The moral messages of religious myths (1) 12

[Continued from the post immediately below.]

Dr. Peterson says that it is the body of religious myths that carry the “transcendent values” that provide us with eternal guidance to moral rectitude.

So from time to time we will look at the myths themselves.

Today, the myth of the first Man and Woman in the Garden of Eden and their Sin, aka the myth of the Fall of Man.

The message of the myth of Eden presents itself as this: by becoming aware of good and evil, humankind lost its innocence. In a state of innocence, human beings could have lived forever; but  getting to know good and evil made them guilty. Their getting to know good and evil was their Sin. Because they were guilty of Sin, they had to die. Sin made them mortal.

Their discovery of morality made them mortal? Once they could tell right from wrong they deserved to die?  


How did they discover morality?

They ate of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They did this despite being ordered by God their Maker not to eat the Fruit of that Tree. Why did they disregard God’s order ? Because they were  tempted to. The First Woman was tempted to eat the fruit by a Serpent who dwelt in the Tree. She succumbed to temptation. The First Man was tempted to eat the Fruit by the Woman who had already done so. He succumbed to temptation. Hence their Fall from Grace, their Loss of Innocence, their expulsion from the easy life of the fruitful Garden, their eventual Deaths.

It could be observed that the real Tempter was God who put the Tree there in the first place. (Also the snake.) No tree, no temptation, no fall.  So why did he put it there?

Religion does not encourage the asking of why. But it is asked, and the usual answer is that God put it there to test them. He gave them the capacity to choose – aka Free Will – and they chose wrong. Point is, they came to know Good and Evil. That’s how humanity came to know Good and Evil, and because our species came to know Good and Evil our lives must come to an end.

So the “transcendent value”, the precept, the moral in the myth by which everyone, consciously or unconsciously, is living by  – or failing to live by – today is … what?

Hard to see. Sure, the myth gives an explanation, if a rather puzzling one, to those who wonder why we must all die; why the God they are told is all-good, all-knowing, all-wise, all-powerful, condemns us all to death.

Our remote ancestors did something very wicked: they disobeyed God and ate something they shouldn’t have, so  that’s why?


Okay, but is there an actual, useful, moral precept in all that? A do or a don’t for us to follow? After all, the Fruit cannot be un-eaten. No action can be taken by you or me now that will undo what the First Man and Woman did, make us immortal again, put us back in the ever-fruitful Garden, wipe  the knowledge of right and wrong clean out of our brains …

And come to think of it, why is it a sin to know the difference between right and wrong?

Sorry. Don’t know. That why does not seem to have been answered, even reluctantly, by interpreters of the myth!

Okay, well how about this for the moral message?: You must not disobey God. Obeying him now won’t save you from death, but it might keep you from getting him angry and condemning you to some awful punishment.

Mm-hmm. So how will I know what God wants me to do and not do?

We can learn that from the myths of the Bible.

Can we?

We’ll try to find out by exploring more of them in the near future.

Posted under Atheism, Christianity, Judaism, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Thursday, June 29, 2017

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This post has 12 comments.

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  • Cogito

    It is remarkable that this divine command theory of morality is still held by so many people. It is the source of the Ten Commandments and is even acknowledged by Jefferson in the Declaration.

    It is remarkable because Socrates, in the Euthyphro, laid the intellectual groundwork for the rejection of this notion.

    Socrates asks is something right or wrong because the gods commands it to be so, or do the gods claim an action to be right or wrong because it is so in and of itself? Is murder wrong merely because god declares it to be or is it wrong in and of itself? A “malum in se” as the Romans called it.
    If so, than whether an action is morally good or bad is utterly independent of the gods and to say that the gods are the source of morality is rubbish

  • Cogito

    Another superb analysis by Jillian. Thank you.

    You say that the Biblical moral lesson to be learned is “You must not disobey God”.

    This demonstrates the fundamental similarity between Judaism, Christianity, and islam – morality consists of total, unquestioning submission to the deity.

    You must not disobey God
    You must not disobey God

    • liz

      Good point. The difference is really just the degree to which that submission is required, and the degree of punishment meted out for disobedience.
      Which both differ between the religions mainly to the degree they’ve been influenced by Enlightenment values. Jewish and Christian cultures have been the most influenced, and are therefore the least demanding. Islamic ones have had virtually none, and are therefore the most demanding of obedience, and the most barbaric.

      • Cogito

        Yes I agree. Judaism and Christianity have been tamed by the Enlightenment, but their underlying principle is still undying and unquestioning devotion to their gods.
        islam is beyond the reach of decency

  • Extra credit question: In the myth of the Fall described here, between God and the Serpent – which one lied to Adam and Eve, and which one told them the truth?

    • God tells them that on the day they eat that fruit they will surely die. They didn’t die on that day – but, okay, allowing a little leeway, they became mortal, they became destined to die. But weren’t they supposed not to know what death was until they ate the fruit? So when God told them not to eat it because on that day they would die, how did he expected them to know what he was talking about?

      The talking snake tells Eve it is not true that they would die if they ate the fruit. It says they will “become like gods”. They ate, they didn’t become like gods, they did become destined to die, so the snake was lying.

      A good bit is when God becomes a tailor. Because the man and woman become conscious of their nakedness and ashamed of it (part of knowing evil one gathers), God himself makes garments out of skins for them to wear. What skins? Presumably animal skins. Did he have a few left over after making the animals? Spare body parts? Or did he kill an animal or two in the garden and skin them?

      It is a very naive story. God having his Pelosi moments?

      • Bruce

        I’ve read somewhere that the liberal translation of the “in that day you shall die” bit is actually “and so dying you shall die.” It reinforces your point that it meant that they would become mortal, not that they would drop dead within 24 hours of eating the fruit.

        • Thank you for that, Bruce.

          So I know you do not need convincing, but I will add these other arguments.

          No one transmitting the story by word of mouth or writing it down could want to suggest that God meant they would drop dead on that very day, since the myth is intended to describe the origins of an existing and continuing human race, and to explain to it, at any point in its history, why human beings are suffering, sinful, punished, and mortal. It is the first act of a long drama. It cannot end abruptly when it has barely begun, so God the dramatist cannot be made to say it will end abruptly.

          The assumption that the Fall BROUGHT death is essential to Christianity. “Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1. Cor. 15:2, 22.)

          St. Paul couldn’t have made up his story of Christ the Redeemer if there wasn’t a doctrine that Man needed redeeming. From what did Man need redeeming? From “sin and death”. The Fall was the fall from innocence, after which Man was condemned to death. That is a given of Judaism, Christianity, and many other belief systems. (Judaism of course does not believe that “Christ” redeemed mankind.)

  • liz

    Good question – “why is it a sin to know the difference between good and evil?” Apparently the human race was just supposed to spend eternity in a happy bubble of ignorance, waiting for God to direct their every thought, word and action like puppets, unable to think one thought for themselves?

    • Bruce

      Given the behavior of the “god” of the Bible, I suspect the answer might well be that it’s a “sin” because knowing the difference between good and evil would allow you to realize YHWH would be evil. Or at the very least capricious and that he enjoys playing mind games with us poor mortals.

      • liz

        Yes, it’s actually very revealing of the primitive mentality of those who came up with that story, and all the other stories of God’s dealings with mankind. To them, a dictatorial authoritarian was what you expected in a leader, as was abject submission to his dictates, no matter how arbitrary. To their minds, this was normal behavior.