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Augustine (354-430) is generally considered to be one of the most important church fathers for Protestant and Catholic Christianity.  He expounded a concept of human evil called original sin, which was further developed by Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin among many others.  Augustine’s thinking was that there had been a fall of humanity after which every person is “born into sin,” or inherently evil.

Are we born evil?

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Augustine (354-430) is generally considered to be one of the most important church fathers for Protestant and Catholic Christianity.  He expounded a concept of human evil called original sin, which was further developed by Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin among many others.  Augustine’s thinking was that there had been a fall of humanity after which every person is “born into sin,” or inherently evil. It is only Christ who can save us from this tragedy. But this belief has been questioned by psychology. Many modern thinkers consider babies as blank slates who are later imprinted with the values of their family upbringing and the society into which they are born. In other words, according to many scholars, there is no such thing as original sin.

Psychologist Karen Wynn is the director of infant cognition (or the baby lab) at Yale University exploring the origins of moral cognition. According to the CBS 60 Minutes report here (featured Nov. 18), Wynn and others in her field have developed ways to test the moral compass of babies, some as young as three months old. What they have found is astonishing. Using puppets, researchers determined that babies do indeed know the difference between right and wrong. They are born with an innate sense of justice, hardwired somehow into their cognitive makeup. What might seem like a blank slate is actually a high degree of moral sophistication. There seems to be a universal moral standard that all human beings share. 

But further experiments carried out by the Yale baby lab are even more surprising. Wynn and others performed experiments with puppets and cereal to show that just as justice is hardwired, so is human prejudice. We are born to hate, not taught to hate. There is a strong bias to favor the self and others who are like us right from birth. Conversely, there is also a bias against those who are different. Even though babies understand fairness and justice, they still choose to treat others in a manner that is unfair and unjust. They do not learn to be fair and good until later in their development. So it may be that Augustine was right, at least according to the research of the Yale baby lab. There is such a thing as original sin.

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16 comments

  1. Nothing against your article, Bruce, but I really hate discussions that discuss morality vs. evilness. It’s absolutely that more people in the world have suffered and died because of the “morality” and “justice” of aggressors than any other motivation for aggression. I see morality as indeed innate, but it is a dangerous, over-simplifying, self-serving biological function that we have to work to overcome as we mature. I also see “sin” as “that thing that we don’t like that is a common characteristic of some group we don’t like because they aren’t just like us”. It’s nearly, if not entirely, impossible to scientifically measure sinfulness.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Sam. I always appreciate your insights, and I realize that you’re coming at this from another view than me. But now that I read your comment, I can see how the idea of sin has been badly used down through the ages. Even now it has been misused in recent events for political gain. Just for the record, that wasn’t my intent in this post. I was looking for a more fundamental understanding of human nature.

  3. Bruce, thanks for the thoughtful article, while I am no expert on original sin I am pretty familiar with sin from an experiential perspective.

    I think of sin as: “That which separates us from God.” Prejudice certainly does that and if we have an innate sense of prejudice hard wired then that would be the root of original sin. Your article helps me with that. However, I think that the power of justice can and does over come prejudice with nurture and encouragement.

    I do not spend a lot of time thinking about original sin, and Sam is right, the concept of sin has been used as a blunt object to pummel people into behavior modification for far to long. If we look at our own behaviors and in the context of a community work to change those behaviors to strengthen our relationships (called repentance in Christian circles) then out separation from God narrows because we are closer to each other. Sin is about our separation from God and is most evident in our damaged and broken relationships with each other and our planet. While there may be original sin, that is something that is not really in our control, my relationship with you is in my control. Saying that and not wishing to be separated, I will ask: Are we ok Bruce? I wouldn’t want to fall any deeper than I am.
    Thanks again.

  4. John, thanks for the comment. My thinking is that we are not OK, and this is the theme I weave into my science fiction also. I realize there’s been some awesome progress with regard to science, technology, and rationalism, but how much in regard to really bettering humanity. I draw upon such serious atheists as Joseph Conrad as well as most religions to say that there is such a thing as human evil and its not going away. The only difference between the atheists and the Christians is that the Christians believe there is hope in God. I’m afraid that those who have put their hope in science and technology are going to be disappointed.

  5. Why would science and technology necessarily disappoint? Humans run on biological processes. While humans have many variables that differ from person to person, we aren’t truly “limitless” — we all share some pretty basic fundamentals. If that weren’t true, you wouldn’t be able to have any science of psychology. There are factors that are measurable and predictable within reason, and if that’s true, then it’s also true that you can use the information gained in research to make predictions that will influence human life for the better. What variable could be so confounding that this is not true?

    I know it’s true, because as our species’ approach to society-building has become more and more scientific, starting with the Sumerians, many if not all counts of quantified misery have declined — health, sanitation, violent death rate, large-scale wars are all measurable factors that have been steadily improving for us. It hasn’t been a steady progression, and improvement in some areas has caused new miseries to arise (like pollution from the industrial era) but — could you honestly say you’d rather live in the middle ages than live now? These improvements to life are the result of science and technology. We’ve found that utilizing tools and knowledge can make people prefer to be nicer to each other. Not necessarily “angelic” but I’m not afraid that I’ll be killed by a violent pogrom or raped in the street by a mob of ne’erdowells. I’m not seeing how a measurable approach to social problems is subject to some kind of supernatural (“sin”) fatal flaw.

    (Of course there is a whole discussion of how ethics fits into that scientific approach to social building, and I’m confident that one day we may discover that ethics can really be described in scientific terms.)

  6. The real core I’m trying to get at is that if one can measure human behavior (as I believe one can), eventually, one can make predictions, and if you can make a prediction, eventually you can devise a solution. We might look at human failings as problems for which solutions can be engineered, not personal flaws for which a supernatural solution is the only option.

  7. Thanks Sam, great points above. You asked why science and technology might disappoint. Let’s just take the 20th century as an example. It was supposed to be the golden age of humanity with the realization of science, technology, and rational thinking. If you had been alive at the end of the 19th century, you would have heard all the arguments that you’re repeating above. Instead it brought us Hitler, Stalin, Mau, Pol Pot, and that’s just the beginning. No other century has seen such atrocities. Sure, the intent was there before, and there were other terrible atrocities in earlier centuries, but the science and technology were not. We also saw a lot of good. It’s all there. The evil of humanity hasn’t changed, only that we have greater technology to realize that evil (along with the good).

    I agree that we’re going to continue to make progress (until we hit another dark age). But I’m not sure we can ever cure human evil. My best guess is that with the greater capability for good also comes greater capability for evil. If we ever find a solution to evil, some dictator will find a way to turn it to her advantage so she can take over the world (just like Pinky and the Brain).

  8. This is a great discussion! I’ve raised 3 of my own kids, and now am helping to raise a grandchild at 58, so I’m getting another run at it, presumably with more wisdom than before. Especially as I’ve studied the Scriptures more, and know that there are numerous passages that teach the doctrine of the fall and original sin, as well as the plight of every human being, I can watch the behavior of my 20 month old grandson, and see the wheels turning in his mind to rebel against direct commands that are for his good (don’t dig in the garbage!) and his struggle to either obey or rebel. The Bible teaches it and I’ve seen it hundreds if not thousands of times in my own experience.

    And Bruce, I agree, with technology we have only gotten more adept at evil behaviors. Eugenics is still in vogue in some circles, is it not? Selection of the preferred infant and destruction of the “inferior”. I believe that was one of the methods for “engineering” a solution to man’s problems, even at the founding of Planned Parenthood if I’m not mistaken. Is that progress? And as far as not worrying about being killed in a pogrom, we just aren’t living in the right country, or we could be very afraid.

    Science cannot explain human behavior, as C.S. Lewis pointed out. To make science god, and above all criticism or examination is not science, it’s scientism. It’s a religion. The discussion in the Lewis documentary, “The Magician’s Twin” brought out the fact that there are “sciences” to be studied individually, but only lately has it declared itself above any other thought process. And surely to only be able to reckon human nature and our souls by scientific method alone is woefully inadequate. That’s why God has convinced me through the Scriptures that, “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, able to pierce even to the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to determine the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12). As much as it is ridiculed, ignored and striven to be disproved, it is a gold mine of wisdom, as well as the path to the cure for this original sin of mine, and everyone’s.

  9. @Dennis- Thanks for your insights about science and C.S. Lewis on scientism. My question for you is how is your view of the Bible different from scientism? I think you realize its not a good idea to put your hope in science, but what about elevating a book to the level of God? If you say the Bible is perfect and infallible, haven’t you made the Bible into another god? Aren’t you putting your hope in the Bible just like scientism?

  10. Bruce, my initial answer is yes, on trusting the Bible. Studying the Bible as God’s written revelation, though, would keep the paper and ink from being a god, but instead, in my experience, leads me to a personal relationship with the God who wrote it. It was His idea, and a wise one at that, to provide any true seeker with a written word that has stood the test of millenia of skepticism. As Paul said, it keeps us from being blown here and there by every wind of new doctrine. My hope is in the One who raised Jesus from the dead, and promised the same for me if I have trusted in Him! Have a great day, Bruce.

  11. “Instead it brought us Hitler, Stalin, Mau, Pol Pot, and that’s just the beginning. No other century has seen such atrocities.”

    Well… that’s actually not true. If you account for the smaller global populations, atrocities in Europe, Asia, and the Ottoman Empire actually were far worse massacres, even counted individually, and not in aggregate. The latest archeological research has been showing that in the hunter-gatherer era, chances were (by our standards) astronomically high that one’s life would end at the hand of another. I’d encourage you to read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature for exhaustive statistics and research about this phenomenon.

    The other thing to consider is that Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot all had a singular factor in common: Their rise to power was preceded by incredible poverty, oppression and misery in the population. All of these leaders may have claimed that the (very young) discipline of science was on their side, but it clearly was not. It was just the same old regressive, imperial, mystical crap that our species has been dealing with since ancient Sumer enslaved everyone around them. The claimed the mantle of science, but what they provided was pure ideology, powered by a population deep in suffering. That’s why we need to alleviate the suffering of populations.

    When I say science-based governance, I mean, health care, sanitation, education being accessible to all. I mean governance that uses methodical research to drive decisions — not ideology. I mean investing resources in our short, medium, and long term future, like spending human energy and resources in establishing off-planet colonies so that we don’t run out of resources on our one and only habitable planet.

    I also mean unbiased, collaborative research into what makes us tick. I’m not going to be satisfied with an answer like, “well, we can’t really know what makes people evil, it’s a supernatural thing, you can’t measure it.” Maybe you can? Maybe we just haven’t discovered the biological mechanisms that explain it. It doesn’t mean we won’t. And it doesn’t mean we can’t eventually come across solutions to the “problem of evil”. No one really thought you could get energy from atoms until someone actually built a working nuclear reactor, even though they are commonplace machines now. Saying we have a mysterious, innate capacity for “evil” (whatever that actually means in scientific terms) is a deeply unsatisfying answer that discourages our species from looking a little further and working a little harder to find a solution.

  12. The problem is that someone (a human) has to make all those decisions. We have an adminstration now that has all the resources it needs to make decisions, but most of them are still based on “how’s it working out for me”, even if it imposes suffering on our citizenry. We’re going from a society that was prosperous and strong to a suffering society, supposedly from someone who said, “We’re going to go back to science to make our decisions”. Not a direct quote but that was the gist of it. Sorry, it didn’t happen. You can’t define evil scientifically, but it is real. Science (whatever discipline you would presume to cover evil) is inadequate to explain everything real.

  13. Actually, Dennis, you are incorrect. The method of science is to use repetition, and verification by groups of people, all in the goal of eliminating human biases. It’s an extremely effective way to discover truths. The only thing stopping us from explaining everything real is the limitations of our scientific instruments (which get better every year), not a flaw with the methodology itself. Of course that’s only discovery. Additional research and interpretation can illuminate better, more efficient processes, and explain human motivations. Despite the self-perception of being a complex, near-limitless, creature, the structure of our brains and our genetic code really aren’t all that unique in the world, and science is learning about, and explaining, new facets of human psychology every year.

  14. Thank you Sam, Dennis, and John for this insightful discussion. I hope we’ll have many more opportunities to delve into science and the nature of evil.

  15. Bruce, thanks for writing. You’re one of my favorite bloggers here. 🙂

  16. and mine as well, thanks guys.

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