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Human nature. Are we inherently good or bad?

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By Lace Williams-Tinajero

“Human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature.”

I came across this powerful quote by Dacher Keltner while taking a recent online course (edX) on the science of happiness, offered through the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

I continue to reflect on Keltner’s claim because it challenges my negative conceptions of human nature.

Growing up Catholic and Lutheran, my family rarely missed mass or church on Sundays. The message that human beings are inherently sinful inundated my thinking. This message solidified further during my Bible college and seminary days from the preachers and teachers and theologians I studied under. Listening to the news didn’t help.

Keltner calls into question the view that human nature is primarily awry. “It has long been assumed that selfishness, greed, and competitiveness lie at the core of human behavior, the products of our evolution. It takes little imagination to see how these assumptions have guided most realms of human affairs, from policy making to media portrayals of social life. But clearly, recent scientific findings forcefully challenge this view of human nature. We see that compassion is deeply rooted in our brains, our bodies, and in the most basic ways we communicate. What’s more, a sense of compassion fosters compassionate behavior and helps shape the lessons we teach our children.”

It never occurred to me as a Christian that human beings are hardwired for compassion.

The Rev. Dr. Craig Goodwin preached recently along similar lines. In a sermon at Millwood Community Presbyterian Church, he said that it’s easy to hear about world events and slip into woeful thinking that the world is falling apart. Goodwin challenged us to reconsider this worldview, to set aside the notion that the world is spinning out of control into nothingness. Instead, consider how God’s Kingdom is being established on earth. “We are part of a greater story, God’s story. We are part of the world going somewhere.”

I strive to attain some insight that will help me reconcile Keltner’s scientific findings on human nature as inherently good, compassionate and pro-social in contrast to the message I grew up hearing every Sunday during worship, particularly when it came time for Confession and Absolution:

“Most merciful God. We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed. By what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen” (Lutheran Book of Worship).

How do I reconcile the confession I grew up reciting in church, one that is burned into my memory, with Keltner’s scientific findings? What is truly at the core of my being, goodness or evil? I know the stock Lutheran answer to this question. Luther would say that I am simul justus et peccatore, “simultaneously saint and sinner.”

I am struck by the fact that the church and theology reiterate the assumption that human nature is defective regardless of being made in God’s image.

Yet science is delivering the opposite messageat the core of human nature is goodness, kindness, compassion, empathy.

Perhaps dialogue is in order between scientists and theologians on ways to cultivate the human instinct for good as part of God’s redemptive work in the world.

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  1. “Yet science is delivering the opposite message: at the core of human nature is goodness, kindness, compassion, empathy.”

    No, it isn’t. Science is delivering the message that Luther was more or less right, that while we may be hardwired for intra-group cooperation, we are equally hardwired for inter-group competition and violence. Science is showing us that the same drive that bonds us to those we tacitly include in our “tribe” also drives us to ignore, accept, or even endorse the violent actions of those tribe members, especially when directed towards an “other.” In point of fact, science’s answer to practically any question about human nature would be the same as my Fakebook relationship status three years ago: “it’s complicated.”

  2. I wonder how we can define “sinful” or even “evil”? In the Jewish Talmud, selfishness and greed are important virtues in some circumstances, and vices in others. We can agree that harming another human being is wrong. Except during war? In our society, there are laws against harming dogs, yet they eat dogs in Korea. And we have no problem eating other similar animals. Is right or wrong a matter of consensus? Circumstances? It’s tough to fall back on a particular holy book like the Bible when the different cultures and holy books don’t agree with each other. Who’s holy book do we use as the standard? How do we decide? And even within a particular holy book there isn’t any hard and fast agreement.

  3. It’s not an ‘either/or’ proposition. Humans have evolved to be good and
    bad, and even the goodness and badness of us is determined by context.
    This is why we have ethical dilemmas and discussions.

    Although, I would throw in that religion wants to emphasize the badness and hold it over us as a way to keep our heads bowed and our eyes closed.

    • Yes, that was kind of my point too. Although I would like to note that not all religions are as you say. Judaism and Buddhism tend to see it differently.

  4. Thanks for engaging my piece. I appreciate everyone’s comments. Perhaps in each moment there arises the opportunity for hate/love, life/death, peace/war, compassion/apathy. God alludes to this when approaching Cain who gives into the urge to kill his brother Abel. In Cain’s moment of anger, God says “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen 4:7).

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