In a major departure from my usual debunking mode, I am going to offer what I consider the strongest argument in favor of Christianity. No, let me hasten to assure everyone, I am not going all “Tony Flew” here. I think the arguments for the existence of God, whether considered individually or cumulatively, are totally worthless. Some theistic arguments are inferior specimens of a very dubious genre, i.e., metaphysical argument. The rest are instances of an even worse genre: pure pseudoscience. As anyone can tell from reading my candid little tome Why I am not a Christian, available in the “modern library” of the Secular Web, I regard Christian apologetics as a travesty, a farrago of bad history, inept biblical scholarship, and rampant illogic. Most doctrines of orthodox Christianity to me are as bizarre and incredible as Greek or Norse mythology—and a lot less fun. That said, I think there is one very strong argument for Christianity: The argument from the endlessly astonishing rottenness of human beings.
The train of thought leading to this present essay was set in motion a couple of weeks ago when I was reading in the morning paper the debate before the Supreme Court concerning whether videos showing animals being killed or tortured could be suppressed or whether such restriction violates the first amendment free speech guarantees (I shall not take any position here on that question). The article said that one kind of “entertainment” they were trying to control was something called “crush videos.” Now, crush videos constitute one form of human depravity that I had never heard of, and I wish I still had not. According to the article, such videos feature women in high heels crushing tiny animals to death. I was nearly made violently ill by the idea that any creature biologically classifiable as Homo sapiens would derive pleasure, prurient pleasure, I assume, from watching whores stomp small, helpless animals to death. I really thought that by age 57 I had pretty much heard it all, but I had not.
Now maybe you regard cruelty to animals as deplorable, but just do not have the sort of visceral reaction I get to things like this. Maybe it is man’s inhumanity to man that really appalls you. Well, you don’t have to look far at all to find plenty of that. A friend and fellow WWII buff gave me a copy of Richard J. Evans’ outstanding The Third Reich at War. This is an excellent book that achieves the very rare combination of impeccable scholarship with page-turning readability. I could not read it however. I found it simply too disturbing. We hear so much about the Nazi’s big crimes, like Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, Babi Yar, etc., that we forget about their ordinary everyday atrocities. For instance, after the invasion of Poland (70 years ago last month), the Nazis began to enforce their policy of brutal racial oppression of the untermenschen, i.e., Jews and Slavs. Evans tells about an incident where a Polish peasant picked a fight with a German soldier and wounded him with a knife. In retaliation, the Germans killed everybody in the peasant’s village. However, it was only a small village, and so did not contain enough inhabitants to fill the quota of retaliatory murders that had been set. So, with Teutonic thoroughness, they stopped a passing train, pulled off enough passengers to meet the quota, and shot them on the spot. Such incidents were far from extraordinary. Indeed, they were quite mundane occurrences in Nazi-occupied territories, especially in the East.
A central, indispensable doctrine of Christianity has always been the inherent rottenness of human beings. More formally, this is the doctrine of original sin. Of course, the doctrine of original sin was originally construed by Augustine as a taint passed on biologically from parent to child, starting with Adam and Eve. As a theory of the genetics of sinfulness, the doctrine has always, understandably, elicited derisive howls from unbelievers. When removed from its pseudo-biological garb, however, the idea is quite profound. Augustine held that before the Fall, humans could choose either to sin or not sin. Since the Fall, we have lost the power to refrain from sin, and wallow in bondage to concupiscence, by which Augustine meant all evil desire, not merely the sexual sort. The Reformed tradition called the post-Fall human state one of “total depravity,” by which they did not mean that humans are incapable of any good, but that every aspect of human nature and human life has been infected by sin (see Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms, Macmillan, 1964). In other words, nothing human is pristine. No human relationship, institution, or activity is free of corruption, and quite a few are rife with it (e.g., politics, business, religion, and—Dare I say it?—academe). Further, the fallen state is not only a psychological or sociological phenomenon, but a metaphysical one, said Augustine. Put plainly, that means that there is nothing human effort or striving can do to correct the situation; there is no going back to Eden.
The doctrine of original sin is quite ferocious and uncompromising, of course, and gentler souls such as liberal Protestants and humanists have always been appalled by it. Surely, it seems far too gloomy and pessimistic to view humans in general in terms of total depravity. Surely, the Nazis were exceptionally monstrous and those who make or enjoy crush videos are among the outer fringes of the most despicable degenerates. Such behaviors are outrageously offensive to decent people, of whom there are many everywhere. Right? Of course, one determined to portray the human race in a negative light will never lack supporting evidence. However, for all the innumerable infamies committed by humans, we can point to equally numerous acts of kindness, mercy, and compassion. Even heroic acts of goodness are well known and frequent. Surely, the vast majority must practice common decency, or there could be no organized, sustained society at all. If we were as bad as all that, we would be living in Hobbes’ state of nature—where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Right? Aren’t the doctrines of original sin and total depravity simply thinly disguised misanthropy?
At one time I would have answered that last question with a resounding “YES!” Actually, I might still answer the question in the affirmative; what has changed is that I increasingly regard misanthropy as a rational view. A recent show on the History Channel depicted what would happen to the earth if humans were to simply disappear and leave everything else intact. Now I can’t help thinking that the scenario is not a half bad idea. However, even if we concede the liberal and humanistic objections to the doctrine of original sin—i.e., that there are many decent people, and many acts of kindness, and generosity, etc.—that still does not refute the idea of total depravity. Again, total depravity does not mean that there is no good in humanity. It does not deny our ordinary distinctions between good people and bad. It even does deny that there could be moral progress, e.g., that someday we might end slavery worldwide. Rather, it implies that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, everybody is at least a bit rotten (Come on; ‘fess up), and very many are pretty awful (e.g., office tyrants and deadbeat dads), and some (e.g., Nazis and animal torturers) are unspeakably vile.
So, the Christian depiction of the human condition seems to be spot-on. This is one thing Christianity gets exactly right. There is something deeply and seemingly irremediably wrong with us. We stain everything we touch. Even the citadel of reason is breached. As an academic, I long regarded intellect as a very high if not quite the highest good. Now I think it is grossly overrated. I have come to realize that I.Q. and rationality are hardly correlated at all. On the contrary, I have discovered the appalling extent to which very many of the smartest people employ their intellectual gifts and high-powered intellectual tools (like analytic philosophy) to create and defend pernicious ideologies and towering lunacies. Maybe worse are those who sell their intellects to the service of the highest bidders. “Reason is a whore,” said Luther, and, by God, he was at least 90% right.
So, chalk one big one up for Christianity.