Aleteia

Is there psychological evidence for Original Sin?

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Recognizing that the "tension" between science and religion is overhyped and unsubstantiated.

It’s time to call a truce between science and religion. Better yet, let’s acknowledge that the fight between them is overhyped and unsubstantiated. As a matter of fact, for some time now experiments from all sorts of fields have been furnishing results that confirm standard Christian theology. An arresting case in point is the study that made headlines recently from the behavioral science journal Motivation and Emotion. In it, psychologists “discovered” something every Sunday school kid knows: that original sin exists.

So far as I can tell, the researchers didn’t intend to prove that point. But their data showed that people who broadcast moral outrage and demand punishment for ethical transgressions are often motivated by a sense of their own guilt. When Drs Zachary Rothschild and Lucas Keefer gave participants news stories about crimes against humanity, those participants were significantly more inclined to express righteous indignation if they themselves felt somehow implicated in the offense. So you’re more likely to deplore sweatshops if you know your favorite pair of jeans was hand-stitched in one.

Rothschild and Keefer call their conclusions “counter-intuitive.” Tell that to Adam and Eve, who basically conducted this same experiment at the foot of the forbidden tree. Anyone listening to the Sermon on the Mount could have predicted this outcome — it’s simply how the human heart works, according to Christian teaching.

“Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye and ignore the plank in your own?” (Matthew 7:3). Well, because picking on the guy next door is easier than admitting that you and he share the same inner brokenness. Our pious condemnations are the fig leaves we knit together to cover up the sense of unrighteousness we inherited from our first parents (Genesis 3:7-12). So what came as a revelation to professional psychologists was old news to believers.

This isn’t the first time that secular findings have pointed suggestively towards God. Back when Albert Einstein developed relativity theory, his calculations convinced him (despite his reluctance) that the universe had a beginning, which implies a beginner. That Big Bang hypothesis is now backed by decades of physical and mathematical proof. Once the cosmos exists, the chances of life materializing in it without a maker are, according to British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, akin to those of a tornado blowing through a junkyard and accidentally constructing a 747 airplane. In 1992 the science historian Fred Burnham called the notion of divine creation “a more respectable hypothesis at this point in time than at any time in the last 100 years.”

Alternatives to that hypothesis are starting to sound awfully specious. To account for the extravagant unlikelihood of spontaneous life, some have advanced the unprovable speculation that multiple universes exist, and ours just happened to be the one that burst into consciousness. The physicist Stephen Hawking once declared that the material world needed no God to come into being, only a set of laws. To which the philosopher Roger Scruton responded with the painfully obvious question, “So who wrote the laws?”

Ultimately, the claim that belief is anti-science rests on a facile oversimplification of what it means to be religious. Take evolution, which is often presented as the alternative to creationism in explaining human development. That antithesis only holds if you assume that all Christians believe the Bible literally describes the physical construction of Earth in seven 24-hour periods. But this straw-man brand of fundamentalism is a far cry from the mainline position of the Church. Apologists as far back as St. Augustine of Hippo have adopted allegorical readings of Genesis which leave plenty of room for an ongoing process of natural selection.

That’s not to say a symbolic interpretation of the creation story is the only feasible one. It’s simply to point out that the idea of theism as intrinsically opposed to science is little more than smoke and air. That’s what Father George Coyne, an astronomer for the Vatican observatory, patiently explained to Bill Maher when the comedian set out to make fools of the faithful in his documentary, Religulous. Coyne received precious little screen time, presumably because he didn’t fit Maher’s image of the clergy as backwards Luddites.

The truth is that scientific research and Christian orthodoxy are speaking in unison more often than not these days. The existence of a divine creator poses no threat to the rational analysis of physical phenomena. If anything it saves that analysis from incoherence. God’s word gives meaning to the facts of science, and those facts in turn illustrate the truths we find in the Bible. As early Christians put it, God speaks both in the Book of Scripture and in the Book of Nature. There’s no point, and no sense, in closing either book.

This story is tagged under:
bill maheroriginal sinscience and religion
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