Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Escaping Original Sin?

I've been following this thread over on Et tu, Jen with a certain amount of interest, in part because it involves a fascinating mix of people. One comment from a Catholic-turned-atheist struck me as worthy of brief discussion, simply because it seemed so out of left field:
It wasn't until I finally started allowing myself to buy reality that I started to feel better. Today, I'm an atheist and proud of it. Damn, it's great to be free of the shackles of "original sin"!
Now, I have a skeptical enough turn of mind to have a certain degree of sympathy for certain brands of agnosticism, if not atheism, but this I have trouble wrapping my mind around. If there's one thing that seems clear about humanity, it's that our instinct tend towards evil awfully easily. Even if one discards the idea of 'evil' in a moral sense, humans fall to self destructive impulse (good neither for themselves nor for society) terribly easily. With the higher cognition with makes us capable of living in complex, tool using societies comes an oft-misguided willfullness. (You don't see ants or gophers indulging in self destructive and anti-social tendencies to the extent that humans do, though our primate relatives can give us a pretty good run for our money.)

So how exactly could discarding belief in God mean escaping original sin? Original sin is essentially the idea that as a human tribe we bear a (self inflicted) warped will, one easily led astray from 'the good' to the persuit of that which seems good, but is indeed far from it. If one believes in the Christian God, that means that we are born at a distance from God, wandering in our own created wilderness, tending to follow our own compass rather than God's. If one does not believe in that conception of God, it hardly changes this tendency in humanity. It just leaves it unexplained and with no where to go back to from that state of moral wandering.

4 comments:

rose said...

Honestly, I've always thought that original sin was deeply hopeful way to look at the human condition, because it means that we're not meant to be this way. It means that at one point, being human didn't mean being cruel and miserable and self-destructive, and that someday it might not mean that again.

If you get rid of original sin, you're left with the conclusion that this is what we are and always have been, what it means to be human, and unless you can convince yourself of the perfectability of man--which, personally, I think is pretty ridiculous--that's a deeply depressing view of the universe.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I find it odd that an ex-Catholic of (presumably) under seventy finds relief in escaping "the shackles of Original Sin." Where did he find these shackles? I have never heard the "O" word mentioned in a homily, nor seen it in the (many) catechetical materials used (except in the Ignatius Press materials, which are relatively recent and studiously avoided by most parishes).

When my non-Catholic husband left our first baby's baptism class with me, he remarked that a three-hour lecture on the purpose of baptism that didn't mention Original Sin or even allude to sin of any kind seemed to mark a certain change in Catholic attitudes. Free of Original Sin? I would bet good money that not one adult in ten at our (conservative) parish could give you a useful explanation of what Original Sin is, let alone why it should trouble us.

A Philosopher said...

I don't have any particular interest in either defending or rejecting the idea that original sin is a view worth freeing oneself from. But I do want to voice a resistance to the idea that original sin is just an empirically observable phenomenon, via the observed tendency of people to do wrong. It seems to me that this at best oversimplifies the issue. Of course people do quite often do what is wrong. But we shouldn't, and I think often do, lose track of the fact that people also often do what is right. I'm tempted to think that people do what is right far more often than they do what is wrong. People's lives are, in fact, filled with a constant stream of small acts of virtue. We regularly acquiesce to small impositions from other people -- we're polite when they speak to us, we let them stand in line ahead of us without cutting ahead, we smile when we see them, engage in conversation, and so on.

The very fact that this constant stream of virtue is so hard to see makes me suspect that it's actually the dominant state, and that it's only against this background of virtue that we see the (far too frequent, and far too often quite horrific) acts of vice. So I think one complaint that atheists often have against the doctrine of original sin is that it emphasizes only one side of the equation. (I think, also, that that's an unfair complaint, unless we're talking about "total depravity" versions of the view, since there is an explanation also for the virtue. But once the separate explanations are run, I also think any claim of empirical prediction are made vacuous.)

I would also resist the claim that, absence a theistic explanation of the human tendency toward vice, there is no explanation to be had and no non-pessimistic view that keeps our essence from being one of vice. I don't see why any number of psychological stories couldn't explain our tendency toward vice. Isn't a huge amount of it explained just by the fact that we each feel our own pain and not other people's? And I don't see why I have to essentialize here. Without a doctrine of perfectability, I can just say that it's a merely contingent feature of each of us that we do wrong things. One advantage of this is that I can, if I want, easily hold on to an "ought implies can" principle, which seems to me to at least come under pressure from a doctrine of original sin.

Deep Furrows said...

A philosopher makes several good points. First, the innate virtue of people and the notion that virtue is the dominant state (this position is not far from a traditional Catholic one that original sin is a corruption of our nature). Second, the rejection of the empirical observation of original sin. To have this, one would need a way of measuring sin and a materialist definition of sin.

Nevertheless it's a common (if not universal) observation that "I note the good, but do otherwise" (Ovid?). From an existentialist perspective, I recognize a positive destiny for my life, but am incapable of consistently adhering to this destiny without an experience of mercy. I am incapable in myself of loving those closest to me, but I also experience the gift of being able to love others - and I know that this ability goes beyond what could be produced from my will, my intellect, or my psychology.

Fred