The Knowledge of Good and Evil
According the story I grew up with, the world started in a garden. It was a perfect place, full of lush vegetation, inhabited by two innocent people and every kind of animal.
Well, it was almost perfect. One of the animals — the snake — had a plan to trick the people, to rob them of their innocence. He found the woman alone, and convinced her to break the one rule she and her companion had been given by their creator: not to eat from a particular tree in the garden. The tree was named, “The Knowledge of Good and Evil”.
The serpent told her that the fruit from this forbidden tree would actually be good for her, that she and her partner would be more wise and more powerful people after eating the fruit — equal, even, to their creator. She succumbed to the temptation, and persuaded the man to do the same.
It wasn’t too long after they took their first bites that they realized they were naked. They also saw immediately that being naked was bad, so they created clothing out of leaves to hide the parts of themselves of which they were now ashamed.
Eventually, they heard their creator approaching. Having an acute sense that what they’d done was wrong thanks to their newfound knowledge, they hid behind some large bushes.
The creator called out to them, asking them why they were hiding. The man said that he was afraid because he was naked. The creator asked him how it was that he knew he was naked. The creator asked the man if he’d eaten from the one tree from which they’d been banned.
A fresh fear for his own wellbeing caused the man to turn against his mate. He told on her to the creator, blaming her for making him disobey. The creator turned to the woman and asked her what she had done. She passed the blame on to the snake. “I was deceived,” she said.
Immediately, the creator cursed the people, damning them to lives of struggle and pain. He slaughtered some of the garden’s animals to create more permanent clothes for them. Finally, he banished them from the garden and took away the immortality they’d once been granted, all because they ate from the one tree he’d commanded them to avoid.
This is the story of Adam and Eve. Every time I heard this story mentioned in a sermon or a Sunday school lesson, it was to reiterate the consequences of the first humans’ disobedience: We now, each and every one of us, are born with sin in our hearts. Life after the garden is harder than it was meant to be, what with the exhausting effort it takes to just get by in the world and the literal pain of childbirth. We now die.
Apparently, according to the teachings I received, none of this is what God intended for humans. And, it is the duty of Christians to help return the world to a state of God-fearing innocence, or get it as close as we can in the time we have on Earth.
How do we do that? Well, the church — at least the version of the church that I knew intimately from the time I was born up through my mid-twenties — seems to think that focusing on righteous action will do the trick. Indeed, it drills into the mind of anyone who will listen the idea that who we are inherently (that is, our most naked selves) is messed up, that there is a clear demarcation between right and wrong, and that the active pursuit of God’s will is the only thing that can save us while any toying with all that falls outside of God’s will automatically leads us closer to total destruction.
In other words, the church preaches that it is only through constant submission to and realignment with Christian morality as delivered by God through the Bible that any person will have the chance to experience something of what was originally intended — that is, eternal communion with God in a perfect place (i.e. heaven). Technically, we can earn our way back into Eden, if we play by the rules.
Okay, fine. That certainly is one way of looking at it. But also, isn’t that strategy — in essence, an obsession with the knowledge of good and evil — what got us into this mess in the first place? Is doubling down on our desire to see the rightness and wrongness of everything really the best path forward, the best hope for liberation from the curse?
I’m not interested in debating the meaning of chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis . (In fact, a close reading reveals a few significant discrepancies between the Biblical text and the story I told — and was told — above.) What I am interested in, as someone who’s now almost ten years into the process of deconversion from Christianity, is the role that the idea of good and evil — and the idea that there even is a “good” and an “evil”, cosmically speaking — has played and continues to play in my life.
There have been a number of theological concepts that I’ve had to dissect, and in many cases figure out how to leave behind, since deciding to walk away from the faith in which I was raised. First there was letting go of the certainty I had that Jesus was God . Then there was coming to the conclusion that I didn’t believe in heaven and hell. That was a relief (the concept of eternity, even eternity spent in bliss, always terrified me) but it was also a little scary to turn my back on both the carrot and the stick that had been used to keep me in line all those years. Reward and punishment are basically just hope and fear materialized, and how does one shape a life of meaning without the goals and boundaries those two things provide?
Eventually God himself (it was always “Him”) was on the chopping block — and, to be honest, He still kind of is. I no longer have an active, chosen belief in a single, distinct, all-powerful entity like the one that Christians are referring to when they say “God”, but I do have the idea of His existence so deeply ingrained in me that I still default to imagining He’s real now and then. I’m a wannabe atheist, I suppose.
In addition to the stories — the cosmology, the mythology — there were the oddly specific rules. For example, I grew up with the idea that sex was meant only for a married couple, a belief in the rightness of traditional gender roles (plus the added bonus of shame around female sexuality), and the premise that being queer was not only a choice but a sin. Each of these little laws had its own lifespan in my mind and heart. In each case, admittedly, it was far too long, but thankfully they’re all dead to me now.
Whether story or statute, there were so many particulars about the Christianity in which I was raised that I had to examine and decide whether I personally, deep in my heart, believed. In some cases, the rejection of the idea was part of what led me to deconversion. In some cases, I was finally able to let go of the tenet because I’d already decided to leave the church. But in every case, I was still operating with the same binary that was at the root of all this moral categorizing in the first place: right and wrong. Good and evil. The only change I was making was moving things from one column to the other. I decided that gay love was no different than straight love, and moved it over to the “good” side in my mind. I decided that heaven and hell weren’t compatible with benevolence (or science) and so I removed them as an option within the reality I was comfortable accepting.
What I never got around to challenging — well, never until now — is the idea that there is even a “good” or “bad” thing to do in each situation. The idea that there is an objective right and a wrong against which I should be measuring myself regularly. The idea that there is a “should” at all — and boy is “should” a weapon I love to wield against myself on a daily basis.
I changed my mind about who or what determines the good or the bad, the right or the wrong, but I found something else underneath the religious foundation that I’ve spent the last decade excavating: an idea about the universe that is more intimately entangled with my total function than the Sunday school stories of Christianity ever were, and thus much more scary to root out. I found that the seed from the fruit that the first woman ate had sprouted inside me.
And now I’m wondering, how do I get rid of the knowledge of good and evil?
My guess is that I’ve come across as critical and snobby for most of my life. I mean, I’ve been critical and snobby. I point out things that are wrong or insufficient without even realizing I’m doing it, without realizing how it will come across, and I imagine that a lot of folks have figured that I think that I’m better than they are. I imagine a lot of folks think that I think that I’m looking down when I look at them.
If only it were so. I would love to think that highly of myself, honestly. But the truth is that I’ve spent so much of my life focusing on what’s wrong, what needs to be better, what’s not yet good, because I was scared. Terrified, in fact.
I mean, what do you expect from a person who’s been told since infancy that God is watching their every move and that we’re all engaged in a struggle for the salvation of the world in which there are only two sides and that every single human will be judged for all their deeds right after they die and either rewarded for near perfection or tortured eternally for messing things up and not being sorry about it? Add to those teachings a family system in which messing up was not safe (for me, anyway) and perhaps a bit of an innately judgment-oriented personality, and you’ve got a woman who continues to stress over whether she’s a good person literally every day of her life, even after no longer believing in God.
I think I’m getting better, though. The perpetual anxiety that we all need to be getting everything right or something terrible is going to happen is slowly lessening for me. What’s done it? Exposure to thought systems and worldviews that are not so concerned with this binary of good and evil. That don’t moralize everything. That don’t see time or the course of history as so linear, where we’re all simultaneously building toward a universal apex in a zero-sum game, but rather as cyclical, happening over the course of eternity upon eternity, and so mind-blowingly complicated that there is no way to tell, at least in the immediate, whether a particular thing is “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”.
Where the trajectory of this world and everyone in it does not depend on our individual perfection. Where I am working out my own karma — that is, my actions and their consequences — and you are working out yours and the former is my business, cosmically speaking, and the latter is yours and that’s that. Where I can only take care of what’s in my power to take care of based on the information I have at the time — or I can choose not to, and even that is all part of the infinite cycle. Where I am not obligated to feel shame.
This is not to say that there are not consequences. Our actions have results, and those results might be painful or they might be pleasurable (or, as is said in Buddhism, they might be neutral), but — and here’s the thing that’s been helping me — they are not going to be judged by God. And not only is there no god waiting to tell me all I’ve done right and all I’ve done wrong. I’m starting to possibly believe, despite decades of conditioning that moral relativism is the most pernicious idea on the planet, that there might be no universal standard of good and evil by which I need to be gauging my thoughts and deeds, and those of others, every single day.
Trust me when I say that it is not exactly comfortable for me to think this way. In one sense it is a relief from the constant judging I’ve been doing of myself and others for nearly 40 years now. But also, I don’t want to get into a space where I personally believe in — let alone promote — the idea that all actions are the same, that there is no justice and therefore no injustice. That is not what I am saying. And while I can’t speak for millenia-old traditions that I’m only now growing acquainted with, I don’t think that’s what the teachings I’m alluding to here are saying either.
Yet, maybe it would do us well to dispense with the assumption that it’s so easy to determine right and wrong, good and bad. That immediate repercussions are enough to label an action or situation on the moral spectrum. On the contrary, perhaps the life of the cosmos is so inexpressibly vast and elaborate that we humans would benefit from holding our judgments of good and evil much more lightly. Who knows where each change (and there is only change) will take us in the long run.
There was one sermon I heard about the story of the Garden of Eden that I do still carry with me to this day. I don’t remember who the speaker was or what church I was at, but I can recall very clearly the crux of the talk. Rather than focusing on human depravity or God’s tough love, the pastor honed in on this one line spoken by God, in the 11th verse of the 3rd chapter of Genesis: “Who told you that you were naked?”
See, Adam and Eve had been naked the whole time, and there’d been nothing wrong with it — or, they’d seen nothing wrong with it — until they ingested the fruit from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It was only then that they felt ashamed. I wonder, did the nature of their bodies change, did the rules around their bodies change, or did their perception change and such a change was unable to be undone, even by God?
I know I said I didn’t want to debate the meaning of this story, but I do think this is a pretty important question, especially when you’ve got a whole, world-influencing tradition built around the idea that what’s most important to remember about our humanity is how bad it is.
What if the tragedy is not that our souls are marred, but instead that our lenses are dirty?
What if we were never meant to see things in terms of good and evil?
Sometimes, when I find I’m judging myself harshly, or even at all, I repeat the line I heard highlighted in that sermon that’s stuck forever in my head: Who told you that you were naked? In other words, I ask myself, who is telling you to judge yourself?
Whose rules are you trying so hard to follow?
Who do you think is going to hurt you because of this?
Why are you so scared?
Maybe what we’re meant to work toward is not perfection but freedom from the idea that perfection even exists — or, that we’re not already there. That there is anything we can do to be “better” people. That anything, including ourselves, is capable of being “bad”.
What if…we simply are? What if the world simply is?
What was it like before humans had any conception of good and evil?