Philosophy Religion

Saving Original Sin in a Secular Age


In this age, long years of formal education foster our disbelief in anything supernatural. And since the central tenets of religion involve the supernatural, many professors, journalists, teachers, and other intellectuals reject religion as a whole. Human reproduction requires an ovum from the female, a sperm cell from the male. We can’t believe in a virgin birth, as we feel that there are no exceptions to the rules of nature. The Resurrection seems just as impossible.

As our scientific knowledge increases and improves, believers struggle to hold onto their belief. Ever-solidifying knowledge of the origin of life, and the origin of the cosmos, too, challenge literal readings of religious creation stories. And our scientific cosmogonies are more convincing, and richer than their doctrinal forbears in every way but one: they lack the attribution of agency to a creator, the teleological status, and in general, the meaning of that creation. This lack of a meaning in scientific cosmogonies, however, doesn’t actually prove that there is none. So we don’t necessarily feel this absence as a flaw. The general feeling of mystery, and awe–the contemplation of the sublime as science expands our view from the solar system to myriad galaxies–may substitute that meaning, so that we hardly miss it.

From my perspective, though, this lacuna is important. There’s something missing from our cosmogonies of Big Bangs and Darwinian evolution, and it needs to be filled in. I’m not going to discuss, here, the need for meaning in general, though. Rather, my theme is the lack of any philosophical content in scientific worldviews, the lack of ethics. The famous quotation by Dostoevsky, that “If God does not exist, anything is permitted,” is an unsolved problem. By rejecting Christianity as a whole–or any other religion–because we reject the miraculous, we throw out the baby with the bathwater. And the baby I want to talk about in a this post is the doctrine of original sin.

My perspective is secular or agnostic. Rather than viewing the idea’s very beginning in the Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God, I consider its hereditary status, its relationship to the problematic nature of erotic love–in the peculiar and disturbing fact that bodily lust, rather than love, creates new humans: a little seed of egotistical bodily lust leads, later, to the selfless, warm embrace of familial love of parent to child.

A secular reading of original sin might explain, for example, why the counterculture’s sexually liberated communes all failed, why very few of us now live in polyamorous relationships, why even Germans seem to be rejecting social nudity. But now I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Rejecting Augustine

The third part of Martha Nussbaum’s excellent defense of the emotions, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001), concerns itself with “ascents” of erotic love, ways of correcting its flaws, with examples from ancient philosophy (Plato), religion, literature, and music. She frames the problem thus:

The contemplative ascent set itself a goal: to retain the energy and beauty of erotic love while ridding it of three grave defects: its partiality or uneven focus, its excessive neediness and dependency, and its connection with anger and revenge.


But what is this concept called original sin, anyway? Augustine–one of the greatest contributors to our understanding of original sin–views the doctrine as such: Adam and Eve disobey God by consuming the forbidden fruit, plucked from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This original sin is also ancestral sin, since it passes from parents to children through concupiscence, or “hurtful desire.” Humankind are described as a massa damnata, a depraved crowd, enfeebled in that their free will has been greatly diminished. Faith is the only path to salvation, divine love replacing our flawed erotic love. Humans are just very bad indeed, utterly depraved: even babies who die unbaptized, sharing in Adam’s sin, go to hell.

So it’s no surprise that we reject, or at least must reform this view. I don’t see that any parent could imagine his or her dead infant burning in hell–especially if the parent in question is a mother–since the bodily connection between mother and child is fuller than that between father and child. And the said infant, years and years away from puberty, can’t be rightly charged with concupiscence, can he? He may, of course, be charged with egotism, seeing the world as dedicated to nursing him, changing his diapers, cuddling him, and so on. But who can blame a bodily helpless creature, decades before developing a mature brain, for such a view?

Nussbaum’s rejection of Augustine’s view refers to its diminution of the importance of the distinction between ethical and unethical worldly acts. She also seems to feel a general distaste for the view, which she calls too abject, since, she says, humans are perfectly capable of becoming and being good. Finally, the idea that we are equal in sin, shows disrespect for individuality:

The doctrine of original sin […] diminishes the force of this-worldly moral distinctions base on this-worldly conduct and acts. It seems wrong to equate all humans in their sinfulness […] There is, I think, too much abjectness in this, too much unwillingness to grant that a human being may in fact become, and be, good, and that there is all the world of difference between the evil and the good. This entails a related failure to acknowledge individuality: each is treated as sinful, even before each has had a chance to live a life. The idea that in Adam we all sin is surely intended to compromise the idea that our engagements and choices in this world are at the core of who we are.


Nussbaum goes on to contrast the Augustinian Christian view with the Jewish view, with reference to Hannah Arendt’s Love in St. Augustine:

[…] Arendt writes sympathetically about precisely this element in Augustine–the sense of equal wickedness and evil–seeing it as an appealing foundation for a community of equals. But in hindsight this seems an especially perverse and unfortunate view to be taking, especially when one considers that she is taking up this view as a substitute for Jewish views about virtue and human reciprocity. In the Jewish conception–as I think also to a great extend in later Thomistic Christian conceptions–the human being is perfectly capable of being good, and the dignity of moral agency is the appropriate foundation for community. All persons respect one another’s agency, and one of the ways that they do this is to blame the bad and praise the good, making a very sharp distinction, for example, between Arendt and those who persecute her.


This rejection of the view that humanity is utterly depraved doesn’t surprise as a whole. It fits with common secular views concerning right and wrong, and even, as Nussbaum mentions, may fit Christian views on original sin which come after Augustine. But there is one word in the passage which shocks me: it’s the claim that Arendt’s interest in equality in original sin is perverse. Arendt refers, of course, to our largest, loudest example of evil in modern history, the genocide committed by the fascists in The Second World War. And the last sentence in the quotation above expresses what must be the most common (and commonplace) view: “Arendt and those who persecute her” refers to the Good Jews and the Evil Nazis. Nussbaum’s work is one of the few works in philosophy which combines excellent, clear, literary prose with utterly rigorous thought. It’s a shame that, here, she makes such a blunder. If her thesis is that emotions can be rational, and intelligent, here she seems to slip into irrational emotion: enraged by a Jew comparing herself to a Nazi, she’s blind to Arendt’s greatest intellectual contribution.

But since we must reject the doctrine of unbaptized infants burning eternally in hell, must we reject the idea of original sin entirely? I don’t believe so.

Original Sin as Potentiality

We could start by secularizing the title, by referring, from now on, to “ancestral fault.” But this change is mostly a matter of nomenclature, a superficiality. To truly amend original sin to fit a “modern worldview,” we have at least two strategies.

The first strategy, which I reject, is attenuation. Rather than the total depravity of all humans, as seen by Augustine, we might consider partial depravity. We might, as humans, share a small flaw, one that relates to the mismatch between sexual desire and selfless love, and is passed down through sexual reproduction. But this view is still susceptible to the same mistake Nussbaum makes, when she espouses the common American view that Nazis are evil, and those whom they murdered, good.

It’s a peculiarly American view. It’s not by chance that thinkers in the German-speaking world have challenged the black and white thinking, the division of human beings into good and evil. If you grow up in part of the German speaking world, you find that many of your ancestors may have supported or fought for the Nazis. Among my generation, the Grandfather is the family member most likely to have been a soldier on the wrong side. And, in this world, we teach again and again that fascism, and its components (racism, nationalism, militarism) are ethically wrong. But then, when we think of Grandpa, we face a shattering contradiction. The loving man, the one who coddled us, and who taught us much wisdom, fought on the wrong side, murdered the Jews, committed genocide, the highest crime of all! How can this be?

The answer is that, we can’t damn Grandpa as entirely and irredeemably evil for having held idiotic political views. He was taught antisemitism by his culture and milieu. The creation of an inhuman Other in the Jew is part of a psychologically universal phenomenon called Othering. The insidious nature of his indoctrination couldn’t be helped, especially because the man could hardly read. And, even if he could read, he was brought up to obey his superiors. Bureaucrats and Functionaries–like us, his grandchildren– learns to obey orders! And he may have partially redeemed himself. Only once did I hear him whispering to another old guy something about “The Jews,” with a grimace of disgust on his face. He understood that the next generation rejects antisemitism.

The thinker who helps us understand this problem most clearly–that those who commit atrocities share their humanity with us–may be Hannah Arendt, in The Banality of Evil. But an Austrian filmmaker–Michael Haneke–makes the recognition more widely available by putting it into the popular genre of film. He shows us what Arendt tells us.

And he only needs seven words to express the view which we learn in his films, and which we will recognize in the events of our daily lives if we dedicate enough time and energy to contemplating them

Each of us is capable of anything

(Michael Haneke, Spiegel Interview)

The mark of a great artist, to me, is that his works show the truth of some idea, that there is real philosophy behind the hypnotizing visual facade of what we call entertainment. The greatness may not necessitate that the artist in question knows what his art shows, but it seems likely that he will come to this recognition. Haneke is one of the greats. If you haven’t seen any of his films, I recommend The White Ribbon. This is more accessible than Funny Games, his other masterpiece. Funny Games is a difficult movie: appalled by its gratuitous violence–or psychologically repressing our fascination with said violence–we may miss the point: it’s cruelty as a universal aspect of human nature, as related to sexual reproduction and lust. We notice that the child victim in the film is just as blood-lusty as his tormentors. In short, it’s about ancestral fault. The White Ribbon illustrates the same thing, with sex as the abuse of power–and violence arising from nowhere, like the proverbial bees born from an ox’s carcass–but does so more gently. The answer is that the violence was already there. In short, Haneke is our modern poet of original sin (or ancestral fault.)

So, rather than being all equal in our evil, we are all equal in our capacity for evil. And because of this, we must constantly strive to avoid doing bad. We must constantly examine our motives for our actions, and be brave enough and willing to glimpse, in the mazes of our psyches, the same old Minotaur. For if we deny his existence, we risk letting him take the place over.

Ancestral Fault and The Scientific Worldview: Selfish Genes

I promised a secular view–or, to be more precise–a view which neither denies nor accepts any particular religious or irreligious beliefs. So I’ll ask this question: can “ancestral fault” be compatible with atheism/materialism/physicalism–the kind of “isms” whose many adherents claim to be free from doctrine, free from belief? Can the view of ancestral fault fit a world in which knowledge rests on the scientific method, which is inherently skeptical, since theories can never congeal into facts?

I’ll turn to an unlikely source in support of a Christian idea: Richard Dawkins. We should forgive him for his silly, trite works on atheism, even the insulting and childish reference to “The Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Reference to this monster claims that human religions could believe in anything, and thus fails to see that–even from a purely secular perspective–our religions and myths carefully weave stories which help us find meaning, and The Gods, whether we believe or not, have a great deal to teach us. We don’t believe just anything; anybody who investigates any religion knows, that we believe in meaningful things.

We forgive him because his contributions to Biology are so great. The extended phenotype may be his greatest work. Its idea is that we may be killed, say, by the visibility of our footprints, when a predator sees them–and since we may survive or die based on our footprints, they contribute to natural selection, and they may be viewed as parts of our body. It’s such a far-out, imaginative idea, that we can understand why such a brilliant mind may distance himself from religion.

But, it’s his most popular work, The Selfish Gene, which reformulates, in scientific thought, the old idea of ancestral fault.

The basic idea is this: genes are replicating machines, evolutionary products, perhaps, of crystals. Behavior of humans and animals can be explained by the “desire” of the genes to replicate. Humans and animals do all sorts of nasty stuff, because they are influenced by the genes in their endless, indifferent quest to make copies of themselves.

In perhaps the most extreme example, his group of evolutionary biologists refer to the “rape gene.” Because rape can lead to sexual reproduction, rape may be in the interest of the gene, and may be passed on from the rapist father to create a rapist son! This controversial view–which doesn’t fit modern feminist theories of rape and sexual violence–leads to many of the controversies which have damned Dawkins among feminists.

What he gets right, however, is that we can and do strive against our instincts to engage in immoral behavior which leads to reproduction. He offers several memorable quotations emphasizing this point:

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do

He sees danger in our own biological nature:

Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature

And at one point, he even sees overcoming this nature as a struggle between good and evil, in an inspirational tone that invokes, in my mind, something like Star Wars:

We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

In short, from an anti-religious perspective, we come to the same conclusion: much of our wrongdoing as humans stems from lust’s relationship to sexual reproduction. In Dawkins, the lust is caused by our genes’ status as self-replicating machines. Just as in Haneke or Arendt or Augustine, this flaw is universal, shared among by all humans. And just as in these other authors, we must strive to behave morally, even when doing so does not maximize our evolutionary fitness. What Dawkins doesn’t really explain–though he seems to think he does–is how a phenotype, an organism created by the genes themselves, can be able to act against the interest of that which creates him. This problem is related to the “hard problem” of consciousness, which nobody has ever solved–unless we believe in souls–though the scientifically minded often claim to have solved it.

And this way of seeing ancestral fault also points out an aspect of the concept which goes beyond the lustful nature of human reproduction. Above, I contrasted the egotism of eros with the selfless love of parent towards child. The form of love may be the most intense, lasting, and caring kind we experience in life. But it does have a selfish aspect: we care for our children, while generally letting other children fend for themselves. Dawkins goes into the mathematics of shared genes: we share an average of 50% of our genes with our parents and siblings, 25% with an uncle, aunt, or grandparent, 12.5% with a first cousin, and so on. This means, that–if we are motivated by the reproduction of genes–we would have a hard time deciding between sacrificing ourselves or, say, two aunts and a brother. On the other hand, if the neighbors’s house is on fire, and a family of four were likely to die in it, we would be unlikely to sacrifice ourselves for them. Animal behavior tends to reflect these rules.

So, in this idea of the selfish gene, Dawkins shows not only the selfishness in sexual behavior, but that among families. His desire for a society in which “individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly” actually comes very close to the religious command to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” This expresses the most altruistic–and perhaps least plausible–form of love: we should treat our neighbors, as if they were ourselves, i.e. we should treat one who shares no genetic material with us–except that which is common to the species or the culture–as if they were someone who shares 100% of our genetic material, the self (or in rarer cases, an identical twin.)

Once, I thought, that Dawkins’s works on atheism were too trite to be earnest, and rather, meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. And why not? What if a Christian apologist teamed up with other Christian apologists, and they decided they needed somebody to do silly/trite atheism, so that the reading public would then recognize the silliness and start going to Church? I see no real evidence that this is the case, but maybe his work will have that effect anyway: that a new generation will see the stupid belligerence in comparing God to a “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” and go to church, a Christian one, or some other one new or old, which has some philosophical depth, and helps its adherents find meaning in their lives.


So what’s the point? The point is that, with small emendations, the doctrine of original sin appears in secular, and in Dawkins’s case atheistic, worldviews. By seeing ancestral fault as potentiality, we avoid the error of encouraging actualized guilt among those who have not yet committed immoral acts. However, just as in Augustine’s early view, humankind–and the animals, for that matter–are bound by the potential and tendency to do wrong: for though, at birth, we are not guilty per se, we have the potentiality for misdeeds which will almost certainly become actualized. In Augustine’s view that hereditary sin is passed on through immoral sex acts, in modern evolutionary theory, the blindness of libido, willed by the status of genes as self-replicators, leads us to act selfishly.

In intellectual history, we generally see the Enlightenment as bringing an epistemological revolution: modern Science emerges, by rejecting Aristotelian Scholasticism, in which knowledge is passed down from past authorities. Rather, we examine nature directly.

But, this rejection of past authority as knowledge–which in the worst case devolves in recent times into a rejection of the humanities, of writing as knowledge in general–is revealed as folly when we consider how well myth, religion, and secular literature are able to capture essential aspects of human nature. These aspects are hidden, for example, by repression. But ancient texts revealed them.

So, we find that modern science supports an ancient religious idea, that of original sin, or secular fault. I believe that if we continue to study ancient knowledge, we will discover all sorts of things about ourselves and our world, even ones which–by contrast to original sin–science fails to reveal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *