The fruit of the knowledge of good and evil
My notes for this topic said to make a Jiminy Cricket joke for the title, but I can’t think of one.
I deconverted from Christianity for a bunch of reasons. I hope to explore them one-by-one in the coming weeks. I thought I would start with one of the biggest: Christianity’s teachings on conscience, at least as they were taught to me, not only make no sense, but are morally reprehensible. Surprisingly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else use this argument, at least not in this form.
For those of you unfamiliar with this aspect of Christianity, the idea is that Adam and Eve, the first people, had no concept of sin. They lived in a paradise where scarcity wasn’t an issue and it never occurred to them to do anything wrong. For instance, they ran around naked as they had no knowledge of lust. God’s one rule for them was they weren’t supposed to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A nitpicker would say that this story is self-contradictory as the idea they weren’t supposed to eat the fruit is effectively a moral rule. At any rate, a snake talked/tricked Eve into eating the fruit. The snake is frequently thought to be Satan, though the Bible never says this. Eve, in turn, got Adam to eat the fruit. Since they disobeyed God and had been morally corrupted, Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden. However, they now had an innate sense of what was right and wrong and that they should do right. People had to reject sin and accept Jesus or their sin would send them to hell, where they would be burned alive forever.
The obvious objection to the doctrine of salvation by grace is that it seems terribly unfair. If people never hear about Jesus, then they go straight to hell. This is why you are supposed to tell everyone. The pastor told us frequently in youth group that if you don’t tell someone about Jesus and they end up going to hell, it’s on you. However, the teachings tried to have it both ways, so people who didn’t hear the gospel could still get to heaven by essentially following the guidance of their conscience and understanding they were a sinner and feeling sorry about it, even if they didn’t know who they should apologize to. Christianity just spelled things out and made it easier.
The idea of being guided by your conscience was a huge deal. This is the reason that many Christians don’t believe anyone is really an atheist. Since we were Pentecostals, we were expected to witness to everyone we knew. We were told people know that the Bible is true and that Christianity is right, but the pull of temptation is very strong, as is pride, which keeps them from admitting their sins and embracing Jesus. We just needed to demonstrate Christ’s love in our lives, tell them about Christianity (apparently, many people in Middle America have never heard of it) and let them know that Jesus forgave them, so their old sins didn’t matter. People who left Christianity had just given in to temptation. Once, at youth group, the pastor’s wife told us the story about how she quit Christianity for a few weeks when she was a teenager because she was angry with God. She told him she didn’t believe in him anymore, but soon realized this was silly and came back. This was supposed to represent a typical story of rebellion. Homosexuals and people having pre-marital sex and such had been mired in their lifestyle and didn’t know how to get out. They just had to want what was right more than they wanted sin and be shown the way. I had always thought the prohibitions against homosexuality seemed kind of arbitrary, but since it was God’s universe, he got to make the rules.
Here’s the problem: The sin-addiction model isn’t true. It’s easy to believe when you’re a kid and your examples are something like knowing a candy bar doesn’t belong to you, but taking it anyway because you want candy. As I grew up, I realized that real-world moral choices don’t always work like this. A lot of the time, it’s not about choosing doing choosing between what you want and what you know is right, but trying to figure out what is right. Or, more accurately, figuring out what is least wrong. This first started to weigh on me in high school. My friend Kerry is bisexual. She wrote an editorial in the school newspaper defending that it was as legitimate as anything else and people didn’t have the right to degrade her for it.
High school being what it was (and, I am informed, still is), kids were tittering about the article and making fun of her by lunch. I could recognize this for what it was: bullying. Moral disapproval is often just another cheap way of feeling like you are better than someone else. It is theoretically possible that lots of people were condemning her for the wrong reasons, but others really were driven by moral concern. However, this doesn’t explain Kerry’s behavior. She had nothing to gain by coming out publicly like that. She did it because she thought it was the right thing to take a stand against bullying instead of keeping her head down to protect herself. But wasn’t she supposed to have an innate sense of right and wrong given to her by God? If God doesn’t like women lusting after each other, why would she feel morally compelled to defend this behavior? Something that had been bugging me for a long time clicked: Taken to its logical conclusion, I had been taught that God was going to send her to hell for following the dictates of the conscience he gave her. Any God that would do that didn’t deserve adoration.
Kerry was just the first example that I managed to understand. I got involved in the “Xena: Warrior Princess” fandom on Usenet. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, lesbians love it, so I knew quite a few e-lesbians. Not to further stereotype them, but quite a few were neo-pagans and unfond of Christianity. Their objections weren’t the theoretical things I heard growing up. They thought Christians were hateful and bigoted. I had been taught people would say that, either due to experiences with false Scotsmen Christians who weren’t living the love of Christ or because of enemy propaganda, but that didn’t fit here. These feelings were based on direct experience and I had seen leadership of my own church do similar stuff. (more on that in another article) Moreover, I sympathized with them, and not just because lesbian porn was hot, though that was one of the factors in softening my views on homosexuality.
By the time I went off to college, I had largely separated myself from Christianity. I didn’t join any Christian organizations, but I did join the local gay-straight alliance. I continued with the idea in my head that maybe there was some defensible version of Christianity I just hadn’t heard yet and continued to defend that there was nothing wrong with it in the abstract. I got in an argument about this with a guy online. He said Mosaic Law showed the god of the Bible was evil. I responded with the standard Christian line: Mosaic Law was made to teach us about what it took to be holy. There are a lot of genuine moral rules in there like the idea you shouldn’t, steal kill and rape. There are also lots of silly laws which generally have some symbolic purpose and are meant to make a point about the difficulty of being holy. He pointed out the death penalty is frequently proscribed for breaking rules that appear to be symbolic, like eating leavened bread at the wrong time. (Exodus 12:15) At this point, my own conscience told me God was wrong. The standard rejoinder to this is to accuse someone of thinking themselves superior to God. However, my conscience was supposed to be from God. It was sometimes presented as the direct witness of the Holy Spirit. So where did that leave me? The whole thing made no sense. Christian teachings about divine guidance through our conscience didn’t map to reality as well.
I realize that in Titus 1:15, “Paul” says the conscience of the unbeliever can become corrupted by sin, and thus blind to the dictates of God. He felt like he was doing right when he persecuted Christians. 1st Corinthians 10 goes the other way and says you may feel like something is a sin when it isn’t. This is a poor explanation as it seems to defeat the whole purpose of a conscience. Also, people seemed to frequently end up oriented against God without any obvious source of corruption. I had begun feeling this way well before I stopped believing, for instance. Plus, it contradicts a bunch of other stuff in the Bible that seems to say conscience is universally applicable, like Romans 2, which says that the requirements of the law are written on our hearts. All of these were allegedly written by the same guy, in fact. In short, I had been taught that God not only set up a system where you had to guess the correct religion without sufficient information, he rigged the information to make the right choice look wrong. Then, he punished people for not guessing correctly. That didn’t sound like any sort of moral system to me.