The Deadliest Monster, by J.F. Baldwin

My wife is attending a new Sunday School class on worldviews. I was curious when she brought home a book entitled The Deadliest Monster by J.F. Baldwin. The premise of the book is that we all, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, are depraved by nature and are powerless to save ourselves. As G.K. Chesterton famously maintained, human depravity is the only truly empirically attested doctrine of Christianity.

Baldwin asserts that Christianity is validated by the fact that it is the only worldview that teaches the reality of inherent human sinfulness. He runs through the list of ten "major" worldviews (interestingly, even Jehovah's Witnesses make it on the list) and shows how they downplay human depravity and make ourselves the focus of our salvation. Atheists, too, are all painted with the same broad brush: we believe humans are inherently good and that we can achieve utiopia ("salvation") by reforming society, by improving our environment in such away that the goodness of all can flower.

But this is not all. Since it is an empirical fact that our nature is depraved, we need a Savior, the Son of God, to die on the cross to save us from ourselves and our sin. As it happens, Christianity provides just such a solution! If this is not a non sequitur, what qualifies? Here is the logic: 1) we have a problem; 2) a particular worldview has a suggested solution; 3) that worldview must correspond to reality!

Baldwin then goes on to extend similar logic to the problem of suffering: 1) we all suffer; 2) no worldview both takes suffering seriously and makes sense out of it (i.e., redeems it, turns it into good, as God did for Joseph when his brothers sent him into slavery); 3) therefore, Christianity must be true. What if a child whose parents never gave her ice cream reasoned like this: 1) I like and want ice cream, but my parents don't give me any; 2) my friend Susie's parents give her ice cream; 3) therefore, Susie's parents are my parents (or at least, they must be better parents than mine).

Beyond these obvious non sequiturs, the premise of his main argument is flawed. It would be news to MIT cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker that all atheists deny the anti-social tendencies of human nature or believe in the inherent goodness and perfectivitily of humanity. Perhaps Marxism fits the bill, but certainly far from all atheists are Marxists. In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker recounts how as a youth living in Montreal he came to lose faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. As a result of the widespread mayhem, rioting and looting that ensued in the wake of the Montreal police department strike on October 17,1969, he abandoned his idealistic anarchist political views (Pinker 2002, 331). We witnessed a similar surfacing of human selfishness in the looting that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2004.

The solution to the problem? Find the first worldview that recognizes human depravity and proposes a solution, i.e., Christianity? No! How about this: insofar as possible, ensure that adequate societal guardrails are erected to prevent this sort of behavior from happening.

Let me do a one-up on Baldwin. Let me say that his brand of Christianity actually fails to take human depravity seriously enough. What I mean is that the doctrine of total depravity is too often applied to the unregenerate, to those outside the household of faith, without recognizing the extent to which human nature remains in effect for the redeemed (to his credit, Baldwin does offer a nod to the fact that Christians continue to sin, but he clearly believes the Holy Spirit confers some objective moral advantage to believers). The moral fall of a pastor is almost always greeted initially with disbelief, as are allegations of child abuse on the part of missionaries or church leaders. Such abuse is by no means limited to the Catholic Church, as this article from Christianity Today attests concerning the evangelical Mamou Alliance Academy in Guinea, operated by The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA):

Darr and at least 30 other children at the West African boarding school suffered a more harrowing form of alienation. From 1950 to 1971, children were beaten with belts, forced to eat their own vomit, punched and slapped in the face, coerced into performing oral sex, required to sit in their own feces, fondled, and beaten with a strap to the point of bleeding. Not until 1995, after persistent complaints by a group of adults who had been Mamou students, did the C&MA impanel a commission to investigate.The panel’s 95-page report, filed after 18 months of research and interviews, identifies nine offenders; four are retired, three are dead, and two are no longer affiliated with the C&MA. Two individuals who refused to cooperate with the panel have been convicted at denominational disciplinary hearings. The commission faulted the denomination for improper training, poor oversight, and negligence. The Mamou staff, rather than being loving surrogate parents, punished too frequently and affirmed too little, the report indicates. Richard W. Bailey, chair of the C&MA’s board of managers, sent a letter expressing regret to Mamou alumni in January. “Please accept our heartfelt apology for our inadequate supervision and understanding of the happenings at Mamou Academy, while you were a student.” (“Missions: From Trauma to Truth.” Christianity Today: April 27, 1998.

The above incident is only the best reported of many such heartbreaking stories of abuse in missionary boarding schools around the world. Is it possible that an incomplete acceptance of human depravity led to the lack of supervision that permitted the Mamou tragedy? Did the abusers take advantage of the trust of their fellow missionaries in the goodness of redeemed human nature, failing to implement safeguards to restrain the base impulses of their co-laborers in Christ?

If I acknowledge human depravity, does that mean my inspiration has to come from Christianity, the supposed origin of that doctrine? Hardly! Should we not expect as a consequence of our cutthroat evolutionary heritage a bent toward aggression, violence and selfishness?

I realize I don't represent the views of all atheists on this matter (perhaps many on this blog will disagree with my assessment of human nature), but I do wish to admonish Balwin against the use of any phrase beginning with "Atheists believe..." (with the exception of the tautology "Atheists believe in no gods").

So is my worldview inherently pessimisitic, recognizing human depravity without offering solutions? Perhaps, but only if you believe that anything short of a perfect solution is no solution at all. Can human society be improved over time? Yes--for example, in Western societies, homicide rates have declined tenfold to a hundredfold in the past millennium, from a time when religious belief was virtually unchallenged (Pinker 2002, 330). Slavery is outlawed in the West. We have relative freedom in the West to adhere to whatever worldview we choose. Women have a voice. Can we eliminate all vestiges of human depravity and eliminate murder altogether? No. Unlike Baldwin, who sees the matter in all-or-nothing terms, I am prepared to recognize both the good and the bad in human nature, the noble and the selfish. We are not totally depraved, even if we are flawed. We can improve society, even if we cannot perfect it.