Are most people OK?

Many (especially older) people in the Netherlands with a religious background studied the doctrines of the church from the age-old Heidelberger Catechism. During 52 Sundays the young people were instructed, through a format of questions and answers, about the main teachings in the Calvinist version of the Protestant faith. In question eight (Sunday three) the reader is told that from his birth, by nature, man is utterly ‘corrupt’ and that he is ‘totally unable to do any good’ and is ‘inclined toward all evil’. Sure enough, the catechism also points to the possibility of being saved from one’s sins, but the student of this venerable document is presented with a rather dark view of humanity.

A totally different perspective is offered in the title of a recent book by Rutger Bregman (1998), a young Dutch historian and opinion maker, who had part of his education in the United States. The title of the book (De meeste mensen deugen) is a bit difficult to translate but expresses the idea that most people around us are basically OK. It is currently number one on the Dutch bestseller list under the category of non-fiction. Based on the newest insights from psychology, economy, biology and archeology, Bregman concludes that most people on our globe are not ‘corrupt’ and are not ‘unable to do any good”, but are ‘basically OK’. I have not yet read the book, but did order it this morning from the Dutch equivalent of Amazon ( I am very curious to find out what arguments Bregman puts forward.

Which of the two approaches has the best credentials? Those who value the Bible cannot ignore the phenomenon of ‘sin’ and must accept that that we all fall terribly short if we measure our lives along the divine measuring rod. However, the picture that is painted by the Heidelberger Catechism, and is still underlined in some ultra-orthodox denominations, is one-sided (to say the least). In spite of all our shortcomings we are the bearers of ‘the image of God’ and are given the privilege of calling ourselves ‘children of God’ (1 John 3:1).

Yet, at the same time I feel rather attracted to the ‘statement’ by Rutger Bregman that most people are basically OK. At times, I feel rather awkward when I am meet and talk with certain church members and I get goosebumps when I hear some of the theories that are doing the rounds. Unfortunately, meeting such people happens all too often. However, after giving it some thought, I usually come to the conclusion that most people in the church are OK. Or, to put it differently: There are plenty of unpleasant people in the church whom one would like to avoid, but most people are nice and are ‘OK’. Perhaps the well-known Pareto-principle does also apply here. This principle was discovered by the Italian mathematician and economist Pareto. He noticed that 20 % of the Italians possess 80$ of all riches. And the 20’80 rule appears to be valid in many areas. For most companies 20% of their articles are responsible for 80% of their total turnover, while 20% percent of the customers bring 80% of all complaints. It has been found that 80% of all smart-phone owners use only about 20% of the possibilities of their phone and that 20% of the You-tune films are seen by 80% of all visitors. Examples of other instances where the 20/80 rule applies is plentiful.

Pastors and chaplains know that the Pareto-principle also applies to their work. A relatively small percentage of the church members are responsible for a disproportionate percentage of all problems and complaints that come their way. And perhaps I also meet the Pareto-principle in my contacts with those church members whom I find it difficult to relate to. My thoughts are sometimes so much focused on this group, that it can at times be easy for me to forget that ‘most’ (at least 80%) of my fellow-church members are definitely ‘OK”.