Skip to content

Paradise Tossed

Stephen Greenblatt’s new book blames everything on Adam and Eve, but not in a religious way

What do we do with our stories now that our gods are dead? “The Enlightenment has done its work,” Harvard professor and popular historian Stephen Greenblatt writes in The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. “Our understanding of human origins has been freed from the grip of a once-potent delusion.” The world has been disenchanted, Greenblatt happily reports, we have reached our secular age, and now we have all of these monuments to our delusion lying around, and we must decide how to dispose of them.

One such monument is the story of Adam and Eve, which both Greenblatt and James Boyce in his 2015 book Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World identify as a, if not the, foundational text for the Christian empire that ruled the West for millennia, and the source itself of many of the Western world’s ills.

You see, both Greenblatt and Boyce see the secularization of our culture as an unmitigated good. The Enlightenment and reason, as Boyce puts it, “expose[d] the primitive darkness of the mind to the light of scientific inquiry.” For them, history is a journey of linear progress: once there was superstition, and because of that we have misogyny, war, and misery, but through time, we have been able to replace faith with science, and the world has steadily improved as a result.

Greenblatt, who cannot seriously be considered to be much of a thinker, is the worst kind of historian.

The Fall of Adam and Eve is as simple as a nursery story, yet as complex as any other creation myth. God created Adam out of clay and then Eve out of Adam’s rib, modeling both in his own image. He created a paradise for them, and they lived as children do, but certain parts of the garden were forbidden. The forbidden beckoned to them, and after a snake told them it was okay to eat from the trees, they grew from children into adults, understanding right and wrong, and experiencing shame. For their transgression they were abandoned by their creator, and punished with mortal death and suffering.

Like all creation myths, the story is a mind’s way of thinking through a problem: why is the world garbage? Why is there violence and death? Why is there a world at all? If there is a god, why is he such a dick? Why is there variety instead of just one kind of thing? And why do humans, seemingly unlike some other animals of the world, have consciousness and awareness of mortality? The allegory of Adam and Eve answers many of those questions, but what you interpret those answers to be will tell you much more about your culture and your identity than about religion itself.

For Greenblatt, a secularist who believes in progress, Adam and Eve’s is a story whose best version is secular, with all religious meaning stripped away from it. It is not fundamentally a story that helps us deal with the mystery of our origins, Greenblatt tells us; it’s a way to “think about innocence, temptation, and moral choice, about cleaving to a beloved partner, about work and sex and death.” But in the beginning, according to Greenblatt, the religious literally believed the world began with a dude named Adam and a chick named Eve. It was only through the progress of science and reason that allowed people to understand the story first as allegory and now as literature.

Greenblatt, who cannot seriously be considered to be much of a thinker, is the worst kind of historian. He has his assumptions and he shapes the story he is telling to reinforce them. He won the Pulitzer for his previous book, The Swerve, because it told intellectuals what they wanted to hear: that religion is weakness, that the heavily religious Medieval era was backwards and ignorant, and that thinking rationally will save us all. It’s a narrative a certain segment of the intellectual class like, and so the book triumphed while Medieval and Renaissance historians tore out their hair and stomped their feet.

He errs the same way here, ignoring anything that doesn’t serve his aims. He disregards a multitude of alternative interpretations of the story—including early versions where the serpent is Sophia, the feminine manifestation of wisdom, who pushes Eve to eat the fruit and gain knowledge and leave her childlike innocence behind—because they do not line up with his theory that the story is not only misogynistic, but a source material for all misogyny, a kind of virus “strain built deep into the origin narrative itself.” His own strict interpretation, which springs from his bias, is not much different from the interpretations of preachers and patriarchs who have used the story to condemn women and justify their subjugation.

Original sin can be useful to us.

It was Claude Levi Strauss who pointed out there is no direct correlation between the myths of a culture and how that culture behaves. A polytheistic culture with many stories of important feminine deities is not necessarily more likely to be more egalitarian than a monotheistic patriarchal one. A culture will hear in a story what it wants to hear, which is why the same story of Adam and Eve has been used by different sects as a justification both for sacred sexual freedom within a marriage, and for chaste marriages devoid of all sexual contact even for procreation. The religious scholar Ioan Couliano noted in his book The Tree of Gnosis that the “first two verses of Genesis may admit approximately fifty different interpretations.” God refers to himself as plural at more than one point, the first and second chapters of Genesis are widely believed to have different authors, and if God created the heavens and the earth, who the hell created the darkness and the waters? Wars have been fought and heretics burned in public squares over interpretations of these discrepancies but this rich complexity does not factor into Greenblatt’s or Boyce’s telling of the tale.

Both Greenblatt and Boyce see Augustine’s idea that Adam and Eve created original sin as a personal problem that accidentally had repercussions for all of the Western world. Augustine famously wrote about his difficulty in keeping it in his pants, and his agony over his rampant libido’s conflict with his Christian desire for purity. This provides an easy answer for why the doctrine of original sin came about: Augustine needed to figure out a reason why his dick was such a problem, and he needed to pawn that responsibility off on someone else, and that someone else was Adam and Eve. We are born into sin, Augustine decided, because we are the descendants of that first disobedience. We are born sinners, we will die sinners, and it is only through the grace of god that we can find redemption and salvation.

Both Boyce and Greenblatt find the idea of original sin repulsive. How can a baby be sinful, they both ask. (To which I would like to reply, have you ever met a baby? They are the worst.) Boyce writes that original sin makes “little rational or ethical sense,” because surely human beings choose to sin, we are not doomed to it. Even the word “sin” is used reluctantly. For too long, it was wielded as a way to shame pleasure-seeking humans, to make them feel guilty for their sexual transgressions and self-abuse and impure thoughts. What about all of the “‘small’ acts of kindness, compassion and self-sacrifice,” Boyce asks, why should we doom good people to think that they were born bad? Surely the source of much of the badness in the world is religion itself, society’s depraved nature. Surely evil is something we create, not an integral part of us.

It’s a bit like the overly optimistic section of the left  that believes all we need to solve the world’s imbalances and evils is to recreate the Garden. They believe it is injustice and scarcity, as opposed to the individuals who enforce those conditions, that cause violence and crime. Simply design a utopia of equality and lack of want and we can all live in harmony together.

The fault lies in all of us, gentlemen, not in our self-selected belief systems.

Much like Adam and Eve, the concept of original sin can be interpreted in a million different ways to justify all sorts of worldviews. That interpretation will change over time, based on the specific morality and cultural context of each particular era. We live in an era in the Western world where we believe our behavior should not be restricted by anything. Not religion, not a social contract. We should be able to consume what we like, say what we like, fuck what we like. So, of course, in our era we interpret the idea of sin as old-fashioned and outdated and useless. In our era, we find scientific and evolutionary justifications for our behavior, but those are stories just like any other. We have sexual urges because of our biological imperative to spread our genes, and so on. That is a story that grants us permission to do what we like, and so we prefer it over the story of original sin.

But, as the philosopher John Gray has noted, original sin can be useful to us, taken out of its religious context. There is, in fact, something broken deep at the heart of human beings. No other species is as uselessly violent, as destructive to the habitat that should sustain us, as set on domination and control. We often look for the source for this behavior, and we externalize it, hand off the responsibility to religion itself. Look, this is what the Bible says, this is what the Quran says, to dominate, to destroy, to murder. That must be why we are like this, because this text says so. If we get rid of the text and the gods and the whole culture of religion, we can rid ourselves of these urges.

The violence originates in us. Religious concepts like original sin help us understand this about ourselves, and offer suggestions on what to do about it. If, then, we place original sin outside of its Christian context, we can still use it to understand this brokenness, this illness that exists in us. There is no amount of external maneuvering that can wash us clean of this inborn stain. We can only acknowledge it, try to reckon with it, and then struggle to choose to behave differently. Religion is simply one context in which to accomplish this.

The writers’ unspoken belief that science cannot be as warped as a religious allegory is either naive or disingenuous. Science and reason has been used to justify everything from colonialism to eugenics to genocide, even going all the way back to their precious Enlightenment. The fault lies in all of us, gentlemen, not in our self-selected belief systems. Which is why the fall of Adam and Eve retains such power: Adam’s story is not the story of one man, and Eve’s story is not the story of one woman. It is the story of all of us, and our fucked up, dark little hearts.