Teaching The Greeks And Critical Thinking -- Part 12: Can You Be a Good Person if You Don't Believe in an Afterlife?

Teacher: So far, we've been discussing how the Greeks viewed this life given their view of the afterlife, then whether the belief in the afterlife today affects one's view of this life, and now, for our last question, can you be a good person if you don't believe in an afterlife? Take a minute to gather your thoughts. [Long silence]

Student: I'd like to challenge the wording of the question. Instead of "can you be a good person if you don't believe in an afterlife?" I'd like to change it to "can you be a good person if you do believe in an afterlife?" Why is it automatically assumed that only those who believe in an afterlife can be good when a lot of people who do believe in it are criminals? I question the premise that believing in an afterlife necessarily makes one a good person.

As you have those who believe in an afterlife who are good, you also have others who aren't. Likewise, as you have those who don't believe in an afterlife who are good persons, you also have others who are rotten apples. Believing or not believing in an afterlife has nothing to do with being good.

Student: You can be a good person simply because you want to be a good person. Believing in an afterlife has nothing to do with it. You just have to want to do the right thing because it is the right thing. Most people are decent, while some of them aren't, but not because they do or don't believe in an afterlife, but because they're just nasty persons, either because they were born that way or were raised in a bad environment. If you fix their environment, give them jobs, and get them out of poverty, they'll be more apt to be good because it's poverty that causes crime.

Student: Like middle-class white-collar criminals? [General snickering]

Student: I think that human motives are enough to be good. Those who are good because they believe in an afterlife aren't necessarily good because they want to be good, but because they're afraid of what will happen to them if they aren't good, either in this life or the next. And fear of punishment is a primitive reason for being good.

Student: I disagree. I don't see how it's possible to be good unless you do believe in an afterlife. There's a lot of temptation out there, and human reasons aren't strong enough. It's easy to talk about being good, but human nature's weak, and when things get tough, human motives aren't enough to stop a person. You need a stronger incentive, like fear of the consequences of going to jail or going to Hell, and if that's what it takes, so be it. What's wrong with fear if it keeps you from wrongdoing?

Student: That's a good point. Everyone's full of good resolutions on New Year's Eve when they're in an upbeat mood, but when something comes along that challenges those resolutions, good intentions aren't enough. A resolution is just something you say to feel good rather than actually being good.

Anyone can say they're going to do something, but when the opportunity presents itself and nobody's looking, good intentions go out the window. You really have to be a strong person to be good, and that takes self-control. If you find someone's wallet with a few thousand dollars in it and return it without taking any money, that's a good person.

Student: I think it's how you're brought up. If you're taught that you're evil and have this constantly drummed into your head, it doesn't take long before you start believing this, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You become what you're taught to become.

If you're brought up to think that you are a good person, on the other hand, you'll look at yourself differently and behave differently. You'll tough it out and rely on yourself. It mayn't be easy, but you'll keep trying. It's like Alcoholics Anonymous! It's a struggle to keep sober, but you can do it.

Student: But what about prisoners who have a religious experience that turns their life around? They've done some terrible things, then start talking to the chaplain, read the Bible or Koran, and slowly become a new person.

Student: Nobody doubts that they've had some kind of experience. What is questioned is the interpretation of that experience. They may call it a religious experience, but others will call it mind games. The prisoners buy into what they believe is God's help, and it's this belief that gives them the strength to change, but the strength actually comes from within themselves. It's like that old song lyric: "Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't already have." People are taught to depend on the Wizard, when it should be themselves.

Take Beauty and the Beast, for example. Bad boy meets nice girl, falls in love with her, and she with him, so that he's slowly changed from a hairy-ape kind of guy to a refined young gentleman like myself. [General laughter] But it's her love and belief in him that transform him from a beast into a civilized person!

Student: I'm not sure I understand why human reasons wouldn't be enough to lead a good life. Take the idea that virtue is its own reward. You don't drink, do drugs, or dissipate yourself, not for some religious reason but because refraining from these activities keeps you from an early grave. Or you keep to the right path because you don't want to go to jail. Or you're good because you want to be kind to people or help them, or it's the right thing to do, or it gives you a good feeling, not because you'll go to heaven for it.

Student: But some people are good because they do love God and want to please him by doing his will.

Student: But why not be good because it's the right thing to do? Being good because you love God and want to please him is fine, of course, but why not because you just want to help people? Why bring God into it when just being human should be enough? It's like they lack a human compassion gene and need a religious reason to be good. Why not help your fellow human beings because it's simply part of your basic humanity?

Student: I don't think you understand. Would most people give up their entire lives to become missionaries and live among the poor in foreign countries out of love for their fellow human beings? If it were that easy, why don't more people do it? [Silence]

Because missionaries are motivated by a love of God and believe that being a missionary pleases him. You have to admit that giving up a comfortable middle-class lifestyle is pretty extreme. Doing good because "it's the right thing to do" just wouldn't cut it. You need more than a human motive in cases like this. Missionaries do it because they see God in the people they're helping.

Student: Some people just have a temperament for "doing good" because it gives them a warm fuzzy like helping an old lady across the street, and that's great. They're helping people, but I'd say that's their temperament. It's something that comes easily to them and doesn't really cost them anything. I think that something's good only if it costs you something or goes against human inertia, not because it gives you a fuzzy feeling, which is kind of self-serving when you think about it.

But not everybody's like that. It takes real effort to be good because they're surrounded by so much bad example, and for these people a good feeling when doing good would leave them cold. These people need a religious motive that will help them overcome a natural human disinclination to help total strangers on the other side of the world, a motive like believing that God wants them to. [Silence]

Teacher: What about these examples? You give millions to charity because you want the publicity. Somebody else does the same thing, but anonymously. In both cases people are helped. Are they both good deeds? Or you do something which you think will help people and then, through no fault of your own, you end up hurting them. Or, conversely, you want to hurt people and then something happens and you wind up helping them? Are these good deeds? Or the only reason you help people is that you want them to think you're a good person or that it will help your business?

Student: No disrespect, but I think we're looking at this all wrong. Everything we've been discussing so far has been in terms of personal morality which, while important, pales in significance when compared to far more important issues like polluting the environment, bank fraud, corporate crimes, contributing to global warming, corrupt government, and social injustice, all of which cause widespread human suffering. These are very important matters that affect millions of people!

Why don't these kinds of crime receive the same degree of attention that individual crime does on the 6 o'clock news? It's like somebody wants us to ignore these larger social crimes that affect an entire community or population by stressing personal morality like the Ten Commandments to distract us from going after the real criminals? Why don't the media, the courts, government, and the churches speak out continually against these crimes where whole communities suffer rather than fixating on someone who robs the corner store?

Student: Well, you first have to reform people's personal morals before they'll stop committing those larger crimes.

Student: I don't think so. You just have to put them in jail, because these people will never reform. It's like waiting for Godot - it's just never going to happen, no matter how long you preach the Ten Commandments.

Student: I think that people can change as individuals, but not when they belong to institutions, which bring out the worst in people. Institutions resist change by buying off their critics! You can't change institutions, but you can put their leaders in jail! [Silence]

Student: Not to change the subject, but say there were magical rings that could make their wearers invisible, so that they could do whatever they wanted without detection. If someone had such a ring, would they continue to be good? [Long silence]

Student: Well, if you're asking whether people are good only because they're under surveillance, the answer's simple. Remember back in middle school when the teacher stepped out of class for a moment to speak to someone who had come to the door, and all hell broke loose? [General laughter]

Student: Be serious. If you were invisible and entered someone's home to listen to everything they said and did or to rob them, that would be wrong.

Student: But that's not what the question is asking, but would people be good if they could be invisible and get away with being bad?

Student: I'm sure that some of them would because they were never good to begin with, but only playacting, but this is really frightening. [Silence]

Student: It's kind of creepy when you think about it -- having someone invisible right in your home and eavesdropping on whatever you said and whatever you did like Big Brother, as though we were living under constant surveillance in some kind of police state.

Teacher: I'm afraid that that's about all we have time for today. Great discussion, everyone! We've covered a lot of ground today, but, as I'm sure you realize, we've only just scratched the surface. But this has been a good beginning. See you tomorrow.