Fallen Angels, Rising Apes, and the Knowledge of the Serpent


In addition to the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles, the congregation that I serve as minister ascribes to a set of aspirational statements that  are specifically humanist. Our first Aspiration is, “To live joyfully and ethically, in loving, reverent relationship with humanity and nature.”

Why do we say such a thing?

Because we are countering a long tradition of life-denying dogma common in the Western world. Doctrines such as that of Original Sin are not an affirmation of life in this world, and, in our view, that’s the only life there is.

You don’t have to go farther than our bulletin board to see an implication of what we mean. Just now we have a poster advocating “sex-positive reproductive justice.” We are countering a culture in which sex-negative attitudes impact the fundamental rights of women.

In my blog post last week I discussed Dostoyevsky’s assertion of free will:

“One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice, however wild it may be, one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy . . .”

Well, it’s certainly “joyful” to do “one’s own fancy,” but such actions may not meet the ethical or “reverent relationship” criterion. Dostoyevsky’s definition of free will, the freedom to really mess things up, is a negative assertion of freedom. There’s always a the poles: Sex-negative. Sex-positive. Freedom-negative; freedom-positive. Navigating those can be problematic. And traditional Western religions are the problem, not a solution.

How to be sex-positive and life-affirming. That’s why UU congregations take OWL, Our Whole Lives education courses, so seriously. We have this “one wild and precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver puts it, and we have to figure out how to live it here, now—as ethically, lovingly, and reverently as possible.

In Dostoyevsky’s time philosophers were grappling with the implications of the discovery of Joseph Fourier, a French mathematician, who realized that the numbers of births, deaths, house fires, crimes—even the types of crimes—proved to be fairly consistent from year to year. Predictable, in other words.

This led to both the insurance industry and the field of sociology, among other things. My inability to diet and the number of people who die of heart attack and stroke each year in the United States has some connection, now, doesn’t it?

The insurance industry certainly sees a connection.

Unlike in Dostoyevsky’s time, we don’t think much about it nowadays when we hear how many Americans will die of Type II Diabetes or high blood pressure this year. Nowadays we are saturated with statistics. So much so that, with the addition of computers, we live in the next iteration of statistical analysis: “big data” or “predictive analytics.”

Netflix can tell us what movies we will enjoy with a high degree of accuracy. Amazon can send us discounts for things that the crunched data indicate we will consume next. I love a sentence I read about predictive analytics: “Analytical Customer Relationship Management can be applied throughout the customer’s lifecycle.”

Think about that: “Analytical Customer Relationship Management can be applied throughout the customer’s lifecycle.”

So when you start getting coupons for caskets . . . watch out.

It makes me want to go Dostoyevsky’s route and buy something REALLY crazy.


One of the oddest things I have to deal with in multi-faith work is answering the accusation that humanists don’t have a “theology of sin.” As in, “you don’t have a theology of sin, therefore . . .  you’re just not all that serious about religion.”

To which I’m tempted to say that humanism doesn’t have a theory of onomatopoeia either.

It’s not that humanists don’t understand what people are talking about when they discuss onomatopoeia, it’s just that it lies outside the purview of a humanist ethic.

It’s simply that I don’t put any credence in the idea that people are born into a “fallen state.” As far as I can see, a “theology of sin” has a lot of baggage that just has nothing to do with reality. It’s a complicated answer to a simple question: Why do people act like animals?” When St. Augustine came up with his theory of Original Sin, people didn’t know that human beings were animals. Call it self-denial. But now we do.

How could an animal that has evolved a consciousness such as we have be “fallen”?

I think that anthropologist Robert Ardrey put it best:

We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. (African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man, 1961.

Claiming that “original sin” is not a true description of reality is in no way saying that human beings are “born good,” any more than saying “I have no vacuum cleaner” means that I can’t clean my floor.

Original sin is a theological concept that serves theological ends. And it is a complex answer to a simple question that does not survive Occam’s Razor.

There’s nothing original about sin. But there is something very original about acting up to human aspirations toward ethics and compassion. We are risen apes, not fallen angels, and we are “armed killers” besides. That is a considerably clearer place to start considering how to be ethical, loving, and reverent, it seems to me.

Allow me to take a crack at a humanist theology of sin, necessarily taking into account evolution. How about this: “Sin” is a lack of cooperation with others.

Looked at from this angle, Dostoyevsky wasn’t defining free will, he was defining actions that do not take others into account: “One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own caprice . . . one’s own fancy worked up at times to frenzy . . .”

Excessive drinking; smoking; eating too much—these aren’t “sins.” They’re merely really bad behaviors, given what we know about their outcomes. Those seven deadly sins—wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony—they’re bad for the self and they are bad for others.

“We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides.” Too often our incredible reason and creativity has been allowed  to invent sharpened sticks . . . and a few other things to kill each other with. This is “sin”: it is a lack of cooperation and compassion for others.

Our challenge is to look reality in the face and do what we can with what we’ve got.

That tale of the Garden of Eden is a good story, but it has led to some bad behavior. Sin isn’t very original.

Allow me to take another shot at a humanist theory of of sin:

Some things, such as what have been called sins, are the default settings on the human body. The out-of-the-box model, so to speak. But every car enthusiast knows that if you want more performance, you’ve got to get yourself an after-market muffler. Human ethics are like that.

Our aspirations toward living “ethically, in loving, reverent relationship with humanity and nature” are mostly after-market add-ons.

OK. So I know that my metaphor doesn’t have the sizzle of two naked people and a talking snake. (That’s good writing!) Still, my metaphor is truer to the human condition.

We are risen apes, not fallen angels. We are prone to un-original appetites, irresponsibility, and killing.  Still, we can aspire “to live joyfully and ethically, in loving, reverent relationship with humanity and nature.”

Not bad for a bunch of primates.


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