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At the end of October 2021, London head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh said that children were born with Original Sin and had to be taught how to be good.

Katharine Birbalsingh founded the highly successful Michaela Community School in Wembley in north west London and was also recently appointed as a Government ‘levelling up’ adviser.

On October 29, The Times reported:

The row was started by a tweet to Birbalsingh which read: “We are all born ‘bad’, that is why it is so important to be morally educated and not just conditioned.”

Birbalsingh replied: “Exactly. Original Sin. Children need to be taught right from wrong and then habituated into choosing good over evil. That requires love and constant correction from all the adults in their lives over YEARS. Moral formation is a good thing.”

Absolutely. I am so glad that Birbalsingh ‘went there’, as it were.

As one would expect, Birbalsingh’s pointing out biblical truth did not go unnoticed. The Times included several quotes from the notional great and the good condemning what she said.

Everyone piled in, as an article by The Spectator‘s Theo Hobson pointed out (emphases mine):

This opinion immediately offended the great and the good, as if her point of view was equivalent to advocating the thumb-screw. An outgoing member of the social mobility commission, which Birbalsingh now chairs, accused her of ‘whipping up division’ and said he hoped it wouldn’t be a ‘sign of things to come’.

Another departing commissioner told the Times that, ‘I wouldn’t agree with those comments and I wouldn’t say her comments reflected at all any of the current commission’s views. I’ve always viewed young people in the best light and any negativity comes from the fact that they haven’t been nurtured or aren’t in the position to get the support they need.’

Others called her view ‘medieval’, a very dated accusation. This remains a strand of secular humanism, the idea that humanity is naturally good, and that people become corrupted by bad ideas as they grow up. This was the opinion of Neil Gray, an SNP MSP, who said her ‘original sin’ comment was ‘the opposite of my world view.’ He added: ‘Children are not born bad. Children are born good and I would suggest trauma, poverty… and negative influences of adults are what drive negative behaviour into adulthood. We must nurture and protect our children not stigmatise them from birth.’

Theo Hobson could even cite a real life example of Original Sin’s presence — in his own son who, at the age of six, was confused about slavery:

When my son was about six he heard something at school about slavery but was not quite clear what it was all about. So I spelled it out. I told him that a slave was someone that someone else owned and ordered around and probably mistreated. I waited for the proper response of moral horror to show on his innocent features. Instead he said, ‘Cool, I want one!’

Hobson concludes:

Many would agree with Birbalsingh that ‘moral formation’ is necessary for children, but reject her appeal to original sin. But I think she is quite right, and that the most rigorous moral idealism entails this concept.

What’s wrong with the vague orthodoxy that everyone is a mix of good and bad impulses, and that most of us manage to be good enough? It is not ambitious enough. The strange thing about original sin is that it sounds amazingly negative but is actually the most idealistic belief available. It says that normal moral decency is not good enough, it’s a compromise that makes us feel moral as long as we don’t break the law. In fact we are all morally inadequate, and even the keenest do-gooders have dodgy inclinations. This ‘bleak’ view of humanity is not bleak at all – it simply means that an ideal of perfect morality is on the table. We should, ideally, be morally ideal, perfectly loving, all the time. It is only in relation to this extreme ideal that ‘sin’, as a universal human condition, makes sense. They are two sides of the same coin.

So hats off to a headteacher capable of teaching us all a lesson.

Even the Stoics, pagans, believed that man was inherently bad. The most famous of them, Marcus Aurelius — yes, he did persecute Christians — wrote a book of his musings on Stoicism called Meditations. This is one of his quotes on mankind’s instinctive carnality:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.

That quote came as an answer in the comments to someone writing into The Guardian who was struggling with maintaining his (or her) optimism:

I’ve been an optimist my whole life, with a rugged dedication that even I can see is, at times, questionable. My optimism mainly rests on a belief in the inherent goodness of people and, in many ways, I haven’t been disappointed. But over the last few years I had to face the fact that most of my significant relationships have been abusive and, clearly, there’s a tonne of evidence of hatred, ruthless greed and intolerance everywhere at the moment.

These experiences have provoked something of an existential crisis in me. I still feel an optimistic outlook is, fundamentally, the only way to keep going – otherwise what’s the point? How can I find a comfortable and balanced place in my mind and heart to settle?

The Guardian‘s secular agony aunt responding to this enquiry advocated a good dose of hope and reflecting on the realm of possibility. Here is the excerpt:

The thing we need to keep going isn’t belief – it’s hope. And hope is a choice; hope doesn’t mind what has happened ‘til now, because hope lives in the thought the next moment might be different and better.

Hope isn’t as easily deterred by evidence that goodness sometimes falters, because hope isn’t about evidence. It’s about possibility. Staring into the possibility of other people’s badness makes us rooted to the spot, transfixed with the worst interpretations of what’s going on around us. Looking back into imagination and possibility gives us something else to focus on; it tears our eyes from the void. Don’t look for proof. Look for hope.

Believing in the doctrine of Original Sin is much easier and makes more sense more immediately.

We are in a constant battle against sin. None of us is good. Not one.

Only the Holy Trinity is inherently good and always will be.

God the Father sent His Son Jesus Christ to redeem the world — past, present and future — from sin. Jesus paid the price on the Cross in order to reconcile us to the Father, opening up the promise of eternal life forever.

Original Sin exists and always will. When even pagans realised that two millennia ago, why doesn’t everyone else?

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