Science and Sin 1

While much of the furor over the conflict between science and faith centers on the question of origins and evolution – it is not limited to these questions alone. The sciences also impact our understanding of human behavior and human response and this can also lead to increased understanding or to conflict.

The September 2009 issue of Discover Magazine has an interesting article on the Seven Deadly Sins (the magazine has a website at – but this article is not available on-line, at least not yet).  The article poses a question “Why does being bad feel so good?” and describes research being done these days to explore the science of sin.  One of the most interesting techniques used in these studies is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), another is PET (positron-emission tomography). In these technique the active areas of the brain are mapped as the subject responds to certain stimuli.

Consider one sin – Gluttony. In one experiment the researcher asks his volunteers to come in hungry.

He then torments them, asking them to describe their favorite food in loving detail while he heats it up in a near by microwave so that the aroma wafts through the room. … the motivational regions in their brains go wild. Parts of the front orbital cortex, which is implicated in decision making, also light up. (p. 50)

These and other studies indicate that obese people have lower reward sensitivity and that areas involved in inhibitory control are less active.  In fact it appears that overeating downregulates inhibition control.   Tongue in cheek (I think) the article suggests that this offers moral absolution. If a sin isn’t voluntary it isn’t a sin – at least according to Thomas Aquinas – and we are wired to overeat.

This is a relatively minor example – but it leads to an interesting question.

What role does chemistry or biology play in our understanding of sin?

We are fully embodied beings. Our philosophy must correlate with reality. While our mind can influence our body, We cannot separate spirit and body. Self-control is not simply a matter of will, nor is it simply a matter of faith. This must in some sense influence how we think about sin and grapple with the theology.

The article in Discover looks at a very short overview of research into brain responses correlated with each of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, greed, wrath, lust, and sloth in addition to gluttony discussed above.

Lust is a big one. (Anyone surprised?) Research into brain response connected with lust indicates that (in males at least) the response is all-encompassing. “All said, the most notable thing about lust is that it sets nearly the whole brain buzzing.”  The signals are unique, distinctive, unmistakable and uncontrollable.

“These are huge effects” Saffron says. “You are looking at the difference between something that elicits intense desire and something that does not.” (p. 50)

The responses in women are definite, but less spectacular.

This leads to some serious questions – for example does Jesus set an unattainable bar?

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Mt 5:27-28

Lust is, in one sense at least, simply an uncontrollable response. Ah – but while the lust response is spectacular, research is also demonstrating that the brain contains a conscious self-regulatory system.

This network provides us with the evolutionarily unprecedented ability to control our own neural processing – a feat achieved by no other creature. (50)

We may not be able to control instinctive response – but we have a great deal of control over where we go from there.

Sloth is another sin of the flesh – also known as acedia. This too has concrete physical roots.  Depression or diseases such as fronto-temporal dementia are often at the root of acedia or apathy.  Research suggests that abnormal function in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain may be connected with lethargy – and that activity or stimulation in this area can help inhibit negative emotions and lethargy.  Again there are real chemical causes underlying much sloth – but also the possibility for conscious mitigating behavior in many cases.

We will look at the other sins in the next post. For now we can consider these three.

What is the dividing line between natural response, disease, and sin? Is sin a meaningless concept in these cases? Or is this simply “the Fall” and we can expect to be healed only in the final resurrection?

Paul certainly expects us to be able to “die to sin.”  Romans 6 is pretty powerful stuff.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? … Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

What control can we expect to have over such embodied responses? Is control a matter of faith and willpower – or perhaps medicine and training?

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