My favorite scene in “Evil,” the May 1 episode from National Geographic’s series The Story of God, involves a bunch of 6-year-olds.
The kids are part of an experiment. They’re split into two groups and tasked with the same job: Each child will stand in an empty room and throw Velcro balls at a cloth dartboard, with the winner receiving a fabulous (but unnamed) prize. Simple enough, right? But this contest has a few rules attached to it. One, the child must stand behind a line on the carpet. Two, the child must throw the balls with his back to the board.
So, here we have a bunch of kids who must perform a difficult task … difficult, that is, if they follow the rules. A nifty reward hangs in the balance, just waiting for an enterprising ball-thrower to claim it. What is a 6-year-old to do?
Here’s the final kicker: One group is told that “Princess Alice”—a mysterious, invisible figure—will be watching their every move.
You don’t need a Ph.D. in child psychology to know how this experiment would play out. The kids with the invisible princess are far more likely to follow the rules. That fits with my experience with 6-year-olds, too. Sure, they may look cute and all, but they’re liable to lie and cheat and sometimes beat other 6-year-olds up. Heck, when I was 6, I was well on my way to being a notorious kleptomaniac, swiping candy bars in supermarket checkout lines when no one was looking. If my mom hadn’t caught me early in my life of crime, who knows what sort of illicit candy horde I would’ve accumulated by now.
There are those who believe that we’re all basically good people—that if we were left to our own devices, we’d mostly do the right thing. I kinda wish that was true. But my Christian faith suggests differently. Most of us, I believe, need help to be good.
That belief, for me, is tied to my Christian upbringing. I believe that God created us in His image, which means we have His ideal design wrapped up in us. But I also believe that we’re not exactly as He originally intended. We’re flawed creatures living in a flawed world, and while none of us are wholly evil, none of us are entirely good, either.
This understanding—that often we’re not as good as we should be, that we all have certain evil inclinations—is one of those rare points on which a good chunk of religious folks can agree. Most of us feel the conflict between good and evil in our own souls. And while our explanations for why that conflict exists may differ, we all turn to faith to help explain and alleviate it. Many religions, from Buddhism and Taoism to Judaism and Christianity, teach that our bodies don’t always know what’s best for them. Our predilections and desires, in other words, can lead us into evil. We shouldn’t sate every hunger we have. We must, at times, deny ourselves.
In Medieval Christianity, this concept of denial was wrapped up in the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins—envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath. It’s interesting how each of these sins feels so very human. These are the areas we would go if a higher sense of morality didn’t hold us back. Each sin is one of excess—a picture of a body or soul free of the checks and balances we need to stay safe and sane and spiritually grounded.
In our increasingly secular society, the concept of sin itself can feel, at times, hopelessly old-fashioned. Perhaps one of the byproducts in living in such a gloriously free society is that we grow to think of freedom as the ultimate good—and the more freedom we have, the better. We don’t like limits. We laud our rebels, whether they have a cause or not. The 6-year-olds in the experiment were, in a way relishing in their freedom: When no-one’s watching, they have the freedom to cheat.
But if someone’s watching, we become better people. We sometimes need accountability to follow the better angels of our natures, be it a parent or a spouse or a friend or God Himself. In our weaker moments, we need someone to help us be strong.
There will be, of course, those who draw comparisons between the experiment’s Princess Alice and God—that our faiths are man-made constructs that encourage us to be accountable, to help us be better people. Religion may not be true, they might say, but it can perhaps be useful.
But it’s interesting to note that while Princess Alice was made up, the children actually were being watched by an unseen presence. Their motives were weighed—even those of the children who assumed they were all alone.