“Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World” by James Boyce. (Counterpoint)

While original sin may seem an unlikely subject for an honorary research associate at the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania, James Boyce has nonetheless written a brilliant and exhilarating work of popular scholarship. I pencil vertical lines in the margins of the books I read whenever a sentence or paragraph seems especially striking. My copy of “Born Bad” carries such scribbles on every other page.

Boyce’s main point is that the Western mind has been shaped, or warped, by the dominant view that “human beings were born sinners, subject to the just wrath of God . . . because of . . . who they were.” Adam’s primal disobedience did not affect him alone; it blighted human nature forever in the eyes of God. Since the Fall, everyone is consequently “born bad,” offensive to the Creator, and this taint can be washed away only through grace, “the unearned gift of God’s forgiveness,” in the shape of baptism. A person on his or her own could never remove this inherited stain. As the old colonial primers had it, “In Adam’s Fall/ We sinned all.”

St. Augustine established intellectual legitimacy to this belief in humankind’s inherent depravity, although some early Christian thinkers, such as Pelagius (later pronounced a heretic), argued otherwise: People were innocent at birth but could, through the freedom bestowed on them by God, later choose to sin. The battleground between these two contrasting beliefs was the fate of babies who died shortly after birth. Pelagius and much of early Celtic Christianity “did not see a newborn as a sinner in need of forgiveness.” But Augustine and many other Church fathers argued that so awful was innate human wickedness to God that even an infant, without absolution through baptism, would be damned.

That said, Augustine did hold out a faint hope to grieving parents that God might save their child from hellfire, on his own volition, so to speak, but there was no guarantee of this. Still, it remains shocking to modern sensibilities, as it was for many people in earlier times, to think that a just deity would damn a newborn simply because no water had touched its forehead. To help make this horrible doctrine somewhat more palatable, the Catholic Church eventually promulgated the idea of limbo, an afterlife realm where unbaptized infants dwelt in a kind of bland contentment, since they were ineligible for the bliss of God’s presence in heaven. Limbo, however, was rescinded in 1992.

As the medieval church spread, the notion that baptism alone was sufficient for salvation was augmented by the repeatable sacraments of confession and communion, supported by the notorious doctrine of indulgences. A person might, in effect, move in and out of a state of grace throughout life. Through its rituals, the Church took up what Boyce calls “the micro-management of salvation.”

The Reformation, however, insisted that people could escape damnation only through “the unearned forgiveness of God,” which could be “accessed by faith in Christ alone.” To Luther, Calvin and others, human beings could never achieve salvation on their own or even by being holy, generous or chaste, “because people did not simply sin, they were sinners, innately and unavoidably subject to the just punishment of God.” Calvin, he adds, maintained that “to lay claim to even a residual goodness within human beings proffered the false hope that people could do something to save themselves, and that this was the well-trodden road to hell.” As Boyce concludes, to the Reformers the Catholic Church’s “whole medieval salvation package, from pilgrimage to purgatory” was nothing less than “a Satanic detour from the only road to heaven.”

The Reformation doctrines of election, predestination and the like, says Boyce, resulted in unexpected political consequences. By shifting the emphasis from sin to sinner, the Reformers “preached a radical spiritual equality. . . . All people were innately and unavoidably sinners, and, through the grace of God alone, all could become saints.” The priest was no better than the peasant. Over time, this “Protestant ethic,” as Max Weber famously argued, gave rise to capitalism and much of the dynamism of Western civilization.

Boyce stresses that the principal tenet of Christianity in the West isn’t, as many believe, the Judeo-Christian moral code. “Salvation did not come from being ‘good’ or worthy.” From the beginning, Christianity “was grounded in a deeply personal emphasis on the broken self, and a corresponding reliance on an external divinity to provide salvation.” In the second half of his book, Boyce examines how this conviction of mankind’s essential wickedness variously manifested itself in the modern secular world.

For instance, Thomas Hobbes viewed man in the state of nature as vicious and brutal. David Hume argued that reason was always a slave to willfulness and passion. Adam Smith’s economics was posited on people’s elemental selfishness. Benjamin Franklin believed that men were ruled by “the love of power and the love of money.” Recognizing our fallen nature, the framers of the American Constitution charted a government that would “rationally manage” our inherent sinfulness. Even Rousseau, in his “Confessions,” revealed that our inner selves were cauldrons of emotion, perversity and paranoia. By the 20th century, Freud argued that men and women were molded “by instinctual drives, especially sexuality and aggression, which exist in tension with morality and conscious thought.” We are all bad to the bone.

So it may come as a surprise when Boyce looks at contemporary evangelism and concludes that feel-good religion has actually “silenced” the doctrine of original sin. Popular preachers such as Billy Graham ascribe evil to Satan — or, these days, to radical Islam — rather than to the human heart. Pentecostals, in particular, regard the ecstatic experience of feeling saved as fundamental to their belief. Upbeat religions don’t dwell on the fate of sinners in the hands of an angry God.

Nonetheless, says Boyce, original sin hasn’t disappeared. It has now morphed into the “selfish gene” of evolutionary psychologists. The science of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and others essentially repurposes the notion of hereditary depravity.

In tracking original sin through the ages, Boyce is resolutely evenhanded, keeping an unemotional tone throughout. He is trying to understand, rather than judge. In his final pages, he does give his subject a twist that reminds us that he teaches environmental studies. Ultimately, original sin, he argues, isn’t about “humanity’s exile from Paradise but God’s exodus from earth.”

“For in a sense,” he concludes, “the history of the West is an account of what happened when a people were brought up to believe that their deity had turned his back on his own creation.” What we need now, he suggests, is to bring grace back to earth, to understand that the care of our world is intertwined with the care of our souls.

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.

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BORN BAD

Original Sin and the Making of the Western World

By James Boyce

Counterpoint. 250 pp. $26