Why Original Sin Is Nonsense

Original SinEvery so often I work with someone who has been dramatically impacted by the tragic teachings of original sin.

After we do some coaching together, we uncover that they believe they are fundamentally bad, wrong, or unlovable.

How did this happen I wonder? Where in the hell did they get this kind of message? For the lucky few that had great parents and teachers, who planted this seed?

One answer—original sin and “the church.”

Reginald A. Ray, the former head of the Religious Studies program at Naropa University and long-time Buddhist teacher told me once that in his 45 years experience teaching thousands of Western students meditation, he believed that original sin is responsible for why so many people have a negative view of themselves.

Of course it’s not the only reason.

When we are little kids, we pretty much believe what the big people tell us. Hence, racisim, sexism, and various forms of fundamentalism and extremism. Parents, coaches, teachers, and organizations have a HUGE power and influence over what kids learn and digest.

Brainwashing a child is pretty easy. Any form of fundamentalism starts by brainwashing children.

If you are a parent, how is it possible to look at your new baby and think that he or she is bad, guilty, wrong, or sinful? As one of my Catholic clients recently said about his son after birth, “he was perfect!”

As a father, I couldn’t agree more. Looking at my own son I was simply blown away at how pure he looked, felt and acted. His pure innocence and splendor. His eyes, face, little toes and hands were simply perfect. I felt deep love.

But if you yourself believe that you are fundamentally worthless, bad, or wrong at your core, it is no surprise that you will pass down that teaching to your children and children you work with.

Even still, how does any smart adult take the teaching of original sin seriously? If you test this and any spiritual or religious teaching against your own experience, what conclusions do you come to?

For example, if as a child you are taught that Hispanic (or fill in the blank) people are bad or less than you, you will simply take the adults word for it as truth. Even if your own experience suggests otherwise. As you get older however, in order to confirm your narrow belief system, you select only those experiences that match what you believe, thus concretizing your view and lodging racism into your psyche even further.

Are you really willing to come to your own conclusions or will you instead trust something even though it is in conflict with your direct experience?

The Good News

I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of people over the years and there is always the same theme. Once we begin to genuinely work on ourselves through coaching, men’s work, psychotherapy, and spiritual practice, and we stick with it, we always uncover the truth in more or less two stages.

Stage 1. We discover that we have a whole series of limiting beliefs and insecurities that we have pushed down and kept hidden. We finally admit that we have some issues (welcome to being human) and we begin the “thawing out” process.

Stage 2. Realizing that our discovery in stage 1 is just a bunch of “old tapes” and messages that someone else gave us, we begin to see underneath these lies to a deeper truth—that we are fundamentally good and worthy of love. That’s right, once we “do the work” we start to see and experience the truth of who we are. This is a big turning point in a person’s life. Once you taste the raw freedom and magic of who you are, there’s no turning back and you just want more.

So, try it on that you were not only born perfect but that you still are fundamentally good and perfect at your core. Beneath the mask you wear, the ego trips, and BS messages from “the big people,” is a beautiful human being—trust me.

Tibetan Buddhist master Trungpa Rinpoche coined the term “basic goodness” to describe who we are at our essence. That beneath our ‘cocoon’ we are fundamentally good. To me this is true, no matter who you are.

Why? I have worked with criminals, perpetrators of domestic violence, drug addicts and severely mentally ill people who, when they let down their walls and defenses, are absolutely perfect and as just as worthy of love as anyone else.

Next Steps?

1. Test every teaching anyone gives you against your own experience.

2. Get to know yourself and see if it’s really true

3. Burn the old tape that you are fundamentally bad or wrong at your core. Light that crap on fire and start challenging systems and people (including yourself) that keep that nonsense going.

4. Stop feeding the negative voice, and starting giving the quieter, more distant voice some food.

5. Remember your inner authority

6. Trust that you are basically good and perfect beneath the mask you wear. If you still don’t believe it, ask people you love to tell you what they see.

7. If you continue to be unwilling to see the truth underneath the lies, hire someone to help you recover the deep love that you are.

Once you begin to believe that you are “good” and worthy of love and respect, you can re-orient toward the truth that is buried beneath the nonsense.

If someone you know and love actually believes the bullshit about original sin, challenge him or her by loving them and seeing their greatness.

17 Comments

  • Martijn Linssen

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    Thanks Jay, for yet another fine post

    The message of, and especially the belief in, original sin has caused so much pain and grief to so many.
    It fits our description of “I'm not worthy”

    You marvel at your child, and should of course, but there are things you'll reward him for, as well as punish. Don Miguel Ruiz calls it the domestication. We all more or less grow up doing what we're taught to do or be. We don't like to be punished, and grow to get addicted to being rewarded

    You're spot on about the discovery and realisation. Like the Gospel of Thomas (http://bit.ly/4zRQst) says, it's a shock. Stephen Wolinsky calls it “blowing your False Core”. Your entire world will fall apart at that moment

    It's no use arguing with most people who believe in original sin, they're just “set in their ways” as @offgrid so nicely phrases. But Love indeed conquers all. Like anyone else they just believe in this great system of thoughts, concepts and dreams that was put inside their head over the course of years, and is now self-sustaining. It's just their Matrix

    We are all born perfect. Original sin is one of the biggest lies we can encounter in our life. The sex lie is another big one, but there are thousands of others that we make up ourselves.

    As Matthew 22:21 (http://bit.ly/8yOzOR) says: let's give original sin back to the Church

  • Tom

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    Hey Jayson,

    New reader here. I really like the site so far. Just want to point out that the flavor of original sin you describe sounds a bit Lutheran or Calvanistic. I'm Roman Catholic, and to be honest I think you're dead on when you say we're fundamentally ovable and good; in fact I would have to completely reject the notion of original sin you describe.

    As a Catholic, my understanding of original sin is that we have a fallen nature – and that is a state that I am personally keenly aware of. It's not that I'm evil, or twisted, or full of negative feelings for myself. I just know that I have a downward tug to become completely absorbed in myself to the detriment of others; that I often choose to do the wrong thing for a perceived good, even when I know deep down that it isn't good for me, and often times even without good reason; that not only am I capable of the most sublime heights, but I personally am also capable of committing the worst atrocities.

    I accept this as a very humbling truth to who I am – that I can and often do make mistakes … not only accidents, but willed mistakes so to speak. But this doesn't depress me or cause me to see others in a negative light. In fact I find it joins me more strongly to my fellow man because I keenly feel the struggles he experiences. All this is made possible of course by fact that I believe in a loving and personal God who challenges me to improve and gives me all the support I need, should I but ask.

    Overall, I think from the gist of your article I'd pretty much agree with your view of human nature; and I'd definitely agree that anyone with that idea of original sin needs someone to gently encourage them to finding a way to love themselves.

  • Kevin Lock

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    Jay,
    I agree with much of the methodology you have prescribed to reconquer the idea of goodness and a chance for internal reformation. While I will try to hold my own religious bias to myself, I think that you cannot invariably toss away the notion of original sin as it pertains to each person's inherent capacity for evil (I use evil only in light of its opposition to goodness and not on any sort of religious plane).
    Take for example a child. Do you teach your children selfishness or how to lie? I would warrant to guess, the answer is “no.” Not knowing how old your children are, you have at least witnessed at some point toddlers in action. In my experience, I have seen them clammer for a toy and avoid sharing. I once watched child knock another child in the head with a cup to steal a toy. He then lied about his action in the matter. So this particular child is a violent, lying, thief. the opposite of good and actions that were most likely not taught.
    Now it is reprehensible and irresponsible to look upon the child with disdain or to berate them for their actions (or go over acceptable corrective action), but you would no longer see them as “perfect” and would hopefully not reward them for the action.
    I say all that to again reiterate that I for the most part agree with you on how to deal with someone that is struggling with the undo guilt placed upon them by a religious institution or parent but I think you would also need to leave room for the notion that the origin of bad behavior does not always lie in social learning. And as such it should be accepted that no matter how well you raise a child, the potential for a wounded life or the capacity for wrong doing does exist in each of us from our first breath of life. The ability to act on such is the only hindrance.

  • MGH

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    The thing is, Christianity doesn't start OR stop at original sin.

    The good news, the true Good News, is not that we are not sinners, but that in spite of us not being good there is a gracious God who loves us in spite of the ways we fall short!

    So yes, it is true that we are sinners. You. Me. All of us. You can't examine your life for very long and realize come to the conclusion that you have it all together. Each of us are broken in some way. That is what makes God's love so great…while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

    http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=Romans+5

  • Matt Falvey

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    Jayson, Right now I am two sips into a delicious mate sweetened with licorice and stevia…wish I could yousendit.com to you man. Anyway, I've commented before via twitter, that your work always gives me pause. Whether I agree or disagree with your posts, I always take a step back and think about them. They are always well written, thought provoking and I believe that you do a lot of good.

    It is my hope that this does not start a diatribe of vociferous arguments here, but I feel compelled to comment and hopefully clarify a few things.

    To start off, there is no proof or data suggesting that one's belief in “Original Sin” is the cause of a low self-esteem, Negativistic Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Depression, Anti-Social Personality, Narcissism, addictions, etc…

    We do know that significant work shows that “inconsistent parenting” contributes significantly to the above.

    Of course, you have forgotten more about TA and Cognitive Therapy than I'll ever know, but I believe I can help shed some light on what the Catholic Church teaches regarding Original Sin and man and the dignity of the human person.

    The Catholic Church does not teach that: “ We . . . are fundamentally bad, wrong, or unlovable.”

    It is a true statement to say that: “. . .if you yourself believe that you are fundamentally worthless, bad, or wrong at your core, it is no surprise that you will pass down that teaching to your children and children you work with.” This is wrong and a good example of a darkened intellect, which is one of the two effects of original sin.

    In response to this statement:

    “If you are a parent, how is it possible to look at your new baby and think that he or she is bad, guilty, wrong, or sinful? As one of my Catholic clients recently said about his son after birth, ‘he was perfect!’. . . As a father, I couldn’t agree more. Looking at my own son I was simply blown away at how pure he looked, felt and acted. His pure innocence and splendor. His eyes, face, little toes and hands were simply perfect. I felt deep love.”

    Such awareness and love is a gift from God. There is a difference between original sin and actual sin.

    The Catholic Church actually teaches the following about original sin and the divine image which is imprinted in the intrinsic goodness of the human person:

    THE CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

    PART THREE
    LIFE IN CHRIST

    SECTION ONE
    MAN'S VOCATION LIFE IN THE SPIRIT

    CHAPTER ONE
    THE DIGNITY OF THE HUMAN PERSON

    ARTICLE 1
    MAN: THE IMAGE OF GOD

    1701 “Christ, . . . in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, makes man fully manifest to himself and brings to light his exalted vocation.”2 It is in Christ, “the image of the invisible God,”3 that man has been created “in the image and likeness” of the Creator. It is in Christ, Redeemer and Savior, that the divine image, disfigured in man by the first sin, has been restored to its original beauty and ennobled by the grace of God.4

    1702 The divine image is present in every man. It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons among themselves (cf. chapter two).

    1703 Endowed with “a spiritual and immortal” soul,5 the human person is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake.”6 From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude.

    1704 The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection “in seeking and loving what is true and good.”7

    1705 By virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an “outstanding manifestation of the divine image.”8

    1706 By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him “to do what is good and avoid what is evil.”9 Everyone is obliged to follow this law, which makes itself heard in conscience and is fulfilled in the love of God and of neighbor. Living a moral life bears witness to the dignity of the person.

    1707 “Man, enticed by the Evil One, abused his freedom at the very beginning of history.”10 He succumbed to temptation and did what was evil. He still desires the good, but his nature bears the wound of original sin. He is now inclined to evil and subject to error:

    Man is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.11

    1708 By his Passion, Christ delivered us from Satan and from sin. He merited for us the new life in the Holy Spirit. His grace restores what sin had damaged in us.

    1709 He who believes in Christ becomes a son of God. This filial adoption transforms him by giving him the ability to follow the example of Christ. It makes him capable of acting rightly and doing good. In union with his Savior, the disciple attains the perfection of charity which is holiness. Having matured in grace, the moral life blossoms into eternal life in the glory of heaven.

    IN BRIEF

    1710 “Christ . . . makes man fully manifest to man himself and brings to light his exalted vocation” (GS 22 § 1).

    1711 Endowed with a spiritual soul, with intellect and with free will, the human person is from his very conception ordered to God and destined for eternal beatitude. He pursues his perfection in “seeking and loving what is true and good” (GS 15 § 2).

    1712 In man, true freedom is an “outstanding manifestation of the divine image” (GS 17).

    1713 Man is obliged to follow the moral law, which urges him “to do what is good and avoid what is evil” (cf. GS 16). This law makes itself heard in his conscience.

    1714 Man, having been wounded in his nature by original sin, is subject to error and inclined to evil in exercising his freedom.

    1715 He who believes in Christ has new life in the Holy Spirit. The moral life, increased and brought to maturity in grace, is to reach its fulfillment in the glory of heaven.

    Be well Bro,
    Matt

  • Jayson

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    Jonathan,

    Well said and yes, I could have acknowledged the being created in God's image. But then that would beg the question– who is God? And to me, outside of blind faith, who God is is a very subjective experience, rather than a “perfect man” or a static state.

  • Jayson

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    Awesome points brother! Thanks!

    However, while I agree with you, even “love conquers all” is BS unless it is experienced. To me, this is where the great teaching about “absolute” versus “relative” comes in….ah, another post to come…

    And yes, sex is another huge area where lie after lie exists, particularly coming from religious groups and systems.
    Thanks again.

  • Jayson

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    Tom,

    Great comments. I appreciate your understanding of original sin. Very helpful as are Matt's comments below. However, even in Catholicism “how” original sin is taught is a big issue. Fear and guilt are the primary forces used to motivated people toward being “good.”

    I love what you said about being capable of the worst. Yes, that is human nature. I have within me the power to kills, rape, and destroy. But I don't walk around fearing that or feeling guilty if I have a hurtful thought. I just notice it as a play of the mind. Once again, self-awareness is the greatest tool a man can have. Rather than a set of teachings handed down by a book or another person. If I can become more aware of who I am and open my heart, it becomes virtually impossible to cause deep harm on another person.

  • Jayson

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    Kevin,

    Just because a child makes a mistake once or a hundred times does not mean that they are evil or “bad.” You are making the classic mistake most folks make by not separating personhood from behavior. The child's inner state has not changed at all. Inside, they are just as lovable and “perfect” as before. But their behavior is in question. Most folks link the two together thus having the child believe that bad behavior = being bad, which is simply untrue. This child later in life will walk around thinking they are bad, rather than knowing they are amazing and that they made some “bad” mistakes. Make sense?

  • Jayson

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    I don't for a minute believe that I am a sinner. I do believe the view your describe is the very nonsense my post is speaking to. Trust me, the more I examine my life the more I realize how human I am which includes all my flaws and imperfections, of which there are many. I don't pretend to have it all together, nor do I teach that in others. If you read this blog, you will understand that our suffering is the very thing that helps us grow and relate to our life in a more meaningful way. We are not broken for this, we are whole for this. Our suffering is our path to reclaim this wholeness.

  • Kevin Lock

    Reply Reply December 22, 2009

    Jayson,
    I see your point but think we come to a different end following my rationing. I see bad behavior as stemming from the person. Good, perfect people are not capable of bad things. However, just because someone does something bad or their behavior is bad, does not make them wholly bad. I agree with on that. It is the idea that they internally perfect to begin with that I reject.
    But again, I think we see two sides to the same coin. That being, how to help people realize the goodness inside of them and heal from that place of being wounded due to being called or perceived as evil. We differ on the origins of behavior that caused them to something bad in the first place.

  • Joe

    Reply Reply December 23, 2009

    Hi Jason, I am interested to know what do you think of Matt Falvey's contribution to this discussion ?

  • Dan

    Reply Reply December 24, 2009

    This is a great article.

    The doctrine of original sin completely destroyed me as a child, adolescent, and young adult.

    It took me many years, and more than one instance of suicide preparations, before I realized how false — and evil — the doctrine of original sin really is. In fact, not just original sin, but even the concept of sin is evil. The very definition of the word “sin” is “to miss the mark.” To miss who's mark, I ask???? One defined by some guy who wears a funny white hat and sits on a throne in Rome while pretending to speak for God? I think not.

    I missed some of the best years of my life because I was repeatedly told, both explicitly and implicitly, that I was fundamentally flawed from before birth, and that being loved by God was conditional; i.e., I had to do what the man wearing a funny collar said or else God didn't love me and I would burn forever in hell.

    Those days are behind me now. The painful memories, however, are not.

    Dan

    P.S. I had the pleasure of working with you at AMP a couple of years ago. That workshop marked the beginning of me finally being able to get on with my life. You played a role in that, and I am truly grateful for your assistance.

  • muennemann

    Reply Reply December 26, 2009

    Dan and others who tell of damage done through the doctrine of Original Sin demonstrate how easily such a concept can be used to inflict harm, especially by “teachers” who aren't ready to see the complete picture, wherein Redemption/Resurrection is the “other” side of Original Sin and fallen-ness. Just as there is no “heads” without “tails,” there is no Resurrection without Original Sin. Similar pain can be inflicted by other doctrines, especially relating to sexuality. I think it would be helpful to look at James Fowler's “Stages of Faith” and how the concept of “Original Sin” might be expressed in these stages.

    Synthetic-conventional/fundamentalist: “I am sinful and evil.” Ouch.

    Individuative-Reflective/rational: “I have learned to be mindful of my tendency to sin.”

    Conjunctive: “I see how my actions impact others and I am learning to be of service to my community.”

    Mystic: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,…”

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