Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Are you a good person? Part: The First

Pamphlet handed to me in the subway last week.
Editor's Note: Click here to get a filter of all parts of this series.

Am I a good person?  This is something I really want to know.

Luckily, someone handed me this pamphlet in the subway station last week.  I guess one doesn't need to be a god to judge this sort of thing after all.  I can just use this handy-dandy guide.

With my busy life, I just didn't have time to  really react to her.  I was late for work as it stood already.  I just crammed it into my bag and promised myself I'd give it a read.

As a side note, I really wish I had some of these nontracts to hand out from the Freedom from Religion Organization.

For a second I thought this guy was J.R. "Bob" Dobbs from
Do you consider yourself to be a good person?
Difficult question.  I guess I try to do the best I can, but sometimes I can be a real jerk. I'm not proud. Believe me, I'm working the best I can not to be a dick.
However, most of us differ as to the definition of "good."
Tell me about it.  I think that often in everyday life, it boils down to minimizing pain and suffering I'm causing to myself and others as much as possible.  I sure wish there was an easier way to tell...
The Bible says that God is good, and the Ten Commandments are His standard of goodness.
Sounds like all we need to do is read these commandments and we'll be able to basically do God's job.  But I do already have some objections. I'm not sure how anyone could think the character of God of the Bible is "good", unless we're talking about some alternate idea of good that in no way resembles what humans would consider to be good (or even legal) conduct.  My own quibbles. I haven't really spelled this out in this blog yet, so I'll role with it just this once.  Let's read on and find our tender consciences.

Your author suggests that you check out Christopher Hitchens: The New Commandments, an entertaining and thought-provoking piece he did for Vanity Fair.

1. You shall have no other gods before Me. 
No problem there!  I no longer worship any gods, so there's no risk whatsoever I'll do that.
2. You shall not make yourself an idol.
Unless you're God.

I don't know for sure if I understand this. At first I thought this meant make myself to be an idol (American Idol Style).  I used to make up gods and worship them, but now that I'm an atheist I'm not guilty of that either.  Whew, So far so good.

Some atheists seem to believe that all Christians make up gods that they are more comfortable with (than presumably the God of the Bible, I guess).  Having grown up Catholic, I was never comfortable with the God I was taught about and I never read the Bible.  We left all the making up to the Church to take care of.
3. You shall not take God's name in vain.
Oh man, have I used "God" as a cuss word!  When I've stubbed my toe; in exasperation; in bed.  I guess you've got me there.  

Of course if God didn't exist, I suppose we'd all be guilty of this one, wouldn't we?  Just a small mind experiment.
4. Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.
Wasn't that originally Saturday?  I love my weekends and so do all my friends.  Occasionally co-workers or clients want me to work on Saturday (or Sunday, whatever suits your theology) and I've had to hiss at them and remind them that my weekends are sacred.  I don't go to church on Sunday (or Saturday) though.  So I guess that's one point against me.

Wouldn't I be insulting God if I went to church and just pretended to praise (or even believe in) him?  If I were a petty, jealous, vindictive, god with low self-esteem I'd be mighty hurt at the sheer insincerity of it all.  The last thing I'd want is a room full of people who don't believe in me lying to my godly face.
5. Honor your father and mother. 
Again, a little vague.  If this means being civilized then yes, I am there.  But if it means love or respect your father and mother... Well I love them both, but I don't always necessarily respect them in all things.

Glossing over my own personal parental issues, I think this is a rather unreasonable expectation to foist onto people.  How can anyone force themselves to feel a certain way about someone or something ... or dare I say, God?  What happens if this father or mother were immoral monsters?  Should they still be respected?  I don't think so.

How about honoring parents who deserve to be honored?  You know, good parents.  Actually let's drop the whole parent thing.  How about honoring anyone who is good and deserving of honor?  Yes that would be much better.  I guess I digress.
6. You shall not murder. ( God considers hatred to be as murder. )
Is God aware of this rule?  Am I just being facetious?  Am I being a dick bad person? I'm sorry, but it seems like there is a whole lot of killing going on here.  I really don't understand.

Anyway, the answer is no, I have never killed another human being - at least not directly.  I suppose if I were to think hard enough I may have killed humans indirectly.  I paid taxes that went to at least one war.  I've probably bought my fair share of products produced in sweatshops that may induce total exhaustion or even perhaps death.  I've sat by and let people starve in third world countries that I could have done more to save.  I've let popes kill off whole swaths of Africans by saying condoms can increase risk of AIDS.  Hold on, I've used condoms, does that count? And I have killed animals both directly and indirectly.  I guess things can sure get complicated fast.  So I guess I'll say no.

Have I hated?  Yes I sure have.  I believe some people and things are worth hating - like certain institutions or people divine or otherwise.  Guilty. You got me there.
7. You shall not commit adultery. ( "Whoever looks upon a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" -- Matthew 5:27-28; This also includes sex before marriage. )
 Yes, and it was all fantastic!  I'm guilty on all counts and glad for it.  I remember growing up Catholic and being told I was never to touch myself unless I was washing.  So I washed often and for long periods.  I had a lecherous priest who was revoltingly focused on asking me how many times I touched myself, where I touched myself and if it was pleasurable ( which still turns my stomach to this day when I think about it).

I like how the biblical quote only applies to those who are interested in women.  So I guess heterosexual women can legally lust after men?  Well then I guess the tract tries to cover that by saying the prohibition also covers sex before marriage.  Does this mean women can get away with lusting after men before marriage as long as they don't have sex?  Are married women allowed to lust after men in general?  Does the Bible think women lust at all?  So many questions, so little time!
8. You shall not steal. ( Have you ever stolen anything? -- The value of the item is irrelevant.
I almost agree with this one. I stole a pornographic magazine once from a convenience store (in my misguided youth).  I've stolen other things as well.  I'm not very proud of it to be honest, so you got me there.

Poor Jean Valjean.  I guess it's just that cut and dry - God would be upset with him for stealing that bread to feed the little children.  Again, details matter.
9. You shall not lie. ( Have you lied even once? Including answering these questions. )
Hold on now.  Shouldn't this be "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour?" Methinks this is not quite the same thing. Anyway, I'm responding to the pamphlet, so I'll overlook this.

I guess Rahab did wrong by not turning in the Hebrew spies at Jericho. She should have turned those Hebrews in. Oh well, she was a prostitute so I suppose she was going to Hell anyway, eh?  And how terribly misleading Oskar Schindler was to keep all those Jews hidden.  But he was a good bad Catholic. It's like he was forced to be a bad person by some higher moral code.  Maybe there are situations where one is forced to choose between several undesirable courses of action and so they are required to weigh the consequences of each.  Ethics?

Who would force their children to choose between conflicting actions each with outcomes violating his moral code?  Who'd make it virtually impossible to do anything right and then threaten them with the ultimate mental and corporal punishment if they do not apologize for what they have little power over?  A totalitarian leader?  Abusive parent?  I can think of one Character who fits the mold and the only reason he seems above reproach and be deserving of our love is his divinity.

Maybe it's a little more complicated than what's in this pamphlet.  Yes, I've lied.  Sometimes it's been for unethical reasons.  Other times, it's been for ethical reasons.
10. You shall not covet. ( Have you ever jealously desired what belongs to others?)
I think there's more to this commandment than what's in this little pamphlet.  Something about oxen and wives, etc.

Sure.  I've wanted other people's laptops, houses, women.  What's the problem with this precisely?
Dear readers,

Yes, I get the point of the tract.  It's been rigged up so nobody can possibly say no to any of these questions and thus nobody can be a good person.  It's setting up a standard that no human can possibly achieve - thus setting me up for failure.  Sounds familiar somehow. Christopher Hitchens was fond of a saying by Greville:

Oh wearisome condition of Humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound,
Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,
Created sick, commanded to be sound:
What meaneth Nature by these diverse laws?
Passion and reason self-division cause.
Is it the mask or majesty of Power
To make offences that it may forgive?
                                          Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke
                                          Mustapha Act V, Sc. 4
I believe most Christians know that at some level one must use their own brains and apply some sort of ethical calculus.  Those people are unlikely, I think, to produce and disseminate literature such as this.  So this response isn't to them, although I do question why they don't simply demote the Bible to the same level as other great works of fiction like those of Shakespeare, Homer or Mark Twain.

I'm really talking to those who believe blind faith to these rules make one a good person.  Such thought frightens me, actually.

This only takes me halfway through the tract but the end of the commandments makes for a nice cut-off point.  I'll discuss the rest in a future post and give some concluding thoughts.

Editor's Note: Click here to continue to the second instalment.

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