Original sin, not Christmas, is the problem

The war on Christmas is an attempt by the government and private companies to avoid mentioning Christmas or its religious content. Schools, stores, and advertisers are soldiers in the war. Partly in response to the war, some religious folk encourage people to keep Christmas focused on Christ. An interesting issue is whether the war is justified.

Christianity has a number of problematic doctrines. Examples include atonement (Christ can be punished or, perhaps, pay for other people’s sins), transubstantiation (all of Jesus can be located in each of many different wafers), and the trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are distinct and yet only one person).

Perhaps the most bizarre religious doctrine, though, is the doctrine of original sin. The Catholic version (seen in Catechism of the Catholic Church and Catholic Encyclopedia and other places) holds that through his sin, Adam caused the human race to face not only bodily death, but to also have evil desires that produce a tendency to sin. Adam’s sin was so monstrous that not only did he lose holiness and justice, but he lost it for almost everyone else. This sin so stains humanity that infants have to be baptized to wash it out of them. The original sin that Adam brought about is not universal, though. The Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin.

Some Protestantism lines adopt a similar position. This was true of some of its leaders. Consider, for example, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564). Nor was this position plucked out of thin air. It is a plausible interpretation of the Old Testament (see Psalms 51:5) and New Testament (see Romans 5:12-21 and Corinthians 15:21-22). Mormons and most Jews reject this doctrine, but have plenty of other problematic doctrines.

St. Augustine (354-430) believed that original sin was so serious that unbaptized infants who die early go to hell. However, the Catholic Church’s current position is that it does not know what happens to them. It instructs members that they can hope that such infants go to heaven rather than in Limbo or to hell. Still, a grieving parent can’t rule out that her miscarried or aborted fetus or tragically dead infant might be in Limbo or Hell, perhaps even permanently.

The doctrine of original sin has problems. First, what did Adam do that was so bad that he stained not only himself, but also humanity? He (and, perhaps also, Eve) was disobedient to God and consumed forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is hard to see why this is a sin given that he wasn’t blameworthy for doing it. He wasn’t blameworthy because he didn’t know disobedience is wrong. He didn’t know it was wrong because such knowledge requires his knowing good and evil (and this came about from eating the fruit).

Second, even if it were sinful to eat the forbidden fruit, it is hard to see why this result in future people being in a fallen state when they didn’t perform the sin. In general, one person cannot be blamed for what another does unless both are part of a conspiracy. People today did not conspire with Adam. Even if a fallen state is not strictly speaking sin, it is unclear how Adam could have done something that resulted in people thousands of years later lacking holiness, justice, and (sanctifying) grace.

Third, even if Adam did sin and a son can be blamed for his father’s sin, one wonders why God would not simply give people holiness, justice, and grace. That is, did God have a good reason to deny them these things? If he did have a good reason, then it is this reason, rather than Adam’s sin, that explains why they are in a fallen state. If God does not have a good reason, then he harms them or, at least, refuses to benefit them for no good reason. We expect more from him.

Fourth, science gives us no reason to think that there ever was a Garden of Eden, tree of knowledge of good and evil, or that early humans or apes were free of envious, lustful, and violent desires. Thus, the doctrine fits poorly with science.

Should the problems with Christianity provide a justification for the war on Christmas? The motivation for the war in the context of government rests on concerns about the separation of church and state. In the private sector, its motivation is not causing unnecessary offense. It doesn’t rest on whether Christianity is plausible.

There is nothing wrong with government or businesses using their resources to make people happy even if it does so by catering to an implausible worldview. Still, if large number of people believed in the moral views of the Westboro Baptist Church or the metaphysical views of Mormonism or Scientology, it would seem that the destructive or false nature of such belief systems might be a good reason not to cater to them.

If this is correct, and I am not sure it is, then perhaps whether the government or businesses cater to Christianity should also be evaluated with regard to whether it is destructive or false. The doctrine of original sin suggests that some lines of Christianity would not fare well when evaluated for truth. It is less clear if Christianity is destructive. The religion’s costs and benefits are so complex and extensive that is nearly impossible to determine whether people would have been better off without it.

Still, Christmas is a joyous and beautiful holiday. It would be a shame for businesses and other private groups to tamp it down merely to avoid offending hyper-sensitive babies. Perhaps a good rule might be that if promoting a holiday makes many people happy, then in the absence of a strong evidence of a comparable cost, it is fine to promote it.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com