our knowledge or understanding of the human condition are advanced, in even the slightest way, by such investigations.

Comments

  1. #1 Brad
    September 7, 2011

    God did not owe Adam and Eve’s cousins a rational and therefore immortal soul. The hominization of Adam and Eve was a free gift.

    This opens up a whole other can of worms. Presumably Cain and Abel had souls, but how do you determine who among the crossbred offspring between the souled and soulless has a soul? Is it genetic, matrilineal, patrilineal, cladistic, based on some arbitrary fraction of souled grandparents or what?

    Given the antiquity of some isolated human populations, there are likely some people alive today who could not possibly have a mid-eastern Adam and Eve in their family tree. I guess there’s no hope for them.

    What if I’m soulless yet believe in God and Jesus and have been baptized? God, unlike theologians, appears silent on these questions.

  2. #2 John Pieret
    September 7, 2011

    Where in the Genesis story does he find a preexisting population of physically human but unensouled creatures?

    The same place Cain found his wife?

  3. #3 itchy
    September 7, 2011

    You know how, if you go to something like DragonCon, you meet people who are so into it, you wonder if they understand these characters aren’t real? It’s fun and everything to deconstruct these stories in long-winded essays, but they are, after all, fiction. Arguing over their motivations is literary criticism, not history or philosophy.

  4. #4 Art
    September 8, 2011

    What Does Original Sin Mean in the Light of Modern Science?

    It means our distant early iron age ancestors didn’t have an answer to the question of where we came form but were, paradoxically, unwilling to accept not having an answer. So they made shit up. It means the whole set of ideas about souls, supernatural beings, a previous time of perfection that we lost, is a combination of wishful thinking and BS.

    It means we can drop the whole artifice of religion and superstition and everything that goes with it. Including the entire concept of original sin. There is no baby in this bathwater. Good riddance.

  5. #5 Pseudonym
    September 8, 2011

    Once again, while Jason is not responding to a straw man (in the sense that many do believe it), it’s the overly-elaborate Roman Catholic version.

    Many Christians have a much simpler view: “Original sin” is simply the tendency for humans to do what they know they’re not supposed to do and to fail to do what they know they’re supposed to do. The Eden narrative is a “Just So story” to explain where this well-established property of humans came from.

    Just because the Tower of Babel story is not historical, after all, doesn’t mean that people don’t speak different languages.

  6. #6 JimR
    September 8, 2011

    @5 “Many Christians have a much simpler view: “Original sin” is simply the tendency for humans to do what they know they’re not supposed to do and to fail to do what they know they’re supposed to do.”

    We attain this moral understanding through our natural biology, if we are not psychopathic. In this sense a commonly shared value had a label pasted on it a few 1,000 years ago and a whole religious edifice was built on this. The original sin was letting some campfire philosophers string together some of the then current stories with some whacky ideas and forcing everyone around them to put up with this BS on pain of banishment or stoning. Now that is the original sin.

  7. #7 Dunc
    September 8, 2011

    Domning also seems to be setting up the classic false dichotomy in which it is assumed that Man in the “state of nature” is completely selfish, asocial and amoral and he can only become social and co-operative through some “unnatural” process. It’s the old “nature = red in tooth and claw” bullshit, which we know is completely unfounded. Sociability is a highly adaptive trait and is common in primates.

  8. #8 Tore
    September 8, 2011

    People do bad things and people do good things. That is the way we are. Whether I do bad things or not has no bearing on what a distant forfather of mine did. I certainly object to being punished for any act he or she did.If theologians want to ponder upon that, is their problem.

  9. #9 Steve Ruble
    September 8, 2011

    …we should note that Catholic theologians have not the slightest basis for saying that our nature is simply not exhausted by our physical attributes. They assert that routinely, but there is no reason for believing that any human abilities are different in kind, and not just in degree, from things found in the animal kingdom.

    To be fair, Catholic theologians do make any argument for this position; I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Feser argue that since the concept of a triangle is immaterial, and we grasp that concept with our minds, our minds must be immaterial as well. Of course, that argument doesn’t have much to it – it just smuggles in immateriality through the unusual use of the word “grasp”, as far as I can tell – but when you’re talking about Feser it seems better to avoid giving him any excuse to pretend that you’re ignorant or that you’re misrepresenting him. Feser tends to jump on any such opportunity and to go on and on about straw men and how people don’t understand Aquinas and so on, rather than interacting with substantive points.

  10. #10 Valhar2000
    September 8, 2011

    It’s the old “nature = red in tooth and claw” bullshit, which we know is completely unfounded.

    It’s quite well founded; it’s just not universal.

  11. #11 Stephen
    September 8, 2011

    The so-called “A-T” / Catholic “model” is an interesting innovation, although the suggestion that there was a further metaphysical selection is a contemporary addition.

    Yet, to fit it to the biological assumptions means that the large group of pre-metaphysical hominid precursors lost the competition. Thus, metaphysical knowledge was a decisive advantage!

    We might expect to find evidence of this competition. Also, I suppose if we grant the conventions concerned with sinfulness, a lot of sinful behavior might have been required to overcome the pre-spiritual inferiors of one’s own species.

    Alternately, as one steps back through the developmental history–all the high minded concepts fall away until stages arrive, at which points our ancestors are first prior to culture; then prior to any linguistic skill; then prior to very much at all recognizably human–this unfolding in terms we project backward.

    What could God have been thinking of, to set up humanity in accordance with this innovative model? This God at least could have wired in monotheism from the git-go. Oh, that trickster!

  12. #12 Kel
    September 8, 2011

    Sociability is perfectly compatible with nature “red in tooth and claw”, just look at hyenas. ;)

  13. #13 John K.
    September 8, 2011

    I am baffled as to why this particular problem gives theologians pause while others are perfectly fine. The earth created before light? The plants created before the sun? Why not just say god “magic-ed” variation into humanity as it went along? Why stop using supernatural explanations now?

  14. #14 bobh
    September 8, 2011

    The statement you quote from Domning shows that Christianity developed a mythology to explain something that is seen in the world. It is not a unique mythology, just one attempt at explaining phenomenon that was not otherwise understood.

  15. #15 eric
    September 8, 2011

    Pseudonym: Many Christians have a much simpler view: “Original sin” is simply the tendency for humans to do what they know they’re not supposed to do and to fail to do what they know they’re supposed to do.

    So why didn’t the bible just say that? Your interpretation suffers from the same problem(s) as Feser’s: (1) there seems to be no actual literary support for it, (2) even if there were, that makes the author out to be a jerk who intentionally makes lessons more complicated and confusing than they need to be.

    [Jason quoting] Feser: For our nature is simply not exhausted by whatever traits flow from our genetic endowment. “Human being” as used in A-T philosophy and Catholic theology is a metaphysical concept, and does not correspond exactly to (even if it overlaps with) the modern biological concept homo sapiens sapiens.

    Did anyone else read this and immediately feel horror? This sort of reasoning is the basis of much past racism and slavery. I.e., ‘that tribe may look human, but they really aren’t – at least, not the same way we are.’ I’m also reminded of Descartes declaring that animals don’t feel pain. It’s all the same wormy apple. A philosophy used to rationalize unequal treatment, mistreatment, torture, etc..

    The concept that not all homo sapiens sapiens are ‘truly human’ is morally odious in the extreme.

  16. #16 Blaine
    September 8, 2011

    Right on!

    Maybe Neanderthals were the original humans and homo sapiens started with Adam and Eve…hasn’t Judaism/Christianity already died the death of a thousand qualifications?

    “Also, the idea of a Chosen People is itself theologically problematic. Among Jews, a very common understanding of the notion is that the Jews are unique only in their willingness to accept a covenant with God. Which is to say, it is the Jews who chose God and not the other way around.”

    This is laughable…as if they chose god…That’s why Moses, the Jewish Hitler, had the Jews engage in genocide as we read in Deuteronomy and Numbers. And that’s why god punished the Jews ( in the O.T. ) because they chose him? Ha, ha. Give it up already.

    The idea that we can derive anything positive out of the bible is hilarious.

  17. #17 Iain Walker
    September 8, 2011

    Steve Ruble (#9):

    I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Feser argue that since the concept of a triangle is immaterial, and we grasp that concept with our minds, our minds must be immaterial as well.

    A Catholic philosopher engaging in equivocation? Unheard of!

  18. #18 Iain Walker
    September 8, 2011

    eric (#15):

    Did anyone else read this and immediately feel horror?

    A bit, at first. It did kind of remind me of Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s comment that atheists are not “fully human”, but only kind of.

    But I doubt that Feser would claim that there are any modern Homo sapiens who aren’t human in his “metaphysical” sense – the worst he’s guilty of is suggesting that there was a period in history when Homo sapiens made a transition from being biologically human to being “metaphysically” human as well, prior to and during which there would have been members of the species who lacked that “metaphysical” component. It’s not hugely different from the idea that modern Homo sapiens evolved from an ancestor with more limited cognitive faculties (e.g., Homo ergaster). However, Homo ergaster is extinct, and all modern members of the Genus Homo are in fact Homo sapiens, and so the question of enslaving or exploiting the former is not a live moral issue.

    (Defending Feser feels very odd. I may have to lie down for a while.)

    The concept that not all homo sapiens sapiens are ‘truly human’ is morally odious in the extreme.

    Depends on what you mean by “truly human”. Without some kind of qualification, what you’ve got here sounds like a typical anti-abortionist argument. In any case, I certainly don’t have any problem with regarding cognitive capacity as having greater moral significance than membership of a particular species – in fact, in my possibly limited experience this is quite a common position amongst secular humanists.

  19. #19 eric
    September 8, 2011

    Iain Walker – But I doubt that Feser would claim that there are any modern Homo sapiens who aren’t human in his “metaphysical” sense

    I am not particularly worried about Feser the individual. I’m worried about other people who will take his idea and run with it. Because many in the past have.

    Depends on what you mean by “truly human”. Without some kind of qualification, what you’ve got here sounds like a typical anti-abortionist argument.

    You’re right, it did sorta sound that way. I didn’t mean it to. For the record, my argument is opposed to using “soul” as a criteria for what populations, minorities racial groups, etc… get human rights. IMO the pro-life movement is doing exactly what I argue against. I have no problem with treating blastocysts differently from adults. I do have a problem treating adults differently based on how (or from whom) they originated.

  20. #20 GregH
    September 8, 2011

    “One of the many problems modern science poses for Christianity is the question of how to understand original sin.”

    Science also has nothing to say about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This is nothing more than intellect wankery.

  21. #21 Martin
    September 8, 2011

    Eve was formed from Adams rib so was therefore genetically identical to Adam and therefore a man, or Adam was a woman and they bred initially through Parthenogenesis for their children till there was a mutation and man and woman became separate sexes and Cain and Abel could have their wives. See anyone can have a stupid theory. What the bible says is myth and does not even deserve to be given any credit.

  22. #22 JimV
    September 8, 2011

    I’ve seen several current or semi-current blog posts on the subject of Original Sin (Andrew Sullivan did one recently – probably not worth fisking). In the comments to one a Jewish person wrote to request that Christians stop messing around with the Torah because there is no such concept (OS) in it. Some quick googling seemed to confirm that, i.e., that the Jewish religion says everyone has the choice to sin or not to sin, regardless of what Adam and Eve did. (News to me, probably not to Dr. Rosenhouse.)

    I thought that was interesting, that the people who wrote the Old Testament did not believe it meant what Christians say it does. (Now there’s a sneaky bit of “revelation”.)

    Of course, the answer is, religions evolve – just like everything else.

  23. #23 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 8, 2011

    JimV –

    You’re right that there’s no notion of original sin within Judaism. The doctrine arose as the result of certain statements by Paul in Romans and Corinthians, which identify Adam specifically as the reason humanity needs a savior. It is a standard part of Christian theology that at least certain portions of the Old Testament can only be understood in light of the New.

  24. #24 Iain Walker
    September 8, 2011

    eric (#19):

    You’re right, it did sorta sound that way. I didn’t mean it to.

    I suspected as much …

  25. #25 Jim Harrison
    September 8, 2011

    A fair number of modern theologians treat the idea of original sin as descriptive rather than explanatory. They observe that whoever we are, we find that we are not the masters of ourselves, not only because we experience bodily desires and needs as out of our conscious control even if we can manage not to act upon them, but because our character and outlook is something we didn’t devise. When ever we begin to think about ourselves, we have to play catch up trying to figure out how we got here, why we think the way we do, and why we did the things that our memory tells us we did—structurally, repenting is like reflecting. Crucial things have always already happened and we struggle to catch up with them. The phenomenological existentialist Martin Heidegger, whose earlier work was an attempt to characterize what we all have in common as existing human beings, called this fix, Geworfenheit, which means something like Thrown-ness in German. You just woke up in a strange motel lying next to some woman you don’t recognize. Or you’re a sixty something guy in an apartment in San Francisco. Same difference. (And good luck.)

    If I were hired to make sense out of the original sin concept—Harrison’s Custom Axiomatic Systems: alterations done on premises—I wouldn’t go in for dubious evolutionary theories. I’d interpret the snake in the garden business as a way of representing the human situation as it is rather than as an account of what caused it to be what it is. That’s not a very comforting answer or much of any kind of answer, but lots of Christians and other individuals who identify with traditional religions don’t really think they have answers. You might be able to sell them the notion that Original Sin is a way of posing a question.

  26. #26 eric
    September 8, 2011

    Jim Harrison: If I were hired to make sense out of the original sin concept…I’d interpret the snake in the garden business as a way of representing the human situation as it is rather than as an account of what caused it to be what it is.

    The NT pretty much requires a normative, origin story to be sensible. One has to make the claim that our current state is broken before “here’s a fix” becomes relevant. If we aren’t broken, or God intentionally made us broken, then salvation from hell makes little sense. It becomes unjust in the first case and form of cruel political theater in the second.

  27. #27 Jim Harrison
    September 8, 2011

    eric:

    I’ve observed that critics of Christianity often assume an awful lot about their adversaries, for example that they believe in a more or less literal hell. Many of ‘em obviously do, but there is a long tradition of Christians who don’t, especially in the U.S. where liberal Protestants and lay Catholics haven’t taken very much very literally for a long time. I’m not a Christian or a believer of any description, but simply respect for the facts makes me uncomfortable with creating strawmen in the fashion of the new atheists. It would be rhetorically convenient if Christians would agree to be sitting ducks, but actual people have their own purposes; including, for example, using a tradition to articulate and manage contemporary problems.

  28. #28 Collin
    September 8, 2011

    The story of Adam and Eve is a fable. The question is not how it compares to reality; we already know it doesn’t. The question is what moral to get from the story.

    As I see it, the sixth day lasted for several hundred thousand years, and Adam and Eve represent the entire human race. They were faced with a choice of whether to obey a nonsense command, or whether to think for themselves. In this context, disobedience wasn’t a sin. God wanted them to disobey, to prove that they were human.

    The curse given to Adam was not that the ground changed to require plowing. It was that people started to prefer some foods over others, so strongly that they felt the need to plow the ground to cultivate better tasting food.

    The curse given to Eve was simply that birth became more difficult as human brain size increased.

    The curse given to the serpent, a symbol of intuition, was that people would need to refine their intuition by “feeding it the dust” of more careful reasoning.

  29. #29 AnswersInGenitals
    September 8, 2011

    This is the first time I have to disagree with Jason. Feser is the living proof of his own contentions. His irrationality and intellectual vacuity certainly identify him as a purebred descendent from a pair of the 9,998 remnant non-human homo sapiens.

    Dunc in comment # 7:

    “Sociability is a highly adaptive trait and is common in primates.”

    It is also common in bacteria. Many (most?) strains of bacteria also have a highly refined language. In fact, one of their favorite aphorisms is “better living through chemistry”.

  30. #30 eric
    September 8, 2011

    Jim Harrison: I’ve observed that critics of Christianity often assume an awful lot about their adversaries, for example that they believe in a more or less literal hell.

    Fair enough. Replace “salvation from hell” in my complaint with the less contentious “salvation theology.” I think you’ll find the complaint remains relevant. Its cruel to require our worship to achieve salvation if there is nothing broken in us to begin with, and it’s mere theater if the guy doing the saving is the same guy who made us in need of salvation to begin with.

  31. #31 Deepak Shetty
    September 8, 2011

    And that He infused further human souls only into those creatures who were descended from this initial pair. And there is no evidence against this supposition.
    Feser’s reasoning is amusing which essentially is – There is no evidence against my supposition that has been carefully crafted so that there is no evidence against it and which I will tweak every time there is some evidence found, so that I can still hold onto my silly suppositions.
    There are of course a bunch of other suppositions that we could make that there is no evidence for (Why couldn’t it have been the devil who fused the souls or some alien performing sexual experiments – no evidence against that either!)

  32. #32 JimV
    September 8, 2011

    Dr. Jerry Coyne (at “Why Evolution Is True” has a follow-up post to this one in which he says that there is evidence against Feser’s supposition: that genetically all of us could not be descended from Feser’s “original pair” anymore than we could be descended from Adam and Eve or Mr. and Mrs. Noah. Feser would have to assume further that soulless zombies still walk among us.

  33. #33 eric
    September 8, 2011

    Feser would have to assume further that soulless zombies still walk among us.

    Or come up with another epicycle for his theory. Let’s face it, for folks like Feser the conclusion is fixed and the justifications morph as needed.

  34. #34 heddle
    September 8, 2011

    Jason,

    I would argue with your use of justice when referring to God choosing either a couple or a people. It is true that it is a form of non-justice–but in the good sense: Grace or mercy is a form of non-justice–giving people what they do not deserve in a positive sense, but it is not injustice–giving people what they do not deserve in a negative sense

    That god is “unfair” is a fair if not manifestly true charge, but he can be unfair solely by giving mercy to some, justice (in light of original sin) to everyone else, and being unjust to none. Whether or not the bible teaches this is debatable (I think it does) but the possibility theoretically exists.

    And are you sure it is a common position among the Jews that they chose god and not the other way around? It seems obviously wrong. God pretty clearly chose Abraham for no obvious reason (at least that he cared to share)–and then made a covenant concerning his descendants–who then repeatedly violated the terms. I think it is a stretch to claim that the Jews in any sense chose god or were in any way special beyond that they were descendants of Abraham.

    One point about the biblical account. It does not demand that Adam and Eve would have lived forever had they not sinned. After all it says that god warned that on the day they sinned they would surely die. But Adam, by the same biblical account, surely did not stop breathing on that day. So either god lied or the death happened as god said but it was a spiritual death, i.e., the fall/original sin. This is consistent with what Paul would write later about any man before salvation: you were dead in your sins. So, if it was spiritual death that god promised and delivered on that day, we are left with nothing in the bible that teaches Adam/Eve would have lived forever.

    I too believe that there were other hominids indistinguishable from Adam and Eve. I believe that Y-chromsome Adam and Mitochondrial Eve do not have to point to Adam and Eve but simply to their ancestors. And I believe the existence of the soulless humans accounts for where the sons of Adam obtained their spouses. And I don’t see why Adam and Eve would have to be smarter–they simply have to be ensouled. How God then, over time, culled that population I have no clue. But compared to creating the universe, it seems like a rather second rate divine intervention to cause the population of zombies to die out.

    Finally, the bible does not demand that the whole earth was a paradise before Adam and Eve fell–after all if it were, what made Eden special? It would have been indistinguishable from its surroundings. Eden might have been an enclave (a garden) and outside the garden nature was quite red in tooth and claw.

  35. #35 Kel
    September 8, 2011

    ‘Spiritual death’ is the biggest cop-out, as shown by the recent apocalypse prediction. ‘Yes it did happen, just spiritually.’ It’s an unquantifiable assertion, effectively meaningless, but boy does it seem to go a long way!

  36. #36 JimC
    September 8, 2011

    but he can be unfair solely by giving mercy to some, justice (in light of original sin) to everyone else, and being unjust to none.

    I would argue that the above is both unfair and unjust although i do feel this is simple wordplay.

    It does not demand that Adam and Eve would have lived forever had they not sinned. After all it says that god warned that on the day they sinned they would surely die.

    This is what is so absurd about apologists. The continual whack a mole for the absurd arguments. The tense matters. It is a future tense in the reading. But that aside people choose literal when it suites them and allegory when it doesn’t.

    But Adam, by the same biblical account, surely did not stop breathing on that day. So either god lied or the death happened as god said but it was a spiritual death, i.e., the fall/original sin.

    No he meant death, as in drop dead at some point which he would not have done had he not eaten it. I am amazed at the ability of the human mind to try and rescue something that they arrive at for unsound reasons. Just bizarre.

    Another option is the author simply wasn’t concerned with some dolt in 2011 trying to make literal sense of his story. He wrote dead and then went on to the more important parts of the narrative. He vastly underestimated humanity.

    This is consistent with what Paul would write later about any man before salvation: you were dead in your sins. So, if it was spiritual death that god promised and delivered on that day, we are left with nothing in the bible that teaches Adam/Eve would have lived forever

    Nothing like tossing out the plain reading millions and millions had understood. Don’t eat the apple live forever, eat apple introduce death by sin into the world. Dead in your sins means no salvation post actual human death. Dead=dead.

    Simple fact is evolution does real harm to religions. Evolution is so obviously correct both by its explanatory nature and predictive power that it must be somehow accomadated. Unfortunately there is no good way to paste the religious narrative into known evolutionary knowledge without the narrative collapsing in on itself. Better to stick your fingers in your ears and go lalala. For most it will get them through the day.

  37. #37 Brian
    September 9, 2011

    As a non-believing, yet still practicing (gotta keep the peace on the home front) cultural Mormon who has just recently come to grips with all of the fallacies of logic which are present in any religious theology, I want to make two points regarding the fall. First, there is not a single good reason, rational or empirical, to believe in a God/gods. Second, and this was the clincher for me personally, the atonement for our sins by the sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. I am not hostile to anyone who is religious, but here is my big question, why was the atonement necessary? The fall right? Wrong. Because we are all sinners? Nope. The atonement was necessary so that the demands of justice would be satisfied. In the Book of Mormon, Alma 42: 13-15 LDS theology teaches that the atonement was necessary in order to appease the demands of justice.

    13 Therefore, according to justice, the plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state, yea, this preparatory state; for except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice. Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God.
    14 And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence.
    15 And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.

    So here is my big question, whose justice needed to be satisfied anyway? Not God’s justice, justice is God’s master, if God does not act justly he ceases to be God, at least according to LDS theology. WTF is that all about, forget about the fall, why the hell was an atonement even necessary? So next time you get into an argument about evolution and the fall with a theist ask them to explain to you why the fall necessitated the atonement? Also what exactly was the killing of the son of God supposed to accomplish? This fallacy of logic is universal among all of the Christian denominations.

    You cannot have the fall with evolution, period. No fall means you don’t really have a need for an atonement to redeem mankind from the fall and sin, plus nobody has a clue how exactly the atonement satisfies the demands of justice. In short, this universe only makes sense if there is no such thing as god.

  38. #38 Pseudonym
    September 9, 2011

    Brian, I can’t speak for LDS theology, but one common ultra-liberal Protestant take on it is that “atonement” probably wasn’t “necessary” in the sense that most people think of it.

    One strong undercurrent in Christian theology, and it was probably an idea that came in very early as Jesus’ followers tried to make sense of Jesus’ death, is that Jesus represented a fulfilment of the Levitical law. The law, for example, required elaborate sacrificial rituals involving high priests under various circumstances. To do away with that, for there to be no more requirements for high priests, the sacrificial ritual had to be done once and for all.

    A lot of the symbolism in the passion narratives seems to be geared towards that, such as the temple veil being torn and the comparisons between Jesus and the passover lamb.

    So, in the ultra-liberal take on things, it wasn’t like anything actually happened, but more like the greatest demonstration that it wasn’t necessary any more. There’s quite a bit more to it than that, of course, but this is the thinking on that aspect of it.

  39. #39 heddle
    September 9, 2011

    Kel,

    It’s [spiritual death] an unquantifiable assertion, effectively meaningless, but boy does it seem to go a long way

    Yes the very concept (spiritual death) that necessitates the need of a savior is meaningless. We just toss it in for convenience.

    JimC,

    No he meant death, as in drop dead at some point which he would not have done had he not eaten it.

    That is the YEC interpretation, that the text for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die means that you will only start to die. But, in spite of your confident assertion that it is the future tense, an assertion for which you have no basis, the Hebrew is more consistent with on that very day you will die.* For that to be true it would have to be spiritual death–a death far more consistent with the remaining 1186 chapters in the bible which are about spiritual redemption, not the least of which is Jesus’ comment that you must be “born again” which is clearly a spiritual rebirth from a state of spiritual death.

    Simple fact is evolution does real harm to religions.

    Simple fact is that you want it to.

    ———————————
    * As further evidence, I can point out that a number of church fathers adopted a non six-day interpretation of genesis for exactly this reason. Unlike you they did not declare it was future tense because it was convenient for their argument. They agreed that it meant on that very day. They solved it by the “day is like a thousand years” verses, saying that God had 1000 years to carry out his punishment. Which then caused them to argue that creation took not six 24-hour days but 6000 years. The original old-earthers. If only you were around you could have save them the trouble by correcting their Hebrew. And all the biblical translators since who, if you are so obviously correct, could have easily translated it to indicate that physical death was now inevitable but who have consistently translated it as “on that day you will surely die.”

  40. #40 Kel
    September 9, 2011

    Yes the very concept (spiritual death) that necessitates the need of a savior is meaningless. We just toss it in for convenience.

    I’m not here to argue it’s importance to Christianity, I just want to know what it means. What is this spirit, how did we come to possess it, in what sense did it die, and how can we substantiate any of it?

    Meh, all this seems like taking mythic storytelling far too literally. Yes, I get that it’s the cornerstone of Christianity – which only makes it even easier to profess atheism. It’s like arguing over which of Santa’s reindeer got the others to gang up on the one with the red nose.

  41. #41 Eric MacDonald
    September 9, 2011

    Jason, this doesn’t quite work, does it?

    Also, the idea of a Chosen People is itself theologically problematic. Among Jews, a very common understanding of the notion is that the Jews are unique only in their willingness to accept a covenant with God. Which is to say, it is the Jews who chose God and not the other way around.

    The story in the Torah is quite different than this. It shows God actively choosing all along the way. As it says in Deuteronomy:

    For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

    It is true that, Joshua, at one point, says, essentially, those who follow the Lord, stand with me. But that is only after a long filtering process, in which antecedents were chosen, like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc., in a long line. As Amos says:

    “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins.”

    So God singles out the the Israelites from amongst the nations. So, whether theologically problematic or not, the Israelites are the Chosen People, and they conceive of themselves as chosen. (Being chosen and choosing are reflexive in this sense.)

    Let’s face it though. Whatever expedient is chosen in the effort to make the stories relevant today, there is simply no basis for doing so in what we now know about how we came to be. The idea that God infused souls into chosen human beings who would be actually human in contradiction to the rest is just silly. It is clear that the Israelites in the OT or Tanakh thought of themselves as distinct, and those, for example, who returned from Babylonian captivity were required to put away foreign wives, but there is not a chance in the world that the lineage is pure and that there is therefore no admixture of non-soul bearing apparent human beings. This is ludicrous stuff.

  42. #42 Jeannette Schmidt
    September 9, 2011

    Attempts to reconcile Genesis with science show a profound lack of understanding of literary genre. Genesis is a version of ancient creation myths told with more theological insight than other versions. The sense of a fallen nature and exile cuts across time and culture: we are all connected in our condition. What Christianity contributes is not some arcane pseudo-science interpretation of Genesis, but rather the good news that we are delivered from this state. Our nature lacks the ability to overcome our collective, mysterious fault without divine intervention.

  43. #43 Iain Walker
    September 9, 2011

    Jeannette Schmidt (#42):

    Genesis is a version of ancient creation myths told with more theological insight than other versions.

    Devotees of those other versions might beg to differ.

    Our nature lacks the ability to overcome our collective, mysterious fault without divine intervention.

    Hmm. And given that “our collective, mysterious fault” and our inability to overcome it is the doing of this same divine source, remind me why we are supposed to be grateful for this?

  44. #44 Ian Kemmish
    September 9, 2011

    A couple of points:

    1) To be pedantic about it, Genesis describes the creation of two similar but not identical worlds, and therefore four first people.

    2) Throughout the Pentateuch, the Abrahamic god’s morality is entirely different to man’s. To expect that god to be fair, compassionate and just is meaningless (and might even be sinful). It expects only obedience from its creations. When the psychopath Jacob shows obedience, he and all his descendants are collectively rewarded; when the honest man Esau shows less obedience than his brother, he and all his descendants are collectively punished. It even tests the Israelites by first telling them not to make molten images and then ordering to break this commandment and make brazen serpents. This may all seem arbitrary and unfair to the more thoughtful and disobedient segment of humankind, but then, the Abrahamic god doesn’t care about them.

  45. #45 heddle
    September 9, 2011

    Not sure what the big deal about pure bloodlines is. In the NT it is made clear that Abraham’s descendants are not limited to his bloodline, and that sons of Abraham can be raised from the rocks. But even in the OT Judaism permitted Gentile converts. Either the second class “godfearers” who were not allowed full temple access or full equal-member converts who were willing to undergo circumcision.

  46. #46 heddle
    September 9, 2011

    Jeannette Schmidt

    Our nature lacks the ability to overcome our collective, mysterious fault without divine intervention.

    That is, spot-on, the very definition of “Original Sin.” A moral inability.

  47. #47 Kevin
    September 9, 2011

    Excellent post. Only one small quibble.

    Do not conflate “smart” with “verbose”.

    Feser, et al, are verbose. I see no evidence they are “smart” in the traditional sense of being able to actually understand the concepts they’re discussing. If they were smart, they’d understand in an instant that they’re trying to explain why unicorns are both pink and invisible.

  48. #48 Iain Walker
    September 9, 2011

    heddle (#34):

    And I don’t see why Adam and Eve would have to be smarter–they simply have to be ensouled.

    In which case, if there’s no obvious distinction in terms of cognitive performance, what difference is possession of a “soul” supposed to make? At least Feser explicitly links the idea of ensoulment with higher cognitive function – i.e., something that makes a discernible difference to being ensouled and not being ensouled.

    How God then, over time, culled that population I have no clue. But compared to creating the universe, it seems like a rather second rate divine intervention to cause the population of zombies to die out.

    I’m assuming that this is tongue in cheek, because otherwise it has some rather horrific moral implications:

    1) That you think it’s OK for God to commit genocide.

    or

    2) That you don’t think it counts as genocide, because “zombies” don’t have souls (even though possession of a soul makes no discernible cognitive difference).

  49. #49 eric
    September 9, 2011

    Heddle: For that to be true it would have to be spiritual death–a death far more consistent with the remaining 1186 chapters in the bible which are about spiritual redemption,

    And which were written with the author’s full knowledge that humans didn’t die. I actually find this a decent reason to agree with your ‘spiritual death’ interpretation – I mean, even the author of Genesis had to know that humans didn’t die out.

    However, the fact that later authors like Paul wrote commentary to align with known history does not supply any reason to believe the theology. Agreement in this case is explained by perfectly mundane reasons and not theological ones.

    That is, spot-on, the very definition of “Original Sin.” A moral inability.

    But why do we have this inability and why are we punished for it? Does God intentionally make each new person flawed? Is the whole salvation story just a form of theater wherein God ‘fixes’ a problem he put there in the first place?

    We can point out the terrible scientific flaws of a literal Genesis, but one of its pros is that it tries to answer these questions in a way that paints God as not directly responsible for human evil. Take away those answers, and what is the Christian textual basis for believing God is benevolent?

  50. #50 heddle
    September 9, 2011

    eric,

    However, the fact that later authors like Paul wrote commentary to align with known history does not supply any reason to believe the theology.

    Of course you are correct. Even if you became convinced that the bible has no scientific, historic, or archeological errors, it would be no reason to believe the theology.

    Take away those answers, and what is the Christian textual basis for believing God is benevolent?

    If he is not the author of evil/sin (a currently unsolved problem as to how that is possible) then he is benevolent in that he has provided a means for some to overcome its effect. He is certainly not omni-benovelant, as all the “ites” in Joshua’s path O’ Death and Destruction can attest to.

  51. #51 eric
    September 9, 2011

    If he is not the author of evil/sin (a currently unsolved problem as to how that is possible)…

    But Genesis 1 provides a partial solution. It may not be great but its the only real solution you have. That’s the whole point here, heddle: an allegorical reading of Genesis pulls away what little rug you had left under the table.

  52. #52 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 9, 2011

    heddle @34, Eric MacDonald @41

    I am definitely on safe ground in saying that many Jews interpret the notion of the Chosen People in the way I described. I grew up attending a conservative synagogue, and this is precisely what they taught me in Sunday school. I see the ever-useful Wikipedia says, “The idea of chosenness has traditionally been interpreted by Jews in two ways: one way is that God chose the Israelites, while the other idea is that the Israelites chose God.” It’s certainly true that the latter interpretation requires assuming a few things that are not specifically stated in the Torah, but I don’t think Jews necessarily have a problem with that. There is no notion of Sola Scriptura in Judaism, and the tradition of rabbinic interpretation is considered a perfectly valid source of information and insight. My suspicion, not based on much so if any Jewish historians want to correct me I’m all ears, is that the “Jews chose God” approach arose specifically as a way of understanding the doctrine that didn’t make God seem horribly unfair and unjust. My analogy to the parents who play favorites with their children seems apt here. I’m afraid I cannot see any justice or fairness in God singling out one group of people for special treatment, especially when He surely knows what happens one group of people tells its neighbors that they are uniquely favored by God. Moreover, even leaving aside questions of justice or fairness, I cannot see what divine purpose could be served by offering His laws to just one group of people. Does not Christianity teach that God wants fellowship with all people?

    heddle @34 –

    Could you explain to me where in the Bible you are finding a pre-Adamic population of hominids? Am I misinterpreting Genesis 2:4-8? Those verses really do seem clear that Adam was the first man, and that the story is meant to account not just for his superior mental endowments bot for his physical body as well. (Incidentally, just to be clear, it was Feser who linked ensoulment with superior mental abilities, as shown in the quotations I presented above.) Certainly in Genesis 4 we learn of the existence of people who were not explicitly accounted for in the prior chapters, but those events happened well after Adam’s creation.

    I would also reiterate the point I made in the opening post. I cannot see any logic to the story that people like Feser and Alexander are telling. The traditional story makes perfect sense and is entirely consistent with what the Bible says. But where is the logic in God causing the Big Bang, waiting something like 14 billion years for animals with just the right physical architecture to show up, and then singling out just two people to receive a soul? I realize it is not for me to tell God what is reasonable and what is not, but that excuse has its limits.

    I’m sorry, but to me this still looks like sheer desperation to preserve a doctrine that simply has no basis in reality. There is no Biblical, scientific or logical reason to think that Adam and Eve were singled out by God from a large population of unensouled hominids.

  53. #53 heddle
    September 9, 2011

    eric,

    I’m not seeing your point. What is it about my faith or theology that is standing on just a little rug? That is news to me. And how does an literal reading of Genesis One provide a partial theodicy? It still has no solution to the problem of evil. It’s a 0 = 0. Neither view has anything to say about the problem of evil.

  54. #54 eric
    September 9, 2011

    Heddle: I’m not seeing your point.

    If God made us this way and then punishes us for being this way, that is evil. The genesis account moves the responsibility for our condition at least partially elsewhere. I don’t want to argue with you about how effectively it does that. What I am trying to point out is that without the genesis story, Christianity has no origin for the “flawed” human condition other than straight from God.

  55. #55 skdfjsdlk
    September 9, 2011

    As a scientist, I would view the Bible as a PRIMITIVE, SAVAGE AND BARBARIC THEORY on the origin and developmental progression of the universe. As simple as that. Nice Try at guessing and explaining your surroundings and whereabouts kind of thing. In this case, it shouldn’t be surprising that the contents of the Bible do not accurately match and reflect the much more complicated and elaborate modern theory on the origin of everything.

    Unless Jesus stops torturing his own creations by making them wait for his second coming forever to execute his divine justice, and finally comes back and kicks my behind for trying to speculate on where the hell the Bible came from.

  56. #56 heddle
    September 9, 2011

    eric,

    If God made us this way and then punishes us for being this way, that is evil.

    That is not what is taught in the bible. What is taught is that god made man (be it by special creation or theistic-evolution plus ensoulment) with the ability not to sin (and the ability to sin.) When Adam did sin, he lost the ability not to sin. This moral inability is then passed down by natural generation. But it wasn’t made by god.

    You can argue that god is evil for punishing us for the way we are born. But you can’t argue that he made us this way.

  57. #57 Nemo
    September 9, 2011

    Well, this is mostly just so much angelic pinhead counting to me, but I find this an interesting point:

    the human population has always numbered in the thousands

    I know what you’re saying here, but I must protest: there was surely a time when the human population numbered in the zeroes. And so, how did we get from there, to here? Was there no first human to cross that line?

    Of course, the answer is no — because there is no line. It seems to me that this is one of the hardest points to make to people who don’t understand evolution, but one of the most fundamental: in historical terms, there are no lines, anywhere. We can draw some pretty solid lines between living populations — no one would suggest that you can’t tell a human from a chimpanzee, for example. But go back, and back, and back, until you hit the most recent common ancestor of these two populations. Which nth-great-grandfather crossed that line to “human”? None. It never happened. There is no line.

  58. #58 lkhgklj
    September 9, 2011

    It would be interesting to see Jesus, if real, finally return and explain what he needs to explain to people knowing that there are people out there, who have absolutely no comprehension of anything. Why would god create idiots and try and have a conversation with them on matter far beyond their intellectual reach!

  59. #59 Lenoxus
    September 9, 2011

    I have to admit that the loss of original sin is one of my least favorite arguments for why evolution is problematic for Christianity. It’s like saying that evolution poses serious problems for the idea that invisible brown centaurs are responsible for existence of music, becuause centaurs violate the nested hierarchy. The problems with the original sin story are so numerous and deep even if there is a first couple that it’s difficult to see biology as worsening things by removing that couple.

  60. #60 Fake Herzog
    September 9, 2011

    Hey Jason (and everyone else),

    As a believing Christian Catholic, I disagree with your analysis, but since I’d rather not get into a tedious internet debate, I thought you’d find these additional thoughts from atheists on how to reconcile Genesis with science interesting (they are from one of Ed’s commenters):

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/
    intelligent-design/so-you-dont-believe-in-adam-and-eve-ask-an-atheist-for-advice/

    Enjoy!

  61. #61 Pseudonym
    September 9, 2011

    skdfjsdlk:

    As a scientist, I would view the Bible as a PRIMITIVE, SAVAGE AND BARBARIC THEORY on the origin and developmental progression of the universe. As simple as that.

    As a scientist, I freely admit that I have no expertise on ancient history, or ancient literature, or comparative religion, or any that’s actually relevant to make a judgment on such matters.

    On the other hand, as a literate person, I use the fact that the book I’m reading features a talking snake as a clue to what genre it is. Thankfully, you don’t need to be an expert on literature to do that.

  62. #62 Jim
    September 10, 2011

    The Adam and Eve creation story reads like a fireside yarn told over the generations thousands of years ago. No-one knows who the first storyteller was. It is a great tale. I take exception to it being used as a factual account, and find it also indefensible when modern evolution theory is hijacked by some sort of nebulous idea that sometime, somewhere there was an Adam and Eve, and we just don’t know when. Evolution doesn’t work like that. It isn’t how new species evolve. Children can’t be a different species to their parents. There wasn’t a miraculous human first pair with primate parents. “Gee Dad, you really are an ape, aren’t you!”

    That would be absurd, the number or mutations needed ridiculous, large mutations are almost invariably harmful, for 2 of the same to appear impossible (except for identical twins). Different species evolve when there are geographical separations and different environmental pressures, and over VERY long periods of time and MANY generations the groups diverge, such that eventually they become separate species. No species evolves overnight. They evolve by degrees such that NO offspring can be identified as a different species (those that are too different can’t mate and die out). Between different species are individual types who could mate with either species, being an intermediate step. Species are only recognisable as such well after they have evolved.

    So was it supposedly a pair of Homo Habilis possibly 2.2 million years ago who did the evil deed in their “Eden”? Or was our sinful forebear in fact Homo Rudolfensis? Or maybe a naughty homo erectus couple with a brain size closer to ours (who overlapped Habilis in our timeline) sometime in the last 2 million years? Or the African Erectus called homo Ergaster? from 1.5 to perhaps 1.8 million years ago? Or maybe Homo Heidebergensis who may be a step between Erectus and Sapiens? Or do you prefer the term Archaic Homo Sapiens from about 900,000 years ago when this ancestor evolved from Erectus? Or Homo Sapiens Sapiens who appeared about 140,000 years ago? Did a couple from that ancestor group commit the original sin??

    Our biological common Eve (mitochondrial Eve) is dated at about 140,000 years ago in Africa, but Y-chromosome Adam, who is the common male ancestor of all males today, is dated at 60,000 years ago from southern Asia most likely. Of course, every different gene we have could be traced back to completely different common ancestors, as gene inheritance is different to overall ancestral trees, so we are the product of a massive number of genetic forebears. So was it a different sinful Adam who was so sinful that he didn’t even get to pass on his genes after being a naughty boy with Eve? That would make the OT genealogy seem even more lame.

    The idea that a theoretically identifiable landmark male and female pair in some unknown period in our ancient past committed the original sin is a scientifically ludicrous concept. Which makes it theologically absurd as well. Why anyone would bother to try to defend it is beyond me.

  63. #63 Jim
    September 10, 2011

    Maybe we should investigate the process of abiogenesis.

    Let’s do an experiment to see if life can evolve from inanimate matter. Put a whole lot of basic chemicals in a giant autoclave, and see what happens.

    How big can or should the autoclaved medium be, what sort, and how long can we wait for an answer?

    I suggest a large medium which is earth size, orbiting a sun like ours, with a moon like ours, and perhaps waiting a billion years.

    We’ll meet back at my place at the end to see how it has gone.

  64. #64 Iain Walker
    September 10, 2011

    eric (#49):

    We can point out the terrible scientific flaws of a literal Genesis, but one of its pros is that it tries to answer these questions in a way that paints God as not directly responsible for human evil. Take away those answers, and what is the Christian textual basis for believing God is benevolent?

    But even with those answers, the scriptural basis for believing God to be benevolent is slim at best. The Garden of Eden story, whether taken literally or not, still paints God as criminally incompetent or as a manipulative sadist.

  65. #65 Iain Walker
    September 10, 2011

    heddle (#56):

    That is not what is taught in the bible. What is taught is that god made man (be it by special creation or theistic-evolution plus ensoulment) with the ability not to sin (and the ability to sin.)

    Actually, that’s not at all clear from the text. Adam and Eve are created without moral awareness (without “knowledge” of good and evil), and so are not morally culpable for their acts. In which case, they have neither the ability to sin nor the ability not to sin, since such “abilities” presuppose that they are moral agents with a sense of right and wrong. But the whole point of the story is that this is something that they later acquire.

    When Adam did sin, he lost the ability not to sin. This moral inability is then passed down by natural generation. But it wasn’t made by god.

    Except God was the one who created Adam in such a way that if Adam sinned, he would then lose the ability not to sin, and that this lack would then be passed on to subsequent generations. Neither of these are necessary or inevitable consequences of a single sinful act – they are only consequences if (a) God set things up this way by accident (in which case he is incompetent), or (b) God set things up this way deliberately (in which case he is malevolent).

    You can argue that god is evil for punishing us for the way we are born. But you can’t argue that he made us this way.

    Actually, I just did, and I’d be fascinated to see how you think one can argue otherwise.

  66. #66 Onkel Bob
    September 10, 2011

    I agree with Iain Walker, if the Adam and Eve story went down as told, then neither had the moral awareness to engage in sin. I’m sure it has been said before, that Adam and Eve did not so much as sin, as they failed to obey an arbitrary command from an authority figure. As such they were deemed untrustworthy. Abraham was deemed trustworthy as he was willing to obey such commands. There is no genetic or biological basis to that behavior, apart from the flight response (or lack thereof) to danger.
    Tangentially – whether the Judaic tribes chose or were chosen is immaterial, the quality that sets them apart is willingness to accept instruction on moral subjects from authority figures.

  67. #67 Nightjar
    September 10, 2011

    Iain Walker, #48:

    I’m assuming that this is tongue in cheek, because otherwise it has some rather horrific moral implications:

    1) That you think it’s OK for God to commit genocide.

    Unless heddle has changed his mind on this and I missed it, then yes. He does think that.

  68. #68 Iain Walker
    September 10, 2011

    Nightjar (#67):

    Ah, I’d forgotten that. Well, at least he’s consistent.

  69. #69 Jim Harrison
    September 10, 2011

    The only people who are still arguing over Genesis: fundamentalists, orthodox rabbis, and atheists. For the rest of us, religious and nonreligious alike, the Adam and Eve narrative is simply a traditional story that can be riffed on to make whatever point we wish to make.

  70. #70 Jim
    September 10, 2011

    Did all of the past species of Homo Sapiens or other homo ancestors in the past have souls? Neanderthals who had a degree of culture? It has been estimated that up to 4% of our human DNA today came from Neanderthals, due to interbreeding that has been dated to 50,000 to 80,000 years ago, before our species fanned out across the world. Neanderthals died out about 28,000 years ago. Did they have a soul? Did God love them less by allowing their extinction without a divine saviour? What of earlier homo species? Which subspecies or species had the first soul? Or which member and why?

    If no offspring was ever a different species to a parent (as new species are only recognisable in hindsight after very long periods and many, many generations under different environmental pressures that favour different genetic variations), then what made a fertilised egg suddenly have a soul?? Did this individual mate with others in the clan without souls, yet somehow have progeny with souls? Did only some progeny have souls? Do believers propose the existence of “other” thinking, loving clan members who were without souls and so died without immortality?

    An honest reply from any believer to the question “when does a soul appear during human development?” can only be “no-one knows or could ever know” or “God knows but no-one else knows or ever could”, and any assumption or theory is a guess made without any sound knowledge or logic to back it up, or is made assuming unprovable and unknowable probabilities based upon religious faith and hearsay.

  71. #71 Jim
    September 10, 2011

    If God had to intervene for abiogenesis to occur, and for certain steps in evolution occur, what were the proposed mechanisms? Did he supposedly change macromolecules and proteins or create then out of nothing, or did he change chemical properties, structures and bonds of small molecules which lead to new proteins and functions? We turn over a trillion atoms every millionth of a second in our bodies. Does he work inside us still, all the time, causing atoms, molecules and proteins to move about and interact, or did he only get involved here and there along the course of evolution to do occasional “special stuff”. Did his special intervention follow the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry, or did he do magical stuff outside of them?

    If a God could create a universe, why not one that works and runs without the need to tinker continually. Was that beyond him or does he simply prefer fiddling with his creation?

    If I can conceive of a God who doesn’t need to tinker having created a universe that follows fundamental laws and developed naturally after he set off the process, is this God more powerful than the creationist/ID one who needed/needs to constantly intervene to make things happen and work?

  72. #72 Rob
    September 10, 2011

    Jim,

    According to Catholic apologist Edward Feser, a god is intimately involved with every event, such that without the ongoing “sustaining cause” of this god nothing would exist. If this god was not at this moment sustaining the existence of the quarks and electrons that make up your body, then you would disappear.

    For some reason, this “sophisticated” view is somehow different from the tinkering knob adjusting god of the ID crowd.

    Not that I’m defending either view. They all seem equally idiotic to me.

  73. #73 Kel
    September 10, 2011

    According to Catholic apologist Edward Feser, a god is intimately involved with every event, such that without the ongoing “sustaining cause” of this god nothing would exist. If this god was not at this moment sustaining the existence of the quarks and electrons that make up your body, then you would disappear.

    It’s an odd argument. It boils down to: we exist, therefore God exists. Everything becomes proof of God; making an unbeatable position. Just so long as they can keep their faith…

  74. #74 Owlmirror
    September 11, 2011

    It’s an odd argument. It boils down to: we exist, therefore God exists. Everything becomes proof of God; making an unbeatable position. Just so long as they can keep their faith…

    Copypasting a comment I left at Cosmic Variance (I’d link, but I’m wary of comments with links disappearing into the aether)…

    [----]

    This is something that atheists have to watch out for — the New Idolatry. Of course, it isn’t really “New”, any more than New Atheism is “New”. But it’s something theololgians really like to do, nowadays.

    In the past, idolatry was straightforward. Some religious group would point at some thing — the sun, or the earth, or grain, and say “That’s the God we worship.” And someone questioning that belief would not be able to communicate with them by phrasing the question as “Can you imagine the world being as it is without your God existing?”, because it would be ludicrous in that context — if there were no sun, everything would be cold and dark and dead; if there were no earth, there would be nothing to stand on; if there were no grain, there wouldn’t be enough food for everyone, and they would all starve.

    So the question would have to be phrased as “Can you imagine the world being as it is without your God being a person; without it having any awareness or capability of awareness or consciousness?”

    The New Idolaters basically do the same thing as the old idolaters, but instead of pointing at some physical thing, and saying “That’s the God we worship,” they slyly move away from any particular thing and into the lofty intellectual heights of the metaphysically abstract. They smugly declare that existingness is God. Oooooh. Sooooo sophistimacated.

    Now, any sane person would be sorely tempted to smack them in the face with a halibut and tell them to stop being such a silly cack-headed chundering sophist. But I understand that that’s frowned upon in modern academic discourse.

    So instead, when discussing the matter with them, and they say they cannot imagine God not existing (because existingness itself is God, and nothing can exist without existingness, ha ha, what an absurd and logically contradictory idea!), atheists need to pause and say “Ah. Hold up a moment. Are you one of those silly cack-headed chundering sophists who say that existingness is God?”

    And (assuming they don’t start fum-faffing about how insulted they are, blah-blah-blah) when they respond in the positive, rephrase the question as above: “Can you imagine the world being as it is without your God being a person or anything like a person; without it having any awareness or the capability of awareness or consciousness?”

    How would the New Idolaters respond to that? Well, if they can indeed imagine existingness as not having awareness or being a person, then they’ve responded to the original question in its actual intent. If they can’t, then you can indeed accuse them of having a ludicrous failure of imagination, and of being someone who believes in absurdities to boot.

    [----]

  75. #75 Iain Walker
    September 11, 2011

    Rob (#72):

    According to Catholic apologist Edward Feser, a god is intimately involved with every event, such that without the ongoing “sustaining cause” of this god nothing would exist. If this god was not at this moment sustaining the existence of the quarks and electrons that make up your body, then you would disappear.

    This is basically an extension of Aristotelian physics into ontology – just as Aristotle believed that the natural state of an object was rest, and that to keep it in motion that motion had to be imparted by something external, it’s a commonplace in theology (and not just Catholic) that the natural state of affairs is non-existence, and that to keep something in existence requires existence to be imparted by something external.

    Of course, a “Newtonian” ontology, in which once something starts to exist it continues to exist unless acted upon externally is just as plausible.

  76. #76 Dale Headley
    September 11, 2011

    I don’t understand why intelligent people even bother with discussing any of the nonsensical notions of Christianity as though they were deserving of even passing respect. If we are going to discuss “original sin” as though it were a concept worthy of scientific scrutiny, why not Noah’s Ark or Adam’s rib?

  77. #77 Kel
    September 12, 2011

    Dale Headley, in one sense I agree with you. It does feel a shame that intelligent people spend time arguing over such obvious nonsense. What does truly comes from arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – let alone whether or not there are such things as angels. How Noah’s Ark fits in with the physical limits of boat size is nothing more than giving the pretence of legitimacy to the profoundly absurd.

    But in another sense, there’s a very good reason to pay at least some attention – that educated people have developed elaborate defences of their beliefs. They’re making the intellectual case (or at least the illusion of one) while you’re left with little more than ridicule. Knowing how such arguments are constructed and how they are flawed is a much better position to be in, intellectually anyway.

    The other reason to take different positions seriously is that you’re human – just as they are. If you won’t try to see it from their perspective, then why should they yours? Why is your confidence in your position so well-placed while theirs erroneous and misguided? It helps to understand their reasoning as humans are generally good at applying reason to propositions and rationalise what they hold to be true. We all do it, so being able to think through arguments and evidence is something we all ought to try to work on to minimise our biases. Sometimes that means entertaining nonsense, but that’s the price of reasonable inquiry.

  78. #78 Kel
    September 12, 2011

    Then there’s the notion that people will abandon beliefs shown to be absurd or contradictory. While in practice people are not so willing to change their minds – or at the very least aren’t as willing as they ought to be, we are a species that at least has the potential to form or abandon beliefs on grounds of evidence and reason. Taking such arguments seriously is part of the process by which we can show beliefs as being unreasonable and not worthy of being held by reasonable people. If we abandon that, we’re abandoning the goal of knowledge – or at the very least writing off a large part of the species as being part of that pursuit despite believing being what humans do.

  79. #79 Jud
    September 12, 2011

    The traditional teaching, which holds that Adam and Eve were the only humans on the planet when they were created on day six of Creation Week, that the ground was cursed and they were expelled from Eden as a result of a specific sin they committed, and that this corrupted state was in some way passed down to all future human beings, is no longer tenable.

    Heck, it was “no longer tenable” for me at age 5 or 6 when I first heard it. Let’s follow along here: Adam and Eve were the first people. They had 2 kids. The older boy killed the younger boy. Then God gave the older boy a mark so the other people…oh, wait.

    There is no notion of Sola Scriptura in Judaism

    Maybe not as prominent in Judaism as among Christians, but it exists. A yogurt company in Israel years ago started using dinosaur labels. Kids love ‘em, right? For this contradiction of literal Genesis (go ahead, try to find T. Rex in Bereshit), the Orthodox rabbinate exerted political pressure resulting in the removal of kosher certification from the company’s products.

  80. #80 Ignore my name
    September 12, 2011

    @76

    “I don’t understand why intelligent people even bother with discussing any of the nonsensical notions of Christianity as though they were deserving of even passing respect”.

    Discussing Christianity could be particlularly beneficial when the world view one adheres to is considered extrememly important.

    If Christians, all 3 billion of them, had absolutely no impact on the society, politics and YOUR decisions, you could completely overlook everything they think, say and do.

    You have to remember that this world is built and run by the majority of Christians, and whether you want that or not, the outcome of their actions will be effecting either directly or indirectly in one way or another.

  81. #81 Wow
    September 14, 2011

    “That is, spot-on, the very definition of “Original Sin.” A moral inability.”

    It is spot on: complete self-referential bullcrap.

    It’s an intellectual trick to try to hold on to the insuperable position attained to make yourselves feel better because you cannot just find the life you have special enough.

    And, since Original Sin was Adam/Apple and therefore in the Old Testament, you can’t have it, heddle, since you refuse to believe any of the Old Testament as your version of the True Christian.

    If you want Original Sin, you have to have the Old Testament.

  82. #82 Wow
    September 14, 2011

    “If Christians, all 3 billion of them”

    Except that apart from calling themselves “Christian”, there aren’t 3 billion of them. For example, to heddle, those who believe in the Old Testament are NOT Christians.

    Mormons are not Christians either.

    If, for example, you make RCC the given christian worship of the USA, those majority who proclaim they WANT a “Christian state” will go absolutely librarian-poo. Because it’s only when they’re trying to bully others into listening that they are all christians. When it comes to being in control, they only want THEIR “Christianity” to be the one.

  83. #83 Nemo
    September 14, 2011

    Heck, even I don’t think Mormons are Christians, and as an atheist, I like to think I’m being objective about that. It seems to me that Mormonism differs from (what we usually think of as) Christianity about as much as Islam does.

    Or shall I count Islam as a kind of Christianity, too? That should make some heads explode. They do believe in Jesus, after all (even in the second coming); they just see him a little differently.

  84. #84 Wow
    September 14, 2011

    Mormons believe in God and Jesus Christ, which seems to be the only commonality between the various faiths that make up that 3 billion, Nemo.

  85. #85 Nemo
    September 14, 2011

    So that’s a yes to counting Islam as a branch of Christianity, then?

  86. #86 Nemo
    September 14, 2011

    P.S. I’m just messing with you. Like I said… angelic pinhead counting.

  87. #87 Wow
    September 14, 2011

    Since they don’t believe that JC was the Son of God, no.

  88. #88 madellen
    September 17, 2011

    Allagorically, the original sin can also be understood in very human terms, as the first betrayal. Adam and Eve took something that did not belong to them, privilaging their own desires over the relationship they had with God. God in this case, could have been a farmer or a farm owner. The point or lesson of the story is in the human dynamics of violating a trust, of self awareness and shame for doing so. Adam and Eve also be easily understood as the first ancestors whose lineage diverged from the other hominid-like creatures who branched out in some other evolutionary direction. They would soon, I suspect, have developed unique qualities of self awareness and complex relationships in which bonding and loyality were critical to their survival. It is simple, but I think that is more or less how evolution and religion are reconciled. Not all denominations are as literal as some of the US ministries.Most have a rich and sophisticated intellectual tradition, both from the east and the west

  89. #89 Iain Walker
    September 17, 2011

    madellen (#88):

    Allagorically, the original sin can also be understood in very human terms, as the first betrayal. Adam and Eve took something that did not belong to them, privilaging their own desires over the relationship they had with God.

    You could read it like that, I suppose, if you were so inclined. That doesn’t rule out other, equally plausible readings which are less compatible with evolution. One has to be wary of committing the Texas Sharpshooter fallacy, of retrospectively coming up with an interpetation that is compatible with our scientific knowledge and going “Aha! That must be the right way to understand the story!”

    Adam and Eve also be easily understood as the first ancestors whose lineage diverged from the other hominid-like creatures who branched out in some other evolutionary direction.

    They can be easily understood as symbolic representatives of the first ancestral population, is what I’m sure you meant to say. Or possibly as the first cohabiting pair of common ancestors of all modern humans who also possessed self-awareness. Mind you, you’re probably better off with the first interpretation, since the latter doesn’t automatically guarantee their uniqueness (there could be other such pairs within the same population), and in any case, self-awareness is a rather fuzzy trait that seems to admit of degrees, in which case its emergence could not be pinned down like that to a particular generation.

  90. #90 Iain Walker
    September 17, 2011

    madellen (#88)

    Adam and Eve took something that did not belong to them, privilaging their own desires over the relationship they had with God. God in this case, could have been a farmer or a farm owner. The point or lesson of the story is in the human dynamics of violating a trust, of self awareness and shame for doing so.

    Thinking about this, I’ve got a better interpretation: it’s a pessimistic Marxist fable about the failure of the revolution. The snake is the revolutionary vanguard, urging the proletariat (A&E) to seize their freedom, but the proletariat chicken out in the face of the bourgeoisie establishment (God), and end up even more repressed than ever. The moral being: make sure the proles are ready for revolution before you start setting up the barricades.

    See? One can read any anachronistic parable into the story that one likes.

    Your turn.

  91. #91 Robert
    November 2, 2011

    Fantastic post I very much enjoyed it, keep up the good work.