I find myself obsessively musing about the nature of humankind. Asking myself questions that have been asked for millennia. Are humans naturally good? Or are they evil? Or somewhere in between? And how can I be sure? How can I be confident that what I think is at least somewhere in the vicinity of the truth?
I’m pretty sure I can never be confident in my conclusions about the nature of humans. If I could, it would have been solved many years ago and we wouldn’t be wondering about it all the time.
So, this post is more of me massaging the things I’ve seen and the thoughts I’ve had concerning them.
Religion, the Good
I once heard a quote, I don’t remember where and I can’t find it now, but it went:
“Church is not a house for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners.”
This has always stuck with me. It feels true. I mean, what is religion at it’s basic level? A set of beliefs and ways of being in order to live a good, moral life. For many people, that is exactly what it is. It’s a touchstone, something to hold onto, a way of organizing the self so that the self can feel confident in an increasingly complex and chaotic world.
“I am one with God.”
On a social level, it allows the inclusion of the self into a community. It affords them the opportunity to support others, and be supported on a deep level.
All of this sounds pretty good to me. Think of yourself as a separate self. No one can truly know how you feel or what you’ve been through. No one can truly understand you. You, and I, are in many ways, very alone. No one can ever walk in our shoes. Having something to hold onto, with people who believe the same things, and who we can share experiences with, can be very soothing.
Religion, the Bad
But of course, we live in a world of dichotomies. If religion were just the Good, we wouldn’t have near the problems we have now.
One thing that is true about religions is that they are also organizations. And they are organizations that many people depend on for their livelihoods. They also have organizational goals and needs. They need to think about survival. They need to think about the threats and opportunities that are in front of them.
They are a lot like a typical corporation.
Sometimes the threats come from within. An example are the priests accused of child molestation. Or radical splinter groups doing actions outside the religion. The accountant who steals the church money. The congregation losing faith. Clichés that form to try to force change in the religion, or hold the threat of banishment over others.
Sometimes the threats come from outside. The new church down the street that has a rock band playing during the service. A general population who are not as tolerant toward religion, and who sometimes act on that intolerance. The religion who set up across the street like Islam or Judaism, both of whom came from the same roots as Christianity, but who, as in the quote from “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari:
“They were too familiar to ignore, but too different to tolerate.”
And so, we have our religious wars.
Right vs. Wrong
Add that to the tendency to adhere to dichotomies, we often reason: “Well, if I’m right, you must be wrong.” This wrongness is all some people need to justify violence in an effort to save others from their wrong beliefs. Now you can justify forcing people like the native populations of a country into schools and religions. For their own good.
Most of us know just how poorly that turned out.
Some religions, in their goal to survive as an organization, lose sight of the reasons to be in the religion in the first place.
I often walk down Pike Street in Seattle, from 2nd Ave to 1st Ave. Every day there is a set up with printed materials along with 2 or 3 Jehovah’s Witnesses standing there, waiting to be approached. Their goal is to increase their numbers. To bring the “Good News” to those willing to listen. The rest of us are going to be destroyed in the Armageddon. This allows them to happily stand there smiling, while not 20 feet away from a homeless person.
Rather than investigating claims of child molestation, the Catholic Church covers it up.
Organizations do what they have to do survive.
Following your heart is also problematic. There are some who think that as long as they perform the actions required, that makes them a good person. But these people may perform the actions in such a way as to hurt others. It’s like statistics, you can pervert anything.
Then, there are those people who do bad things but with good intentions. They truly believe they are doing the right thing, even as they destroy others.
Other’s seem to be completely unconscious. I used to have this friend who professed to be a good Christian. When I showed her my new Kindle and explained that it was like having a library in my purse, she said that the first book she would put on it would be the Bible. Our relationship disintegrated quickly as I discovered that she was one of those people who used people to dump on, to scream about other people. She’d call and I’d get an earful of awful stuff about someone I didn’t even know. I finally quit answering. She’d call, I wouldn’t answer, 5 minutes later I’d call and leave a message to call me back. She never did. She was just looking for someone to dump on.
I think that if there is a heaven, most of us will have to go to special classes to straighten all this crap out in our noodles before we’re allowed in.
It’s not just religion, it happens socially too. The sense of Right and Wrong. The delusions. The need of organizations to survive and the threats they face.
Groups that start out inclusive and accepting become fundamentalist and engage in violence and social pressure towards its own members.
Spouses who batter each other out of love and “for their own good.”
Corporations that make decisions based on survival of the corporation. With no thought to the damage they do.
Parents who try to “fix” their gay children, or the children who are resisting the path put out for them. Or who push their children down to keep them from the pain of failure.
Internet Trolls, who are just searching for something to get after you about, in their need to feel validated.
Advertisements, and other manipulations, designed to get us to do specific actions, believe specific things, or to gain specific doubts about ourselves so we’ll buy a specific product.
Friends who say they love you but all of their actions spell contempt.
Humans are so delusional! So needy! I’m often in awe that we’ve accomplished as much as we have.
I think I know myself pretty well. I want to be good, but I also have a lot of violent tendencies. There’s always a little voice in my itch ridden ear telling me that some actions, violent on the outside, would actually be for the good. It’s lying to me. I have an evil part to me. I see it. I love it. And I choose to not act on it. Of course, I probably do act on it. I’m just as self-deluded as everyone else. But since I’m deceived, I’m not aware of it. I find this pretty scary.
I have multiple traumas that inform how I deal with the world.
- I’ve been attacked by a group, therefore I’m backing away from the Seattle dance community because of their actions toward a few members.
- I’ve been treated as inferior, only to be used, therefore when my friend who kept dumping on me finally got ahold of me and asked me why I didn’t answer, I told her the truth. And the friendship ended.
- My father treated me like I was stupid and worthless, therefore I finally had to let go of my oldest friend in the world. She refused to treat me as an equal. She thought that because she had my best interests at heart, she could brow beat me and tell me what to do. That friendship ended.
- Also, another inferiority issue, I had to let go of a new friend because she trolled me on the internet. She decided she had the right to monitor my posts and shame and blame me self-righteously. I’m still stinging over that since I knew there was something weird about her when I met her, yet I let her in. My fault.
My Own Conclusion
I take all of this in and add into it how I know myself, massage it with, hopefully, oil of sanity, and come up with how I see the world.
I have to believe that at least some of what I am is a shared experience across all humans. I think that humans are much more like I see myself than like they tend to see themselves.
I think that the dichotomy of Good vs. Evil is a false one. We all have both inside of us.
Do we want to be good? YES.
Do we need to believe we are good? YES.
Are we good? SOMETIMES.
Because we want to be good and need to believe we are good, we can easily delude ourselves into thinking that our actions are good.
Terrorists…do you really think that they believe they are evil? Of course they don’t. They think they’re doing God’s work.
The spouse who batters convinces themselves it’s the other’s fault.
The Catholic Church decides it’s for everyone’s good to cover up problems.
A group of actors who attack another actor convince themselves that it’s okay because their great and powerful teacher started it. It must be the abused actor’s fault.
An Internet Troll attacks someone to the point of suicide, thinking that they need to defend whatever they think needs defending.
A group of people with a victim mindset, violently attack a group member with a Facebook group, words and threat of banishment, because they feel so powerless and helpless that they think it needs that much energy to accomplish the goal. They think that they did good.
None of this is good.
We are all both good and evil. Until we are all willing to accept that, we’re never going to be in a place where we can start the practice of becoming better. We’ll just keep deluding ourselves and hurting others.
And that’s the practice. It’s not following a religions rules, although if you can find a good one it’s a good starting place. It’s not just doing the actions. It’s not deluding ourselves of anything.
The practice is to know our own nature, and to strive to be better. It’s a journey and one we will never see the end of.