Friday, February 09, 2007

on being good

In an interesting comments discussion I had with TK of the Uncooked Meat blog, TK stated the following:

"Sure, I probably drink too much, and swear too much, but other than that, I'd like to think I'm a good person. And I suppose it's important that others, regardless of beliefs or lack thereof, to think that of me to. "

This comment made me realize that before I write any more articles about evil or Christianity, I need to cover the concept of goodness as it relates to human beings. The reason why this is important is that in order to have a conversation with anyone about belief systems, you must first establish what it is that they believe about goodness. One person's belief system might specify that it is "good" to avoid doing harm to anyone for any reason. Another person's belief system might specify that it is good to harm, and even kill, those who do not share your belief system, or at least pretend to share it. Hence, defining what is good must be paramount before going off into any other direction. I attempted to provide a very simplistic definition of goodness in the first part of my "the problem of evil" series on this blog. Eventually I will elaborate on the definition at some point in the not-too-distant future.

But for now, I want to concentrate on a related matter, and that would be the debate as to whether or not human beings are intrinsically good or evil. By intrinsically, I mean whether or not someone is born "good" or "evil." What you believe concerning intrinsic goodness or evil will shape quite a bit of the rest of your worldview, as I will soon demonstrate.

But first: are we born good, evil, or something in between? An interesting case could be made for any of the three, but I personally think it is quite obvious, when you give it a bit of thought, that we are born evil, but have the potential for goodness. In Christianity this can be expressed as the doctrine of Original Sin, where we are unable to be good, since we are born of a couple of rebellious young sinners: Adam and Eve. From birth, we share in their rebellious heritage, whether we want to or not.

But even avoiding Christian theology entirely, a case can still be made that we are born intrinsically evil, not good. All that one hast to do is read the newspapers, watch TV, observe life in an as objective fashion as possible, and see what the source of all our problems and difficulties are.

Often I've seen militant atheists blame all the troubles of the world on religion, and they honestly believe that if we were to do away with religion, everything would be just fine. Of course that's absolute nonsense, as most positive religions, like Christianity and Buddhism, have very high and challenging moral and ethical codes as a part of their systems, codes which when followed have brought forth a tremendous amount of blessings and advances, of which no other system can even come close. Just from Christianity has been born modern science, hospitals, orphanages, hospices, public education, universities, and various other institutions which we take for granted, or assume are the products of corporations or the government. History shows clearly that many of the great ideas in Western Civilization were born out of Christians applying their beliefs to the problems of society.

So where does evil really come from, if not religion? Simple: it comes from the selfishness and the self-righteousness that can be found in any human's heart. We are greedy, selfish people at our core, caring mostly about one thing: our self preservation and self-promotion, all else is a distant second place. All you need to do to prove this to your own satisfaction is have children.

Perhaps somewhere in history there was a child born who has always done the right thing, and has never had to be disciplined, but I'm not personally aware of any alive at this moment. Children, more so than anything else, can drive perfectly normal adults into full blown insanity, depression, and rages of anger that would never be seen except for the presence of children. Yes, even toddlers (especially toddlers!) can drive the most calm, collected, rational adult into a nervous babbling wreck within minutes.

God, in his infinite wisdom, gave us parents to beat, smack, and curse us into being good. Sadly, some have taken this job either too seriously, or there have been others who have not taken it seriously enough; causing their offspring to lead a life of evil rather than good. The children seemed to have picked up on the wrong lesson. This is part of the fun and danger of being a human being with free will: you can use it for either good or evil, depending on your state of mind.

So how can one's state of mind be foundational in a person's trek through life? Let me answer that by saying that though I think it's totally obvious that men are born evil, and spend a life time trying to overcome it, it is also obvious that there are many people with selective vision, who think that because we have the potential for goodness, then we are, in fact, good. Amazingly, one of the most striking paradoxes is that those who realize the evil in men's hearts are those who will most likely be virtuous; and those who take for granted that men are good will most likely turn out to be selfish, greedy pigs.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and any other "evil" figure you can think of had absolutely no illusions about themselves: they all thought of themselves as ultimate goodness, and by their power they were going to bring about some sort of utopia here on earth. If it just weren't for those poor, deceived folks who could not see their grand vision, and who had to be "taken care of" one way or another.

Those who think people are basically good (or at least believe themselves to be basically good!) will normally have little use for religion, and find their ultimate expression of goodness in government power and government programs designed to wipe away every evil from the face of society. After all, it's not that people are bad or evil, it's just that they've been poorly educated, or are too poor, or are just somewhat deceived as to how good we all are, and especially how good are those in political power over the rest of us are. These types want all sorts of education, social programs, and other government sponsored programs to bring about heaven here on earth, all the while blind to the realization that they are only making a more fertile atmosphere for evil to take hold.

Those who understand that people are basically evil, and understand themselves to be the most evil of all, don't look to the government to do anything but protect us from those who have chosen a life of evil. Hence a strong justice system and a powerful national defense are high priorities, for they know what can happen when evil triumphs. These people are very much religious, knowing that redemption can only come from a higher power, not from any man made institution. They are also very suspicious of government, in a healthy way, knowing that governments are only a good as the men who are in positions of power, and they know how quickly the nature of government can change just by a simple change of leadership. They have little use for social welfare systems, knowing that evil is not some circumstance of society, but resides in the heart of men. But they have great love and admiration for churches, religions, schools and charitable societies that do their best to encourage and even push men along the path of their potential goodness, something no government can do. And most importantly, they understand that the boring, old-fashioned traditional family; mom, dad and a handful of kids, is the greatest force for good on this planet, and needs to be protected and nurtured. That's not to say that families can't also be a force of great evil, just that in most circumstances, a strong family can be the best social welfare system a person can have.

Hence how you view human beings, either as being intrinsically good or evil (including yourself!) can have severe repercussions on all else that you are willing to accept as true. It could even be argued that your stand on this issue is foundational to all else in your life, including your religion and politics.

As for me, you already know that I do not view any human being as being intrinsically good, not even myself. The evil in my own heart has always been very obvious to me, and never, ever have I thought myself a good person, not for a single day. And yet, I know I do have the potential for goodness, that it can be developed and nurtured, and that this darkness in my heart can be ultimately overcome. But it's not going to come via education, work, government, nor any other man-made institution: it will only come about through a Devine transformation through the power of God.

But more on that in a future posting...

<>< TM


TK said...

Howdy. I appreciate the plug, by the way. And obviously, we're going to disagree on this one, but that's no surprise. While I wholeheartedly agree with your definitions of good and evil, I can't possibly believe that we are born evil - how can an infant be evil? I know, I know, oversimplification again. But I suppose I'm a tabula rasa kind of guy. I believe that we're born with the capacity for anything, and that our learning, experience, the way we're raised, ultimately decides how we end up. Somewhat like dogs - beat a dog every day, deny it food, yell at at, lock it outside - you're going to have one heck of a nasty dog. But treat it with love, cuddle with him, play with him, give him treats, and you'll end up with dogs like mine - that is, sweet, loving, friendly.

I know I just compared babies to dogs, but I believe the analogy is an apt one. But I suppose my question to you is this: why?

Why are we born evil? I'm aware of Original Sin, but it's hard for me to buy into it. Some sort of "evil genetics", passed down through thousands of generations, from Adam and Eve? It strikes me as not only unlikely, but also unfair. Why are people punished by the sins of two people from history? I won't lie - there may well be an answer to this in bible, but I certainly don't know where.

But what strikes me as almost equally interesting is that, on the surface, the argument is almost a semantic one. Whether Original Sin or Tabula Rasa, both have different perspectives of what we're like when we come into this world. But it strikes me that the outcomes are based on the same parameters - namely, how we are raised and taught and what we experience will ultimately dictate whether we end up saints or sinners.

But of course the major disconnect will be this: whether or not you are capable of the same *level* of "good" without faith, or God, as a driving force. I believe it's not only possible, but likely. You'd be amazed at the number of social service workers, homeless shelter employees, childcare advocates, etc. that I've met who have little or no religion in their life. Which isn't to say that there isn't a similar number of them who are believers. While it's a small (relative to a global scale) sample size, it's hard for me to believe that people must have religion to be capable of goodness.

And I certainly have never been a proponent of "doing away with religion" (not that I am suggesting that you felt I was). As I've said before, to put it bluntly: I don't care. As long as you live your life well, without harming others - believe that we come from the moon - it makes no difference to me. I've never supported atheists who try to slam religion - not only is it most likely a waste of time, but it's none of their business. Believing freely and without persecution in God, or Buddha, or Allah, or nothing - that's what drew people to form this country in the first place. I respect that. And just like I don't support those who try to convert me, I can't support those who try to de-convert (I know, not a word) people of faith.

Anyway, as usual, I've enjoyed reading your writings, and look forward to more spirited debate.

oof... bad pun.

theodicy said...

Hi TK, always good to hear from you! Sorry it's taking me so long to reply to your comments, but I've been spending most of my free time shoveling snow! Yes, Old Man Winter is back with a vengeance here in the northern parts of the Mid-West; happily thumbing his nose at all those who've put their faith in global warming. I'm just glad I don't live anywhere near Lake Ontario, those poor folks in up-state New York have really been getting hammered.

As always, you bring up some excellent points, so let's get the ball rolling…

As for the "blank state" hypothesis, it's nice idea, but has just about completely fallen out of favor with the scientific crowd. It seems we have most aspects of our lives predetermined even before birth. Amazingly, it has been due to the work of two well known atheist, left-wingers that the idea of the "blank slate" has been thrown into the dust bin of history. Who are the two dudes responsible for this? None other than Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. I especially recommend Pinker's book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature which can be found at almost any well stocked bookstore. It is a clear, thorough refutation of the "blank state" theory.

But Pinker's findings do not mean that nurture (upbringing) is completely unimportant--though many have already leaped to that conclusion. Your analogy of the raising of dogs is very appropriate.

Your dogs are being raised in a kind, loving way because you made a CHOICE to raise them that way--you took the initiative. You just didn't stick them in a fenced-in back yard and toss them some food once or twice a day (though there are idiots who do, in fact, treat their dogs this way.) You chose to be GOOD to those dogs, and in a way, you are teaching them goodness. You aren't sitting back, hoping and waiting whether or not they will be good natured or little demons from hell, you are "stacking the deck" so to speak, and that is a good thing to do.

While I don't believe dogs are inherently evil, it does seem heretical to call little babies "evil" --but allow me to present this thought experiment:

Imagine, if you will, a man, about 40 years old, who does nothing but makes demands on those around him. If you ignore his demands, or blow them off, he throws a fit from hell, and lets you know what a scum you are. Give in to his demands, and he is your best friend, all the while completely and totally ignoring any needs or wants you have. The only things that matters for him is getting what he wants, all else be damned.

Would you think a person who is this selfish could be anything but evil?

The only difference between the man in this example and a baby is age; otherwise the attitudes are identical. Of course we don't hold it against a baby for being a selfish little imp, they are "born that way." (a strike against the blank slate!) But if a full-grown man should act like an infant, we don't make any excuses for him, since he should "know better." But all he's doing in refusing to grow up. And yes, I've known men who have acted exactly like this "fictional" example.

The root of evil is just plain, boring selfishness; and every baby I've ever known has this attribute in spades! But again, we don't hold it against them, for they just are being what they are. Sure, little kids can do acts of kindness, but often these are the exception rather than the rule.

To put it simply: we do not have to learn selfishness and self-centeredness, those qualities are fully realized from day one. We didn't have to go to school, didn't have to get a degree, did need a lecture from mom & dad on what selfishness is and how to obtain it; rather it's always been apart of us.

As to your point about non-religious people being and doing good: that's seems to be true from my experience as well, but then no one in the United States lives in a cultural vacuum. By that I mean religion, especially Christian religion, is so well ingrained in our society, that even if you are not a practitioner of any religion, and don't believe in God, you are still getting a tremendous dose of religion just by being a member of American society, which is one of the most religious societies on earth, with perhaps the exception of India.

All the ideas about "freedom," "democracy," "liberty," "equality," "self-worth" and so on are really religious ideas, not secular. While we can point to the ancient Greeks and Romans as the source of some of these ideas, these cultures were far from atheist or secular; if anything, they had too many gods! But even the Greeks--well before Christianity came on the scene--were already showing signs of heading down the path of monotheism, at least in terms of their philosophy. When Christianity came along, Christians often embraced rather than scorned the great philosophical teachings of the Greeks and Romans, recognizing that Greek philosophy was a perfect vehicle from expressing their faith in a way the pagans could easily understand and appreciate. St. Augustine is perhaps the best example of this, but by no means the only example.

If your goal is ultimate goodness, rather than just doing a good act here or there, then I would argue there is no way you can achieve such a thing without God and religion of some sort. All men are capable of being good, even Hitler and Stalin were known to do acts of kindness--in front of cameras and with plenty of witnesses!

But I've also seen--and do see on a daily basis--people doing acts of kindness not out of the goodness of their hearts, but only because it's "good business." In other words, they are looking for payback, specifically from the person they are being kind to. I'm often absolutely amazed at how easily people are snow-balled by these types, but it's also a demonstration of how starved for affection and recognition many people truly are.

Sure, a person can choose to be good, and pursue a life of goodness completely apart from religion, they may even be rather successful at it. But if someone were truly serious about this, and at least allowed for the possibility of there being a supreme being, then I would say that such a person will eventually find God, even without seriously looking for Him. God is the source of all goodness, including that potential goodness within every human being. If goodness is a major goal in your life, then you will eventually find yourself believing in God, only because He makes himself known to such people.

All you have to do to find God is to search for him, being open to the possibility of finding him, and you will find Him. It sounds too simple, I know, but it has been proven millions of times over.

And the converse is also true: if you don't want to find God, if don't want to believe He exists, then you won't ever find Him; for who looks for that which has no possibility of existing? It's just like those idiots who deny the Holocaust: it's not that they are unsure there was a Holocaust, it's that they want YOU to doubt it ever happened!

One thing we can certainly agree on is the importance of tolerance of beliefs, or lack of beliefs. The only time when I would argue that tolerance must be suspended is when a practitioner of a belief system believes it's OK to destroy those who don't share his beliefs. Such people should certainly not be tolerated, as they only use tolerance (i.e. "pacificism") as a means to further their own evil agenda.

When you read the New Testament you will never, ever see Jesus or the Apostles attempting to force their beliefs on anyone. They certainly wanted converts--of that there is no question--but they did not waste time with those who weren't interested, or those who actively opposed them. They went to those who needed what they had to offer, and spent their time and effort with those who welcomed them.

Militant Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews--or whatever--are all doing a grave disservice to mankind. Once you start teaching that it's OK to hate, marginalize and even kill those who don't agree with your system, then you are heading down the highway to hell as surely as if you worshiped Satan himself.

The religious person I remember the best for taking a very passionate stance on the tolerance of belief systems was a Zen Buddhist monk! He used almost exactly the same analogy: once you think you know it all in regards to your belief system, and that others must follow you or perish, that is the day you have decided you're going to hell!

<>< TM