ISSUES OF FAITH: Human nature: Are we naturally cruel or kind?

WE ARE A species defined by our contradictions.

We are both cruel and kind, killers and healers, practitioners of tribalism on the one hand and compassionate towards strangers on the other.

It’s strange and confusing, and nothing at all like so much of the rest of nature, which is efficiently designed to eat, breed, fight and kill.

Clearly, we are a social species who is entirely dependent on one another for shelter, food, child-rearing and love.

We do nice things for other people, and other people do nice thing in return.

But what exactly are our motives? Do we do this because we want to do what’s good and right? Or are we simply “paying our kindness forward” in order to foster a transactional quid pro quo arrangement of caring (i.e., I’ll help you now if you help me later)?

This question is important as people of faith, because it points to our own individual understandings of human nature.

Are we naturally good? Or are we naturally depraved?

Research scientists Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods write about this question in their book, “Survival of the Friendliest.”

In a chapter entitled “Not Quite Human,” they discuss our human tendency towards tribalism. They point to our tendency to “animalize” those who are outside our group, because we consider them to be “the other.”

Although it’s a hard side of humanity to consider, Hare and Woods document our ability to override our empathetic, compassionate tendencies in order to allow prejudice to enter our hearts. We lose our empathy for people we perceive to be outsiders and disable our human connection to their suffering.

This blindness on our parts explains why we have been so tolerant of horrible abuses and atrocities, such as the lynching of African Americans, the internment of Japanese Americas, and the placement of children in cages at our border with Mexico. It also explains why our country is so divided right now along political party lines.

This does not, however, explain why frontline workers still sacrifice their own safety to help others, why soldiers dive on grenades to save platoon-mates, or why many in the faith community feel that impulse to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.

So, what are we to make of these complex and seemingly contradictive aspects of humanity?

I don’t know about you, but I think that we humans are definitely works in progress.

We hold within our hearts a capacity to harm and a capacity to heal.

It’s one of the reasons why we gather in religious communities — to be the people we aspire to be, to practice selfless giving and to remind each other of God’s expectation that we love and care for one another.

I’d like to note that some religious traditions emphasize our human tendency to sin, with the expectation that sinners will find their way to redemption by accepting Jesus as their lord and savior.

In my own religious tradition, we prefer to emphasize the innate goodness in humanity. It’s our hope that by emphasizing humanity’s better, kinder and gentler tendencies, we might best nurture enough of those human characteristics to discourage sinful behavior.

As far as I can see, the jury is out on which approach is more effective. So I’d love to hear your own opinions and experiences on this matter, and hope that you will send them to the email address listed with my byline.

We are living in an incredibly significant time in human history. And what we believe matters.

I’d love to include your ideas in future columns.

In the meantime, though, I pray that love will be our guide.

The future of our country and our species may depend upon it.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Kate Lore is a minister at the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. Her email is [email protected]

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