The original sin that just won’t go away

I promise this will be my last post about anything to do with evil. Only happy subjects from now on. But I did just finish a fascinating book by Daniel Boyce called Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World. In very brief summary, Boyce traces the history of the doctrine of original sin throughout the history of the western church (apparently the eastern church doesn’t have the doctrine) and he concludes by saying, particularly in Protestant denominations original sin is in the decline, but in secular western thought, such as Freud, Dawkins and Pinker, it is alive and well, albeit without God involved.

First the surface level things that I liked. I liked that he is an Australian author, an academic who has turned his research interest into something accessible for everyone (something I’m a little jealous of). Secondly, especially considering the subject matter was religion, I found the book blessedly free of anachronistic judgements. He is very generous towards Christian thinkers who were products of their time rather than conforming to our modern day values.

On the other hand, like most books with a central revolutionary idea, his argument was a little overstated. One minor irritation was his lumping together the two manifestations of this doctrine – that we are all born guilty of Adam’s sin, or that we all sin from birth and are all condemned for our own sin. Nevertheless, these ideas have much in common and it doesn’t detract from his argument too significantly.

Turning to the interesting part, there were two ideas I was particularly impressed by. The first is the way that original sin keeps being reinvented, and it can be used in radically different ways. For example, the medieval Catholic Church used the doctrine of original sin to argue the necessity of the church for baptising children born guilty. Then, the early reformers used original sin to argue almost the opposite – we are all equally sinful and so there is no privileged priesthood. It’s fascinating how a single idea can be used in so many ways. The second fascinating idea was the influence of western Christian philosophy on modern day popular secular thinkers. No matter how much modern day secularists want to claim God is dead, they still have Christian theology built into the framework of their thought. We claim to be objective, eg Dawkins and his pseudo scientific evolutionary biology, but don’t realise how dependent we are on what comes before. Ironically, the trend in academia leans more towards nurture than nature at present, but the ideas that focus on our inherent evil from which we need redemption are the ones that have taken hold of the popular imagination. This is not just about taking jabs at popular atheists, because Christians, particularly those who claim to rely only on the bible for their doctrine, also need to take note of our (often unconscious) dependence on what comes before us.

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