Why do we have a Conscience?

One of many questions left unanswered by evolution is how man’s conscience could have developed. How could ideas of right and wrong (which seem to be firmly ingrained into every culture) have developed by evolutionary processes? If we evolved, ideas of right and wrong must have also evolved with us. Therefore, a conscience, that is a knowledge of right and wrong, must have some intrinsic survival value. But does it?

In a struggle for survival, will the existence of a conscience help or hinder one’s survival? An evolving person without a conscience would be free to covet belongings, steal the possessions of others, and even murder without guilt. A man with a conscience is hesitant and soul searching. Where is the survival value to the individual having the conscience? The conscience serves as a detriment to survival, not a mechanism which increases an individual’s ability to survive. Unless the universe has been created by a God who has established inherent values of right and wrong, it would seem that there is no survival value to the development of a conscience.

If the conscience did not evolve, then it must have always existed. What could be the source of that which has always existed and defines good from evil? The question in itself defines one characteristic of God.

Almost all people of every culture seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong. There also seems to be universal guilt among humans and a desire to be free of this guilt. How could we be born with an innate sense of right and wrong? Maybe we feel guilty because we are … in reality … guilty.

People can ignore their conscience. If this happens repeatedly, their conscience will tend to atrophy the same way an unused muscle will atrophy. In Biblical language, to ignore one’s conscience is to allow the heart to become hardened. There are many influential voices today who believe the solution to our social problems is to deny that there is an absolute standard for (or even existence of) right or wrong. Thus, a person with little or no conscience is as welcome in society as one with a highly developed conscience. In such a society right and wrong is defined only by what is most expedient for those in power. Nazi Germany was such a society. A society which denies the reality of an external source of conscience often becomes a hell on earth.

Where does sacrificial love fit into such a society? Why be sacrificial in a society that teaches any lifestyle is acceptable? The God of Christianity extols self sacrifice. This seems to be the opposite of what evolution would produce. The Bible is full of examples of loving sacrifices but nowhere can the concept of survival of the fittest be seen as a characteristic of God.

To summarize, a loving human with a conscience would be at a great disadvantage and thus unlikely to have survived the evolutionary process. From a humanist viewpoint, attributes of the conscience (such as self sacrifice purely for the good of others) are weaknesses. Yet it is these very attributes which make us humans and not animals.

No person has ever lived without violating his conscience in some way. Every person has fallen short of what God expects from us—obedience. So how do we make up for our disobedience to the One who put the standard in our soul? The Bible is very clear that we can never earn our way to heaven by trying to make up for our shortcomings. It is also clear that God has provided a means of forgiveness through the loving sacrifice of himself as payment for our sins. It is as if the judge at a trial took the penalty for a crime upon himself. Once we have accepted His forgiveness, we can truly start to live out sacrificial love… even toward those who hate us. What an illogical concept if evolution is a fact of history!

John Adam is a computer programmer who lives in Granville, Ohio.