Science and original sin

One of the reasons I am not a Christian is that I speak theology quite well. I am naturally gifted in seeing the world that way, so much so that I can never be certain whether I mean or believe the eleoquent things I sometimes say. And if I don’t know, then why should I suppose that anyone else does, when they speak?

None the less, some of the facts that Christianity tries to explain, and some of its assumptions, seem to me as close to axiomatic as an empirical fact can be. And I am always surprised that people misunderstand — for example — original sin as being a doctrine that sex is dirty. But when Augustine thought it was transmitted at the moment of conception, I don’t think he meant that we wouldn’t get it if our parents didn’t fuck; or, if he did, he shouldn’t have. He meant, surely, something much more like one of the central insights of Darwinism: that individual life necessarily involves differential survival, failure, great pain, and injustice. Conception in that sense is important as the moment of individuation, not the one connected to fucking. Otherwise, identical twins would have identical sins.

[Of course this is compatible with both evolutionary and non-evolutionary world views. That’s another question set of possible answers]

I was put in mind of this by Nature’s admirable rss service this morning, which carries a report on MS research1 using mice:

Experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) models demyelinating autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis. Researchers induce EAE by injecting animals with myelin components. These animals subsequently develop autoimmune responses to myelinated axons. Like multiple sclerosis, EAE induces demyelination, inflammation, neural death and paralysis. EAE severity is scored on a numerical scale, with higher numbers indicating increased severity.

I know enough about MS — and I have seen a friend die of a related disease — to be entirely in favour of animal experimentation as the lesser evil. But it remains lesser — it doesn’t lose an evil quality. “Original Sin”, for me, has a lot to do with the fact that we can only cure humans by caging and then torturing mice, not as some kind of voodoo ritual, but because that is the very best way to understand and then change the evils of the world.

Having got that far, a new thought occurs: suppose our understanding of mice grows so great that we can build a silicon mouse, like the virtual worm of which c. elegans researchers dreamed? Would that remove the stain? No. It would not. The only model on which we could rely would be one which told us little we had not already found out by other means and nothing which we could not check. I think. A computer model on which we had to rely and whose outcome we could never check against reality — well that would have free will, which is another theological conundrum.

1 (there is a similar one which involves provoking variously aggressive lung cancers in mice)

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4 Responses to Science and original sin

  1. Rupert says:

    Isn’t one of the aspects of original sin that it (like all sin) is uniquely human? The wasp hunting for the plumpest caterpillar in which to lay its eggs seems to be functioning on pretty much the same lines – not that it nor the MS mouse says much (positive) about God.

    Yes, it’s a theological view. But I think it’s otiose.

  2. Mark Vernon says:

    As I understand it, Augustine’s problem with sex was the disturbingly involuntary nature of erotic desire. He thought that before the Fall Adam and Eve had sex but they willed it entirely (which is not to say it was passionless but rather that its passion was wholly good; no dark desires). After the incident with the apple, God punished Man – or perhaps better, the ‘punishment’ was actually the consequences of having knowledge of good and evil – by making the world at odds with him. One visible expression of that was that things happened against his will, not least in relation to his member. ‘Sex in erection is the image of man in revolve against God’, as Foucault memorably put it. Thus sex is only bad (not dirty so much as shameful) after the Fall. But since after the Fall is when original sin comes in, the two things – sex and sin -come to be intimately related.

    Incidentally, I’m with you on the ‘not a Christian but theologically fascinated’ front, if that is what you mean. Hence calling myself a religiously inclined agnostic. Or do you know Weber’s expression about being musical in relation to religion (he said he was not musical in relation to religion, but the metaphor is nonetheless a pleasing one).

  3. Rupert says:

    I think it’s time to revive Pelagianism – it’s good for you, and British to boot!


  4. Dougald Hine says:

    With the imaginative freedom that comes from almost total ignorance, I’ve always imagined the Pelagians as a kind of early version of the Socialist Workers Party – convinced that we could bring about heaven on earth, if only everyone would follow their recipe.

    Pessimists are, on the whole, more sympathetic company.

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