Do you believe people are basically good, or basically evil?
It's a question which has preoccupied moral and political philosophers, scientists, writers and artists for generations. Bernard Levin once said he was astonished to find himself the only person at a dinner party who believed people were inherently good. Steven Pinker wrote a book specifically to argue for this point. Yet the point remains open: our innate goodness is still open to question, and our darker nature relatively poorly understood.
Part of the reason for this lies in the story of "sin". From Classical Greece to modern political discourse, the idea persists that human beings are basically flawed, wicked, failing to live up to the standards set for them. Religious apologists claim that without divine guidance we would be incapable of goodness; humanists argue just the opposite. And all over the world, children are being told they are bad by their very nature, and adults are finding comfort in stories about how they can be saved if they accept their wickedness.
I think sin and sinfulness is a really interesting area of culture. It shapes how we treat each other, and ourselves, it affects how we explain our actions, and even in a post-religious society the concept reverberates in therapeutic approaches, self-help groups, parenting, and moral discourse.
In this long research project, currently on the back burner but always in my thoughts, will explore where the idea of sin comes from, what it means, and how it has shaped modern thought. I also hope to research the many things that have been called sinful over the centuries, and explore how we might construct a more stable moral discourse that replaces the concept of sin with a more helpful and scientifically grounded approach to the angels and devils of our natures.