Monday, September 05, 2011

Does evolutionary biology refute the doctine of original sin?

Maverick philosopher asks here whether the doctrine of Original Sin is empirically refutable by evolutionary biology. He argues not, because it is absurd to suppose that the doctrine of the Fall 'stands or falls' with the truth of a passage in Genesis literally interpreted. I think he is right if it is the literal interpretation – of original biologically human parents – that is the intended target. But, as I argued earlier, evolutionary biology addresses the ‘spiritual’ interpretation of the Fall also. The doctrine of Original Sin is roughly this:

1. We are beset by a host of evils (e.g. crime, illness, sexual desire) that make our existence in this life wretched.
2. This present wretched state is a punishment.
3. The punishment is for an act committed by distant ancestors.

Interpreting ‘evil’ as a threat to our survival, evolutionary biology explains this as the result of life having evolved by competition for survival. Since competition for survival always involves the danger of extinction, it is only natural that our life should be ‘wretched’ in this sense. (That sexual desire is an evil is a view of Augustine’s that we should leave for later).

The second assumption – that this state is a kind of punishment – is in no way consistent with evolutionary biology. In evolutionary biology, there is no one to mete out punishment. And the third assumption, that we are being punished for something that others did, makes no sense for the same reason. And even if others committed a crime, it violates natural justice to suppose that we should be punished for what they did, without participation or choice in their act.

Augustine’s argument is that since God allows young infants to suffer, original sin must exist. An all-powerful god would not allow innocent beings to suffer, therefore even children cannot be innocent. And since they have done nothing in their own life to merit punishment, it follows that they are being punished for the sins of their distant ancestors. Evolutionary biology entirely rejects this argument, of course.

In summary, evolutionary biology rejects a spiritual, as well as a literal, interpretation of the theological doctrine of original sin.


William M. Connolley said...

As far as I can tell, Original Sin is a (failed) Christian attempt to explain away the Problem of Evil. Which is pretty well what you say at the end (aside: but there are many other attempts to explain it, down to "we just don't understand God's mysterious ways", so I'm puzzled that Augustine could be so definite: that appears to amount to him throwing out a good deal of everyone else's work; but maybe he does).

Your 1-2-3 appears reasonable to me, as does your refutation of the connection to EB, but if you look at you'll find: "In the theology of the Catholic Church, original sin is regarded as the general condition of sinfulness, that is (the absence of holiness and perfect charity) into which humans are born, distinct from the actual sins that a person commits. This teaching explicitly states that "original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants".[5] In other words, human beings do not bear any "original guilt" from Adam and Eve's particular sin. The prevailing view, also held in Eastern Orthodoxy, is that human beings bear no guilt for the sin of Adam and Eve."

So by that reading your 2 is wrong, and therefore 3 as well (also, I think Christians would dispute your 1, in that while we are beset by evils, life is not (necessarily) wretched).

Edward Ockham said...

I did read the Wikipedia article. The problem is that any official statement of the doctrine will typically involve many subtleties and fine distinctions. Try the Catholic Enyclopedia article. It says “Original sin is the privation of sanctifying grace in consequence of the sin of Adam”. The “the privation of sanctifying grace” is explained as the ‘death of the soul’. If we assume this death of the soul is a bad thing, and that this is ‘in consequence of’ the original sin, then it is clearly a punishment. But then it is a punishment for something we are not guilty of, which is problematic.

Note also that there are different lines of thought within Catholicism itself, of which Augustine’s is at one extreme. He says that the crime of a parent is not a personal crime of the children. But, he goes on, ‘it is a paternal crime’. Most Franciscans are adherents to this Augustinian view.

On whether Christians would accept this view, of course most now would not. However it is difficult to make sense of Christianity as a whole without it. (Jesus being sacrificed as a 'substitutionary atonement' for all our sins etc.