Episode 107: Are We Born Depraved?

The discovery that children have a natural inclination to believe in invisible, immortal, super-knowing agents has some religious apologists boasting that science has found the sensus divinitatis. Despite possessing this inner sense of the divine, John Calvin declared children to be morally corrupt by nature.  This doctrine of total depravity has served as a justification for authoritarian child-rearing practices aimed at instilling obedience in strong-willed children.  But a close look at the data suggests our theistic inclinations are byproducts of our cognitive development and not a special God-given faculty. Likewise, studies on the moral development of children reveal the foundations for empathy are present even at a young age. Authoritarian parenting may hinder that development and contribute to a variety of social ills.

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  1. mira says

    I’m so amused by the phrase “total depravity”. It’s very strong. I hadn’t really heard it before one of the earlier Reasonable Doubts podcasts, not being very well acquainted with Calvinism, and hearing it makes me think of people biting the heads off baby kittens, jumping rope with human intestines, and other things that would require a particularly creative evil genius. Calling babies “depraved” just seems like overkill to me.

  2. johnwolforth says

    Babies will puke right on you. You have to keep your mouth closed while you are holding them up and tickling them. How much more depraved can you get?

  3. B says

    Hearing your section on how peoples’ gods seemed to reflect their child-rearing tendencies, I couldn’t help but remember the fact that Fred Phelps (of “god hates fags” fame) was physically abusive with his children, just like his father was. One of the Fred Phelps’ children (who left the church) has talked about the beatings he used to get from his dad.

    Here’s a video of Nate Phelps talking about his abuse:

  4. mildlymagnificent says

    Not just empathy – generosity. One of mine could barely talk when she and her sister were each given a tube of lifesavers. Hours of sugary fun! She had just one little red circle left in the bottom of the tube when she offered it to me. Me, setting the good example, protesting that I couldn’t take it because it was her last one. She beamed as she replied, “Yes. It’s for you.”

    Two things annoy me listening to people talk rubbish about babies and children. First and foremost, they are not all the same. Second, they have good impulses and bad impulses just like anyone else. It’s an adult’s job to encourage the one and discourage the other.

  5. clamboy says

    You missed one detail of the Idunn story. After her safe return, she brought suit against the grower of that other grove for copyright infringement and and won a $1 billion judgment.

    Um, ha? Another apple joke, ha ha?

  6. Outback Joe says

    One of the few genuine pleasures in my life is having a crispy cold beer at the end of a long day at work and listening to you guys. Thanks for doing what you do!

  7. peterfran says

    Having a similar discussion recently with a young man who believes that children are “born gay,” nature seems to be the modern replacement for, “(nature) the devil made me do it”. With the parallel belief that children can be born bad, stemming directly from the satanic Holy Mother Church, for Jesus adored children; and if you’ve ever held a newborn, you might share this epiphany. I think it was Confucius who wrote something to the effect of, ‘never blame children, always blame leader’.
    Of course today in the US, more babies than ever are surviving with neurological disorders, birth defects, and confused DNA as pediatric and maternity care receives an open checkbook from federal agencies. Agencies funded to support people who aren’t, at least financially, the best choice for parenthood.
    But putting crappie environmental conditions aside; if kids are ‘bad’, it’s because they’ve been parented badly. As it takes sincere dedication to guide young egos, using activities and exercises designed to enhance and promote a child’s ability to balance self-worth with social integration.

  8. Ysanne says

    Wow, right: If kids’ tendency to believe in invisible, immortal, super-knowing agents is evidence for god, I guess we should also be extra-careful with those monsters under the bed that we also have evidence for…

  9. says


    No. We’re not born depraved. Any more than we are born kind or gentle or hateful or hurtful or loving or any other attribute.

    We’re born HUMAN. We’re a mixture of all of those things and a lot more.

    It’s my experience that the vast majority of people are basically nice. Kind. Helpful. Courteous. Except when someone cuts them off in traffic.

    And then there are the total assholes. The pricks. The jerks. The mean-spirited SOBs. Who volunteer 1 day a week at the hospice.

    Humanity is a bell-shaped curve.

  10. Don says

    Once again, you speak as some type of authorities on scripture and the doctrines derived from them, but mangle and distort them beyond recognition. Keep pluckin that one string banjo.

  11. Corvus illustris says

    Don @12: details for your charges, please? The doubtcasters listed in the right-hand column are based too close to Grand Rapids MI to have a benevolent attitude toward John Calvin, but their representation of the notion of total depravity–which Calvin expanded to cover the whole universe–seems fair enough, as does their take on some of its consequences. They seem to have enough academic chops to be taken seriously in discussions of Christian mythology. Moreover, your restriction to “scripture and the doctrines derived from them”, putting you in the sola scriptura camp, adds an extra dog of yours to the fight for Calvinism. Neither the Roman nor the Orthodox theologians accept the notion of total depravity.

  12. left0ver1under says

    The discovery that children have a natural inclination to believe in invisible, immortal, super-knowing agents has some religious apologists boasting that science has found the sensus divinitatis.

    Not to be confrontational, but that’s a load of codswallop…or should I say, godswallop.

    Less developed species are born with innate knowledge, and don’t require mothering to survive (e.g. reptiles). Socialized animals, however, are mothered and raised by others. Being born with less knowledge, we are more fearful as young animals. Just as we cling to mothers as less developed infants, we cling to easy answers that we can understand.


    When humans don’t have knowledge or answers, we tend to invent them. For those reading this, how easily did you believe superstition as a kid? Did you ever blame yourself for something that turned out not to be your fault after you did something (post hoc ergo propter hoc)? I’d bet everyone has done things like that.

    Religion was an invention of ignorant and primitive people. It offered easy answers when people didn’t have any. And religion became institutionalized when someone realized it was a short cut to wealth, social status and power.

    We’re born ignorant, not depraved. Whether or not we “grow up religious” depends on what we are taught when we don’t know anything, and if the parents are deluded enough to believe in religion, they’ll force it on their children instead of educating them.

  13. Bill Openthalt says

    I can recommend Bruce Hood’s “SuperSense” for a very readable overview of the origins of supernatural beliefs and how they are rooted in the developing minds of children.

    As far as religion is concerned, Jonathan Haidt’s latest book (“The Righteous Mind. Why Good people are divided by religion and politics”) makes a compelling case for its ability to make non-genetically related individuals work together as bees in a hive. Here’s an interesting quote:

    We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude non-members. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.

    Which is probably why we see groups coalesce around, for example, atheism, and become as stridently intolerant of non-conforming thought as religious groups. Atheism isn’t a religion, but atheists as a group behave like a religious group.

    Even more interesting is that atheism has become large enough to have its own schisms, and erstwhile allies suddenly become implacable foes.

    Humans, you gotta love them…

  14. JB says

    Gentlemen, I really enjoy your podcast.

    I’m delighted to learn of Francis Watson’s takedown of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW) fragment. I immediately wasted an hour at work reading Watson’s paper alongside an image of the GJW fragment (multiple monitors are awesome). Makes me want to rush out and buy a copy of Coptic for Dummies.

    I had bought into Karen King’s analysis, especially the microscopic inspection of the ink in the fibers of the papyrus. This is another good lesson about how even honest experts can be misled. Now I’m curious about how the fake was constructed; it’s beautiful.

    Such said, I really want to elbow you guys in the ribs for your statements about the document dating to the Fourth Century, “so it’s really really late compared to most of our Christian writings, especially those that made it into the gospels from the First or Second Century.”

    C’mon, y’all. You know better than that. King’s analysis had stated that the fragment was probably from a Fourth Century Coptic document translated from a Second Century Greek document. If Watson’s assertions are correct (I think they’re really compelling), it means King’s textural analysis is right on the money: The fake was created from phrases in the Gospel of Thomas (GTh), our only copy of which was written in Coptic in the Fourth Century, translated from a lost Second Century Greek text.

    Origin dating for GTh is pretty broad, ranging from 40CE to late Second Century. There is broad agreement that these sayings were probably transcribed right out of the early oral tradition. If the “early camp” is correct, GTh predates not only the canonical gospels, but even the Pauline epistles.

    Have a care when you’re judging a text based on its date. The lion’s share of our surviving canonical texts (which are anything more than scraps of papyri) date from no earlier than the 4th Century and many are later still.

    Such said, did you read what Watson wrote at the end of his paper about GJW being an excellent counter to the (also probably forged) Secret Gospel of Mark? What if the motivation for GJW was actually, “hey, Jesus wasn’t gay?”


  15. bigwhale says

    You should check out the /r/trueatheism subreddit, and you might like /r/debatereligion.

    Sure, there is a ton of immaturity on Reddit, but you criticize it then go on to tell a story of people actually listening to each other and learning. Something all too rare on the internet.

  16. says

    Maybe it’s not that atheists behave like religious groups as much as atheists and religious groups behave as HUMAN groups. It may be a fine distinction, but fine distinctions can be important when dealing with theists, who are often dishonest and deliberately obtuse.

  17. operation archangel says

    rich millionaires with their heads up the arses


  18. Dago Red says

    Isn’t this just an example of cherry-picking, but using both faith as well as developmental psych data? To selectively use science to support one’s faith seems to me a double-edged sword.

    Is it anymore rational, for example, to selectively admire the inability of children to distinguish real from imagined agency against the backdrop of one’s faith, than it is, say, to hypothetically admire the inability of children to distinguish feces from a play toy in the same way? Is playing with poo a lost sacred right that aids us in connecting with the divine? Is developing our adult disgust for bowel movements a denial by atheists of the fecal divinitatis?

    …and where are the religious when developmental psych produces studies involving confirmation bias or studies involving wishful thinking?

  19. Buck says

    A generally good episode reduced by the political comments. I am a non-theist independent who leans right, and I find the constant smashing of conservatism that is creeping into your podcast is diminishing it. I hope you fellas can figure out a way to bring the show back to addressing the religious antics that have become ubiquitous, and stop with the ad hominem attacks just because someone is a republican. Both sides have good ideas, and both sides have silly views. Please start a political show for that stuff.


    Buck Link
    Maumee, OH

  20. Dairy says

    “But a close look at the data suggests our theistic inclinations are byproducts of our cognitive development and not a special God-given faculty.”

    How on earth would it do that?

    Assistant: “Here, Mr Scientist! Look here! This data! This bit, here, you see, the data-y bit has data which suggests that it was a God-given faculty.”

    Scientist: “No you fool, you’ve got the chart upside down, that’s a negative God-granted-faculty value! It suggests that it WASN’T a God given faculty. Do you not know how to science?”

    What kind of data distinguishes between that? None. There is clearly no data that does that.

  21. Not amused says

    Ruined the show with the politics at the end, especially the attack on Jim Lehrer. Lehrer has given a lifetime of service to the American public, and he does not deserve to become a punch line. Shame on you.

  22. gesres says

    What kind of data distinguishes between that? None. There is clearly no data that does that.

    Sure there is. When you have data that explains a phenomenon, the need for any supernatural explanation vanishes.

  23. says

    Sorry about french speaking, Prenant et interessant, premier post ici sur des lectures pourtant assidues. De fait on dirait que le rss du site ne fonctionne pas, je n’ai pas reussi a m’inscrire. Bref que du bon que je recommande et que je suis , voir egalement ma modeste contribution sur un autre opus

  24. says

    What’s the point of going to college? Time is running out.I doubt itHis boss might get angry with him.No one knows .I like your sense of humorI like your sense of humorHe reminds me of his brother.There go the house lights.Were there any exciting incidents during your journey%3

  25. says

    As far as policy is concerned, I have to say something.They are paid by the hour.Never mind.I’d like to look at some sweaters.I felt no regret for it.She really wishes her clock had rung.She really wishes her clock had rung.Make up your mind.He was trained to be a lawyer.Could you do me a big favor?


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