Are you a good person?

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In discussing the necessity of accepting God and/or Jesus, apologists will often pose the question, "Are you a good person?" The idea is to sow the seeds of doubt in the listener's mind by using the Ten Commandments and play on the fear of eternal damnation to make belief in God more attractive. This is one of many cases where Religion causes fear more clearly than hope.

See also Pascal's Wager.

Any admission of imperfection is regarded as equal: stealing a piece of candy as a child is equivalent to robbing a bank, as they are both "sin".

Contents

Apologetics

One version of the argument, as used by Ray Comfort for example, goes something like this:

  • Apologist: Do you think you are a good person?
    • Unbeliever: (Does not matter whether they answer yes or no or anything in-between, or even point out the errors in the question or present their own views on how to identify a good/bad person)
  • Apologist: Well, let's find out if you are a good person. Have you ever told a lie?
    • Unbeliever: Well yes, everybody has at some point...
  • Ap: What are you called if you tell a lie?
    • Un: A liar.
  • Ap: Have you ever stolen anything, regardless of its value?
    • Un: A little thing when I was young.
  • Ap: What do you call a person who steals?
    • Un: A thief.
  • Ap: Jesus said that anybody who looked at a women in lust is guilty of adultery in his heart. Have you ever looked at a woman with lust?
    • Un: Well, yeah.
  • Ap: Have you ever used God's name in vain?
    • Un: Yes.
  • Ap: You've taken the name of the God who gave you life as a cuss word? Have you said things like "OMG" or "God dammit"? That's called blasphemy.
  • Ap: So, by your own admission, you are a lying, thieving, adulterous, blasphemer, and when Jesus comes again on judgment day, how do you think he's going to treat you? Would you go to heaven or hell?
  • Ap: Now imagine you are in a court standing before the judge. You plead with the judge to have mercy and you point out that you have done many good things in your life, but since he is a righteous judge and you have violated the law, he must punish you. You are found guilty, but then suddenly a man you do not know walks in, approaches the judge and pays your fine. That is what Jesus Christ did for you. He died on the cross, and paid the fine for your sins.

The Apologist may follow up by using the parachute analogy.

The apologist's goal of the "Have you ever told a lie?" question of this argument is to get the person to call themselves a liar. Should the mark not answer "liar" when the apologist asks the mark "What does that make you?", perhaps answering with "human", or "normal", etc., the apologist will counter with "If I told many lies, what would you call me?", and this usually draws out the word "liar" from the mark.

The lying part is supposedly connected to the 9th commandment; thou shalt not bear false witness. It should also be noted that Ray Comfort has no problem with lying should it suit his purposes. He has 'born false witness' against evolution and atheism on countless occasions knowing that what he was saying is false.

As it turns out, Ray Comfort wrote on his blog that it is wrong to lie or steal EXCEPT in the cases such as lying to your grandma that her hat looks nice or stealing a loaf of bread to feed your eight starving children[1]. So it appears, when asking a lay person if they have ever told a lie, that to Ray some lies are justified. However, he never includes this little detail in his street evangelism, rather making it appear that lying in general is absolutely immoral, and thus Ray labels the person a "liar" or "thief."

Counter-apologetics

If you reverse this argument, you could equally well ask: Have you ever done something nice for a person? Then you are a good person. Everything everyone says can be considered good or bad by someone, so by this logic everyone is bad. For instance, I consider that by making all his emotion-based arguments, Ray Comfort is doing something bad. It then follows, by that logic, that Ray is a bad person.

This question could also be re-written as "Are you a good Jew?" since the Ten Commandments were given by God to the Jews - the Chosen People. These laws were not instructed for the Canaanites and such, only the Jews. Imagine if the same question was asked in the same manner, but rather than using the Ten Commandments as a criteria, instead use the 5 Pillars of Islam or the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. Of course the first objection would be that a religious bias is set up to examine a person if they follow the provided guidelines to impress said faith ("are you a good Muslim?" or "are you a good Buddhist?") However, none of these are actually attempting to discover if you really are an actual good person in the sense of the word. Rather, they are asking if you are worthy for the reward offered by said religion (in a sort of in-or-out fashion), not are you good in general.

To discover if a person is really good, the best criteria to use should be divorced from religion, and based more on secular humanitarian values. These values understand that humans are humans, which means they are all different and are all capable of experiencing many feelings, emotions, and actions. If good is based on morality, then morality by any definition is the reduction of harm and suffering. We do not harm children for drawing on walls, because they have no capacity to grasp the reasons for not doing this. We do not wish to harm others, but often a person can find themselves in a bad situation. For instance, we harm people out of self-defense, and not all Christians are pacifists.

Determining if a person is "good" or not cannot be done by religious criteria. Ray Comfort's method of using the Ten Commandments is no more effective than using the 5 Pillars of Islam, especially because the books they come from list situations when it is okay to break them, such as "thou shalt not kill" from the ten commandments of the bible being null and void when it comes to atheists, stoning rebellious children, witches, wizards, and pretty much every second non-Jew in the old testament. To be good is to be moral, and if morality means anything, it is minimizing suffering and doing no harm. Hitler may have been a nice guy to those closest to him, but his overall impact on society heavily makes him pure evil.

A second objection to this fallacious question (which was already pointed about above) is which of the Ten commandments is this criteria based on? If you read the IronChariots article on the Ten Commandments, you will see that there are multiple different versions of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments used as a criteria in this question were not written on stones, were not called the "Ten Commandments" nor are they the original. Does Ray Comfort go about asking people "Have you followed the 40-60 Judgments?" rather than "Have you kept the Commandments?" Just saying "Commandments" is very vague (although Comfort says he follows the traditional commandments) but the Greek and Hebrew word for "commandment" is word - and God gave 40-60 "words" in Exodus 21 to Exodus 23. Another note, there are 613 laws that God commanded the Jews to keep, does Ray (who says he is Jewish) follow any of those?

It is well known that the Bible is not a great source for determining whether a person is good or not. At one point, genuine Christians believed they were good people who followed their divine duty to kill Native Americans, witches and gays (and they do so to this day). In this sense, religion is used to dehumanize others (even to the point of demonic) thus eroding empathy and diminishing compassion and the guilt felt when abusing them. History clearly testifies about the horrors religion can enable. Even on smaller scales, religion enables parents to beat their children for simply misbehaving. At one point, you were a bad person if you were a male with long hair. You were wicked if you were suspected of practicing magic, but this stance disappeared when education and science revealed that this suspicion was without merit and thus was a false accusation.

There are many instances in the Ten Commandments that causes no identifiable harm, such as no work on the Sabbath. If the Bible declared "Smiling on a Tuesday was immoral and it was immoral to break this law", we would laugh at such a law because it does not cause harm and thus has no valid ground for declaring it immoral. If this was how morality worked, then any trivia (talking on a Friday, wearing lime-green, hopping on one foot for one yard, blinking one eye at a time) could be made immoral. We do not base morality from revelation from authority, that would render us merely obedient. Moral behavior is doing what is right, not what we are told (unless what we are told is also right). This is why when asking "why is X immoral", appealing to scripture or a divine figure gets us nowhere. There must be valid independent reasons to define what is moral, right or wrong, good or bad.

Science (the tools that help us discern what is true or false) can provide a larger contribution to moral development because it relies on reasoned logic and evidence. Empathy and experience (how our actions affect others) are human sources independent of religion that can help us determine how to be a good person. Religion needs these scientific moral progresses, but science does not need religion.

Are Christians "good"?

This section is not to declare that all Christians are not good, since there are plenty of Christians who live good lives. Rather, Christians and theist apologists may argue and declare that they are "good" because they follow the moral compass as their deity. Neurological advances are pulling back the curtain in religious moral thought. In a revealing study by Nicholas Eply (Eply, N. et al 2009, "Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106), Christian volunteers were asked to report their own views, the views of their deity, and the views of others on a range of controversial issues (such as legal euthanasia) while having their brain activity scanned. Results show that thinking about divine views activated the same brain regions as thinking about their own views, indicating that when believing themselves to be consulting the divine moral compass, theists may instead be doing is doing what the rest of us do: searching their own conscience.

As noted earlier, simply following the demands of a divine being does not reveal a person as good, rather simply obedient. This brings up the problem of the divine command theory, that if a theist's deity declared that genocide was morally right, then the theist must accept it regardless. If they do not, this reveals that the theist already follows their own moral compass despite the demands of an authoritative figure.

The God of the Bible commanded numerous atrocities such as familial cannibalism. Theists often say God is mysterious and beyond our understanding, but even still they believe God is just. If a human did commit familial cannibalism, we would immediately consider it depraved and immoral. This shows that God is not the source of our morality, and claiming God is just is a direct conflict, and invoking divine mystery does nothing to result that conflict. Responding to these atrocities with biblical examples of mercy is not helpful either, it just shows the Bible contains both mercy and atrocity. Hitler forgave people close to him and showed mercy, but that does not cancel out the immoral monster he was. Emphasizing the New Testament over the Old does not help either, given the numerous times when Jesus endorsed certain atrocities (such as Mt. 15:1-6).

Bottom line, using the Ten Commandments, Scripture, or personal views of a certain deity does not help in the slightest in determining whether or not a person is good or not - and as history reveals, it often leads people away from good behavior. The best way for us to determine and achieve goodness is secular humanitarian values and promoting education and understanding. Morality develops over time through experience and education, and yet the Bible's unjust teachings have not changed for centuries. The ancients did not know better, we do. It is not a virtue that religious dogma does not change, it is the utmost failing. Moral systems that cannot develop in responses to our greater understanding cannot edify, they ossify.

More Counter-Apologetics

Here are several reasons why this argument ad line of thinking fails;

  • Another, substantially different set of rules is explicitly labeled as "the Ten Commandments" in Exodus 34:12-26 Bible-icon.png. None of them say anything about lying, thievery, adultery, and such. God does not refer to the rules in Exodus 20 as the "Ten Commandments" nor did he write them down in stone. Apologists dishonestly cherry-pick which version of the Commandments to fit their agenda without providing proper information.
  • Have you ever told the truth in your life? Yes? Then you're a truth-teller. God loves truth-tellers... Have you ever told a lie? You have? Wow, you really are honest!
  • Being imperfect isn't the same as being evil.
  • The Commandment "Thou shall not lie" is not there. Period. Thou shall not lie is completely incorrect. The correct Commandment is that "thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor." That is, you shall not produce false testimony against your neighbor. Bearing false witness actually has to do with property and dealing in the courts, not just simply lying about someone else.
    • While Revelations 21:8 condemns liars, it is not a Commandment. It is therefore irrelevant to Ray's above argument.
  • Bearing false witness against your neighbor is a misinterpretation of the 9th commandment. Most ancient systems of justice were "guilty until proven innocent". After an accusation was made, one would be asked to prove his or her innocence or be punished for the presumed act. If a person could prove their innocence, their accuser would be guilty of false witness and might be put to death. The act of accusing a person of a crime was a more serious one in the past than it is today with our "innocent until proven guilty" standard; the closest analogy would be filing a false police report, rather than simply lying.
  • The biblical prostitute Rahab was considered virtuous because she lied to protect Israelite spies. While she directly and consciously lied to the authorities, James says she was "righteous" (James 2:25)
  • Genesis 12:10 and onward tells a story of Abraham lying about his wife Sarah (claiming she is his sister) to avoid punishment from the Egyptians. When the truth is later revealed (right after the Pharaoh married Sarah) the Pharaoh asks Abraham "why did you lie to me? Why tell me she was your sister? If I knew of your relationship and she already belonged to another man, I would not have married her." The Pharaoh gets punished, Abraham gets rich, and then the Pharaoh tells Abraham and Sarah "Get out of here!" Abraham goes unpunished for this lie. Abraham lied, and yet was rewarded.
  • Another liar is the brother of Joseph. Joseph is the most beloved of all the brothers and the brothers hate him for it, so they conspire to kill him (Genesis 37) but they settle for something else. Joseph ends up being sold to slave traders. The brothers tell their father that Joseph was eaten by an animal (they lied). Joseph becomes employed by the Pharaoh, warns the Pharaoh a famine is coming, and when it does the hungry come to Egypt because it was prepared for the famine. Among the hungry was Joseph's family. When the father discovered that Joseph is alive, what was the punishment for Joseph's brothers? Nothing. Who are the brothers? Ruben, Benjamin, Judah...as in the forefathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yes, the forefathers of Israel were a bunch of liars who conspired to murder their own brother.
  • Taking the Lord's name in vain to mean cursing is a mistranslation of the 3rd commandment. The more proper translation (seen in many better translations) is takes the name of God in a false oath, or in a vain oath. It is a prohibition against swearing to God falsely, effectively turning the third commandment into grounds on which a trustworthy contract could be made. It is not simply cursing or shouting "Oh my God" or, as Ray Comfort suggests, even using euphemisms such as "oh my goodness" or "oh my gosh."
  • I once stole some candy as a kid. "What do you call someone who steals?" A thief. Actually, in Christian doctrine called Age of Accountability. It is not explicit in the Bible, but it is implicit and explains even though a child is born in sin, they really cannot be held accountable for their sin. Nice try Ray.
  • In the book of Genesis, Jacob steals from his brother, lies to his father, and is continually rewarded by god.
  • Jesus himself is fine with stealing. In Mark 11:2-4, Matt 21:2-3, and Luke 19:30-31, Jesus instructs two of his disciples to go into a village (perhaps Bethany) and locate a colt tied up near the entrance, and to return with it. If someone stopped them they were to explain that the Lord had need of it. Otherwise, they were simply to steal the colt without paying for it or obtaining permission. Thus, Jesus would be guilty of thievery.
  • "Adultery" in the Bible did not depend on the man's marital status, but the woman's. Bloodline was reckoned through the male. "To adulterate" means to introduce a foreign substance into something, thus adultery meant corrupting another man's bloodline by having sex with another man's wife.
  • Looking at a woman in lust is a thought crime. Lust isn't a conscious action, and one is to be punished for human nature.
  • All humans perform acts in their lifetimes that could be described as bad, good and every shade of gray in between. The truth is, one action does not define an individual's entire character. Furthermore, this act of "spot judgment" is the very thing the Bible prohibits Christians from doing to others in Matthew 7:1-5 Bible-icon.png, Mark 4:24 Bible-icon.png and Luke 6:37-42 Bible-icon.png.
  • The argument relies on drawing an equivalence between minor imperfections and grave crimes: shoplifting a piece of candy from a store when one was a child is equivalent to robbing a bank as an adult. Because the crime (sin) is against an infinite God, it demands an infinite punishment, regardless of the severity.
  • The words "liar", "thief", etc. apply to those who lie or steal habitually or more than average, or in reference to a specific instance that negatively affected the speaker. To apply the word "liar" to all who have ever lied would not only render the word meaningless, but is a dishonest use of words.
  • The biblical God is also guilty of lying (told Abraham that he had to kill Issac, made it appear that Lazarus was dead, etc.), stealing (at least by proxy... See pretty much all of the Book of Joshua), adultery (um... Mary anyone? anyone?) and even murder (everybody really, but of course specifically Canaanites, Amorites, et.al.). Pretty tough for a "Just Judge" to sentence someone to eternal punishment for sins he himself is guilty of... right?
  • The argument is a poor one to use on atheists since they don't believe that any gods exist and so don't give the opinions and judgments of purported gods any weight at all.
  • An honest person would not answer if he or she was a "good person" as it is an subjective opinion. It would be similar to asking, "Are you a handsome person?" or "Are you an intelligent person?"
  • "What are you called if you tell a lie?" "Well, since everybody lies at some point, I suppose I would be called a human being."
  • "Have you ever looked at a woman with lust?" Think about what this commandment is saying: "God has to punish you because the sex drive He put in you is working properly", which makes absolutely no logical sense. Another rebuttal could be: "Of course I did. If I didn't, I wouldn't have wanted to marry her. How long would the human race survive if people didn't want have sex with each other?"
  • Given the choice between a certain death by plane crash and using a parachute that might save one's life, the rational decision would be to use the parachute. What one believes about the parachute is irrelevant. If someone did not know what a parachute was, then they wouldn't believe it would be useful. Knowledge is always superior to blind faith.
  • A country in which a person was tortured for the rest of their life for a single lie or a thought-crime would be considered absolutely barbaric. A God who uses this sort of penal system is just as barbaric, yet the believers twist their logic and their sense of morality to assume that he is perfect and therefore so is his system. They might argue that he must punish us because he is so perfect and he can't stand one sin. But this makes no sense. A grownup is more civilized than a child, and this doesn't give him reason to punish children more severely. If your teacher is a mathematical genius, that's no reason for her to give you stricter marks than if she was just an average teacher.
  • Brainwashing works by first lowering a person's self-esteem, and then raising them back up. Which is what is done here: make the unbeliever feel guilty and small, then bring out the good news of how Jesus will forgive him anyway. Some sects can use similar tactics to lure unsuspecting people in: Give them a personality test, the results of which supposedly show how completely messed up the person is, then say "Fortunately, we can help you."
  • Often, people who use this mantra are basing this on the idea that God will judge one based on the ten commandments. Yet they never ask: "Have you ever worked on a Sunday?" Most likely, few of them would consider the latter immoral.
  • "Was there any time you ever doubted your faith?" "Yes, of course." "That makes you an atheist."

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