The Trouble with “Original Sin”

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of the many things a person raised in Christianity–especially Catholicism–may accept without a second thought is the concept of original sin. You likely know what that is: the sin of Adam and Eve, when they allegedly disobeyed God and got thrown out of the garden of Eden. Supposedly, they ate some fruit God said not to eat; it allowed them to know right from wrong, and suddenly they couldn’t live in the garden anymore. That was their punishment. That, and also every human being from that point on would be considered a sinner, stained with the sin of the first humans, until he or she is baptized. If you’re curious about the way Catholics describe the concept, you can read about it here. (They call original sin a “contracted sin,” which makes it sound like an STI.)

Here are a few major problems with Original Sin:

1) It involves punishing people for the mistakes of their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-etc. grandparents.

In any other context, this would not be considered OK. There have been some pretty awful people in this world, but it’s generally understood that the only person who can be held accountable for a crime is the person who committed it, not someone who happened to be born long after it occurred with some relation to the criminal. If Hitler were known to have children, or grandchildren, or great grandchildren, they would not be responsible for what he did. They would only be responsible for their own behavior. This is how civilized society works.

2) It means that babies–who probably have never done anything worse than kick their mothers in utero at this point–are born with sin.

They’re too young to even understand the concept of sin, so calling them sinners makes no sense, especially since even Catholicism also considers 7-years-old, not birth, the point at which a child is responsible for his or her behavior. (This is called the “age of reason.”) Except, of course, their great-great-great etc. ancestor’s behavior. That’s the baby’s fault.

3) The Adam and Eve Story is so ridiculous that many Christians, Catholics included, do not take it literally.

I mean, it has magic trees, a talking snake, and a human being being made out of another human’s rib (seriously, that’s not enough material.) It’s not exactly the most plausible story in the Bible.

My dad, who is one of the most devout Catholics I’ve ever met, once told me that Adam and Eve isn’t necessarily the literal story of creation as it happened, but rather something more like a parable that’s meant to teach a lesson.

(What lesson? That knowledge of good and evil is a bad thing? That God goes a little overboard with his punishments?)

My religious education (CCD) teacher told me something similar, and another Catholic-raised atheist, actress Julia Sweeny, was taught to think of Adam and Eve as “a poem on creation.” (I think I’ve linked to it before, but it’s so good it’s worth linking to again. You can check out her deconversion story here.)

Which begs the question, how could it not be a literal story if it results in religious doctrine? Either it provides a valid explanation for the doctrine because it’s true, or it doesn’t and it’s not. This is not a pick-two situation.

What are your thoughts on this? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

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30 thoughts on “The Trouble with “Original Sin”

  1. Original Sin expresses Hebrew understanding of the hinkiness inherent in human nature that had also been noted by the ancient Greeks, Hindus, Chinese and Romans.

    It is this hinkiness in man’s nature that causes the human race to always be in a state of turmoil.

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    • The only difference in this understanding of said hinkiness, of course, is that Christianity later co-opts it to condemn everyone to a fiery afterlife by default. So, some interesting side effects of this explanation is that Catholicism condemns children in utero to Hell if they’re aborted or miscarried. Same deal if they die before being baptized.

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      • Actually a lot of the Catholics I know don’t believe that babies who are miscarried or aborted go to hell (which contradicts the whole original sin thing.) They can’t handle the idea that their religion condemns the same babies they want to stop from being aborted, so they’ve altered their beliefs. I checked out some Catholic websites and it seems the teaching on this point is a bit wishy-washy. Nobody’s sure what happens to aborted babies, but nobody wants to flat out say “they go to hell.” You can check out one explanation of it here: http://www.ewtn.com/vexperts/showmessage.asp?number=377640

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      • I get it. My understanding of original sin is from a Lutheran background, and Lutherans tend to be more strict about keeping things Biblical. Some Lutherans also get wishy-washy on the subject of kids going to Hell, leaving it up to subjective beliefs that God can have mercy on them.

        Like you’ve pointed out above, something has to give. Either we’re all tainted the moment we’re alive (at conception for Catholics and Lutherans), or we’re tainted by actual sins committed. The latter means that whatever Adam did doesn’t matter. It also means that Jesus didn’t die for everyone’s sins, and it also means that if you kill your child before a certain age, that child will definitely go to Heaven.

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      • That last point is particularly troubling. It’s as if no one has thought it through, but the religious doctrine definitely points to the idea that early death should be celebrated as a fast-track to heaven. It seems to me that if this religion were true, a child who’s baptized would be best served to die on the car ride home from the church. The parents wouldn’t kill the child for fear of sending themselves to hell–but they should technically be crossing their fingers that some drunk driver rams into the back of their vehicle.

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      • Sirius,

        Christianity is a religion of love and mercy, not condemnation and the Catholics do not condemn children in utero.

        Your hallucinated version of Christianity doesn’t have anything to do with the way things really are.

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      • Sirius,

        Sorry for not being adorable to you then.

        I really think you folks project your own anger upon others.

        I’m just sitting here calmly and happily engaging in intellectual jiu-jitsu with the atheist.

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  2. Without original sin as doctrine there is little reason for any of the rest of it. None of the rest of it matters if there is no original sin. The flood makes YHWH the greatest mass murderer ever without any justification. Hell becomes just the result of a twisted narcissists mind. Sacrificing his own son to pay for the original sin of humanity is even more twisted.

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      • Do you mean the part where the omnipotent creator of the universe had to flood the earth to kill half breeds rather than simply speak a few words to make their lineage disappear? No, instead he chose to murder with great indiscretion instead. Something that he chooses to do quite often. No matter how you look at it he’s the greatest mass murderer of all time.

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      • I can’t speak for myatheistlife personally, but in general atheists actually score very high on religious literacy tests (in other words, our general knowledge of religions is pretty solid). There are even atheist bible studies. We may not believe in this stuff, but we know many people do and think it’s important to gain an understanding of those beliefs.

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  3. Perhaps an analogy can explain better the concept of original sin in Christianity. A man works in a company and because his position he enjoys facilities like housing and other perks. Those facilities are available not only for him but for his family (wife and children). Then he committed a mistake and get fired. This means he must leave his company provided house. How about his family? Can they stay in the house and still enjoy all the perks? Well, they too must leave the house and lose all company provided perks even it is the father who committed the mistake.
    Babies and children below age of reason cannot commit personal sin but they, like the children of that man in the analogy, are still affected by the first sin committed by Adam. Personal sin is not the same as original sin.
    Hope this will help.

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    • That makes a fair amount of sense within a couple of generations, but we’re talking about perks, not whether or not people are able to live on in a good place after death. I’d say that’s a little more than a perk. We’re literally talking about whether a person will suffer eternal torture or eternal happiness. Assuming life after death is possible, taking the possibility of that away over something one’s parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, or so forth did is pretty harsh.

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      • I’m not sure I followed what you mean. What is the solution? Baptism only works if the baby is alive to be baptized. It doesn’t solve the problem for miscarried or aborted infants.

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      • According to the Church teaching Baptism is necessary for those who hear the Gospel and has a chance to take it. You can read Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1257, available online – just Google it. Miscarried or aborted infants fall outside this group. What happen to them is we do NOT really know – they call it as limbo. The Catechism # 1261 says we just entrust them to the mercy of God.

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      • Thank you for bringing up the topic of limbo. I had skipped it for clarity’s sake, but I am aware of it. However to my knowledge there’s no definitive teaching stating that limbo is where those infants go, merely speculation, and just looking at God’s track record and all the people he kills in the Bible (Noah’s Arc, Sodom, Jericho, to name a few well-known ones), he’s not very merciful.

        According to Catholic teachings, it’s just as reasonable to say “we do not know, miscarried infants could be in Hell” as it is to say, “we do not know, they could be in heaven.” If you want to double check what I’m saying, here’s something from EWTN concerning this very question.

        https://www.ewtn.com/library/Theology/znotionlimbo.HTM

        I’d sum it up as saying “we have reason to hope that God will somehow magically save these babies from destruction.” Which is well and good, however I think it’s important to emphasize that the thing miscarried (and aborted) babies are in danger of in this scenario is a ridiculous system God supposedly put in place that punishes the future generations for the sins of a past one. It’s still not a moral system, even if there is some hope for their salvation.

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      • The link you provided does not say they are in hell. The Church does not know their destiny but you concluded for sure that they are in hell.

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  4. Many Christians love alluding to the “miracle of childbirth.” I don’t know how many times I have heard something to the effect of “How can you look at a newborn child and not believe? For me, thinking back to my daughter’s birth only strengthens my disbelief. When I think about holding her in my arms for the first time, there’s no way I can imagine thinking that she was a dirty filthy sinner. Original sin is a disgusting concept.

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    • I couldn’t agree more. Also, labor pains are supposedly part of that whole punishment for the first sin thing, and they suck. Seeing them as the decision of a punitive deity rather than the result of evolution is pretty depressing.

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      • I can’t attest to that from personal experience, but it certainly looks like they would suck.

        What I don’t completely understand is why Eve would have brought on the bulk of the punishment. She was supposedly deceived by the serpent–the craftiest, most cunning creature in the garden. Adam, on the other hand, was deceived by a mere woman. It seems like Eve should have had the better excuse.

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      • I’ve never considered that, but it makes sense, especially considering how the Bible generally depicts women as lesser than men. The way I was taught, it was Eve’s fault for tempting Adam, so she gets a larger share of the blame. Then again, when one considers the serpent’s role it becomes less Eve’s fault. Worse, the serpent gets away with a fairly minor punishment (crawling on its belly) compared to the combination of original sin, banishment, and labor pains that Eve has to contend with.

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