Reasonable Doubt about The Atonement: Psychopathy

This is intended as the first of a series exploring Biological Bases of Behavior and its implications for Christianity. The focus of this article is on Psychopathy and its implications regarding the Atonement.

It explains that psychopathy is regarded alternately as an emotional disorder and/or a genetically selected sub-population of people that cannot feel love, empathy or remorse. It shows that it is inherited and likely has a genetic component. It discusses the correlation with differences in amygdala function between this population and the mean. Considering Matt. 22:37s commandment to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, the question becomes, what happens to the psychopath in this process? According to the explanation of the Atonement, it may cover their sins, but they cannot meet the requirement to love God, and repent.

This link provides a great overview of Evangelical views of Atonement. It was written by John W. Loftus to show how viewpoints of Atonement are linked to the cultural values of their period. And here is a different article from another blogger with a similar topic to this one. It argues that modern cognitive science leaves little room for the existence of a "soul."

Christianity depends on the belief that Christ died for our sins. From the perspective of the Evangelical all the sins of all of the people in the world past, present and future went onto Christ and when he died, he died as atonement for the sins of the past, present and future people of the world. People are predisposed to sin rather than follow Gods law. People are predisposed to behave in a way that is not consistent with Gods law.
How did people get that way? Was it the original sin of disobeying Gods law in the garden of Eden or was it something that happened as a result of the way we are made?

Allegedly Jesus died for us so we won’t have to, yet people are predisposed to sin for biological reasons as much as for “moral” reasons. For God to have gone to the trouble to become Man and go through the crucifixion it seems like he should have eliminated biological bases for behavior that make it likely that people will disobey Him. If he had done that it would have become purely a moral question.

God created humans along with the world. So it follows that he made us this way. To say that he didn’t infers that something changed the initial state of our nature. If something changed, what was it? If we stipulate that Adam and Eve were real, and if we say that the decision to eat the Apple was made by Adam and Eve, how did the thought even arise in them to disobey God unless it occurred naturally? If it would not have occurred naturally but it was the result of a deception by Satan, then either they had no clue what they were doing and we are suffering the problem of evil for their stupidity or they had the mechanism built in to disobey God. The circuitry was in place to entertain the idea of disregarding the importance of obeying God. I’m sure if they had more life experience or had a concept of what the implications would be they would not have done it, but that is an argument for another time. So it appears that we had the propensity to disobey God built in. Let’s call it freewill.

To say that Humans choose to disobey God infers that we know what God wants in the first place. I will stipulate for the purpose of this article that we should be able to understand how God wants us to behave from scripture.

What does God want from us?

"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38. This is the first and great commandment." Matthew 22:37

And some others follow.
Love one another as we love ourselves, to act justly, to love mercy, to keep the commandments, obey God, believe God, trust God, know God, seek God, repent, strive to overcome our nature and have faith.

These words were written by people that did not understand the properties of the brain. These words were written before the discovery of principles that demonstrably affect behavior such as not being able to process emotional information or being genetically predisposed to disease. Severe mental disorder was thought to be the result of spirits. These words were written before anyone knew that the emotional disorder of Psychopathy was possible.

If we know that mental processes can be affected by influences other than internal thoughts, then that casts doubt on the whole concept of absolute free will. If we stipulate that there is a non-absolute type of freewill available to everyone, then we can see that there is a varying degree of freewill accessible by everyone. What degree of freewill does a Psychopath have? What degree of free will does a Sociopath have? What degree of free will does a person with depression have? What degree of freewill does a person have that has a tumor that affects mental processes? What degree of free will do you have? The functioning of the Brain can be altered by chemicals and trauma as much as it can by a persons internal thought processes, environment and culture. Decision making processes including those relating to morality can be handicapped by the structure of the brain itself. One aspect of freewill is accessibility to options. When your options are limited by the environment or by your cognitive abilities, your freewill is limited proportionally.

If you can force a Psychopath to behave according to Gods Law, you can’t change his "heart" (motivation), because he is born that way and there is no known therapy to counteract it. There is no way to get him to feel love or loyalty to God so from the start, the biblical mechanism for redemption for the psychopath is flawed. There is no scriptural mechanism for the salvation of the psychopath.

A popular rebuttal to this problem is that God can save anyone he chooses to through his grace. He will save those that are incapable of understanding that allegedly Jesus sacrifice on the cross was their way to salvation. There are several problems with that view.

First, typically Evangelicals, believe in the Doctrine of Original Sin, that we are born into sin such as described by David in Psalm 51:5. We do not need to learn how to sin, it comes naturally through Adams sin. Only learning about Jesus and believing saves you. Jesus was the Second Adam. Non-Evangelicals will point to an interpretation about Davids baby and a belief that god will do the right thing. However nowhere is this problem specifically addressed in the Bible. Scriptural evidence better supports the assertion that they are not saved.

Second, non-Evangelicals believe that passages such as 1 Cor 7:14 can be interpreted that children will be saved if they die before they can understand the Gospel. But the Evangelical understanding of that passage does not mean saved. It means being made ritually clean in the sense of Jewish law in the case that an believer marries an unbeliever. They are made ritually clean, and the marriage and children are acceptable to God, which is not the same thing and significantly less important than salvation.

Third. Romans 2:14 - 15 talks about the law written on our hearts. Commonly called "the law of conscience". It is a type of Universal Moral Law written on our hearts as a result of being made in Gods Image. It is independent of the saving grace of Jesus, it is enough to condemn however, and it supports the view of Original Sin.

Fourth, allegedly Jesus as the "the perfect sacrifice" was ultimately pleasing enough to god to forgive everyones sin and give them a fresh start. They are still born into sin but they the get the chance at salvation because of His sacrifice on the cross. Psychopaths are incapable of repentance or loyalty to God. However, since psychopaths exist, then that means the sacrifice while maybe technically perfect, wasn't effectively perfect.

Now with these premises in mind, lets discuss some outcomes.

If say that we don't know what god will do with babies and the psychopath, then we have fundamentally weakened the concept of the Atonement and Original Sin. It was supposed to be the way to salvation for everyone, a reconciliation with god.

So if Non-Evangelicals are right and we are qualified to say that God will do the right thing and save the 'incapable', it raises the question of "the right thing" by whose standards? Ours or His? I see this view as contradicting the Christian "Test" solution to the Problem of Evil/Suffering; that even the rape and murder of children work out for the greater good but we can't know how that happens, and also that good is defined by god and we can't understand that either, and that is why so many acts of god look evil to us. It undermines the idea that the Evil in the world is a test for us. If God can save anyone he wants, and the Psychopath, or the criminally insane can run around and do hideous things with no remorse and still get saved, then this view of salvation is terribly unfair. The freewill of the innocent, or not so innocent can be undermined by a sub-group of people that can do anything and still be saved. If we say that god will do the right thing in principle by saving babies and the psychopath then we have set a precedent to say that we are competent to judge when god would do the right thing. Using that warrant I will say that raping and murdering children is not the right thing and does not lead to the greater good therefore the Problem Or Evil cancels God out because a benevolent God should not permit that.

If we are going to say that god will not save the psychopath or baby, then most people would find that unconscionable, we can add to our list of Problem of Evil grievances, and we have fundamentally weakened the concept of the Atonement and Original Sin because it was supposed to be the way to salvation for everyone, a reconciliation with god.I think the problem of unsaved babies, and the psychopath, is an unhandled exception that halts the system.

Through research in psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience and genetics it is becomingly increasingly clear that behavior is not only a matter of wanting to do the right thing, it depends on having an internal mechanism that supports it.

I used a podcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a basis for this article. The podcast was called “Inside the Mind of a Psychopath”. The reason I chose Psychopathy as the first topic for this series was because Psychopathy is clinically considered an emotional disorder that disrupts empathy. Psychopaths are not able to Love and therefore not able to follow the First Great Commandment from Matt. 22:37.

In the synopsis of the interviews that follow, the various researchers give their perspectives on Psychopathy.

Dr. Robert Hare says the psychopath is not what the media portrays. They are individuals that are intact but at the core, lack emotional concern or empathy for other people. They don’t understand that other people have rights. They don’t feel remorse or guilt. They lack a conscience and this can’t be explained in intellectual deficiency, psychosis, mental illness or brain damage.
Traits that make up a Psychopath are shared with Psychotic and Sociopathic personalities but some traits make them distinct from each other. Psychotic personalities are considered delusional, and Sociopathic personalities have the ability to feel remorse or guilt.

Psychopaths know exactly what they are doing but they just don’t care. Psychotics are not aware that what they are doing is wrong. The term Sociopath describes the “hardcore” criminal. Some psychopaths are also sociopaths, or hardcore criminals, but they don’t feel remorse.

Traits that collectively describe a Psychopath are a shallow emotional life, they are fairly superficial people, they use deceit to intimidate and control other people, they tend to be fairly dominant in controlling people, they have enormous sense of entitlement (they believe everything is due to them), they are fairly impulsive in a controlled sense, they lead a nomadic lifestyle, they commit a lot of irresponsible behavior, promiscuity, lying and they have a need for excitement. None of these traits individually warrant the diagnosis of psychopathy, but collectively they do. All these traits make up the personality of a person that would find it easy to violate social norms of behavior but not necessarily to the degree of criminality.

Dr. James Blair believes that psychopathy is an emotional disorder, comparable to depression and anxiety. He is convinced that their behavior is a result of the difference in how their brains work. Types of emotional learning are impaired. They don’t process emotional information properly. The way that emotions interact with attention to process objects in the environment, and the way that emotions interact with decision making is interrupted. They are not as good at recognizing facial expressions as non-psychopaths.

Some children exhibit psychopathic tendencies. Dr. Blair is performing MRI studies on them to see the differences in their brains. Children are less likely to have had strong environmental influences in their behavior. One of the tests is to recognize facial expressions. Children with psychopathic traits show a reduced response in the amygdala compared to children without psychopathic traits. The amygdala are also important in feeling fear. So it may explain why psychopaths are not afraid of getting caught if they commit a crime, and their apparent lack of conscience. If a person has trouble interpreting how someone else feels, it would be almost impossible to have empathy, and learn the difference between good and bad behavior.

Dr. Blair believes that since psychoapthy is an emotional disorder, and since emotional disorders respond well to pharmacological treatments, once the systems that cause psychopathy are understood, it is likely that it can be treated pharmacologically.

Dr. Essi Viding says that children with psychopathic traits differ from children with anti-social behavior. They lack empathy for people they offend and rarely feel bad about what they’ve done. Children with psychopathic traits will deliberately hurt other children especially if they are perceived as being weak or needing protection. Sometimes they will hurt other children for amusement and not feel bad about it. If they feel bad, they feel bad about getting caught. They usually blame others for their own actions, they can be cruel to animals and they seem to have a slightly odd emotional profile. They are superficially charming in an attempt to manipulate people to their own ends but don’t actually show sincere affection and can change their loyalties quickly. She conducted studies on twins that show that the traits are largely inherited. She and her colleague are planning to look for genetic markers in DNA to identify risk factors for psychopathy in the same way that certain gene combinations identify risk factors for heart disease.

Dr. Marnie Rice believes there is a genetic basis for psychopathy and believes that it was evolutionarily selected for. While she acknowledges that psychopathic behavior is outside the mean for average human behavior, she sees it not as a disorder but as a natural variation within the human genome. In some ways it made for an evolutionarily “fitter” person. She thinks psychopaths have evolved to fill an evolutionary niche. The only required behavior to make evolution work is to successfully pass on your genes. Promiscuity and lack of empathy are traits of psychopaths and this leads to mating and reproduction. They tend to start having sex earlier, and tend to move between partners frequently. Barring any inhibiting factors, psychopaths are likely to have more offspring than non psychopaths. Dr. Rice’s research into psychopathic sexual preferences show they are selectively interested in post-pubescent females. They are not as likely to be interested in the same sex or children. Psychopaths are most successful in environments where they can remain anonymous and jump from mate to mate. The city is a perfect place for that behavior.

Changing the behavior of psychopaths using typical therapy doesn’t work. Some traditional therapy makes them worse. After treatment they have a higher likelihood of repeating the offending behavior. They use what they learn in therapy to gain an advantage to increase the successful outcome of their subsequent behavior.

In summary, I repeat, if a psychopath can be forced to behave according to Gods Law, his motivation (“heart”) can’t change, because he is born that way and there is no known therapy to counteract it. There is no way to get him to feel love or loyalty to god so from the start, the biblical mechanism for redemption for the psychopath is flawed. There is no scriptural mechanism for the salvation of the psychopath.


Atonement Theories and Cultural Understandings.
The Soul: A Rational Belief?
CBC Radio: Inside the mind of a psychopath (scroll down to the bottom of the page when you get there)
Wikipedia on Psychopathy
Dr. Hares webpage
Dr. Blairs webpage
Dr. Viding’s webpage
Dr. Rice’s book on this topic
The Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy
Dr. Porters Webpage