Evolution, original sin, and the problem of evil

Previously: Yes, creationism is religiously motivated

It’s become popular to cite Augustine as proof of how liberal and science-friendly Christianity can be. For example, H. Allen Orr’s review of The God Delusionasks rhetorically, “does he [Dawkins] know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?” Similarly, Francis Collins quotes Augustine, particularly his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis, on the difficulty of interpreting Genesis and the importance of Christians not embarrassing themselves on scientific matters.

When I read statements like these, I wonder if the people who make them have read more than a few isolated quotations from Augustine’s work. I’ve already mentioned, in chapter 2, Augustine’s commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible and how talk of “literalism” is misleading. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, it’s true, Augustine said that figurative meanings were to be found throughout the Bible–but he also made clear that he thought many parts of the Bible were literally true in addition to their figurative meanings.

In particular, The City of God makes clear that Augustine took most of Genesis literally, to the point he thought you could calculate the age of the human race from the genealogies in Genesis. The Literal Meaning of Genesis endorses a figurative reading of Genesis 1 (the six days of creation), but is much more literal when Augustine gets to Genesis 2 (where the story of Adam and Eve begins). Furthermore, Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1 is not that the six days might represent untold aeons, but that they all happened simultaneously.

From this, it actually seems safe to say that Augustine was a young earth creationist. Now, you might think that this was not a terribly important part of Augustine’s theology, but rather something that he could have easily discovered. But what was an important part of Augustine’s theology was a doctrine closely bound up with the literalistic way Augustine interpreted Genesis from chapter 2 onwards: original sin.

In chapter 4, I alluded to the fact that original sin refers specifically to Augustine’s interpretation of the whole snake and fruit story. It has its roots in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, but Augustine laid down some details which aren’t explicit in the Bible, but would be widely accepted by Christians after him.

Augustine’s idea was that when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating that fruit, this act of disobedience corrupted human nature, and then they passed the corruption on to their children, and then the children passed it on to the grandchildren, and so on down to us today. And that, Augustine thought, is why Jesus had to come die for our sins.

For Augustine’s view of original sin to work, all human beings (except Adam and Eve) have to be descended from the original couple. Otherwise there’d have been people untainted by original sin at some point in human history. And if some people were untainted by original sin, why wouldn’t God have just punished Adam and Eve by saying they couldn’t have children, and let the other, untainted people be the ancestors of the entire human race?

Because of this, Augustine’s view that all other humans were descended from Adam and Eve seems to have been the standard Christian view until relatively recently. Historian David Livingstone says that until relatively suggestions to the contrary were a “monumental heresy,” found in “only a handful of writers” (see Adams Ancestors, p. 24).

And now the monumental heresy is a scientific fact. From the amount of genetic diversity in today’s humans, we can tell that while the human population was relatively small at some point (around 10,000 people), it was never as small as two people. By the way, talk of “Mitochondrial Eve” and “Y-chromosomal Adam” has little to do with the Biblical story. They terms refer to the most recent common ancestors for all human mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes, respectively, but they would have lived at the same time as lots and lots of other humans, and wouldn’t have even lived at the same time.

Personally, I think it should be obvious that Adam and Eve were a myth (and not the true story of how sin entered the world) just from reading the story. But if you needed proof, there it is, brought to you by science. Because original sin used to be the explanation for why salvation through Jesus was necessary, this is a big headache for Christian theology, even if there are ways for Christians to get around it. One way that does not work is saying original sin is the idea that humans have a tendency to do bad stuff.

People who say this are changing the meanings of words to hide a change of doctrine. The fact is that historically, “original sin” has referred to the specific doctrine that Augustine developed, not the much vaguer claim some wish it referred to. I also think redefining “original sin” as the idea that humans often do bad stuff is obnoxious, because it gives credit where none is due. We didn’t need Christianity to notice that people do bad stuff. What Christianity contributed was an incorrect explanation of why people do bad stuff.

Note that there’s a tie-in here with the problem of evil. Jason Rosenhouse, author of the book Among the Creationistswhich recounts his experiences at creationist conferences as someone who accepts the scientific consensus on evolution, writes:

Over the past few years I have asked a fair number of creationists what it is they find so objectionable about evolution. They have a great many complaints, but the one I hear most often is some version on the problem of evil. Evolution by natural selection is a cruel and wasteful process. It is not at all the sort of thing a just and loving God would set in motion.

I think the argument from evil is totally devastating without evolution, enough that it’s hard to for me to see how evolution could make the problem any worse. Still, the cruelty of evolution by natural selection is where some religious believers find themselves drawing the line.

Or look at it another way: as Dawkins once observed, careful study of cheetahs and antelopes could lead someone committed to the supernatural design hypothesis to conclude that the two species were designed by rival deities, or else a single deity who enjoys bloodsport (River Out Of Eden, p. 105) Now we can see that evolution is a better explanation.

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