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Too much blame at the theologians’ feet

14 October 2016

Edward Dowler takes issue with some of the charges against an Augustinian idea

Born Bad: Original Sin and the making of the Western mind
James Boyce
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9



IN THIS wide-ranging and engaging study, the Tasmanian academic James Boyce traces the idea of Original Sin through the history of Western civilisation from Augustine, through the Reformation, and on to the work of more recent thinkers such as Adam Smith, Sigmund Freud, and Richard Dawkins.

Boyce himself regards Original Sin as essentially irrational, damaging, and untrue, and yet he is forced to admit that it has its upsides. For one thing, he concedes that Original Sin has often been a great equaliser, since all are affected by it, whatever their social class. Moreover, to the extent that it encourages human beings to probe the evil that is within their own hearts, it prevents their simply projecting evil on to some external “other” group of people.

The doctrine of Original Sin is not as clearly linked as Boyce seems to think with the preaching of hellfire and damnation. Indeed, in his seminal dispute with Augustine, it was Pelagius who argued that because it was possible for human beings to be perfect, God would duly punish them if they were not: “I just do not know”, he wrote, “how God can show indulgence to you if you wish to commit a crime.” And, if the idea of self-perfectibility has its frightening side on the individual level, so, too, as the history of the 20th century amply demonstrates, has the related idea that a society can make itself into a utopia.

Boyce is at his strongest when criticising the assumption of some modern thinkers “that their conclusions had no antecedents, that they were original insights that had emerged from pure empirical observation”. A prime target here is Dawkins’s understanding of the “selfish gene”, which, as Boyce shows, is obviously related to Original Sin, despite Dawkins’s dismissal of the doctrine as “one of the very nastiest aspects of Christianity”.

What Boyce ultimately reminds us is that all language — including the idea of Original Sin — whether theological, scientific, or whatever, is necessarily metaphorical. This, however, is an insight that the best exponents of the Western theological tradition, including Aquinas — to whom Boyce gives disappointingly short shrift — and, indeed, Augustine, would happily endorse.


The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, in the diocese of Chichester.

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