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.
Bruce Meyer writes about the relationship between the physical universe and the pursuit of spirituality.