Inheritance of sin

In my Catholic education, we learned that Adam and Eve committed original sin, which released evil upon the world. I don’t recall to what extent Adam and Eve were literally real people, but that was beside the point. The point was that original sin causes temptation, temptation leads to sin, and sin leads to evil.

I have heard many critiques of the content of Christian morality (e.g. homosexuality is a condition like alcoholism, no sex before marriage) and its methodology (e.g. it is right/wrong because God said so), but relatively few critiques of the most common frameworks. Temptation, whatever pedagogical value it might have for kids, can be quite damaging when it’s your primary moral framework. Temptation produces a strong association between sin and anything mildly hedonistic. People sin because it feels good, so if you feel good you must be doing something wrong.

The concept of sin itself also has many problems. It refers to wrongdoing, but it is also the source of all evil. Therefore, any evil arising from natural causes must also come from wrongdoing. How does bad behavior produce bad weather? Apparently sin kinda floats around and sticks to people. Or maybe sinning sets in motion an invisible Rube Goldberg machine–a Rube Goldberg machine of evil. The mechanism has never been very clear.

However it is that sin gets around, one thing is clear: it is passed on to children. That is the doctrine of original sin. Adam and Eve sinned, and we, their descendants, are punished. I’m no Bible buff, but didn’t it happen repeatedly throughout the Bible? The mark of Cain, the curse of Ham? Sin cares little about personal responsibility, it’s all about your parentage.

Do I even need to explain why this is wrong? Need I point out that I wasn’t born yet when my ancestors did wrong, and I couldn’t do anything to stop them? Need I mention the connection to racism?

Many Christians agree that it is wrong to blame children for the wrongdoing of their parents. But either they deny that it’s present in Christian doctrine, or they simply haven’t thought about it. Then comes a sobering thought: what if I am doing the same? What if the idea of inheritance of sin pervades not just Christianity, but human culture in general, and I have simply denied it, or haven’t thought about it?

It becomes easier to spot if you think not of inheritance of sin, but of its inversion. People are frequently proud of their ancestors, whether they be biological ancestors, or if they simply share an identity. As a US citizen, is there truly any reason for me to be proud of our nation’s forefathers? As an atheist, is there any reason I should be proud that such and such historical figure was also an atheist?

The more I think about it, the more I sour on all identity-based pride.


  1. says

    Deuteronomy 23:2 (KJV)

    A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.

    Such a horrible, horrible book. That people have twisted the main villain of the book into the personification of “love” is terrifying.

  2. Menyambal says

    #1, thanks Tabby, that is my case. Two of my ancestors did produce a child without being married (back in a time when such a thing was noteworthy). The Bible doesn’t say what penalties the couple faced for doing so, but the child was damned, through no fault of his own. His offspring too, and theirs yet again. God had damned me before I was even possible.

    Fortunately, I was atheist before I noticed that verse. I still interpret it as having no hope of getting to Heaven at all. I don’t know which Christians know about it and take it seriously, but I can tell you that a lot of alleged Christians were pretty damn mean to one poor little bastard.

    There’s a Bible verse somewhere that says God will not visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, though – one of the many contradictions in the Bible.

  3. says

    People sin because it feels good, so if you feel good you must be doing something wrong.

    That is often missed in the critiques of the doctrine of original sin. But it was one of the most dug-in concepts in our training. Mom, who loved anything colourful, never planted flowers because they were just for looking, and therefore suspect. I always felt guilty if I “wasted” an afternoon reading a fun book. And the converse: a serious Christian, back in the day when I was leading Sunday School programs, told me she thought she should volunteer for teaching SS because she hated teaching. (I turned her down.)

    I never knew, until Mom’s Alzheimer’s was advanced enough for the brakes to be off, that she loved tomatoes and didn’t like chicken.

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