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...