2/15/09

"A Good Person"

I might as well just come out with it right off the bat: I believe that perhaps the most meaningless phrase in the history of language is “I’m a good person,” or “You’re a good person.” And it also seems to me that the most dangerous movement in the world is the self-esteem movement.

Atheism and morality, atheism and ethics

But just what is wrong with being a good person? Nothing. But in and of itself it is the concept, the terminology, that is utterly meaningless. Why? This is the point: we must first seek to define “good” because the easiest thing in the world is to look into the mirror and say, “I’m a good person.”
Atheism and morality, atheism and ethics
On a certain real-life crime television show a man was referred to as “good”.


This man is a convicted child molester who, with his wife’s assistance, faked his own death in order to defraud their life insurance company.He robbed a grave and exhumed the corpse in order to place it into a car so as to burn it and make it look like it was his dead body.He and his wife talked their four year old son into believing that he, the boy’s daddy, was dead.He then reentered his child’s life having dyed his hair as a disguise and talked the child into believing that he was his mommy’s new boyfriend.Needless to say that the little boy began to exhibit psychological disturbed behavior.When his wife was interviewed form her temporary home in prison she was asked if he would get back together with him when they were both released and she responded in the affirmative, explaining, “He is a good man.”
If he is a good man I would hate to see a bad one.But then again, surely this was the opinion of a “good woman”.In fact, to certain people Mother Theresa was a good person, Osama bin Laden is a good person, I’m a good person, you’re a good person, everyone is a good person.
Atheism and morality, atheism and ethics
There is a television program entitled “The Moment of Truth” the premise of which is that contestants have been questioned regarding various aspects of their lives while strapped into a polygraph—a lie detector.On Monday March 25th an episode aired that was relevant to this post.

A particular contestant admitted that she had flashed (exposed her naked body) to perfect strangers, had stolen money form an employer, takes off her wedding ring when she goes out partying in order to appear unmarried, has committed adultery, was still in love with an ex-boyfriend on her wedding day, is still in love with her ex-boyfriend and that she would prefer to have been married to the ex-boyfriend.The most astonishing aspect of this was that in the end she was asked “Do you think you’re a good person?” she answered “Yes” and while there was a pause for the results of the polygraph her father kept repeating “Yes,” “Yes,” “Yes.”As it turns out the polygraph detected that she was lying and a look of utter shock came across her face.
Poor thing, she obviously needs some genuine love in her life.
Atheism and morality, atheism and ethics
Perhaps it is due to the self-esteem movement that people want to be able to think of themselves as being “a good person.” Anyone can baselessly and self-congratulatorly say, “I’m a good person.” This is made all the easier by the fact that people invent their own definition of what it means to be good. For this reason, if someone says to me, “I’m a good person,” I would not take their word for it since it would be far more telling to ask the person’s family, friends and co-workers. This would ensure a better-rounded and accurate depiction of a person’s character; this is why our legal system has “character witnesses.”
Atheism and morality, atheism and ethics
Usually a person’s definition of good comes down to “being good means that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want, as much as I want, with whomever I want.” The only exception is that the definition of what good is often is followed by the following qualifier, “as long as you don’t hurt anyone,” i.e., “harm none.” Yet, “hurt” or “harm” are terms that is just a generic as “good” and just as morally arbitrary.
Atheism and morality, atheism and ethics
Since people want to think of themselves as good they concoct a definition that allows them to do as they wish. They excuse their actions that are non-good or they think that doing good makes you a good person but doing non-good is meaningless. Or rather, that doing non-good is a mere slip up from doing good and therefore eligible for self-forgiveness by justifying their actions or simply excusing themselves. To an atheist being “good” may be besmirching theists at every possible opportunity. It may mean putting down and bickering with co-workers, friends and family members about theism. It may mean telling theists that they are ignorant, superstitious and unable to think rationally.
Atheism and morality, atheism and ethics
But what does one do when they call themselves a good person but they commit an act that is not good? Some say, “Do better the next time,” but how does this fix the problem or make up for it? Moreover, what if a person did not notice that they did something that was not good? They may not have paid enough attention to their own actions, or words, or may have excused their own actions and words. How does one improve upon something that they did not notice? This is where the band-aid of all psychological band-aids comes into play in the form of the self-esteem movement. Just remember, this movement proclaims, just feel good about yourself all of the time not matter what, you deserve it. Just remember that you are a good person regardless of all of the evidence to the contrary.
Atheism and morality, atheism and ethics
It is the standards by which we judge that determine the meaning of “good.”
Atheism and morality, atheism and ethics

He was despised and forsaken of men,a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised,and we did not esteem Him—Isaiah 53:3

20 comments:

  1. Well said. When sharing the Gospel in general or speaking with Muslims in particular (who believe our good and bad deeds are weighed in the balance to determine our salvation) I like to point out that if that is the criteria then I'm in big, big trouble.

    When estimating my good and bad thoughts, words, actions and inactions I would say I'm lucky to be considered 10% good by God's standards or even mine. I need Jesus as a Savior because I could never make it to 51% even if that was the real standard.

    That statement often disarms the listener of the "Christians think they are perfect" notion, and it has the added benefit of being true.

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  2. The "good person" mantra is also the greatest misdirection for Christians who aren't "versed" in their Bible.

    You won't find anything more common than Christians substituting Christ's death on the Cross with "good people" go to Heaven.

    It's saddening.

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  3. RFM,

    This article claims that most Christians have moved to an "inclusivist" view of salvation:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/27/opinion/27blow.html?_r=1&em

    I'm not sure how to feel about this, but I'm definitely not saddened by it.

    As for Mariano's essay, I don't understand what it has the do with not believing in god.

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  4. Especially if you believe in the Calvinist doctrine. It matters not whether you are good or not, you go to hell if you are not elect.

    Plus Jesus said "why do you call me good, God alone is good"

    (It's a paraphrase, I'm too busy downloading pictures of vaginas and breasts to look up the actual verse.)

    Hey I never said I was good did I?

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  5. Usually a person’s definition of good comes down to “being good means that I can do whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want, as much as I want, with whomever I want.”
    Odd that you'd have a problem with that definition of morality, since according to at least one fellow believer of yours:

    ====
    If the applications are so different, then what right does he have to judge us, other than “might makes right”?
    With God, might makes right is right. So what?

    Yeah, so “depraved” that the idea of billions of people dying for the sake of the “glory” of some “sky-daddy” sickens me. Yeah, I’m “depraved” alright…
    Correct.

    What you’ve described is an amoral being, not a moral one. If you assert, with no proof, that “god” has the “right” to impose his rules on us without himself having to obey any rules himself then he’s not moral, he just does whatever he wants.
    Yes, God doing whatever he wants is moral.
    ====

    Does that last line sound familiar?

    Gotta love Calvinists...

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  6. To be fair to Calvinists, it does matter whether you are good or not - it's just the case that no one is good. Thus the "total depravity" part.

    As for the "God doing what he wants" thing, I think part of the problem with this is that people really only take offense because they feel like God doesn't have the right to respond in certain ways. But there are at least three things to consider before lashing out at God for what he does. First, we're sinners - i.e. we've done contrary to God's will and thus, according again to Christian doctrine, we are enemies of God, save Christ. So treating us as enemies when we are enemies only makes sense. Secondly, God created us. As much as we don't like the idea, I can't really see anything actually immoral about the creator doing what he wants with his creation. If da Vinci came back today and said "that Mona Lisa thing sucks" and proceeded to tear it to shreds, a lot of people would be annoyed, but could they really charge him with some wrong? It's his painting. That said, the third point is that this view of the Christian God is really a caricature in my mind, although I think it's one that Christians and atheists alike tend to share. Point being, I'm not sure how accurate it is to even look at God in this way.

    Regardless, taking God and placing him in the same class as humans and then imposing our situation upon him doesn't make much sense to me - and that is the case whether he exists or not.

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  7. A key question is, "what is the standard of good vs. bad?" If morals are relative, then the statement, "I am a good person," says nothing more than "I personally approve of how I behave" or "my culture approves of how I behave." This would be of no help, however, in justifying one person in the eyes of another person. Eventually a universal and objective standard is needed.

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  8. @SJ
    Plus Jesus said "why do you call me good, God alone is good"
    Hey, you said you had been a Christian yet you don't understand this verse?

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  9. About Calvinism: I have no idea how someone who knows Bible could have come up with such idea.
    Half of Jesus teachings is irreconcilable with Calvin's doctrines.

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  10. "About Calvinism: I have no idea how someone who knows Bible could have come up with such idea.
    Half of Jesus teachings is irreconcilable with Calvin's doctrines."


    Another splendid example of why the best argument against any particular religion is all the other religions.

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  11. R.F.M. "Heresy runs rampant."
    That sounds like something a heretic would say! Get him!

    (Isn't it nice to know that everybody else is a heretic?)

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  12. Tremor said: @SJ
    Plus Jesus said "why do you call me good, God alone is good"
    Hey, you said you had been a Christian yet you don't understand this verse?


    I was kind of spouting off as I'm prone to do sometimes, but you bring up a good point. (good get it?)

    Honestly I could speculate from the context, or I could look it up and dig into it. I think it would be more honest for me to say I don't really know what that meant, other than what it says (cause I don't feel like looking it up). Perhaps it means that Jesus is cautioning people not to equate teachers, which there were many around I would guess, with the righteousness of God. Or maybe he was saying that he had a secular element in that he was part man and couldn't be considered good, as god is. Or maybe you're the weak And I'm the shepherd.
    (ok couldn't resist the pulp fiction ref)

    Tell me what you think it means Tremor.

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  13. Perhaps, Jesus was trying to find out if he (the original questioner) thought that he (Jesus) was God.

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  14. HenryWM,

    "Eventually a universal and objective standard is needed."

    For the sake of discussion, I will grant you this premise.

    Now, how do we gain access to the standard? If you and I wanted to determine whether behavior X was morall or immoral, how could we get the answer objectively?

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  15. Perhaps, Jesus was trying to find out if he (the original questioner) thought that he (Jesus) was God.

    I'll buy that R.F.M.
    I got a lot of carny in me but I could buy that one, nice job.

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  16. Not a bad essay, although I don't quite see what it has to do with the death of atheism.

    I liked it so much I emailed a copy to Bush the Second and CCed it to all the video evangelists that extolled his virtues and campaigned for him over the past 8 years.

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  17. As R.F.M. wrote. Definitely Jesus didn't meant to say that he wasn't God.
    According to Maria Valtorta young man answered: "You are the Son of God, as good as Your Father."
    As another plausible explanation would be to suppose that Jesus meant 'No one is good rabbi - except God alone'.

    I'd like to point at very simple definition of good man given by Jesus:
    (43) "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' (44) But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (45) so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Mt 5:43 nn).

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  18. No Tremor I totally agree with you on that,I was saying that Jesus was almost warning his viewers to be careful who they just walked up and saw preaching and thought were Godlike, or worthy of the title of good. It's almost like Jesus was saying, hey you just met me and already your calling me good? don't be quite so fast to toss that title around.

    I think maybe too much is made of this passage, it doesn't threaten Jesus's diviny nor does it inform us on his realtionship with God.

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  19. I wrote a longish parable which is applicable to the silly "I am a good person" claim: Noìli's Custom Ice Cream Shoppe

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