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.


Eric D said...

1) we have a problem; 2) a particular worldview has a suggested solution; 3) that worldview must correspond to reality!

This reminds me of the "politician's syllogism" that Robin over at Overcoming Bias has mentioned before:
"Something must be done.
This is something.
Therefore, this must be done."

Robert_B said...

Hello Ken: Thanks for a good essay.

Evan said...

Excellent work. I have read Pinker extensively over the last couple of years, and I'm currently reading "The Moral Animal."

I think Pinker's work is very important and should be getting a lot more exposure than he is already getting (which is actually pretty good as it stands). But I think Pinker's inside-the-brain critique of fundamentalism is more subtle but much more devastating.

For example, after reading him about the development of language, it's simply impossible to believe in the presuppositionalist apologetics that are common from believers these days. There's obviously no moment at which a child is suddenly given presuppositions on which to base a theory of morality, and thus, such a theory is based on abstractions that can't actually exist.

Steven Carr said...

' 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.'

Save ourselves from what? From Hell?

What evidence is there for Hell?

From God's wrath?

Where is the evidence for this alleged wrath?

If there is a god, this god could snap his fingers and save anybody he wanted at any time.

So why did this God have to have somebody killed so that this God would not kill everybody else?

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Does depravity exist within humanity? Certainly, any skimming of a history book or a current newspaper will tell you that. Are all humans depraved as Christianity purports? Nope, any skimming of a history book or a current newspaper will tell you that.

Great article though. Thanks for sharing.

Ty said...

xasvThis is actually a relatively easy hypothesis to test. If the acceptance of Christ or God reduces immoral behaviors, then we can compare various moral aspects between the believer and non-believer. And as everyone here is well aware, the moral behavior of believers is roughly the same. The non-theist population taken as a whole actually demonstrates superior moral behavior in certain areas. In fact, if J.F. Baldwin's theory held water at all, one would expect to see a disproportionate amount of atheists in our correctional system, and that the atheists would be disproportion responsible for violent crimes. However, not only are atheists virtually non-existent in the prison population, theists, especially Christians, are over-represented in the prison population. Thus, a more reasonable theory is that the belief in God is correlated with criminal behavior. I am actually proposing this hypothesis in all seriousness and will look into conducting a peer-reviewed study in this area, especially if any fellow doctors or graduate trained researchers are interested. But for all I know this maybe common knowledge in this area of research.

I further purpose that there is a logical reason for this correlation. First, intelligence is negatively correlated with religiosity. Meaning that the more intelligent an individual is, then that individual is less likely to hold religious beliefs or engage in religious behaviors than a less intelligent individual. Secondly, there is also a negative correlation between intelligence and violent crimes. Prisons tend to be populated with a more narrow range of IQs than the general population, with an over representation of below average to average IQs. So, if criminals (especially violent criminals)are more likely to be believers with lower intelligence than the average atheist, then a secondary hypothesis that is reasonable to suggest is that a component or components of the believers beliefs system is correlated with their maladaptive behaviors. Not that there is causation, but facilitation. For example, perhaps it is that criminals are subconsciously or consciously waging on divine forgiveness and thus justify their criminal activity. Although I believe multimodal regression to be an inadequate form of statistical analysis in many areas, it could be used to isolate various religious beliefs and/or practices to correlate them to criminal behaviors. Once the forms of religiosity were isolated, more detailed statistical analysis could be performed. I personally believe that one of the largest contributing factors in criminals being much more likely to be believers is that, criminal thinking and religiosity both carry with them an external locus of control, as compared to an internal locus of control. I would hypothesize that atheists are much more likely to have an internal locus of control, which has long been associated with better mental health and decision making. If this hypothesis proves to be valid that atheists are more likely to have an internal locus of control, then it is likely that even atheists with lower intelligence as compared to the population as a whole will demonstrate better moral decision making, than his believing counterpart.

The final hypothesis I would like to suggest is that not only does this "locus of control" theory better explain why atheists tend to demonstrate an increased ability in their moral and ethical reasoning as compared to believers, it is also the reason why atheists are likely to be happy than the believing population. I would imagine the locus of control is positively correlated with both intelligence and negatively correlated with religiosity. Therefore, believers with higher levels of an internal locus of control are likely to demonstrate less religiosity.

ismellarat said...

JP Holding has said that every idiot in prison is asked to check a box identifying his religion, and that for most of them it doesn't mean a thing, and on this I agree with him.

Unless you can make the case that it is consistent with Christianity to commit the crimes they are convicted for (or perhaps show that convicts faithfully attended church on Sundays and tithed before they were arrested!), you can't really say that Christians are overrepresented in prisons.

Very few ignorant people will *say* they are atheists, I think, so it should be no surprise that atheists are "underrepresented" in prisons.

Steven Carr said...

God's solution to the problem of depraved people is usually to kill their children.

Here is an article by William Lane Craig pointing out how God saved the Israelites by getting them to kill children and babies Craig on killing babies

Baldwin is correct. An atheist world view is that you do not save yourself by killing babies and children of depraved people. Only Christians write articles on the Internet about the importance of killing depraved children.

tigg13 said...

Hi Ty!

I really think you are on to something. Consider, for example, the phenomena of mob mentallity and accounts of atrocities during times of war. These are situations where otherwise good and ethical people have committed horrible acts simply because they felt that they "had to". Their personal authority becomes trumped by a greater social power and they loose their locus of control.

This fits nicely with christians who believe that all authority rests with god.

Me personally, I'm not so sure that its human nature that is entirely to blame for depravity. Certainly we have some baser instincts but they don't have the power to rule us except in extreme cases. I think a lot of the wrongs we see perpetrated are the result of us living in an increasingly unhealthy environment. I don't think I've ever met or communicated with anyone who was innately evil or depraved - but a heck of a lot of them still vote republican.

ismellarat said...

One point I've never seen addressed anywhere: wouldn't it be accurate to picture Jesus personally carrying out each and every Old Testament "atrocity"?

Think about it:

Jesus is the son of God.
Jesus is God's agent.
Jesus sets the example.
Jesus would never disagree with anything that God commanded.

Therefore, had Jesus been physically present when God commanded the Israelites to kill every captive woman, child, and animal, when Biblical Laws prescribing the stoning of adulterers, or the burning (alive, I'm guessing) of sorcerers were carried out, I should be imagining Jesus on the scene, personally carrying out the commands.

To help my imagination along, I watched a stoning

First, some poor guy gets whipped, and a few minutes later you see a couple of women bleed and agonize for many minutes. They weren't even close to dying at the end, and fully conscious, and I've heard such a thing can go on for hours.

This kinda bothers me, folks.

Wouldn't Jesus have instigated and participated in such a thing (slowly chipping away at their faces, until they turned into a bloody mash, if I understand the procedure), had he been there before his time? He certainly would have approved of it, had he been asked when he came later.

Maybe some Christians here would like to set me straight on that?

It may seem ironic that I still recognize and have a lot of respect for the good things churches do in these times, and would like for them to flourish, but this (and the idea of an eternal Hell) is one issue that you guys shouldn't dishonestly sweep under the carpet.

I still hope something good exists on the other side that has all the good attributes that you love to shout from the rooftops. How about a god of universal reconciliation, and a theory of a Bible that's not 100% accurate?

I think that this is pretty much what you already believe. I like Ed Babinski's observation that Christians are mostly liberals now that don't want to admit it.

Do you really agree with this guy anymore

who said, "the greatest evidence of true regeneration in the heart is whether we love those very aspects of God's nature and character that are the most reprehensible to the natural man."

I was still retching and shuddering, 18 hours after I saw the stoning, but that of course only proved how unregenerated my heart of hearts really is. I really need to work on that.

C'mon, someone please watch this stoning and tell me you were imagining how much of an honor it would have been for you to participate in such a thing, alongside of Jesus. (I wonder - would the kids have been watching, back then? Maybe you should show it to your Sunday school. It'd separate the wheat from the chaff in no time.)

And if you liked this, there's so much more like it on the web now.

I'm sure there's footage from Rwanda, showing children being hacked to death, people being burned alive, drownings (as in the flood), etc.

(And don't forget, we're supposed to wish something *even worse* on many of our friends and families - none of that even touches Hell, as understood in the traditional sense. *Any* amount of torture is seen as worth enduring to avoid it, right?)

But at least there's one consolation for you:

No snickering atheist can explain why the Pol Pots of this world shouldn't do something just as bad, as long as

1. they enjoy it, and
2. they know they will get away with it.

"But I can be good without a god."

Sure you can. If you feel like it.

A crazy world this is - either Anne Frank goes to Hell, or Hitler gets a free ride.

There's gotta be a better way.

Edward T. Babinski said...


What's the big practical difference between ORIGINAL SIN and EVOLUTION?

ORIGINAL SIN: We're born "sinners"

EVOLUTION: We're not exactly tame animals.

Or look at it this way:

Rev. Jonathan Edwards used to rave about human beings being sinners so loathsome in God's sight He held them at arm's length like a horrid insect or worm, and was ready to toss them into the infernal pit for all eternity. (Edwards also included most infants among the damned, simply by virtue of being born a son of Adam).

Yet these same preachers today argue how undignified it is to believe one came from a creature far less loathsome than a horrid insect or worm.

Ironic, no?

Edward T. Babinski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edward T. Babinski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edward T. Babinski said...

To second Ismellarat,

According to Christian theology isn't it a greater miracle that the world is not filled with NOTHING BUT Pol Pots?

Please explain the miracle of a kindly non-Christian, which to my mind is greater than the everyday occurrance of a Christian who sins.

I suspect there's not enough Pol Pots because

1) his actions sickened people no matter what their beliefs or lack thereof.

2) Cambodians discovered they could live and thrive socially and economically without a doctrinairre communist bellowing at them all the time and holding guns to their heads.

3) I suspect that the fall of doctrinaire coercive systems of government, be they fascist or communist, eventually happens because new generations arise constantly with new ideas. And because we do learn to some extent from past errors, though as human beings we also tend to get caught back up in such errors as well.

Take Europe. It's seen 70 years of relative peace since the end of WW2. Pretty miraculous in terms of European history overall. And at the same time it's grown more secular, less religious. Note that threats now come to Europe from where? From certain forms of fundamentalist Islam. In fact the last relatively minor skirmish in Europe during the past 70 years of relative peace -- was the war in the Balkans in which Serbs and Croates have been going at back and forth, Islam vs. Christian, since the 1100s.

Take the big cities of the world in which millions of people live together in relative peace. It's hard to imagine mere chimps being able to get along like that. But we learn symbols to communicate that in most cases helps us avoid conflicts, and a high enough percentage of people living in many of those cities have their nutritional and housing needs met, as well as enough time and money to spend with friends and families after work each day. That's a healthy basic formula for relative peace.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Again, to second Ismellarat

You cited J.P. Holding to the effect that whatever box a criminal checks announcing his "religion" in prison means nothing.

Of course that also means that if a prisoner checks "atheist" they might be just as naive and ignorant of atheist philosophy and arguments as your average Christian in prison is of Christian theology and arguments.
So, J.P.'s remark cuts both ways.

A person can have less than a quality education concerning their beliefs, or they can have learned to use violence as their prime coping mechanism in life, and thus have a barbaric streak in them, whether raised "Christian" or "atheist."

In fact the same goes for intelligent Christians and intelligent atheists as well. If you study Luther and Calvin's works I'd assume you would agree they were Christians and educated, yet some of the things they taught and argued be enacted into law, or actions their fiery words incited, were quite questionable to say the least. And of course Luther and Calvin's name-calling in print was par with their day and age, including name-calling not just Catholicst, but Anabaptists and even other Reformers.

While some educated Evangelical Christian CEOs recently cost the U.S. billions when their two super corperations fell to fraud and major mismanagement.

Bill Snedden said...

"As G.K. Chesterton famously maintained, human depravity is the only truly empirically attested doctrine of Christianity."

I never fail to be surprised that many Christians seem to hold Chesterton in such high regard. I've read two or three of his non-fiction works (including "Orthodoxy") and found them sorely wanting. They are filled with poor reasoning and rhetoric masquerading as argument.

This quote is no different. One can only agree with C if one falls prey to selection bias. Do a little thinking about human behavior and you cannot fail to conclude that the vast, vast majority of the billions upon billions of actions taken by people in in the course of their ordinary, everyday lives are morally neutral, not evil. Evil acts represent only a tiny minority of the totality of human action; we only hear about it because of the disproportionate nature of its impact.

People like Chesterton read a news story about a man who beats his wife and conclude that all humanity is depraved while completely ignoring the tens of thousands of other men who don't beat their wives. With this level of reasoning he's considered one of the great Christian intellectuals?


Ken Daniels said...

Thanks everyone for all your thoughtful comments. I'd like to respond to them individually, but with a full-time job and a family, I'm not able to spend as much time on DC as I'd like (and I really would like to spend a lot of time here!).

I think what I'm hearing from the comment is that pretty much everyone here is in agreement that humans are neither wholly angelic nor wholly depraved--we're a mix of good and bad. Some believe we're closer to the "angels", while others believe were closer to the "demons", but no one thinks we're all completely on one side or the other.

What Baldwin and other Calvinists like him can't understand is that goodness does exist in unregenerate humanity. They need us to be totally depraved so they can sell us the only solution--i.e., redemption through Christ. It's so easy for us on this side of the fence to see through this, but correspondingly difficult for Calvinists to understand, let alone accept that this is what is going on.

I liked Ed's comment that, on Baldwin's view of the world, we should expect all non-believers to be like Pol Pot. Why are we all not mass murderers if we're totally depraved and unable to do anything right without the aid of the Holy Spirit?

I tend to fall on the side of seeing humanity as having inherent problems and tendencies that will always beset us, but that's a far cry from accepting the theological doctrine of total depravity.

For those who believe we're all just blank slates who would tend toward innocence or perfection if only societal conditions were right--I wonder how many of those who believe this have spent much time with young children, including (perhaps especially) children of privilege?

ismellarat said...

Ed Babinski,

This is a very important subject for me, and I'd like to give it some time and thought. I mentally started a few essays on this already and really want to choose my words carefully. I loved your Leaving the Fold (with all your talent for writing, why hasn't anything else come out in the 5 years since?), and there were many things I remember I wished I could have asked as I read it.

Now here you are, and there's one thing that frustrates me: the way this blog is set up, not very many people are going to see this.

I wonder if we wouldn't be better off with a more "traditional" format. Other discussion groups only have a one-line headline for each article, which makes it possible to quickly skim through hundreds of threads, and makes it much more likely that an interesting one gets new contributors even after many months. And each new entry "bumps" the thread up the list, until it finally dies when there really is nothing more to add.

The way this works now, the site does look great, but threads seem to get old in only a couple of weeks, since each thread's heading takes up 1/3 of a page, and it soon drops out of sight.

I know it's John's site (loved his books also!), but I wanted to explain that I'd give this some more effort if I thought there would be many more who'd see it and contribute even a few months from now.

I think parts of Christianity are indispensable, while others seem incredibly cruel, and I don't really know of a tenable way of only supporting part of the package.

Maybe the D'Souza thread is a better one for discussing this, but it will soon die out also, I think, because of the format.