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Life Arts    H3'ed 4/20/09

The Origin of Sin

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Originally posted:


Where did the concept of Original Sin come from?

This was a concept invented by Christians. Judaism has no concept of Original Sin. The story of the Fall in Genesis was an explanation as to why we live in a world that less than perfectly matches our ideals. Individuals are punished for their own sins and sometimes those of their ancestors, but there was never and is not a concept of an inherent stain on all of mankind that needs (or needed) to be removed. Paul initiated this doctrine in its earliest rudimentary form. Christians developed and used this concept as an attempt to give a basis for their religion. It combined the pagan conception of a spiritual redeemer with the Jewish obsession with sin.

Where did the concept of Sin come from?

The short answer is that the Jews suffered from a cultural form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

When individuals are unable to adapt to the world and establish control through rational means, they naturally revert to pre-rational modes of adaptation, following, specifically, the principles of operant conditioning excessively.1 This involves increasing behavior that was followed by success and decreasing behavior that was followed by failure. Whether the preceding action is actually the cause of the good or bad occurrence is not known by the individual and is irrelevant. In a tense situation this becomes extreme—with definite musts and definite must-nots. Turning to operant conditioning instead of rational analysis is the result of a lack of power and "legitimate" means of adaptation. It gives birth to a compulsive array of rituals and an obsession with feelings of uncleanliness and guilt over any deviation from the prescribed rituals, as these are the only thing that allow the powerless individuals to feel in control and impose order over what for them is a chaotic world. We would expect that cultures that were not much in control of their situations might develop this kind of worldview to attempt to cope with things. Once born, this worldview might spread to and effect even cultures that are not in such dire straights—a sort of mimetic virus. In the individual this manifests itself in the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder—but this can also be observed in professional and cultural instances. For an analysis of this illness2 in professional instances one can read George Gmelch’s article entitled “Baseball Magic.”

Gmelch shows that in baseball we find that hitters and pitchers produce an enormous amount of rituals to try and ensure success in their performance whereas catchers do not. This is most likely because a large degree of the success or failure in a hitter or pitcher’s performance is beyond the individual’s control, whereas a catcher is much more in control of his or her own performance. When faced with a situation in which 1) a given task is extremely important to a person (the livelihood of professional players are on the line, they must perform well) and 2) known means of insuring success are insufficient, the individual regresses to relying on operant conditioning—behaviors that are followed by success become ritualized and behaviors that are followed by failure become taboo. This is grounded primarily in the body, so to speak. If you ask a hitter, for example, if they are superstitious, some may even say something really strange like, “No, I don’t believe in it, but it just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t do it the right way.”

In the Jewish sense, the concept of sin constitutes an ontological flaw or spiritual imperfection. A word, thought, or action that is contrary to the will of God—an act or offense against God. This concept came out of the Jews' state of powerlessness and is the cultural equivalent of obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is characterized by ritualistic behavior and dogmatic thinking, the belief that one must do certain things, the belief that one cannot do certain things, and the belief that one may somehow have become unclean—often leading to a hand washing ritual. Healthy individuals and cultures, such as the Polynesians, do not believe in sin or that a Supreme Being could be offended or have its will in any way thwarted. The concept of sin is the result of extreme conditions taking things such as rituals and taboos to the extreme.

Gmelch, George. "Baseball Magic." Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. 11th ed. 2003.

1 Perhaps it would be more appropriate to refer to these as pre-cognitive rational modes of adaptation—as learning through operant conditioning is a very rational adaptation if one lacks understanding of the situation.

2 I call anything that limits or decreases one’s success an illness. In as far as obsessive-compulsive disorder allows one to focus, calm, and assert control it is both rational and effective, though it appears here as a symptom to the illness of whatever situation of powerlessness created such a disposition. In that it can ultimately be itself debilitating, however, I consider it an illness.

If you identify with the message of this article, please email it to people, tell your friends, even print out copies to pass around. Together we can raise awareness. Thank you.

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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