CAMWatch: Why do people do bad things?December 15, 2007 — Deacon Duncan
Anthony Horvath has an interesting post over at the Christian Apologetics Ministries blog. It’s particularly interesting in that it raises an issue you don’t ordinarily hear.
Christian religion says that people are by nature sinful and fallen. So it isn’t any surprise to Christians- or it shouldn’t be- when humans do bad things to other humans. We shouldn’t even be surprised when Christians are mean to other Christians…
But what explains that fact? I have never heard of a genocide by the gorillas. Have we found concentration camps erected by dogs? … No, raw brutality towards one’s own entire species seems to be a problem unique to the human race, with or without religion.
But can we generate an explanation for that fact without religion? …
The response of [Neibuhr and Chesterton] in the face of human nature’s apparent depravity was to identify it with a doctrine that was already known to them within the Christian community. What is the atheist going to turn to?
So man’s inhumanity to man is supposed to pose a tough problem for atheists, not because it’s so difficult to stop, but because the atheist’s lack of belief in God means he can’t explain why man is sometimes cruel to man. In other words, if God did not exist, we would expect man to behave better.
That’s a refreshing change from the usual argument, isn’t it? Let’s see if we can’t explain human cruelty without recourse to superstitious ideas about God.
First of all, the reason why we don’t see genocide among apes (other than man) is because they don’t have ethnic groups, or the intelligence required to establish social networks larger than their immediate habitats. Within those boundaries, we do indeed see examples of war, murder, and other forms of what we might call “depraved” behavior, but the scope is limited relative to humans because their intelligence and ability to communicate is limited relative to humans. Likewise we don’t see dogs building concentration camps for the same reason we don’t see them launching their own space program. Human intelligence gives us tremendous leverage for our achievements, whether for good or for bad. Proportion-wise, the amount of cruelty we see in man is not inconsistent with the amount of cruelty we see in nature, and in fact I’d put it down as significantly less, among men, than we might otherwise expect.
As for why we harm each other in the first place, the answer is that we are finite, mortal creatures competing for limited resources. Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that conflicts would erupt. But more than that, we are fallible, and our fallibilities sometimes create conflicts where there should be none. Prejudice, superstition, misunderstanding, intolerance, and so on, are all cognitive by-products of our imperfect intelligence, and they are a too-frequent source of inhumane behavior. Persecution of gays is a good example: homophobes want to deny them the right to marry their true love, not because it’s any of their business who someone else marries, but because they have a superstitious fear that God will, for some reason, punish them unless they persecute the gays.
So from a purely secular point of view, there isn’t much difficulty in understanding how it can be possible that inhumane behavior exists. The real problem is understanding it in terms that will help us produce better relationships between men. The Christian response–superstitiously attributing bad behavior to a magical “sin nature”–is of no practical help in that regard. To produce a real-world improvement in human behavior, we need a real-world understanding of its causes.