Missing in Action: A History of “Sin”

Over at Neuroanthropology, a superb blog that I read daily, Daniel Lende (Professor of Anthropology at Notre Dame) has posted an article by some of his students titled “Augustine’s Original Sin.”  It is a curious piece that apparently resulted from a freshman seminar titled “Anthropology of Compulsion.”

The first thing one notices is that the students simply accept and use the idea of “sin” without question or definition.  They assume, in other words, that “sin” simply exists and operates in the world.  A priori assumptions may have been good for Kant, but they do not seem like a good thing for students learning anthropology, whether it be cultural or biological.

The entire idea of “sin” has a history.  Within the few (and relatively recent) religious traditions in which one finds “sin,” its definition and uses have changed considerably over time (as demonstrated by Gary Anderson’s Sin: A History).  One might hope that the class began by examining this history rather than accepting “sin” as Truth.  Robert Simon’s “Natural History of Sin” might have been a good starting point.  On a more fundamental level, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals should be on these students’ reading lists.  Education is not indoctrination.

Professor Lende’s research interests include addictions (alcohol and drugs); when combined with a class titled “Anthropology of Compulsion,” one might suppose that addictions — which are compulsions of sorts — were discussed within the Augustinian notion of “original sin.”  If that is the case, it seems rather unfortunate.  If I am wrong about this, I apologize in advance.

Given the huge amount of research being done into what appears to be innate human altruism, prosociality, and morality, this entire notion of sin seems not only mistaken, but positively harmful.  It is one thing to teach children that right living usually includes a certain way of conducting oneself but quite another to teach them they come into this world as “sinners.”  Research into human and animal behavior unequivocally demonstrates that positive reinforcement is better than negative.

At one point in the post, the students make a startling declaration:  “So now that we’ve come to an agreement that original sin is a plausible description for human nature, an obvious question to follow is: how do we escape it?” Hopefully, these students will continue studying anthropology, philosophy, biology, and other subjects which will lead them to the realization that “original sin” is not a plausible description for human nature.

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2 thoughts on “Missing in Action: A History of “Sin”

  1. John

    Original sin in the sense that Augustine presents it is not necessarily plausible. The idea of “sin” itself is almost impossible to define and going round and round about what sin is in a freshman-level class would be nonsensical.

    What is plausible, and certainly true, is that humans, like animals have a desire to do things which are pleasurable. Unfortunately, societal and religious teachings, for the sake of order, have labeled such logical, pleasure-seeking actions as “sinful”. In this sense, we as humans have a penchant for actions which society considers “sinful”.

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