Sunday, August 11, 2013


In February, 2012, I attended a lecture by the man honored by Time magazine as America’s “best theologian.” When asked to explain his thoughts about humanity the theologian said simply, “We’re shit.” ~ Roger Olson

The conservative evangelicalism in which I grew up requires that in order for people to be saved, they must admit that they are in and of themselves utterly lost and sinful and deserving of eternal torture. ~ Libby Anne

Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin proclaimed that all people were born broken and selfish, saved only through the power of divine intervention.  Hobbes, too, argued that humans were savagely self-centered; however, he held that salvation came not through the divine, but through the social contract of civil law. On the other hand, philosophers such as Rousseau argued that people were born good, instinctively concerned with the welfare of others. ~ Adrian F. Ward, “Scientists Probe Human Nature -- and Discover We Are Good After All,” Scientific American, November 20, 2012.

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. ~ Anne Frank


The nun rustles, black robe,
the starched December of her headdress,
teaching a row of seven-year-olds
to kneel on the stone church floor
and beat our chests: my fault, my fault,

my most grievous fault.
She shows us colored slides
of the Crucifixion:
Each time you sin, you drive a nail
into the flesh of Jesus.

At eleven I confess to impurity.
With boys, with girls, or by yourself?
The question intrigues me.
The confessional gapes, a mildewed ear. 
With a sinner’s bravado I whisper,
With boys, with girls, and by myself.

After communion I cross my arms
to keep the miracle inside me.
I collect pocket pictures of the saints.
I pray to the Madonna of the Seven
Sorrows, seven swords thrust in her
delicately bleeding heart.

Holding a lit candle, repeating the novena,
I stand last in the row of girls.
Slow petitions of smoke uncurl
from the quivering flame tips.
Wax sweats opaque tears.
The priest looks so unhappy,

I fall in love with him.
God sees every thought
in my impure head.
The priest dips his fingers
in a gilded bowl,
and draws a cross of ash on my forehead.

~ Oriana © 2013

If you think that this early indoctrination that taught me I was innately a bad person was something I shrugged off instantly when I left the church at 14, consider this. In my, ahem, advanced youth I was asked by a friend if I regarded myself as a good person. My response was silence. I could not bring myself to say “Yes” -- having been taught in my vulnerable years that it was wrong to think of myself as good rather than bad, a hopeless sinner, a crucifier whose sins were nails in the flesh of Jesus.


The assumption that humans were innately evil created a strange problem for the church: what about people who were conspicuously good? What about the parents’ daily acts of kindness toward their children? What about the young man giving up his bus seat to an older person? What about the child bending to pick up something dropped by someone (I was often that child)?

It’s not by our own merit that we perform “good deeds” not, the nun instructed. The soul in its natural state is a “dirty soul.” We are naturally wicked and morally weak, but god may send us grace which gives us the strength to do something good. Without the supernatural influence of grace, we’d sin instead. 

But maybe it’s not fair to quote a poorly educated nun who doesn’t dare to think for herself. Let me then quote Czeslaw Milosz, certainly an eminent intellectual and world-famous poet:

If I believed that man can do good with his own powers, I would have no interest in Christianity. But he cannot, because he is enslaved to his own predatory, domineering instincts, which we may call proprium, or self-love.

Here is the doctrine of grace by any other name: man cannot do good with his own powers. Odd, this certainty, unless we ponder the fact that Milosz was heavily indoctrinated with the misanthropic old-time Catholicism. At the same time, there is no denying that men, more so than women, do show a lot of striving for dominance. This appears to be related to testosterone. Sports have long been praised as a safe outlet for testosterone-driven aggression.

But something else also cannot be denied. Let’s skip for a moment the countless examples of nurturing, altruistic behavior among women. Any cemetery will show “Beloved Mother” to be vastly more frequent than “Beloved Father.” Never mind. We also have overwhelmingly numerous examples of nurturing, altruistic behavior among men. Let’s not permit the bad apples like school shooters (often mentally ill) make us forget the heroic, altruistic actions by first responders, or simply an ordinary passer-by risking his life to save a stranger. If a video exists, it shows that such a man appears to be acting without thinking, “by instinct.”

Religions don’t want to recognize that instinct. Any evidence that we are born with brains wired for empathy is most unwelcome. No, we have to make children believe that humans are evil by nature. Ever since St. Augustine invented the doctrine of the Original Sin, Christianity had no problem writing off all humans as innately evil.

In the first year of religion classes, it was difficult for us to understand why all of us were considered guilty of the Original Sin. One boy actually dared to protest: “If it happened to be me in the Garden of Eden, I wouldn’t have eaten the forbidden fruit.” The rest of us nodded our heads: not us; we would not have touched the apple. The nun smiled with triumph. “There is no doubt you would have sinned. It’s human nature to sin.” Reluctantly, at eight years old, we came to accept ourselves as weak and depraved.

Our bodies were obscene and our souls were dirty. Or, as “America’s best theologian” put it, “We’re shit.”


On the whole, Christianity has regarded human nature as evil. We are conceived and born in sin. An occasional heretic like Pelagius,who held that someone else’s sin could not be inherited, was quickly silenced. St. Augustine's thinking prevailed: humans are born evil. The Original Sin is transmitted by the semen (egg cells were still unknown, or no doubt they -- and thus WOMAN -- would be blamed instead).

We find this defaming of human nature already in the Old Testament, for instance in the Book of Job:

What is man that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?

Behold, he putteth not trust in his saints; yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight:

How much more abominable and filthy is man, which drinketh inquinity like water? ~ Job 14: 14-16

“Abominable and filthy” -- that was the politically correct, pious view of human nature.
But a bit of dissent began already with Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466- 1536).

The emphasis of Christian humanism was on the image of God as the source and basis of human beings’ unique dignity and worth above nature. And this life began to be viewed not merely as a prelude or probation but as a gift to be enjoyed.

Erasmus stands out as the premier Christian humanist of the Renaissance and Reformation and it irked Martin Luther to no end. Luther opposed humanism; to him human beings are a disease on the skin of the earth—unless and until God’s “proper righteousness” begins to transform them through faith. Even then, however, he held out no hope of real progress either in individual holiness or civil righteousness. He expected the return of Christ at any moment and saw cultural engagement and creativity as a waste of time. Luther denied the image of God in sinners, saying it is but a broken relic of little or no use. To him the rebelling peasants were but mad dogs to be hunted down and slaughtered. ~ Roger Olson

(I’m struck here not only by the idea that “human beings are a disease on the face of the earth,” but much more so by Luther’s dismissal of cultural creativity as a waste of time -- after all, the Second Coming was at hand. The belief in paradise can be disastrous for one’s engagement with the present. A former Jehovah’s Witness explained that education was discouraged: “You won’t need to know any of those things in paradise.”)

If humans are innately evil, then are they really the image of god? Luther said that sinners were not an image of god, but this seems to be a minority view. The majority of Christians would say yes -- every human being was an image of god. But if the answer is yes, what does that say about the nature of god? I’m surprised that this point has never been raised. Or perhaps it was quickly dispatched by claiming that Adam and Eve were good, but then they disobeyed, and this Original Sin got transmitted to the subsequent generations, making humans innately bad ever after. But if Adam and Eve were totally good, why did they disobey? Religious mythology leads to unsolvable problems -- and centuries of scholars trying to explicate the same archaic text.

The first letter of TULIP, an anagram summarizing the Calvinist doctrine, is T for TOTAL DEPRAVITY. Are humans by nature “totally depraved,” as Calvinism holds? Are infants little psychopaths who outgrow their instinct to become serial killers only after years of religious training? After centuries of debate (and for millennia the assumption was that we are by nature wretched sinners, nasty and brutish, in need of “correction” by punishment, even after death), we now have scientific evidence that the innate tendency goes mostly the other way.

What? Rousseau was right? It appears that indeed we are innately good, wired for empathy and altruism. Whether Rousseau was right about “civilization” turning the naturally compassionate infant into a cruel soldier or prison guard is still under discussion, but studies agree that our automatic default is empathy. How can we explain these findings, suddenly favoring humanists rather than fundamentalist Protestants? It’s “mirror, mirror in the brain.” We have mirror neurons and can feel another person’s pain or pleasure; our brain is wired for empathy (yes, even psychopaths can experience empathy -- but it’s not their default setting). Sensitivity to the emotional states of others emerges at a young age -- not only in humans, but in other primates, and social animals in general. A small child will try to comfort another distressed child. And yes, social animals are capable of altruistic behavior. It’s an innate capacity.

I will discuss mirror neurons in more detail later in this post. Aside from mirror neurons, humans and primates, as well as elephants and whales, also have von Economo neurons (VEN), sometimes called SPINDLE NEURONS. These special neurons may also be involved in social behavior. And there is also evidence that empathy relies on the release of the hormone oxytocin.

Cooperation and social emotions are strongest in animals that hunt in packs. Vegetarian animals don’t have as much need for cooperation.

And insofar as empathy can lead to altruistic behavior, Ayn Rand was clearly wrong: we are wired for altruism (or call it caring and compassion) more so than for the “virtue of selfishness.”


Great, you may say, but why wars? Why greed, and other anti-social behaviors? That’s a very complex topic, and all we have is theories. It’s probably a combination of factors, but we know we can be taught to hate the dehumanized “other.” We also know that being under stress may decrease empathy. And, alas, the baby studies also discovered that we have an innate bias for those whom we recognize as similar to ourselves: the “in-group.”

All this merits a separate post. For now let us note that most human behavior is LEARNED rather than innate, and that imitation plays a very important role in learning. But note also that aside from ethnic and religious conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, war seems to have become obsolete in Europe. As globalization progresses, the meaning of the “in-group” expands.

The reverse of blaming all evil on man is blaming all evil on god. After all, everything that happens is god’s will, his grand Master Plan. 


These days not even fundamentalists insists that babies are born “in sin.” True, that’s still the rationale for infant baptism: baptism allegedly washes away the stain of the Original Sin. But most people don’t normally speak in those archaic terms any more. What interests us is “innate tendencies.” Can we demonstrate that even preverbal infants show empathy and altruism? Or, on the contrary, are babies predisposed to be mean and aggressive?

Using puppets, researchers determined that pre-verbal infants (as young as 3 months) preferred the cooperative puppet, the one who helped the teddy bear open the toy box, to the hostile puppet who slammed the box shut. Other studies were a variation on the theme. The infants also seemed to want to see the hostile puppet punished -- perhaps a seed of the concept of justice (at least retributive justice).

A reader commented on the article in The Scientific American:

A better example of an early argument for instinctive human goodness than that of Rousseau's is given in Adam Smith's "The Theory of Moral Sentiments".

This is from a summary at the Adam Smith Institute website:

The Theory Of Moral Sentiments
was a real scientific breakthrough. It shows that our moral ideas and actions are a product of our very nature as social creatures. It argues that this social psychology is a better guide to moral action than is reason. It identifies the basic rules of prudence and justice that are needed for society to survive, and explains the additional, beneficent, actions that enable it to flourish.

Self-interest and sympathy. As individuals, we have a natural tendency to look after ourselves. That is merely prudence. And yet as social creatures, explains Smith, we are also endowed with a natural sympathy – today we would say empathy – towards others. When we see others distressed or happy, we feel for them – albeit less strongly. Likewise, others seek our empathy and feel for us. When their feelings are particularly strong, empathy prompts them to restrain their emotions so as to bring them into line with our, less intense reactions. Gradually, as we grow from childhood to adulthood, we each learn what is and is not acceptable to other people. Morality stems from our social nature.

And here is another summary which makes Adam Smith even more in line with recent findings:

The moral philosopher Adam Smith (also the "father" of economics) argued in his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments that virtue derives from our innately social nature in which we cannot help but share in the joy and pain of those around us. Smith argued that when we do things that cause others pain, we also feel pain. Because our biology causes us to avoid pain, we typically avoid such actions. Similarly, we enjoy pleasure and vicariously experience pleasure when we do something that brings happiness to others. This "fellow-feeling," or what we would now call empathy is what maintains us in the community of humans. This is a critical requirement for a social creature. Smith was the first to clearly make the case that it is our social nature that motivates human virtue and is the reason why we vilify vice.

The “moral molecule” is oxytocin, the hormone associated with trust and empathy. Women have higher levels of oxytocin.

I realize that the reader expects baby pictures, but aren’t we inundated with those? It’s time for something else. A tiny lemur can certainly evoke empathy.


Do lemurs feel empathy? Yes. They are highly social animals, and will comfort another lemur in distress. This “compassionate” behavior is seen in all primates, as well as in dogs, whales and elephants. In his The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, Frans de Waal gives examples of “ethical behavior” among the primates, concluding that it’s our social emotions that give rise to morality, and not religion.

Religion defames human nature; humanism praises the human potential. De Waal hopes that the ideals of humanism will prevail.


Mirrors: no one has as yet described
what you really are –
you that fill the interstices of time
as though with the holes of a sieve.

You, squanderers of the empty hall –
when twilight falls, wide as the woods . . .
and the glow, like a sixteen-point chandelier,
goes through your impenetrability.

Sometimes you are full of paintings.
A few seem to have gone into you.
Others you sent shyly by.

But the loveliest will remain, until
into her withheld cheeks
enters the dissolved Narcissus.

~ Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 3

I dare say that the “dissolved Narcissus” enters into everyone when we discover our reflection and understands it’s “us.” We can’t resist looking at ourselves in the mirror, even though, over time, it means watching our aging (“Mirrors are the doors through which death comes” ~ Cocteau) Yes, mirrors are tremendously important in our lives. But in terms of evolution and survival, hardly anything approaches the importance of watching OTHERS. We need to know what others are doing and, based on facial expression and other clues, we can guess what they are feeling.


This special sensitivity to others is highly developed in social animals. It seems to have a lot to do with “mirror neurons.” Mirror neurons are the latest buzz in neuroscience. They are also called the “mirror system,” a part of our “social brain.”

The odd thing is, when you watch someone play tennis, for instance, some of your motor neurons are firing as if you yourself were playing tennis. And if the player happens to -- ouch! -- fall, some of your sensory neuron fire as if the fall happened to you.

Do you wince and hiss as if in pain when you see someone burn his hand with scalding water? It happened to me once -- I was literally hissing in reaction to someone else’s getting burned, even though my own hand was physically unhurt. And I’ve witnessed the same reaction in others. But those vicarious “social” experiences need not be negative. I hope that everyone is familiar with the rush of joy we can experience when watching the joy of another.

What makes it possible for us to be so intimately intermingled with others? And those others need not be real. For many years I thought I was the only one who fell in love with fictional characters (and the part-fictional protagonists of biographies) and mourned as the book drew to its end -- it was hard to bear parting with someone I loved. I thought that was just part of my overall craziness. Then I discovered that this is a relatively common phenomenon. But why?

To reiterate, humans and other primates have mirror neurons that can create virtual reality and likely underlie empathy. Mirror neurons fire both when we experience a sensation (such as pain) and when we merely WATCH someone else experience that sensation. “I feel your pain” is not an empty cliché: we becomes distressed when we watch another person in distress, and happy when we watch a happy person.

The reaction is stronger when we know that particular person. But again, that person can be a fictional character (we often “know” fictional characters better than we know actual people because the author tells us what the character is thinking). I can be in mournful mood for hours when bad things happen to someone in a book or a movie -- and happy when when good things happen to them. I feel frightened when they are frightened, and relax   when they are safe. Never mind that none of it is “real”!

Here is a quotation from a recent article (sorry to have lost the link) Because of mirror neurons we can experience vicarious life events as if they really happened to us. As far as your brain is concerned, the people you “meet” in stories really are your friends and loved ones. And the adventures you enjoy through fiction and stories really do teach you important lessons as if you were the one who defeated the zombies, aliens, or serial killer. The strong emotions you feel during a well-told story further cement memories and help you to retrieve information in the future, all without leaving the safety and comfort of a chair.Mirror neurons were first discovered in the early 1990s by a team of neuroscientists at the University of Parma. Using neuro-imaging, the researchers found certain groups of neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys that fired not only when a monkey performed an action – say, reaching for a banana – but also when the monkey WATCHED another monkey or human perform that action. If there were sounds associated with that action, then even hearing those sounds in another room also activated the mirror neurons.

According to a current estimate, about 10-20% of motor and sensory neurons are "mirror neurons" that fire when we simply watch someone do something, or watch that person experience a sensation such as pain. Or when we read about an action or sensation. Or merely imagine it (I suspect many of my memories are false; children often appropriate a sibling’s story and believe it happened to them). Mirror neurons create a kind of virtual reality -- we really do feel someone else's pain, at least to some degree.

It's the firing of the mirror neurons that may underlie empathy.  And it's possible that a deficiency or dysfunction of mirror neurons accounts for autism.

Empathy, in turn, has a lot to do with moral development and caring about others, even strangers. Our own feelings are the primary guardians of moral values. This is where “good without god” comes from: if we hurt someone and the person starts crying, we feel awful. If we make someone else happy, we too feel happy. One of the most reliable ways to make ourselves happy is to make someone else happy.


The title and the opening image says it all.

I was so hoping that "Daughter of the Church" would have a happy ending.

Love the way you point out the hypocrisy of the image of god in christianity.

Incredible news about oxytoxin!

Animal examples of empathy show the error of the view that religion is needed for morality.

I experience the activity of mirror neurons when I see another person get hurt even on television, especially if the accident actually happened (and I don't have to know the person).

I think this may be my favorite blog so far.


“Daughter of the Church” DOES have a happy ending, but it lies beyond the poem, in the fact that this was written by an ex-Catholic who left the sin-and-hell-obsessed church. I am especially glad I left before I started dating, with its potential for a huge guilt-trip. I had enough anguish as is, and over what? An imaginary punishment by an imaginary being for an imaginary offense (mostly “just being human”).

Oxytocin is available in the form of nasal spray (apparently the only way to get it to the brain; forget sublingual). Some users report mild euphoria. We need a few more years of research. I fear this research won’t be done because if it can be sold without Rx, then Big Pharma can’t make money off it. Oxytocin could indeed be wonderful, but someone needs to get very rich off it or it won’t be properly researched and developed for wider use.

My mirror neurons do a lot of firing too. What I can’t endure is images of any cruelty to animals. Or just make it cruelty, period. Even hearing aggressive speech hurts me. TV news, a lot of movies -- hideous moments that take a while to wash out from memory. 


  1. I'm pretty much an evolutionary psychologist when it comes to thinking about people. I believe we're capable of good and bad because evolution has encouraged us that way. We have our instinct toward goodness for when times are good, food is plentiful, and everything's right with the world.

    But then when everything's wrong with the world (plague, war, zombie apocalypse) we need to be bad people, stealing from the dying, leaving our loved ones abandoned by the side of the road, even killing.

    A lot of times the good is as you say directed toward our "in-group" and the bad comes out in our response to the other.

    I'm capable of treating people badly. Just as most people are capable of treating me like a worthless piece of shoe gum.

    Here's a poem I wrote when I was thinking especially negative thoughts about the reality of the social world around me:


    We don’t like to think
    about them but they are here
    ready to tell you the lie

    that will kill your heart
    and bury your hope
    in a grave so deep

    that not even wolves
    will be able to claw
    their way to your face.

    These bad people
    are ready to blind you
    with a broom handle

    or slap you again
    and again until you
    can’t feel your own pain.

    They are the ones
    who treat you like a dog
    or even worse, like a mule.

    Sometimes they will
    call you friend and give you
    hot tea in a porcelain cup.

    They will offer to fix
    your refrigerator,
    and help you with your car.

    But they are bad people
    and will leave you naked
    and cold in the road at the end.

    (copyright@2013 by john guzlowski just in case one of those bad people want to steal my poem)

  2. Thank you John. Yes, bad things are done by good people when survival is at stake. That kind of stress only the heroes and saints manage to endure without a moral compromise. There were stories of such people in concentration camps -- men and women who tried to help others, sacrificed for them. They were exceptions. We know that if stress is high enough, particularly when there is struggle for survival, the strong cannot be counted on to shout, "Women and children first!" and enforce that. And again, there are those heroic exceptions -- most recently, in the theater shooting in Aurora, the two (or was it three?) men who died because they threw themselves on top of their girlfriend to shield her from the bullets. Mothers have done this, teachers, a sky-diving instructor. This is where I done hesitate to speak of "the holy memory of [name]."

    And then the bad people who in fact enjoy torturing and killing others. They were probably abused in childhood (and some research points to sexual abuse in particular), but who knows what happened in every single case? Psychopaths should definitely be studied -- I think they may be the manipulators you describe toward the end of your poem, those who know how to ingratiate themselves and manipulate others. And psychopaths may be more common than we thought. But in most cases, "bad people" act out of their wounds.

    Being social animals, we are strongly wired for empathy (mirror neurons, but probably even more than that). A child brought up with lots of affection will most likely become a good person who will know how to give affection to others. But aggression is also part of evolutionary heritage, and ultimately it takes culture to encourage empathy and not aggression. Evolution has been in part the evolution of freedom as you go up the scale, from insects (on automatic) to humans who can deliberately change their behavior if presented with a convincing argument. While we may not have all that much "free will," I think we have some. We don't necessarily react to stimuli the same, predictable way. And exposure to the out-group can create empathy. Dickens and Victor Hugo affected attitudes toward the poor -- that is stunning! A writer succeeds when he creates empathy for his characters, presenting them as deeply human.