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.

  • Rain

    H. Allen Orr: “does he [Dawkins] know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?”

    Does he, Dawkins, know Augustine wrote in The City of God, Book 12, Chapter 10:

    “They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed.”

    Yes that’s right Mr. smarty pants H. Allen Orr. Augustine says history is 6000 years old and all other histories are lies that should be ignored if they contradict the “sacred writings”. So Mr. smarty pants H. Allen Orr, does he, Dawkins, know that?

  • Brian Rush

    I’m not sure the fact that Augustine accepted as literal the specific idea of creation is relevant here. He had no particular reason to do otherwise. None of the evidence from the fossil record, or certainly none of the reasoning from it, was available to him at the time. No advocates of the idea of evolution by natural selection or of human descent from other animal species existed, as far as I’m aware.

    More important, then, is the general acceptance of the idea of interpreting the Bible figuratively at times — mythically, as I would put it — than the specific interpretation by Augustine of that specific passage. Yes, he was a young earth creationist. But in those days, so was everyone.

    • Rain

      “I’m not sure the fact that Augustine accepted as literal the specific idea of creation is relevant here. He had no particular reason to do otherwise. ”

      True. Augustine got his age of the earth estimates from Eusebius, master bullcrap artist, and held in high esteem his friend “Saint” Ambrose the con artist (we know Ambrose was a con artist because he was a faith healer, and faith healers are always con artists). Other than that, Augustine was the greatest Christian thinker of all time. Yeah, he was immensely gullible and superstitious, but hey, in those days, so was everyone.

  • http://carnedes.blogspot.com Carneades-Skeptic Griggsy

    What is anathema to us naturalists, is that Michael Ruse, non-theist, tries to provide scientific grounds for that hideous dogma of original sin and thus the need for the hideous Atonement! What a gargantuan blasphemy against humanity!
    He also allows that they can use teleology. No! Science finds none ,as Lamberth’s the teleonomic argument notes, and thus, adding divine telos, contradicts instead of complementing science, and thus, theistic evolution is just an oxymoronic obscurantism!
    Apologists just make a false assumption with their pathetic one that He uses evolution as His method of creation. How could He do so/ How can He affect matters in and behind the Cosmos? Never will they provide evidence for that how in a general way, much less for specifics!

  • MNb

    “It’s become popular to cite Augustine as proof of how liberal and science-friendly Christianity can be.”
    I don’t get that. It’s like citing Plato to show how liberal and civil-rights friendly Plato can be. These guys deserve all the respect they get, sure, but things have progressed or at least changed a bit since then.
    Augustinus of Hippo, no matter how intellectually superior he was to me, didn’t know back then what I know concerning science right now. He is obviously not to blame for it, but it means he is as little an authority on reconciling religion with science as I am on reconciling AI with buddhism.

    “it actually seems safe to say that Augustine was a young earth creationist.”
    As safe as calling the brothers Gracchus marxists or Julius Caesar a fascist or Emperor Octavianus Augustus an enlightened dictator or Brutus a liberal. It just doesn’t make sense. I think you’re on the wrong track here, CH, and give in too much to Orr, Collins and co. You make yourself vulnerable; I am pretty sure they will not hesitate to point out that Augustinus had no good reasons to assume that the Earth was older than a couple of thousand years. They will be right and will conveniently forget that that argument mutatis mutandis applies to themselves as well.
    You’re in the wrong debate. The debate should be why someone who has died almost 16 centuries ago should have something useful to say on this subject, given his lack of modern scientific knowledge.

    Your remarks on original sin are excellent. Science simply has shown that Augustinus was wrong here, just like Aristoteles’ mechanics were wrong.

    • Ray

      “As safe as calling the brothers Gracchus marxists or Julius Caesar a fascist or Emperor Octavianus Augustus an enlightened dictator or Brutus a liberal.”

      Nonsense. Young earth creationism is not a term named after a 19th century thinker (Marxist,) or a 20th century party emblem (fasicst,) nor is it a multifaceted political category that refers to completely different things depending on time and place, with no obvious referent in antiquity (liberal — which means centrist in England, left wing in the USA, and libertarian in the 19th century iirc.) Young earth creationism is exactly what it sounds like — the belief that the world was created by God, and recently (relative to the current estimate of 4.5 billion years. Augustine’s estimate of 6000 years is certainly significantly less.) If the term had been a descriptor of a more specific movement (e.g. “intelligent design creationism,” “fundamentalism,” or even “scientific creationism,”) you’d have a case, but I really don’t see what “young earth creationist’ is supposed to imply that doesn’t apply to Augustine.

      • Ray

        I probably should add a little support here:

        It is true that the term “creationist” in a modern invention (Darwin used it to describe the prevailing views of his contemporaries.) However, since the term was intended to describe people who already existed at the time the term was invented, and therefore had not consciously chosen that label, projecting it back in the past need not be any more problematic than referring to Hittite as an “Indo-European Language.”

        To see that the projection can indeed by made, note that wikipedia describes “Young earth Creationism” as “the religious belief that the Universe, Earth, and all life on Earth were created by direct acts of the Abrahamic God during a relatively short period, sometime between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago.” This seems to me an entirely accurate description of Augustine’s views.

    • Rain

      “Augustinus of Hippo, no matter how intellectually superior he was to me”

      I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that. Personally I think of him as kind of an idiot. A well read idiot, yeah sure, but well-read in a lot of baloney. Very prolific as far as baloney goes. Usually we say that people who are prolific in baloney are “kooks”.

      Every time I read this sentence of his, with the lovely kooky exclamation point at the end:

      “… they would fain oppose to the authority of our well-known and divine books, which predicted that the whole world would believe them, and which the whole world accordingly has believed; which proved, too, that it had truly narrated past events by its prediction of future events, which have so exactly come to pass!”

      … I want to finish his sentence for him something like this:

      …which have so exactly come to pass! Whoop whoop whoop! Look at me and my crackpot non sequiturs! It even has an exclamation point at the end! Whoop whoop whoop! I’m a fruity loop! Cuckoo!

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