Do Sociopaths Disprove the Existence of God?
by Rich Deem

Introduction

Sociopaths & God

Would God create an individual who couldn't tell the difference between right and wrong and then condemn him for it? Since sociopaths (those who suffer from antisocial personality disorder) seem to fall into this category, does this make God a hypocrite?

Rich Deem

I received an email from Adam, an agnostic psychology undergraduate, who asked whether the existence of people who cannot tell right from wrong might provide an argument against the existence of God. Why would God create an individual who couldn't distinguish good from evil and then condemn him because of that condition? The syndrome that describes this disorder used to be called sociopathy, although it is now referred to as "antisocial personality disorder" (ASPD). People with this disorder are defined by the American Psychological Association as exhibiting "a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood."1

It is known that several forms of criminal and antisocial behavior, such as conduct disorder, aggressive behavior, rule-breaking behavior and antisocial behavior tend to be found within families.2 Although such associations might suggest the existence of a genetic component, there is always the question of "nature versus nurture." This page examines whether ASPD is the result of being born that way or the result of one's upbringing and choices.

Genetic studies

Genetic research in antisocial personality disorder have focused on genes associated with dopaminergic, serotonergic, and monoamine neurotransmitter pathways (involved in brain chemistry).3 Although such directed approaches have identified significantly altered genes within individual psychiatric studies, attempts to replicate such results have been successful in only 27% of such studies.4 The "gold standard" way of identifying genetic associations in complex diseases is through genome-wide association studies (GWAS), which utilize a hypothesis-free (and bias-free) analysis of genetic associations based upon sequencing of actual genomes of patients, their relatives and unrelated control subjects. An Australian group of scientists utilized GWAS to examine two cohorts including 1649 subjects identified as suffering from ASPD. along with a second cohort of 3167 individuals taken at-large.5 All individuals from the second cohort were also tested for the presence of ASPD and other personality disorders using standardized psychiatric tests. The genotyping of the 4816 individuals resulted in zero genes being identified as being significantly associated with ASPD.5 So, the definitive study examining whether sociopaths are "born that way" has demonstrated that it has no significant genetic component. A more recent examination of the genetic associations with a host of psychiatric disorders (but not ASPD) did find 5 statistically significant loci associated with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia.6 The study was done using a huge number of patients (33,332 cases and 27,888 controls), since it was already apparent from previous attempts that genetic linkage for mental illness was going to be difficult to prove (hence the need for large numbers of patients to improve the statistical power). Although news articles citing the study called the findings "stunning," the data was actually far from it. The best p value for association was 5×10-8. By comparison, in IBD genetics (in which our research group is involved), p values reach as small as 10-14. So, although the research found statistically significant loci, they are nowhere near the "stunning" range. In IBD there are at last count 163 significant genetic loci, whereas in psychiatric disorders, the researchers found only 5. It would be a huge stretch to say that 5 genes with such low genetic associations could account for and cause 5 different psychiatric disorders. With the decreasing costs associated with GWAS analysis, geneticists have used such tools to examine another behavioral condition, sexual orientation, and determined that there is, at most, only one genetic association, which has not been consistently reproduced in all studies.7 So, overall, behavioral conditions have shown few, if any, genetic associations, with no association actually being shown to influence development of the disorder.

 

 

Nurture Studies

Many studies have found associations between parenting and antisocial behavior.8 Studies have found that lack of either maternal or paternal support can lead to the development of anti-social behaviors.9 Extremes in parenting (either authoritarian or permissive) are risk factors for the development of antisocial and aggressive behaviors during middle childhood.10 The lack of parental support coupled with the influence of deviant peers constitute a strong predictor of antisocial behaviors.11 So, these studies demonstrate that nurture is much more important than nature (genetics) for the development of antisocial personality disorder.

Biochemistry vs. choice

Although ASPD probably has little or no genetic component, it is still possible that the person "suffering" from such a disorder might not have a choice about their behavior, due to some physical defect in their brain. One study found slight alterations in the amount of gray matter in people diagnosed with ASPD.12 Another study found differences in the integrity of the white natter myelin bundles of the uncinate fascisculus.13 Neither study showed a direct link between the brain differences and behavioral outcomes.

However, even if there were such a defects, it would still be difficult to conclude that ASPD is the result of a physical cause versus a choice to behave selfishly. The fact is that most sociopaths can be quite charming and lure their victims into relationships before using and abusing them. The brain is a remarkable machine. However, repetitive actions train the brain to respond in a certain way. For many tasks we perform day in and day out, training the brain is a good thing, resulting in improved and efficient function. However, when we train our brain to respond inappropriately, our conscience becomes seared and we become "incapable" of making good choices. Sociopaths seem to have fallen in to this pattern of behavior, beginning in childhood to adolescence, because of permissive or absent parenting.

Can ASPD be saved?

The prognosis for people with ASPD is poor and treatment seems to be ineffective in the majority of cases. Do all these people end up in hell? Christianity says that all people are sinners and deserving of hell, but God has designed a way that we might be saved through faith in Jesus. Virtually all people (including us "normal" people), at some point in our lives, commit some antisocial behaviors that hurt other people. The problem for most sociopaths is that they don't care that there is a problem with their behavior. As long as they can manipulate people to get what they want, they are content living their lives hurting other people. For a person to come to saving faith, he must first recognize that he is a sinner in need of redemption. Although it would seem unlikely that sociopaths could be saved, at least some have claimed to have reformed through faith in God.14

Conclusion Top of page

Would God create a person who couldn't distinguish good from evil and then condemn him because of that condition? Psychiatrists thought that behavioral disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder (sociopathy), would be the result of bad genetics related to genes though to be involved in brain function. If a genetic component were found, it could be argued that either God created such individuals (making God a hypocrite) or God did not exist and such persons were simply the outcome of Darwinian evolution gone bad. However, scientific studies show that genetics plays little if any role in the development of antisocial personality disorder. Instead, studies show that sociopaths result primarily from absent of permissive parenting. So, God does not create sociopaths, but they are the consequences of failing to follow God's design for the family.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline. Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. My son, if sinners entice you, do not give in to them. (Proverbs 1:7-10)



References Top of page

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  7. See our paper, Are People Born Gay? Genetics and Homosexuality.
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  14. The Cure for Sociopaths. December 28, 2011.

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Last updated March 6, 2013

 

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