• Are We Born Depraved?

    Jonathan recently (and by recently I mean a while ago and I’m just now getting to it) asked me to comment on an episode by Reasonable Doubts. The subject was whether we are born depraved. I’ve touched on this in a past post where I concluded that consistency requires adherents of so-called total depravity to adopt the belief that babies that die are eternally damned; and this was solid ground for either not parenting as an evangelical Christian or renouncing the doctrine with all of its concomitants. Reasonable Doubts focused their podcast around this idea of being born depraved and the practical consequences associated with it and a discovery of what theologians are claiming is evidence for John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis: a sense of or for the divine inherent within us all. Paradoxically, Calvin held both views in juxtaposition. This being the case it may be beneficial at this point to discuss what total depravity is—and equally importantly—what it is not. Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul prefers the term radical depravity. This, he believes, removes the misconception that “total” in total depravity means something akin to completely. No theologian believes we are born completely depraved—then there would be no room for God’s redemptive grace! (Moreover, what would it mean, metaphysically, to be 100% composed of depravity?) In a nutshell, radical depravity expresses the extent to which moral corruption has reached. It’s everywhere!—just not everywhere in a complete sense. A consequence of this inherent depravity is an inclination to turn away from God until by his grace He determines to regenerate His chosen people (remember, we’re working within a Calvinistic framework here).

    What are the practical consequences of such a doctrine with regards to child rearing practices? It is suggested by Reasonable Doubts that total depravity is used as justification for more authoritarian-style parenting. This is probably the case if we were to weigh the statistics. What I don’t believe, however, is that this connection between total depravity and authoritarian child rearing is a necessary one. One could certainly imagine non-authoritarian structures of parenting within a context of belief in total depravity (this should be obvious enough so I won’t pursue it further; nor is it central to my post). I think this deserves to be conceded on behalf of the believer; though, most of my experience with Reformed Presbyterians and the like is that they are keen on preserving the “spare the rod, spoil the child” dictum.

    So how should this discovery of a child’s natural inclination to believe in invisible, super-powerful, god-like agents affect the Christian’s belief in total depravity? (I have not personally taken the time to examine the data that supposedly supports such a natural inclination—it isn’t necessary to my project. So when I speak of the “discovery” I speak from a neutral standpoint. It remains informative to consider this announced discovery at face-value. If it happens to not be the case then there is even less evidential reason to believe in the sensus divinitatis!) Moreover, how should the non-believer understand this discovery? I really don’t think total depravity, taken in the sense defined above, logically conflicts with a notion of the sensus divinitatis. Theologically the sensus explains humanity’s propensity to grant a higher power, while the doctrine of total depravity explains why so many fail to believe (or, at least, believe in something other than the Christian God). They work hand-in-hand. On the flip side, the non-believer should not feel threatened by any discovery of a potential inclination of children to believe in god-like beings. As was pointed out by Reasonable Doubts, there is a geographical disconnect between the theory and how the world actually is. If the God of the Christian religion has endowed humanity with such an inclination toward Himself we should find an even disbursement of religious belief across geographical lines. Obviously, this has not been the case; leading developmental and moral psychologists to the conclusion that this inclination is a byproduct of ordinary cognitive development. A statement that currently better explains the evidence.


    What we’ve found are two distinct doctrines—total depravity and the sensus divinitatis—that have overlapping practical consequences. Neither is falsifiable nor obtain based on the evidence. Has the Christian been convinced of their unreliability? Probably not! Ad hoc, unfalsifiable, claims are a Christian’s forte. They may always choose to appeal to further (unfalsifiable) claims such as, “God intended it that way.” (If you can’t ground it, ground it in the groundless, right?) For example, total depravity flies in the face of the many children with a very kind disposition. But of course God graced them with such a disposition in spite of their inherit depravity. (This is why in my former paper I tackled total depravity internally; that is, from within the Christian worldview, and not externally from a scientific perspective. I wanted to show that the doctrine led to undesirable beliefs. Its denial does as well: apart from some sense of inherit depravity it is very difficult to explain the transmission of sin.) Similarly with the sensus: the unevenness of the geographical distribution of religious belief can be explained away by God’s providence or (if they’re a bit smarter about it) the failure of parents in certain contexts to nurture the correct (i.e., Christian) worldview. Explanations that are both ad hoc and unfalsifiable.


    I want to draw a conclusion from the above discussion on our methodological approach to criticizing religious dogma. I want it to be clear, coming especially from my experience as a former believer, that a religious topic can be engaged from two perspectives (technically more than two but I’m using these terms very broadly and generally): one scientific/evidential and the other theological. The latter is typically more important from the perspective of the Christian. As open-minded dissenters of their religion (hopefully) striving for a less hostile form of critical dialogue, we should be equipped with the tools of the theologian, as well. The driving force behind my posts is to impart you with just those tools. Engage from within their framework before assaulting it from without. Both are effective, but only when utilized in proper turn. This is a simple, methodological, propaedeutic for ensuring a civil and meaningful debate. Think about it. When you begin by engaging from within their given belief system you are 1) showing an appreciation for understanding exactly what it is that they believe, 2) breaking down those initial hostile barriers by 3) working from their own accepted concepts/language and theological tools.

    Category: Theology


    Article by: Bryant Cody Rudisill