We Need to Talk About Sin

Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.
GK Chesterton

We don't talk about sin anymore.

This worries me.

For two thousand years those of us in the Judeo-Christian Tradition have wrestled with sin--a sin originating with Adam and Eve. For most of those long centuries we believed that Adam had fallen from God's favor in the Garden of Eden and God had responded by cursing the world. That legacy included a mysterious "original sin" that we are born with--a sin condemning us to hell unless wiped away by salvation. But even salvation--whether by baptism or being born again--didn't fix the problem and Christianity developed rituals, sacraments, and liturgies to remind us that we sin and must seek forgiveness. Millions of Christians still kneel every Sunday and ask God to forgive them for "things done and left undone."

But we no longer speak publicly of this sin, deeply ingrained in all of us. It seems we no longer believe in it. Sin has become the problem of the "other" --ISIS, criminals, Putin, North Korea's Dear Leader--but even then we no longer call it "sin."

The traditional understanding of sin has been undermined, of course, by the discovery that Adam and Eve never existed, there was no Garden of Eden, and humanity never experienced a "fall." We inherited nothing from Adam because Adam never existed.

But does this mean that "original sin" is no longer a useful concept? Sin is not an abstract theological notion like holiness, justification, or forgiveness, with little if any empirical content. GK Chesterton said original sin was "the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."

Chesterton, of course, was a Christian who believed we inherited our sinful natures from Adam. But the Nobel Laureate Christian de Duve, an atheist with no investment in Christian doctrine, agrees with Chesterton. In his book, Genetics of Original Sin, de Duve tips his hat to the sacred writers, who "perceived the presence in human nature of a fatal flaw." He dismisses Chesterton's notion of original sin inherited from Adam as the flaw, but is quite insistent that the flaw is real, serious, and threatening to our species.

The culprit is the process of natural selection that has shaped our species over the long course of evolution. This selection process privileged gene traits that were "immediately favorable to the survival and proliferation of our ancestors...with no regard for later consequences." Such traits include "selfishness, greed, cunning, aggressiveness, and any other property that ensured immediate personal gain, regardless of later cost to oneself or to others."

Think about these things: selfishness, cunning, aggressiveness; immediate personal gain without regard to the cost to others or even one's self down the road. Do these things not sound like serious contemporary issues? Do we not see them on Wall Street, behind podia at political debates, in front of cameras every day?

Most of the serious problems we face today arise from this deeply rooted part of our human nature--the part we don't talk about any more.

Whether it was Adam's sin or Natural Selection, we are a selfish, greedy, aggressive species and we should think about that. Right now the world is recovering from the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression. Major banks have paid billion dollar fines for their role in the collapse of the economy. Yet we hear nothing about uncontrollable greed on the part of bankers; no proposals are advanced to keep greed in check.

The great campaign issue of this election cycle is growing wealth inequality but nobody argues that greedy self-interest might be part of the problem. The problem is not human selfishness: it is "tax laws," or "over regulation," or "globalization."

In the Middle East, ISIS slaughters innocent civilians and beheads people. The intensity of their campaign is rooted in the ancient tribalism that took up residence in our genes when defending one's tribe had survival value. We forget that Western Christians waged similar campaigns a few short centuries ago and it was only in the last century that Hitler was murdering Jews. We need to look at ISIS and see more of ourselves.

Jimmy Carter has written passionately about the global exploitation of women that occurs in every nation, a consequence of social structures controlled by powerful men. In the United States young girls develop eating disorders as they strive to look like artificially enhanced versions of what men find attractive. Evolution has programmed men with unhealthy attitudes toward women and, when not checked, these attitudes express themselves in most unfortunate ways.

Climate scientists try in vain to awaken the world to changes that are ruining the planet. Natural resources are disappearing. But we are programmed by natural selection to care only about the short term. Thinking about people who will be born in the next century seems like a fantasy. How can we possibly owe them anything? Why should we restrain our lifestyles to enhance theirs?

For centuries we understood ourselves as fallen, sinful creatures, living in the long dark shadow of Adam, the first human and ancestor of us all, and the key to understanding ourselves. This is a remarkable story that I tell in my recent book Saving the Original Sinner.

Understanding ourselves as sinful creatures served as a caution, illuminating our dark behaviors and checking our worst impulses. Now we understand ourselves as evolved creatures, shaped by natural selection, but unaware of what that means and how hard we will have to work to transcend those limitations.

We remain sinful creatures and we need to spend more time talking about that.