tree of knowledge

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. John 8:32

Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise. — Thomas Gray

A little learning is a dangerous thing. — Alexander Pope

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. — Confucius

Knowledge is a weapon. I intend to be formidably armed. — Terry Goodkind

No thief, however skillful, can rob one of knowledge, and that is why knowledge is the best and safest treasure to acquire. — L. Frank Baum

Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse. — African Proverb

Knowledge is power. — Francis Bacon

In Sunday School, children learn the story of the Creation and the Fall of Mankind. When I was a child, the Sunday School teacher would read the story to us – and if we were lucky, she would populate a felt board as the story unfolded. Typically, after the story, some sort of craft or game would follow, helping to reinforce the lessons contained in the story. Sunday school was fun, but as an adult I can see how much indoctrination occurs in such a setting.

The story of the Creation and the Fall of Mankind is quite brilliant in that it attempts to explain the following to people who lacked explanations to their questions about their origins. The story tackles the following topics:

  • the origins of humans;
  • the presence of good and evil in the world;
  • what happens if people disobey their deity;
  • why women have been treated as second-class citizens;
  • why people desire to have sex;
  • why childbirth is so painful;
  • why the serpent slithers on the ground and why so many people have an antipathy for it;
  • why there is death;
  • why people wear clothes;
  • why we cannot return to a perfect world on earth;
  • why we have to work and why it is hard.

I am many years removed from learning these Bible stories and more than a decade removed from church attendance. Looking at some of these stories years later, as an atheist, I see aspects of the story that I had not considered before. It is also interesting to look at these stories in terms of mythology and not as the literal historical fact that Biblical literalists profess.

One thing I find fascinating today is the concept of the Tree of Knowledge. In Sunday School, it was described as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve were instructed that they could eat of any tree in the garden except for this tree, for if they did, they would “surely die.” It is hard to understand how newly-created humans who have no experience, no education, no knowledge, could comprehend concepts such as “good,” “evil,” and “death.” Maybe the deity or deities “created” their brains already programmed with certain concepts, instincts, tools necessary for survival, but the story does not explain any of that. Carl Jung posited the concept of “collective unconscious,” the supposed part of the unconscious mind that is derived from ancestral memory and experience and is common to all humankind, as distinct from the individual’s unconscious. There is no evidence of the existence of “collective unconscious,” though it is an interesting concept to ponder.

But let’s return to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The phrase literally translates as the tree of knowledge of good and evil from the Hebrew language. But the pairing of opposites may be an example of merism, a literary device that depicts meaning by pairing direct opposites – and in this case, it could be a merism that denotes “everything.” Some scholars believe that the merism does not denote a concept of morality but is merely inclusive of “everything.” In any case, many Christian sects teach that Adam and Eve were punished for their disobedience, and that the punishment carried forth through all Adam and Eve’s descendants — including those of us who are alive today. I have not heard preachers expand upon the concept of Adam and Eve being punished for seeking and acquiring knowledge, though some may have. It is true that there are plenty of Bible verses that warn against seeking worldly or carnal knowledge, and knowledge of content outside the spiritual is denigrated. Human knowledge itself is denigrated as being inferior to the knowledge of God. I searched online for a comprehensive list of Bible verses that denigrated knowledge and could not find one such list, but I found many verses in both testaments denigrating knowledge. I also found a variety of verses that state that true knowledge can only be found through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

If one considers the Tree of Knowledge as symbolic of knowing everything, then why was it that god or gods did not want the humans to have knowledge of everything? Was God meaning to protect the humans or was he trying to prevent them from attaining knowledge? And why would God try to prevent humans from acquiring knowledge? There is so much good that has come from humankind’s attainment of knowledge. We have learned more about how the world works, how to prevent diseases, how to harness the earth’s resources for better living conditions, how to increase our crops and how to supply fresh water. However, we have also learned more efficient ways to kill our fellow humans, and we have polluted the earth. We have created borders to exclude our “tribes” from one another. It is said that with much knowledge comes much responsibility. Perhaps the creators of this myth, ancient though they were, understood the great power and great danger of knowledge when conscientious stewardship is not applied.

From my own personal experience, knowledge of the world outside the Evangelical bubble was key to my deconversion process. In fundamentalist religions, people are warned against the outside world, often prohibited from owning certain books or gaining access to the internet and discouraged from attending secular schools. The outside world is labeled as evil, with pastors/rabbis/imams railing against the dangers to be found in the outside world. Some religions scare their members with images of demons and hell lurking around every corner, to be found in each book or library or website. The goal of fundamentalist religions is to retain its membership — to indoctrinate a new generation — and to do that, they must convince their followers that TRUTH can only be found within the safe confines of their fundamentalist religious world. As my friend who was raised in Reform Judaism commented when I told her the story of my upbringing in Evangelical Christianity, it’s a cult designed to keep its members trapped within.

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil can be, then, symbolic of all the exposure one encounters outside the confines of fundamentalist religion. I have eaten from that tree. I can no more unsee or unread or unlearn the ideas I found outside those confines any more than I could uneat a fruit. I could try to purge it from my mind as one might try to purge a food or poison from one’s body, but the effects of exposure are not easily reversed. At least, for me they could not be. Nor would I desire a different outcome.

What do you think about the myth of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Do you see this story as a warning about misuse of knowledge, or do you see it in another way? Please let us know in the comments.


  1. Henriette

    I clearly remember the atmosphere of wisdom, knowledge and intellect being presented as a wrong thing in the fundamentalist environment I grew up in. But it wasn’t really a general thing – nobody was against education or schooling (although I remember a case when a woman was discouraged from pursuing university education ). When I look back now I think it was mostly related to theology and Bible interpretation. Don’t think, just accept the things as they are (as it is interpreted within our churches!). Other churches and books may contain a golden nugget here and there, but why would you go for that when you can have all the gold right here – it was a manipulation scheme to keep people reading only the approved sources. There certainly was the belief that educated theologians, pastors, etc. are dangerous because they corrupt the clear simple message with their knowledge and intellect. As I see it now – critical thinking was highly discouraged. The more pious without questions one was the better.

    The way I see the *trees* now is as follows. The Tree of Knowledge has nothing to do with science or intellect. It is the stressful way of living under constant neurotic responsibility of one’s choices. It is the stressful way of feeling the constant pressure of laws (religious or other) and the endless trying to keep them. It is the constant comparing to others – I keep the laws better than them, I am a better person, I am this, I am that. Opposed to that stands the Tree of Life – a life of meditation, joy, a relaxed way of living. I can’t keep all the laws (religious or secular) precisely , no one does. They show me the way, they point to the good principles, but I am not to be a slave to them. A good example would be the fundamentalist approach on TV. Bruce has a blog here somewhere on how he constantly felt guilty for watching TV, kept selling TV’s and buying new again, and all the other stuff (btw. I was also raised in an anti-TV environment so I know those emotional states). That’s the Tree of Knowledge way. The Tree of Life is kinda like common sense. I am free to watch anything, but if horror movies cause me psychological damage I won’t watch them. If after watching loads of violent movies I have nightmares I won’t watch them for some time – not because it is “forbidden,” but because it hurts me. If I spend too much time watching TV and forget about my family and friends I’ll make sure to have less TV , cause it robs me of the beauty of life. It’s like Jesus vs. Pharisees’ Sabbath discussions. They’re all neurotic to make sure they meet every single little rule they’re supposed to and he is basically saying, “Guys, you’re missing the point. The point is to get a day off that’s all that it is. This *day off* is meant for you, not you for the *day off.* A human being is the lord even of all the *day off* laws.”

    So I believe the ancient myth contained these truths, but got completely corrupted over time. Where I was raised the first sin was “having sex,” which is million miles away from what I just tried to describe :).

  2. Brian

    Biblical stories, fairy tales, myths, local or colloquial histories are all forms of the telephone game. This is not to say that literal history does not exist but that it is not easy to peel the onion without being dismayed by tears. I wonder if the tree of knowledge has to do with collecting facts or more to do with removing fictions in life. Because I have been brainwashed in the blood, I tend to need to be entirely free of the trappings of religions and my well-being is only present in that absence. I can find joy in singing old hymns and the like but it is drugs to me, an entertainment that must be held in check somewhat. As soon as I begin to ponder the insidious meanings that were applied to the lyrics I must cease and desist. The command from God to eat only of the acceptable is to me he power of the unknown/unconscious mind. We carry our histories with us and the history of humankind is in some fashion within all of us. I am prone to harken back to the caves we came out of in our evolution, a metaphor that works for me. I do not believe that God/Satan exist or ever did but that ultimate fear is built-in to our beings and is an integral part of survival. Harm that comes to innocence (the very young) uncovers ultimate fear and strips away our ability to manage life. The worse the early harm, the more damage done to the developing being. Human monsters, psychopaths are slowly created not dropped here in a Satan cab, Religions, as I now perceive them, are all invented to control harm as a dictator controls others. It comes as a healer, a last chance, a rich promise and it sublimates our worst harms and covers them. It does not heal anything, merely embraces and then suffocates with extremes. I know very few religious people who seem to both genuinely believe and also lead moderate lives. Certainly in the IFB tradition this kind of of moderation would be spurned as ‘lukewarm’ belief. Evangelical life is a life of lessons toward the extreme and diligently followed it can ‘cure’ druggies/alcoholics/criminals. But the cure is another virus. Knowledge in itself is merely power in this world. A photographic memory is very helpful in much more than an episode of Jeopardy but I suspect the Tree of Knowldge is about a different knowing, the root of it, an inner light. That is ultimately the price paid when one disappears into evangelical life. I can finally see the truth, they say, because the light has been so thoroughly covered. I’m so happy now. Jesus saved me.

  3. Randy

    This particular story has always bothered me. I devoted a great deal of time to studying Genesis because it truly fascinated me. But what if people step back, take of their lenses of Christianity and look at it a different way.

    God has forbidden mankind knowledge. The serpent (who does not appear to be interpreted as Satan until New Testament times) comes to liberate man with knowledge so that he may be free and independent. He takes on the role of a Prometheus giving man fire and invoking the wrath of the gods. So from another perspective, the serpent seems to be the hero of the tale, and God (or gods depending on how you interpret elohim) is the tyrannical dictator forbidding man knowledge and threatening dire consequences if he should seek it.

    It becomes this offer – You may have immortality with ignorance or mortality with knowledge. Let me ask, which would you choose? It’s a great story to convince the masses to sit down, shut up and not question anything spoken or written in the name of God. Ultimately it’s a preposterous story, but now I find it more disturbing than either fascinating or comforting.

  4. Dave

    Looking from the outside at my former beliefs it’s hard to imagine I ever fell for these myths. It’s clear now that ancient people started with the premise that there must be a god so how do we explain suffering and death and the absence of this god. The Adam and Eve myth is so childlike and full of holes that I am embarrassed to think I ever gave lip service to it. Similarly I now look at the doctrine that we are in need of a human sacrifice to save of from our creator who is totally within his rights to be angry with us and want to torture us forever and I can only say WTF! It’s all so silly

  5. ObstacleChick

    Henriette, in my fundamentalist background learning wasn’t discouraged in general, but the learning had to be directed toward seeking knowledge of God under the “right” philosophy while avoiding exposure to knowledge that would lead one down another path. That’s why certain Christian colleges were thrust upon us teenagers to consider so that we would be steeped in the tea of fundamentalist Christian thought and not tainted by secularism. (Of course they were right as secularism led me to explore other information counter to fundamentalism).

  6. ObstacleChick

    Brian, religion can act as a drug for many, as you say. It can offer permission to “let to and let God but taken to extremes encourages relinquishment of one’s agency.

    1. Brian

      I prefer, Let go and let Claude… I knew Claude and he was a good guy. The God thing was never a good guy in my experience. It was used to torture me with Biblical horrors and lack of human love. It was lack on my platter. When you sit quietly and remember just what you faced as a child being trained-up, would you classify it as love and or abuse? I think my parents loved me and abused me terribly with Christianity. They did not see the abuse, or at least admit it openly. They seemed to believe this was life itself, the one and only. So when you suggest it might be a positive thing to let go and let God (if that is what you are suggesting) then I balk. I don’t hate the garbage can, just use it less and less as I am able to allow myself simply to be human outside the context of fundamentalism, of extremes. Sadly, much of my family lives in the garbage can and call it a mansion. My older brother delights in getting his 5 and 6 year old grandkids to respond when asked how they are doing, “Great, thanks to Jesus!” To me, this is abuse, a very real rape of innocence. So, rather than dwell on it too much, I let go and let Claude… Thank-you for your guest-posts, ObstacleChick.

  7. ObstacleChick

    “You may have immortality with ignorance or mortality with knowledge ” – Randy, I think you have made a wise statement regarding this story. And i agree, from the standpoint of one who values and seeks knowledge, the serpent is a liberator, a hero. The God of the story is an overprotective helicopter parent who doesn’t want his children to grow but doesn’t take care enough to arm them with tools necessary to make rational decisions. Thus, they end up doing what he doesn’t want and he overreacts. Bad parenting.

    1. Henriette

      In Randy’s version of the story I hope I’d have enough courage to fight the tyrant and rather live freely for a short time than endlessly in chains.

      However, if I’m correct the original myth (or what we’re left with) speaks of knowledge of good and evil, not knowledge in general. I think there are quite a few places in the OT that elevate wisdom and knowledge.

  8. ObstacleChick

    Dave, I don’t know how I ever believed these stories were literally historically accurate either. I just told my 16 year old son the Jonah and the Whale story yesterday, and his response was, “WTF, mom, how did you not understand this as the obvious mythology it is?” Such is early childhood indoctrination.


Please Leave a Pithy Reply

%d bloggers like this: