Sunday, October 24, 2010

Our Animal Nature or a Sinful Fallen Nature?

Every now and then I am inspired to reflect on our animal nature. When I read of wars, rape, and discrimination, I can't help but shake my head and question, 'how can anyone deny that we're just another species of animal?' Creationists believe that we are specially created beings, not descended from any primate ancestors, as evolution tells us. Even though I am a former creationist, it doesn't make sense to me how anyone can look at some of our species' brutish, primitive behaviors and miss the connection to the animal kingdom. I often ask myself how I could have been so blind too, but a thought occurred to me tonight that put an interesting perspective onto things.

When many religious believers read of wars, rape, and discrimination, their first reaction is usually to contemplate our sinful or fallen nature. This is readily apparent in the popular argument for evil, i.e. the world around us is in such a hellish state because evil exists, and you can't have evil without good, so therefore good (or God) must exist. For creationists, there is no need to even raise the possibility of animal instincts fueling our misbehavior, because they already believe they have an explanation: we are fallen, sinful creatures.

This thought led me to wonder - are these two views on human nature all that different? Both often claim the same negative behaviors as evidence for their own perspective. Both stress the importance of overcoming our nature, whether it's in order to live in a civilized society or to maintain a religious call to purity. Both also run the gamut as far as what falls under our natures. Our animal nature and the fallen nature view can both drive us into serious offenses like murder and trivial ones like mating. The similarities pretty much end there, however, and there are some major points of conflict between the two views.

First and foremost is the assignment of responsibility. According to religion, our fallen nature is our own fault. Whether sin traveled down via Adam and Eve or we make our own original sin each day, we are to blame. On the other hand, our animal nature is no fault of our own, it's the result of evolution and it's simply who we are because of what we are. Consciousness and free will may impose a sort of moral imperative to resist our primitive instincts, but the point is that we did not give ourselves this animal nature, so we should feel no unnecessary shame or guilt.

Secondly would have to be the resolution proposed for overcoming our nature. With our animal nature, all we need do is make a conscious and concentrated effort to control our instincts. It may require some discipline, and everyone will crack under stress at times, but our ability to make decisions means we are not helplessly bound to our primal urges. Religion teaches just the opposite: we cannot overcome our fallen nature alone. Instead we must reach out to a deity or savior, otherwise we are helplessly bound to our sinful urges.

Last but not least in these differences would be the consequences for giving into our nature. To let sin rule your life will mean eternal separation from God in horrible agony. There is no real second chance - if you indulge your fallen desires, you will pay for it more than a hundredfold. Yet the worst that could happen with indulging our animal nature might be a jail sentence or execution. The punishment does not continue for eternity, and there are chances to shape up. The crux here is that a trivial offense, while met with a trivial punishment (or none at all) in the animal nature view, will receive the full penalty of a serious offense in the fallen nature view, for God judges all sins as equally detestable (Matt. 5:21-28).

Up until this moment, I've been noting the differences between both views with an emphasis on moral concerns. These concerns do not have much bearing on the truth or falsity of either view though, and so I'll turn to the evidence. Both views claim many of the same behaviors for evidence of their validity, as mentioned before, but I think only one side is actually entitled to them. To find the evidence for our animal nature, one need only look at the animal kingdom in contrast to ourselves. Animals frequently go to war with other species and sometimes even with their own. There is also rape and tribalism among countless animals.

I'm not saying that this alone proves our animal nature, but it does significant damage to the fallen nature view. If animals display many of the same behaviors that equate to sin in humans, is the animal kingdom of a fallen nature too? Some believers have argued that the fall in the garden affected the entire world, but this is nonsense when applied to animals. Did Jesus die to save chimps? Jackals? Tapeworms? If the believer claims that these behaviors don't imply anything about a fallen nature in animals, they are guilty of special pleading and their argument falls apart (not to mention that it suggests that God picks some very confusing design standards, apparently to mess with our heads).

What does the fallen nature view have as its support anyway? It may claim things like war, rape, and discrimination as evidence of sin, but this link is only made in holy books and other religious texts. While we may observe animals behaving much like ourselves in the natural world, and vice-versa, faith in the reliability of an ancient book is all that sustains the fallen nature view. In so many ways, the fallen nature view is about regressing, looking back to a primitive text, returning to a state of purity, and so forth. The animal nature view is one of progress, moving beyond instinct with these wonderful brains, looking forward to a brighter future with the aid of reason.

In one view, the world is decaying, we are to blame, and we are powerless to stop it, forced to rely on the assistance of a "higher" being who let it all happen and demands our worship in return. In the other view, the world is evolving and advancing, and although we did not set all of this in motion, we do have the power to change things for the better, one life at a time.

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