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The Story of Sin

Saints and atheists describe human nature in remarkably similar ways.

The first humans, by the Bible’s account, had a problem with impulse control: Tempted with forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve couldn’t help themselves. The tale of their failure has cast a long shadow, historian James Boyce argues in Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World. Even today, he says, our understanding of human nature is framed by a long-held conviction that there’s something wrong with us.

Sweeping Guilt

As the Roman empire crumbled, St. Augustine argued that the descendants of Adam and Eve inherited a bad seed and that only embracing Christ could redeem them. “This idea suited ordinary people because they were living in a time of radical uncertainty,” Boyce says. Despite the Christian doctrine’s uncompromising nature—it ascribed wickedness to all, including newborn babies—“the other part was that it offered universal salvation.”

Enduring Pessimism

Even as Western thinkers soured on religion, many remained convinced that humans are bound by lust and greed. Darwin’s theory of natural selection homed in on our underlying self-interest. In the realm of psychology, Freud and his followers explained our inner darkness with concepts like the impulsive id, giving Westerners “a contemporary language for what they had always believed to be true,” according to Boyce.

Never-Ending Struggle

Our grim view of human nature has spawned countless attempts to reckon with it. Medieval Catholics hoped to expedite their passage to heaven by donating to the poor or financing church activities. Calvinists sought to demonstrate righteousness with strict moral codes. And reformers took precautions against selfish rulers, Boyce says: “Many think the idea that we’re all limited, broken people underpins democratic thought and even the American Constitution.”

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