A Few More Thoughts About Original Sin

Jerry Coyne weighs in with a few thoughts about the various attempts, considered in my last post, to preserve the notion of original sin in the light of modern science. It turns out he's even less impressed by those attempts than I am. Go have a look!

Since Wednesday's post was already quite long, I didn't get around to mentioning one additional attempt to promote an evolutionary understanding of original sin. It comes from theologian John Haught. In his book God After Darwin he writes:

What, then, might original sin mean? Superficially, it means a systematic turning away from God by human beings. But what does it mean in terms of the notions of God and cosmos that I have been setting forth in the course of this book? Rather than tracing here the complex and controversial history of the notion of original sin, I would prefer now simply to suggest a way of interpreting it from the point of view of the aesthetic-evolutionary perspective sketched above. Other frameworks would understand it differently, but in this setting original sin means that each of us is born into a still unfinished, imperfect universe where there already exist strong pressures -- many of them inherited culturally over countless generations -- for us to acquiesce in an indifference to God's creative cosmic aim of maximizing beauty. Original sin consists of all the forces that lead us away from participation in this most essential and vitalizing pursuit.

Skipping ahead a bit, Haught specifically rejects the sort of solution proffered by Daryl Domning, described in the last post. (Just to be clear, Haught was not directing himself to Domning specifically.)

Moreover, even though the potential to do evil is already a part of our genetic makeup, it is theologically inappropriate to identify original sin simply with the instincts of aggression or selfishness that we may have inherited from our nonhuman evolutionary ancestry. Even though these tendencies are part of our evolutionary legacy, the substance of “original sin” is the culturally and environmentally inherited deposit of humanity's violence and injustice that burdens and threatens to corrupt each of us born into this world.


We've certainly come a long way from the idea of an actual sin committed by Earth's original people. In my last post I commented that there is no fact of the matter regarding the meaning of these doctrines. There is only what different people or different faith communities say they mean. But we are certainly entitled to point out that under Haught's interpretation the concept of original sin is contributing nothing at all to our understanding of anything. An atheist, no less than a Christian, is fully capable of noticing that humans often fall short of their highest ideals and that society suffers as a result. Why we should refer to the culturally and environmentally inherited deposit of humanity's violence and injustice as “original sin” is not explained in Haught's book.

In my forthcoming book about evolution and creationism, due out from Oxford University Press in March 2012, I have a chapter discussing this sort of thing. In it I make an analogy between these sorts of attempts to redefine doctrines in the light of modern science and someone who tries to “reinterpret” the idea of phlogiston. Someone keen to preserve the idea of phlogiston could say, “Sure, the old understanding of phlogiston as an actual physical substance is now happily abandoned. Nowadays we should understand phlogiston as the exquisite dance between fuel and oxygen so brilliantly explained by modern chemists. Phlogiston is a process, not a substance.” I suspect most scientists would simply roll their eyes. They would say you can make whatever definitions you want, but this notion of phlogiston is very far removed from its historical meaning, and there is absolutely nothing to be gained from reviving the notion in so bizarre way.

But now imagine that the phlogiston-defender runs around telling everyone that with his reinterpretation we have a clear convergence of modern science wit older wisdom, and that scientists are arrogant and dogmatic for not paying attention to his ideas. That, in my view, is essentially what theologians do.

There is one place where I think we can say that Haught's ideas are simply erroneous.

Evolution implies that we live in an unfinished universe, and we can easily overlook the invigorating and even explosive spiritual implications of this fact. The sense of a universe still being created, as implied in evolutionary science and now amplified by big bang physics, opens up to us the gracious horizon of an indeterminate future for the world; a static eternal, finished, or perfect universe could not possibly permit the graciousness of this horizon. The fact that creation is not yet completed endows all of cosmic reality, including our own lives, with a significance that would be inconceivable in a state of finished perfection.

Even taken at face value that looks like high-order gibberish to me. But the idea that evolution implies that we live in an unfinished universe is just flat wrong. It implies no such thing. There is no “finish” to evolution. There is no omega point. Evolution implies simply that we live on a planet in which species change over time. There is no direction or goal to this change. It just happens. Barring some future intervention by God, the processes of cosmic and biological evolution will not be leading us to any discernible goal, save, perhaps, for the inevitable heat death of the universe.


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Both the original sin apologetics and the example you provided with respect to phlogiston are good examples of what happens when people are more concerned with committing to a single idea instead of going wherever the evidence leads.

It might be better to try to get theologians to understand the value of being shown that one is wrong. How else can you edge closer to being correct unless you jettison bad ideas? In order to get rid of bad ideas you have to admit that it's possible to have a bad idea in the first place; and this has to apply equally to all beliefs.

But it seems as though religious believers don't actually care about having correct beliefs... all they care about is believing that their current beliefs are true (if that makes sense).

There's a line I like from Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: "Praise then darkness, and Creation unfinished." The speaker is an extraterrestrial raised in an odd sort of mystic quasi-religion; it's what he says when turning off the lamp at night. In a journal, zie connects this to the active volcano that they're traveling near, the chaos of a world remaking itself. But these fictional people are so far from teleology that they use a calendar in which it is always the year one, and talk about either "eight years ago" or "in the first year of the reign of King so-and-so" or "the year the college was founded" or such.

...due out from Oxford University Press in March 2012

Yay...on kindle too, I hope. Though I know you have no control over that.

[Jason quoting Haught] What, then, might original sin mean? ...original sin means that each of us is born into a still unfinished, imperfect universe where there already exist strong pressures...for us to acquiesce in an indifference to God's creative cosmic aim of maximizing beauty. Original sin consists of all the forces that lead us away from participation in this most essential and vitalizing pursuit.

Who put those strong pressures in place? Why should I need to repent for those forces leading me away?

And why should indifference to God's aim be deserving of eternal punishment? That seems a bit harsh. Its not like I'm Pol Pot. I'm a pretty decent person. If my biggest crime is not majoring in what my Father wants me to in college - opting out of His plan for me - how does that warrant the fire and brimstone?

"But the idea that evolution implies that we live in an unfinished universe is just flat wrong."

Life is viewed by some people as unfinished because people or some people have been unsatisfied with living only in nature. Obviously, they want and need more more some thinking that perfection has not been achieved.

Moreover, after a child is born, they have to go through an extremely long laborous process of acquiring necessary knowledge and skills to be able to accomplish just a basic task. People are not born with mastery in a certain field. They have to attain it.

If God created the universe, then in order to answer the question of whether the universe is unfinished, it would be necessary to draw a line between what Creationists consider the creations of God and the creations of people. If everything created by people is removed, hypothetically, what exactly will people be left with? And why wasn't that good enough? Unless, he keeps creating using people as tools. But that would be considered divine exploitation which contradicts premise of the whole "God is love" theory.

If God exists, then why wouldn't he want to create people in a finished excellent perfect form? If we are finished, then why do God's creations keep perfecting one another?

Vicki @2:

Which is kind of ironic since the Gethenians were almost certainly a deliberate experiment :-)

By Andrew G. (not verified) on 09 Sep 2011 #permalink

Why waste any energy at all with a concept that is clearly imaginary?

In fact, that's my take on theology in general.

I've seldom seen speculation that, if there is a Creator, the reason that the universe is not Newton's big clock is that a completely predictable universe is (if you're God) infinitely boring. Being God, he would see this without having to perform the experiment, so He set out to build an interesting universe by building chaos into its foundations. Just enough chaos. Too much, and it devolves into pure chaos, which is just as boring as the predictability you get from not enough. And that's why I'm an agnostic atheist instead of a dogmatic atheist.

If there is a God, He's been damn careful not to show himself unambiguously. And if there is a God, it's Not Bloody Likely that He dictated two slightly different creation stories to some bronze-age tribesmen in what is now the Middle East.


And that's why I'm an agnostic atheist instead of a dogmatic atheist.

That's a false dichotomy â I've met a few dogmatic agnostic atheists, for example. (Perhaps by "dogmatic" you meant something more like "certain"?)

Jason wrote

Fear not! Oxford publishes Kindle editions of all its books.

However, I don't see it listed for pre-order for my Nook (yet). The Monty Hall book is on Barnes & Noble, though.

I would venture to guess that there is a completion to evolution: upon the extinction of all life, be it prior to, or concurrent with the heat-death of the universe (or its collapse). The end of the universe would also constitute the completeness of the universe.

Amazon shows the "The Monty Hall Problem: The Remarkable Story of Math's Most Contentious Brain Teaser" available on Kindle, but both "Taking Sudoku Seriously: The Math Behind the World's Most Popular Pencil Puzzle" and "Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Frontline" both have the advert: "Tell the Publisher! Iâd like to read this book on Kindle."

I've always suspected that the idea of original sin had it's origins in the development of enough neural capacity to generate one's sense of self consciousness. An evolutionary artifact of the ability to differentiate subject and object which led to the birth of the ego. As someone who has been turned off by religion but intrigued by the practical aspects of zen meditation loss of ego is a desirable but extremely difficult thing to achieve. But the ego may be a fairly recent evolutionary development. the story of a tree of "knowledge" which led to a sudden awareness of adam n eve's nakedness seems to offer a clue. Julian Jaynes wrote about this in his " Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" where he contends that bronze age "prophets" may have been actively hallucinating the voice of their god unable to differentiate their own thoughts from those of a separate being.

@john 15

I am not sure that "loss of ego" is desireable. It was interesting when it happened, but I do not find it desireable. Its unbalanced.

The statement "there is no direction or goal in evolution" is the statement of faith not science. There was a progression of living organisms from "simple" ones to more "complex" and the complexity is reflected in increasing "cerebralization" in different animal phyla (as Teilhard de Charding put it). Somehow, this fact escapes some evolutionary thinkers who believe that it collides with their view of evolution and should therefore be ignored.

"The statement "there is no direction or goal in evolution" is the statement of faith not science"

No, that's a statement of science. Goal demands sentience and striving, giving to a process a factor it doesn't have: desire.

"There was a progression of living organisms from "simple" ones to more "complex""

So why do we still have "simple" organisms like bacteria, then?

And what does that progression have to do with "goal"?

"Somehow, this fact escapes some evolutionary thinkers"

What fact? That some writer called something "cerebralization"? Well that doesn't really escape evolution science. More has nothing to do with evolution.