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Reading the story of the Fall of Man this morning, I found myself thinking of experiment psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt’s research explores foundational moral principles that are common across culture, classifying them into five common themes: Harm/Care; Fairness/Reciprocity; Ingroup/Loyalty; Authority/Respect; and Purity/Sanctity.  Of these five, Haidt finds that Westerners, and particularly liberal-leaning Westerners, tend to challenge the last three principles, while non-Western cultures are more amenable to all five principles.

It’s thus interesting that Original sin, which fits pretty clearly into Authority/Respect, is a foundational principle of Western religion.  The reason eating from the tree of knowledge is considered sinful is solely that it constituted disobedience of God.  Adam, Eve, and the Snake are vilified for their actions, but when viewed through a modern liberal lens, it’s hard to find their actions all that disagreeable, especially given that they were acting towards a pursuit of knowledge, which nowadays is generally accepted as a virtuous thing to do.

In the West, the question of whether authority figures deserve respect is generally taken to be context-dependent.  When leaders are thought to be acting against their people’s interest, their authority may be questioned and rejected.  In this story, God appears to act unjustly, telling Adam that, “in the day that you eat of [the tree of knowledge] you shall surely die”, a statement that’s factually untrue.  Furthermore, God’s intention seems to be to restrict Adam and Eve’s knowledge, which hardly seems a justifiable objective.  God’s authority in this case stems solely from God’s authority; the commandment itself is hard to justify in moral terms, and based on a false premise.  When unjustified authority clashes with the pursuit of knowledge (e.g. banning books, regulation of media), authority figures usually aren’t respected.

I get that God is not a politician, and that challenging God’s authority is fundamentally different than challenging a person’s, but it seems really curious, that this particular act is deemed so terrible.  The sin would be much more compelling if its consequences were worse than a couple people realizing that nudism isn’t cool, and if the broken rule weren’t based on a lie and motivated by preservation of ignorance.

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2 Comments

  1. Hm. You might be interested in Lilith, who was originally created with Adam (doesn’t appear in Genesis), and was designed to be his original wife. But she refused to be subservient, so she got booted from the Garden of Eden even before Adam and Eve.

    She’s not as well-known as Adam and Eve, but she has existed in Western mythos for at least 2000 years. It’s interesting how “liberal-leaning Westerners” are both strongly feminist and skeptical of Authority/Respect.

  2. Joe,

    Lilith is hardly a key figure in Western religion, whereas my perception is that Original sin is pretty important to modern Christianity–isn’t “Jesus died for our sins” largely referring to this particular sin?

    Am I overstating the importance of Original sin? Is there a good work-around for the apparent dissonance? Is this something I’m not supposed to talk about?

    I’m legitimately curious–not just trying to be a jerk.


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