Total Depravity (Part 2) – The Milgram Experiment


Over the last few months, I've been writing a series of articles about various beliefs and doctrines in the Christian faith that I feel have a destructive impact on those associated with the church. The first article discussed the notion of whether or not God controls your life. I argued that humans have total freedom of choice. God does not interfere in your decisions. If your life is going to change, you can’t wait for God to change it for you. Change only happens when you take the initiative to alleviate suffering and transform the world into a better place by spreading unconditional love to everyone you meet.


In the second article, I tackled the Doctrine of Total Depravity, which essentially states that because of the fall of Adam and Eve, humans are, at their core, inherently sinful and incapable of good. This belief is based on a faulty reading of the Adam and Eve story that comes from the church father Augustine who assumes God created human beings perfect and sinless. I argue the entire point of the Adam and Eve story is to convey that God understands how humans are going to make mistakes and, more importantly, how we need to make mistakes in order to learn and become good people.


In this final installment, I want to tackle another aspect of the Doctrine of Total Depravity, which is the assertion that, because humans are innately sinful, the only way we can really do anything good in the world is by following Jesus. Through being “saved”, the Holy Spirit can help a person overcome their sinful state by allowing them to create positive change in the world. To test this claim, I want to spend time examining one of the most controversial psychological experiments of the 20th century—the Milgram Experiment


The Evil Gene


In the early months of 1945, allied soldiers were overpowering the last strongholds held by German forces. With each victory, the troops liberated cities and towns that had been held hostage by Nazi soldiers. In the process of emancipating Europe, they stumbled upon the concentration camps littered throughout Europe. As the soldiers befriended the emaciated survivors, they learned of the horrors imposed upon the Jewish people.


U.S. Army Cpl. Larry Matinsk puts cigarettes into the extended hands of newly liberated prisoners behind a stockade in the Allach concentration camp on April 30, 1945, in Germany

Hitler had begun sending Jews to the concentration camps with his rise to power in 1933. These concentration camps would eventually be converted into death camps starting in 1941 with the implementation of the Hitler’s Final Solution, a program designed to wipe the Jewish race off the face of the planet. As the allied soldiers collected more information and pieced together the puzzle of how these camps were connected to one another, they realized that this was huge undertaking.


Surely the German people were aware of what was happening? Surely somebody must have said something? How could so many people willing participate in and turn a blind eye towards such evil? As word about the horrors of the Holocaust spread throughout the world, people began looking for answers to a very simple question, “How could this have happened?” In the 1950s, scientists who were members of the burgeoning field of genetic research posed a question: Perhaps the German people possessed a gene that made them more evil than other human beings?


To test this theory, a psychologist at Yale named Stanley Milgram devised an experiment in 1961 to determine whether some people are genetically predisposed to be more evil than others. Here’s how the experiment worked: two volunteers would be brought into the lab and told that they were going to be conducting a memory test. One person would be a teacher and the other would be a learner. The volunteers would draw slips to determine who would serve each function. They would then be escorted into separate rooms by the scientist conducting the experiment.


The learner was strapped to a chair and connected to a devise that provided an electrical shock. The teacher was escorted into a separate room where he could ask questions to the learner. If the learner got a question wrong, then the teacher was asked to administer an electric shock. With each wrong question, the teacher was supposed to increase the voltage.



What the teacher didn’t know is that the learner and the scientist were both actors. The learner was not actually being shocked, but only acting as if that were the case. The actor playing the scientist was instructed to watch the teacher and if the teacher protested going forward with the experiment, the scientist was supposed to give four responses in this order: 1) Please continue. 2) The experiment requires that you continue. 3) It is absolutely essential that you continue. 4) You have no other choice, you must go on. Below is footage I cut together from the original Milgram Experiment.



If the subject still protested after these four verbal responses, then the experiment was stopped. Only 35 percent of the volunteers made it past the fourth question. The remaining 65 percent of the people who participated in the study were halted after providing three consecutive electrical shocks of 450 volts, which is enough electricity to kill a person. That means 65 percent of the subjects in this study were willing to shock their fellow participants to death.


Milgram’s experiment demonstrated that under certain circumstances the average person is capable of doing very evil things. Indeed, his experiment revealed that our propensity to act in evil ways depends very much on the conditions in our environment.


Obedience


Let’s use the Milgram Experiment as a guide to help us understand how our environment can influence our actions. Remember, in the Milgram Experiment, these are just average people, almost all of whom do not possess violent tendencies. But when they were placed in a situation where they had the discretion to hurt someone, 65 percent of them were willing to shock to the death. Why?


What you may not realize is that the key to this experiment is the scientist. As long as there was an authority figure in the room stating that the actions of the volunteer were acceptable, then most people were willing to continue with the experiment. The presence of the authority figure overrode and outweighed the moral compass that normally dictates our behavior. In other words, the environment of having someone tell us that our actions are acceptable, even when we clearly know they are not acceptable, compels most people to act contrary to their natural behavior.

Hitler at an event in the Berlin Sport Palace with many SS members in attendance (circa 1940)

Milgram’s study presented evidence that there is no such thing as an evil gene. The Holocaust occurred not because the Germans are more evil than other human beings, but because it is hard for humans to resist and speak out against evil when it is the dominate way of thinking. The reason why the German military machine carried out Hitler’s demands is because the highest members of Hitler’s cabinet believed so strongly in his ideology that it trickled down into the rest of the military. Whether they believed in Hitler’s cause or not, the regular foot soldiers of the military never questioned the orders of their superiors and Milgram’s experiment explains why.


You could apply the same logic to the larger German population. As long as they were free from harm, they did not want to risk placing their own safety in jeopardy by challenging the morality of those tasked with executing Hitler’s plans.


Many of us would like to think that we would be different; that we would stand up against such blatant injustice and say something regardless of the consequences. But Milgram’s study proves that the majority of us would be no different from the Germans. We too would have been complicit in these crimes either by our own inaction, refusing to stand up against the majority opinion, or by being part of the machine and committing these crimes ourselves.


Evil Inclinations


What does all this say about human nature? If ordinary people are capable of such extreme evil, does that mean we are evil to our core? Are we like ticking time bombs, just waiting to go off at any moment? Milgram’s experiment suggests that all you have to do is put us in the right environment with the appropriate pressure and our true colors will quickly show. Doesn’t this experiment confirm what Augustine (and Martin Luther during the Reformation) claimed through their interpretation of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis chapter 3—human beings are totally depraved?


Let’s briefly recap their argument: When God originally created human beings, we were perfect. There was no flaw or evil to be found within us. However, after disobeying God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, their nature was permanently corrupted. Furthermore, this corrupted nature was passed from one generation to the next because, according to the story, we are all descendants of Adam and Eve.


I will admit that, empirically, this claim does make sense. Every day the news is chock full of people committing horrific acts of evil. In fact, Milgram’s experiment seemingly backs up the assertion of Total Depravity because Milgram showed that, in the course of 30 minutes, just about anyone can transition from law abiding citizen to murderer. The solution provided by these theologians as to how we overcome this inherently sinful nature is by turning to God and following Jesus. Through our belief in Jesus, God’s Spirit will help us to overcome the evil inclinations that we inherited from Adam and Eve so we are capable of performing acts of love in the world.


It’s a beautiful notion, isn’t it? Simple to follow, easy to understand. Indeed, this argument been the motivation for why so many people throughout the last two millennia have dedicated their lives to following Jesus. Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t add up in the real world. First of all, according to this way of thinking, Christians should be the only ones performing acts of generosity and love in the world, but we know that’s not true. There are lots of people in the world who perform amazing acts of charity and kindness, and yet, they have nothing to do with Christianity.


A good example of this would be the story of the famous atheist Tina Strobos. As a young psychiatry student living in Denmark, she joined the underground resistance movement when the Nazi’s invaded in April of 1940. She joined the branch of the resistance dedicated to hiding Jews who were seeking safe passage out of the country. During the course of the war, Strobos helped more than 100 Jews escape from Denmark. She did this assuming great personal risk for herself.


During the occupation, Strobos was arrested by the S.S. nine times because they suspected she was helping Jews obtain safe passage out of the country, but they could never find any evidence. The reason why is because a carpenter, loyal to the resistance, had built a fake wall in her mother’s attic. This wall created a gable big enough to hold four people. The wall was so well built that, even after eight searches, the Nazis had no idea that it existed. When asked why she went to such incredible lengths to help her Jewish neighbors, Strobos is famous for saying, “I never believed in God, but I believed in the sacredness of life.”


Her response is particularly meaningful in light of the fact that, when we examine the atrocities that have been committed throughout the centuries, Christians are right up there as some of the worst perpetrators. The vast majority of the Germans who carried out the holocaust during World War II (which, by the way, is the singular greatest episode of genocide in the history of humanity), those soldiers predominately identified as Christians. Clearly, their belief in Jesus had little to no impact on their actions in being part of the war machine that systematically claimed the lives of 6 million Jews.

Therefore, when we step back and look objectively at the notion that all humans are sinful and that only the followers of Jesus can overcome this evil nature, I think we have to admit that such logic doesn’t make sense. What does make sense are the statistics we found in Milgram’s study. Remember, 65 percent were willing to shock to the death, but that means the remaining 35 percent stopped, even when they were encouraged to continue. What’s the difference between the 65 percent and the 35 percent? Well, it’s certainly not religion because almost everybody who did that experiment was religious and it has nothing to do with genetics, which we determined earlier. The difference comes down to belief.


Walk the Talk


Recall what Tina Strobos said about what inspired her heroic actions, “I never believed in God, but I believed in the sacredness of life.” Her belief in the sacredness of life is what compelled her to make the decision to risk her own life and hide Jews in her home. If Strobos was in Milgram’s experiment, more than likely she would have been part of the 35 percent who stopped, but here’s where things get complicated. If I asked those of you reading this article, “Do you believe in the sacredness of life?” I assume almost all of you would say, “Yes, of course, I believe in the sacredness of life.” However, what is also true is that 65 percent of the people reading this article would also shock to the death if you were part of Milgram’s experiment, clearly contradicting that stated belief.


Therefore, what’s the difference between saying you believe in the sacredness of life and actually believing it? The difference is whether or not you have lived out that belief. Let me give you an example. Back in 2013, I went on a mission trip to Haiti (see the video below for a taste of what it was like). One of our last nights in the country, we were supposed to have an outdoor worship service with the local community. Just as the service was about to begin, it started pouring rain, causing almost all the Americans to seek shelter inside of the church where we were sleeping.



There was an agreement between the Haitian leaders and the organization with whom we were working that under no circumstances were the Haitians to go inside the church while we were there. The reason for this agreement was to prevent theft. The unfortunate result of this pact is that when it started pouring, the Haitians were left outside suffering, even though it was their church.


Interestingly, not everybody from our group ran inside the church. Some remained outside with the Haitians and, one in particular, a young man who identified himself as an atheist, came up to the barred windows of the church and said to me, “You claim to believe in a loving God, but you’re sitting in there all dry while these people are outside shivering and cold. I have to tell you, I think that’s wrong.” And then he walked away.


My entire adult life I had been preaching about the idea that all life was sacred, but when it came down to it, my actions did not reflect my beliefs. I was too worried about my own needs to stand up for the justice of others. After he walked away, I thought about what he said and realized I was being a coward. I talked to the leaders of the sponsoring organization about opening the gates of the church to provide the Haitians with some shelter. The response was immediate, “No, you can’t let them in.” Similar to the Milgram Experiment, I backed down. After about ten minutes, I asked a second time. Again, they said, “No,” and again I backed down. The third time I didn’t ask. I walked to the gate where 30 Haitian children were all huddled together trying to avoid the rain. I opened the door and said, “Come on in. It’s your church.”


What that young atheist taught me and what I realized on that day is that if you want to get rid of the evil in the world, then you have to put your beliefs into action. You have stand up for what is right. If you want to be one of the 35 percent in Milgram’s study who said, “No, this is wrong and I will do this no more,” then you have to practice fighting that evil. Saying you believe in justice means nothing. The only thing that matters is action. What I have found is the more you practice standing up for what is right, the easier it becomes to stand your ground. Whereas the more you remain silent in the face of injustice, the more likely you are to allow that injustice to propagate unchecked.


Practice Makes Perfect


If you take nothing else away from this article, I hope you will understand that humans are not inherently sinful or evil. This assertion by Augustine and Luther is not only wrong, but it can cause a person to look at something like the Holocaust as inevitable. The principle that humans are always prone to evil actions quickly becomes an excuse for why we are incapable of helping ourselves. We are capable. Humans have a lot of good in them. It’s simply a matter of choice as to whether or not we are going bring out that goodness.


Likewise, a major fallacy of the Doctrine of Total Depravity is that the only way a person can be good is by being Christian. Claiming to be a follower of Jesus isn’t what makes you a good person. What makes you a good person is your ability to stand up to evil and injustice within yourself and others when it really counts. Saying that you believe all life is sacred is very different from living your life in such a way that you preserve that sacredness.


Strobos stole identity cards (like the one above) from non-Jewish people at social gatherings, and replaced the photos and fingerprints with those of her Jewish refugees.

Every human, whether you are an atheist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist, has the capacity within them to stand up for justice. We simply have to be willing to practice. As I learned in Haiti, the first time practicing this can be hard. If the authority figures around you are telling you that you shouldn’t do the right thing (like letting a group of shivering children into a warm church), you have to find the strength within yourself to overcome those authority figures and say, “I believe that all life is sacred and I am going to ensure that it remains that way!”


Once you gain the experience of standing up to the authority figures in your life, every subsequent act of resistance becomes a little easier, until eventually, your entire life is oriented around bringing goodness and justice to those who need it most.


 

P.S. – In Season 1 of my podcast, I spend time talking about the Milgram experiment in greater detail than what you read here. If you have not listened to this episode, I would highly recommend doing so as it will not only provide food for thought about the experiment itself, but the story of Magda Brown surviving the Holocaust is absolutely incredible!

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