In the service of recapturing a mythical perfect past, humans have committed the most terrible evils.
The older I get, the more I’ve come to believe that the Garden of Eden is the worst of the Bible’s myths.
It’s from this story that we get original sin, the wicked theology which claims that humans are intrinsically evil and deserve damnation just for being born. In the name of this belief, religious believers have inflicted incredible tortures on each other and themselves. Original sin has justified child abuse, forced conversion, holy war, oppression of women, and all manner of other crimes.
To be fair, Judaism doesn’t interpret the story this way. Judaism has no such doctrine as original sin; it’s Christianity that put this spin on it. In the Jewish view, the Eden story is more like the other “just-so” stories dreamed up by ancient people to satisfy their curiosity. It tries to wrap answers to a variety of questions—where did humans come from? why is farming such hard work? why is childbirth painful? why do snakes slither on their bellies?—into one overarching myth.
Nevertheless, it’s the Christian interpretation that dominates our culture, and that’s the one that’s done the harm. The myth of the fall pervades our culture and subtly shapes our thinking. In its many versions and retellings, it teaches us to long for a golden age that never existed. Worse, it’s given us the idea that people of the present are weak or corrupt, and that restoration means turning back to the past, reclaiming a lost state of purity.
The good old days
The idea that things used to be better in the past is, ironically, a very ancient belief. It was common in cultures that we now think of as shrouded in antiquity.
For instance, it was a widely held belief in the Roman era. The Romans were as fascinated with the past as we are, and they held that the legendary figures of their civilization had already figured out everything worth knowing:
…in the ancient Roman world there was wide-ranging suspicion of any philosophy or religion that smacked of novelty. In the fields of philosophy and religion… it was the old that was appreciated and respected, not the new.
…Nothing new could be true. If it were true, why was it not known long ago? How could it be that no one until now has understood the truth? Not even Homer, Plato, or Aristotle?Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, p.113
This veneration of past thinkers meant that even obvious errors survived unchallenged for centuries. For example, Aristotle said that men have more teeth than women, a mistake that’s very easy to disprove. As Bertrand Russell observed: “although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.”
Because Christianity arose in this world, it self-consciously traded on Judaism’s antiquity. It didn’t present itself as a new religion, but as the “fulfillment” of an already known and ancient religion. Christian apologists insisted that Jesus’ coming was foretold in prophecies written centuries earlier.
As a marketing strategy, this was wildly successful. However, it led directly to centuries of hate and bloodshed. Because Christianity located the source of its authority in Jewish scriptures, Jews who wouldn’t convert were a threat to its legitimacy. When Christians gained political power, they tried to eradicate that threat by any means possible.
This backward-looking tendency exists within Judaism as well. Many strands of Judaism believe that more ancient rabbis, because they were closer to God’s original revelation, should always be trusted above more recent sources. Older rulings can be elaborated on, but can never be overturned by new knowledge. This has led to farcical situations like “halachic infertility“—Jewish women whose obedience to purity laws makes it impossible for them to have children—which arises because ancient clerics didn’t know what ovulation was.
Fascism is an ideology of the past
Pining for the past can be a harmless form of nostalgia. But when it’s weaponized by demagogues and turned into a political ideology, it can take us to dark places.
As Jason Stanley explains in How Fascism Works, an obsession with national decline and the promise of restoration is a common feature of fascist ideologies:
Fascist politics seeks to build on the idea of a mythical past, which it claims was destroyed with the advent of liberal cosmopolitanism or universal values such as equality. The mythical past which was glorious was characterized by uniformity – religious, racial, cultural, linguistic or all of it. It calls for returning back to this state of glory and uniformity. In the process of glorifying the imagined past – it justifies a patriarchal, authoritarian and hierarchical ideology in accordance with what it calls natural law.
For Mussolini, this was the Roman Empire. For Vladimir Putin, it’s the Soviet Union, which he’s waging war on Ukraine to reassemble. In America, it’s Donald Trump’s call to “make America great again” by deporting immigrants and restoring a Christian, white-dominated society.
Whatever the details, fascism is the Eden story translated into political ideology. The core story is always the same: Once, the world was pure and perfect, but then evil was allowed to creep in. The good people fell from that state of grace, resulting in corruption and suffering. But if we purge the evil from among us, we can get back to that ancestral paradise.
The perfect past never existed
The antidote to these backward-looking ideologies is to recognize that our ancestors weren’t better, wiser or purer. They were human beings just like us. Moreover, they were human beings limited by the ignorance and error of their times.
That doesn’t mean they were stupid. On the contrary, people of the past were just as clever and creative as we are. They had enormous stores of hard-won practical knowledge, essential for surviving in a hostile world. They had as much insight into the human condition as we do. They had great artists and writers who created timeless works of beauty.
However, they weren’t smarter than us, either. They didn’t possess some trove of wisdom that we’ve lost. On the contrary, any reasonably educated person today knows more about the structure and laws of the universe than the greatest geniuses of antiquity. What knowledge the ancients did possess was painfully incomplete, shot through with false beliefs and superstition.
Just as people in the past were the same as people today, the past as a whole wasn’t better than the present. There was no lost golden age, no vanished era of innocence, no Atlantis. We’ve always been divided by the things that still divide us. We’ve always had cruelty, ignorance and selfishness. We’ve always had greedy rich, incompetent rulers, gullible masses, and rebels who chafed against the rules.
The beneficiaries of progress
The biggest difference is that people today have benefited from centuries of moral progress. People of the past casually accepted levels of brutality and violence that would horrify us. They treated slavery as unproblematic, war as glorious sport, torture as entertainment, and hereditary monarchy as the ideal form of government. They saw it as normal that men should rule over women and that “superior” races and religions should conquer and wipe out “savage” ones.
The ideas we treat as cornerstones of society—that democracy with universal suffrage is the only legitimate form of government, that men and women are equal, that each person should be free to believe and speak as they wish—were impossibly radical notions for almost all of history. But although these values were resisted long and bitterly, they’ve won out throughout much of the world, and we’re better for it.
The world is better now than it once was. And where moral progress is incomplete, the solution isn’t to go backwards. Belief in a lost golden era is a mirage, luring us off the path we need to take into a maze of shadows and fog.
It’s impossible to recapture something that never existed. When we try, we only bring ourselves to grief. We can create a better world, if we so choose; but it will only happen when we set aside the desire for an imaginary past.