Few ideas seem more archaic, harsh, or just irrelevant to the modern mind than original sin. The dusty tale of Adam and Eve, forbidden fruit, and an ancestral curse recedes ever further into the mythic past. In the age of entitlement, we hold fast instead to the tenets of self-definition, self-help, and innocent until proven guilty.
A new book, however, James Boyce’s Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, traces some of the guises in which the traditional doctrine of original sin – the contention that people are, in fact, “born bad”, and share in humankind’s general guilt and disorder of the will, even before they have the chance to commit any single act of wrongdoing – has survived within the secular psyche. Whether in the self-interest of free market economics, Freudian psychology’s legacy around the potentially destructive power of the un- or sub-conscious, or evolutionary biology’s “selfish gene”, this pessimism or suspicion towards human nature lingers on in more or less sanitised, upbeat versions.
Still, it’s probably fair to say that most people living in secular Western cultures have a deep-seated (if mostly unexamined) sense that humans are basically good. It’s an audacious article of faith, really, given the absolute mountain of evidence we need to face down almost daily in order to persist in it. But whether or not it’s empirically valid, we may be mistaken if we imagine that it’s a “softer” or friendlier picture of what it means to be human.
It’s worth recalling, for example, that America’s Founding Fathers based their push for democracy, and for separation of powers, on a depressingly pragmatic view of human nature as inexorably flawed. By contrast, it was the leaders of the French Revolution – and many a despotic, bloodthirsty regime since – who held a high view of humanity, and of the perfectibility of human society.
It’s salutary also to note that more “therapeutic” approaches to crime and criminals harmonise with original sin’s acknowledgment of the inherited, involuntary aspects of wrongdoing. To insist that most people are mostly good means drawing a line between “us” and “them” – even if, for our strongly therapeutic culture, it’s perhaps only terrorists and paedophiles who remain definitively on that “monster” side of the line. And to deny our common humanness keeps us from understanding the complex operation of causes in these cases, and from coming up with meaningful and humane solutions.
In this respect, original sin is profoundly egalitarian: all people, without exception, are at the same time glorious creations of a glorious God, and utterly flawed. Boyce quotes one 18th-century noblewoman’s rebuke of another, who openly espoused the unpalatable doctrine: “It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.” Original sin is a leveller.
What we believe about the mix of good and bad in human nature has far-reaching implications – in how we think social problems can be fixed (ever more legislation! is the optimistic Australian cry), or how we resist despair and keep on working for justice or the alleviation of suffering when confronted again and again with the darkness of human behaviour, of the human heart.
Its deepest implications, though, lie in the realm of self-knowledge. To keep on believing, in the face of my irritability or cowardice or rampant self-bias, that I’m a pretty good person requires either herculean levels of self-deception or an ever-dwindling set of moral standards. The result is all too often the ruin of our relationships. To accept that the line between good and evil runs right through my own heart opens the way to humble efforts towards forbearance, forgiveness, and an understanding of others that (paradoxically) is free from judgment.