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Original Sin

December 1, 2021 (593 words)

How can an innocent newborn come into this world burdened with what religious zealots refer to as “the stain of Original Sin”? This is just the sort of mean-spirited clap-trap that turns compassionate people off. It’s the reason so many now identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

And why self-proclaimed deep thinkers fancy themselves “agnostic,” while the most audacious walk the farthest plank and proudly present as “atheist.”

I sympathize with such skepticism because I shared it for many years. But the time came when I had no choice but to change my mind. It wasn’t a single, dramatic Road to Damascus moment that prompted my return to the fold. It was a slow, deliberate process. I could never quite shake what I had been taught in my youth. Or lose respect for those who did the teaching. Eventually I brought a mature mindset to the project, and that made all the difference.

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With apologies to orthodox theologians everywhere, I would say the “stain of Original Sin” teaching needs to be explained with a bit more nuance, to help the independent-minded among us accept and digest it. What may have convinced the great unwashed in an earlier, more observant era no longer flies.

So here is an alternative definition, from a humble layman’s perspective. The only thing any of us are burdened with when we come into this world is an inclination toward evil. The evidence in support of this thesis is plentiful and irrefutable. I can’t tell you why it is so. I can only use the eye test to reach an informed conclusion.

Is “evil” too strong a word for you? Okay, let’s insert “wrong” in its place. Still too judgmental? How about “a tendency to be inconsiderate of others.” The word “selfish” is more to the point of course, but that, too, may offend one’s educated and refined sensibility.

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In what strikes me as a blatant contradiction, advocates for social justice will push back against the strong taking advantage of the weak, yet turn up their nose at anything resembling what they contemptuously deride as unduly restrictive religious dogma.

To some extent this is a messaging problem, as I’ve just pointed out. Believers need to do a much better job spelling things out in a way that resonates with the modern ear. Citing Bible verses will not do the trick. The contradiction I refer to, for example, is a basic characteristic of our secular age. It can be traced to an opposing view of humankind: People are good by nature, and are only corrupted by society.

This catchy sound bite is famously attributed to the Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who is said to have experienced an epiphany about human nature in 1749. Though his name no longer

rolls off the tongue, he was regularly invoked when I was a young buck in the 1970s. Rousseau was one of the patron saints (along with the Marquis de Sade, 1740-1814) of the “sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll” culture my peers and I spent so much of our young-adult energy celebrating.

We of a certain generation may have aged out of our halcyon days, but we cling to a fondly-remembered free-thinking past with a vengeance, and allow it to define us still.

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The precious infant you are holding is every bit as pure and blameless as he or she appears. But this sweet child will nevertheless have to battle a default inclination toward evil/selfishness, just as we all do. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s popular thumbnail sketch of human nature notwithstanding.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
December 1, 2021

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