Good people, bad people, truth and lies

July 16, 2008 | 59 comments

Inscribed on the grand facade of the main building of my university was this quote:


I looked up at it at least once a day as I walked between classes. I didn’t know where they got that little saying, but I liked it. Something sounded right about it, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. How does the truth make you free? I could see how the truth could make you more knowledgeable or educated…but free? What on earth does understanding that e = mc² or knowing the molecular weight of benzene have to do with freedom?

Meanwhile, in what I thought was a totally unrelated line of thinking, I continued to be baffled by the whole religion thing. Even if people did need to tell themselves stories about angels or an afterlife or whatever to make themselves feel better, why mess around with all the rules? Look at me, after all: I was a good person without buying into religious superstition with all its oppressive dogmas.

That last part was a fundamental part of my worldview: the idea that there were “good people” and “bad people, ” and that (whew!) I was one of the good people. Of course I knew that sometimes good people do bad things and vice versa, but I was confident that there was a certain level of evil that only a “bad person” could commit, that there was some invisible line that only someone fundamentally different from me could cross. When I would hear about heinous events on the news or read about the atrocities of history, I was hearing of acts committed by people who were entirely “other” — they were the bad people, the people who did really evil things, and it would be impossible for good people like me and the nice folks I knew to understand the how’s and why’s behind their actions.

Probably one of the biggest paradigm shifts I’ve ever experienced in my life came after I started exploring Christianity and I realized: there is no such thing as “good people” and “bad people.” Not in the way I thought of it, anyway.

As I studied Christianity, I found that this religion claimed to offer objective truth about life and the world, including matters of what is right and what is wrong. I had to admit, even early on, that its articulation of that mysterious moral code that’s inscribed into the human heart that we’re all aware of yet can’t be derived from the material world alone resonated deeply. I eventually became convinced of its claim that it got this information from Something outside of humanity, that it was communicating truths about the world from the One who created it.

As I wrote about in this post, this understanding that there is objective truth in the moral realm led me to understand the reason that the devil is called the Father of Lies: almost nobody ever says, “I’m going to do something evil today, and I’m OK with that.” The only way any of us ever do anything bad is by telling ourselves a story to justify it. All of us are “good people” in that we’re repulsed by evil…so the only way evil can ever operate is to redefine itself as something not evil at all. As soon as I learned this, I immediately saw it at work even in my daily life: I wasn’t gossiping, I was passing on relevant information; I wasn’t being lazy, I didn’t have time to clean up the house; I wasn’t being mean and uncharitable, I was just responding to that rude person the way she deserved to be responded to. And so on.

I was reminded of all this this morning when I came across this short must-see video about a staff photo album from Auschwitz (you can see all the pictures here). The picture above is one of the many that are from an on-site retreat for camp employees. In the other photos you can see them smiling, laughing, and relaxing in lounge chairs. There’s one shot of a jubilant group sing-along that includes the head officer of the concentration camp, the head of the women’s camp, and the supervisor of the gas chambers.

Back in my college days, when I’d walk past that inscription and puzzle at its meaning, I would have thought of myself as fundamentally different than the people in those photos. They were bad people; I was a good person. Now I see that, frighteningly, there is no ontological difference between me and the smiling employees in that Auschwitz photo; the difference is nothing more or less than the stories we tell ourselves about what was going on in the background. Whether or not any one of us is a good person or a bad person can fluctuate from day to day, from moment to moment, depending on the number of lies we allow ourselves to believe. And, as the cheerful faces in the photos illustrate, there is no limit to the level of evil the average person can fall into supporting if the pressure is high enough and the lies are insidious enough.

This is not to say that I believe that every single person would have worked at Auschwitz if they’d been in the right place at the right time. But the difference between those who would and those who wouldn’t is not a difference of inherently good people vs. inherently bad people; it’s only a matter of who could see the truth amidst tremendous pressure to buy into the lie.

Without God — or, to phrase it another way, without objective truth — we are sailors without a compass, trying to rely on gut instinct to navigate troubled waters. It might work out some of the time, as is evidenced by the number of nonbelievers who are indeed “good people” most of the time. But it leaves us vulnerable to the legion forces that try to steer us off course, and it makes it almost impossible to weather a great storm. If we don’t know the truth about who we are, why we’re here, where we came from and where we’re going, we’re on shaky ground to begin with; and when we deny the existence of objective truth on matters of what is good and bad, what is right or wrong, we lose control of our own lives. The further we get away from the truth, the closer we get to becoming slaves of those ever-present, soul-killing voices, with names like Lust and Greed and Power and Selfishness and Status, that whisper in our ears, “It’s OK, just do it. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

When I was an atheist, I thought I was more liberated than the people who believed in God. After all, I didn’t have all their bizarre rules and regulations to bog me down. Now I realize that those “rules” that seemed so bizarre are actually a tool set, a key to unlock the shackles of sin, a compass and chart to navigate the troubled waters we all find ourselves in. Now I realize not only where that inscription came from, but what it means. To know God is to know the truth. And without the truth, we can never be free.



  1. Amanda

    Wow. Those pictures are fascinating. It’s just so difficult to reconcile: you have these beautiful people, clearly having a good time. They look like nice people, the kind of people you’d want to hang out with. But at the same time, you know that they are responsible for killing so many innocent people.

    You want to think of the Nazis as monsters, but to see them in these pictures, it humanizes them.

    It makes me wonder what happened to all the people in those pictures. What were they really like? Did they come to realize feel horrible guilt for what they had done? Did they go to their death bed believing they had done the right thing?

  2. Flexo

    Soon after World War II, they said “never again.”

    As time went on, people began to think of Hitler and National Socialism as singular evils — they were a unique exception. Sure, there have been bad people since then, but surely no one could ever be another Hitler. He was the epitome of evil, he was evil through and through, and to claim that someone else was capable of such evil was hyperbole in the extreme. That is what people have said.

    But Hitler was not a demon, he was a human being, and it is such demonization of him that makes what should be “never again” all too possible again. The fact is — such horrors have happened again and again and again. Not only genocide, but the vast dehumanization of individuals and objectification of the human person are now the norm in contemporary science, medicine, politics, and law. And it is all being done in the name of a superior morality, just as the things the National Socialists did was done in the name of a superior morality. None of them thought that what they did was evil. Indeed, they though that it was a moral imperitive to eliminate those things that were draining and causing harm to the German people. The arguments of yesterday, which we thought defeated with the hangman’s noose at Nuremburg, are being repeated again.

  3. Flexo

    On another note, as one who is naturally resistant to authority (“let them call me rebel”), and a staunch defender of human freedom and liberty, I struggled and struggled for a long time with the teaching of the Church that true freedom is not the ability to do what you want to do, but is instead having the ability to do what you ought to do.

    When I read this in some encyclical of Pope John Paul II, of happy memory (santo subito), I thought that it was absurd because it contained an inherent limitation on freedom, and limited freedom is necessarily not-free as a matter of fundamental logic, or so I thought at the time. I accepted it in a spirit of humble obedience, but did not understand it intellectually. Later I figured it out. I connected the dots. Now, it makes eminent sense. “Truth” was the key that unlocked that puzzle.

    Sadly, though, too many people think as I used to think. And their false yet understandable conception of freedom, being doing whatever you feel like doing without restraint, does not lead them to greater freedom, but less.

  4. Jen Rouse

    Well said. Well said indeed.

  5. chickadee

    i think that’s a great comparison. i just read skeletons at the feast which is from the point of view of the germans during ww2 and i was struck by how it could be any of us at any time led by the wrong beliefs, blinded by the lie that what they were doing was for the greater good.

  6. Cheryl


    While I agree with you that there is no ontological difference between “good” people and “bad” people, that “good” people are capable of committing every sin imaginable, it doesn’t seem quite right to simply say that those who commit evil have unwittingly bought into a lie.

    That, in my mind, suggests two things: one, that if they only knew the truth, they’d never commit an evil that would separate them from God (mortal sin), and therefore, the second item, our God is unjust for sending* people to Hell for doing things they didn’t know they shouldn’t be doing.

    What is the work around?

    *I don’t actually want to say sending, but I’m not sure of the best phrasing and am, in all honesty, a bit too lazy to deal with it. =D

  7. Jennifer F.

    Cheryl –

    While I agree with you that there is no ontological difference between “good” people and “bad” people, that “good” people are capable of committing every sin imaginable, it doesn’t seem quite right to simply say that those who commit evil have unwittingly bought into a lie.

    That, in my mind, suggests two things: one, that if they only knew the truth, they’d never commit an evil that would separate them from God (mortal sin), and therefore, the second item, our God is unjust for sending* people to Hell for doing things they didn’t know they shouldn’t be doing.

    I think we probably agree here. I think the key word is “unwittingly.” I’m sure it’s not the case that if someone truly has no idea that what they’re doing is wrong that they would be separated from God for eternity (i.e. end up in hell). The lesson I learned was that we use lies to justify the things we do that we know are bad but want to do anyway.

    To use my own examples: it’s not that I really, truly, had no idea that I was gossiping or being lazy or uncharitable; I just didn’t want to take an honest look at what I was doing because it was easier to justify it away with a lie. On a whole different level, I don’t think that the Auschwitz employees were truly “unwitting” in that they had no idea that the corpses of men, women, children and babies that were piling up behind them indicated that something evil was going on…certainly if they had had any interest at all in sacrificing their own self-interest and taking a look at the truth, they would have recognized the severity of the situation.

  8. Julia

    I have been a lurker on your blog for a couple months now – Your story is wonderful.

    I am writing to see if I might link to your blog in mine soon. I have a friend who has recently left his Christian beliefs for a relativistic/subjective/no-truth way of life. I do not know if he will read your blog… as he believe that even the words we use to communicate our belief in God are flawed. (At least that is his excuse for never reading anything other than what I email him.) However, he is also not cutting off conversation with me. This post says so much about the truth! Thanks for posting!

  9. SteveG

    I was recently reading a fascinating article in first things (originally published in 1990) about a related topic. It was focused on a book which did a vast study of the differences between German rescuers and non-rescuers of the targets of the Nazi’s.

    It’s fascinating to delve into what caused some to help and others to smile and go along as in the photos. The essential difference is the same one that is at play in this post.

    It relates to the ability to disconnect from the target/victim and see them as ‘other’ in the same way that Jen describes that we sometimes see those ‘bad people’ as ‘other.’ The co-operators/non-rescuers did the same thing.

    The articles one sentence summation is…

    What distinguished rescuers, however, was an empathetic comprehension of this information, coupled with a sense of being personally addressed and responsible as regards the situations of victims.

    …in other words to NOT see the victims/targets as others, but as persons like themselves.

    Even more interesting is what they found regarding what caused the rescuers to have this empathetic capacity.

    Some of the strands of things they found would be pretty obvious to most of the readers here. For example, a religious based understanding of…

    inclusiveness—a predisposition to regard all people as equals and to apply similar standards of right and wrong to them without regard to social status or ethnicity—and attachment—a belief in the value of personal relationships and caring for the needy.

    …and in particular when imparted in a family setting where those preaching the message (i.e. parents and grandparents) actively practiced what they preached and lived it out.

    This religiosity (a high number of both rescuers and non-rescuers claimed religious affiliation), was made meaningful within the following context…

    1) Bystanders [non-rescuers] were significantly less religious than rescuers in their early years; 2) The fathers of bystanders were significantly less religious than those of rescuers.[ed. Note: anyone surprised by that?}

    And then, most crucially: “But rescuers did differ from others in their interpretation of religious teaching and religious commitment, which emphasized the common humanity of all people and therefore supported efforts to help Jews”.

    Other traits that probably are somewhat obvious are…

    In analyzing the “core values” of rescuers and non-rescuers, the Oliners found the following: 1) “In recalling the values they learned from their parents, rescuers emphasized values relating to self significantly less frequently than non-rescuers”; 2) Rescuers gave evidence of being less materialistic in orientation than non-rescuers; 3) Parents of rescuers and non-rescuers seemed to have been equally concerned with social convention—the fulfillment of prescribed social roles and norms;

    But I think this last one…

    4) But one very striking difference between the parental cultures of rescuers and non-rescuers emerged; “The parents of rescuers . . . were significantly less likely to emphasize obedience. . . . Obedience is the hallmark of non-equals; obedience as an end unto itself facilitates adaptation to any type of authority—whether merited or demanded.”

    …Is where some controversy has arisen because of it’s implications on parenting styles/choices.

    I hesitate to even bring this up because the implications bring up issues that I’ve seen good Catholics go to war over unnecessarily, but it’s worth bringing out nonetheless (apologies for the lengthy quote)…

    Some of the most compelling findings of this book are to be found in its exploration of the approaches to parenting experienced by rescuers, as a group, in contrast to non-rescuers. The central issue focuses on parental discipline.

    When the authors reviewed reports of respondents’ parental disciplinary styles, they found: 1) Significantly fewer rescuers recalled any controls imposed upon them; 2) Parents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning. Fewer rescuers than non-rescuers reported being slapped, spanked, kicked, and beaten or having their hair pulled by parents; 3) Many more non-rescuers than rescuers perceived punishment as gratuitous—a cathartic release of aggressiveness by parents; and 4) Rescuers most frequently used the word explained to describe parental approaches to correction and discipline. About “explaining” and the reasoning it involves the Oliners write

    Parents have power over children; they are not only physically stronger but also have access to material resources they can bestow or withhold. Societal norms generally support their superior position, affirming their rights to humiliate or insult and simultaneously condemn children who might retaliate.

    When adults voluntarily abdicate the use of power in favor of explanation, they are modeling appropriate behavior toward the weak on the part of the powerful. Faced with powerless others, children so raised in turn have at their disposal an internal “script”—a store of recollections, dialogues, and activities ready to be activated. They need not depend on innovation or improvisation but rather simply retrieve what is already imprinted on their memories. In such circumstances, too, children are more likely to internalize their parents’ standards.

    Rescuers were significantly more likely to perceive themselves as having personal integrity. They not only saw themselves as more caring and responsible but also as more honest and helpful than non-rescuers.

    Though they countenance no simple correlation of good parenting and warm bonding in households with rescuing behavior, and their opposite with non-rescue, the Oliners do make clear how crucial parental modeling and the patterns of parent-child interaction are in the formation of persons’ approaches to the use of their power to help those in danger, oppression, or need.

    Whether we spank or not, whether we use time-outs or not, I think this is something worth reflecting on. The way in which we use our parental authority over our children has far-reaching implications as to what kind of people they will be.

    It may well help determine if they end up like those smiling co-operaters in the picture above, or if they will be able to see the needy as persons rather than ‘others.’

    I for one know very well that I need to work on the right usage of my own authority and power over my children. I suspect we all could do with some reflection on that.

    *gets down off soap box* 😀

    NOTE: I highly recommend reading the article, but it is fairly long and detailed, and the first three sections deal primarily with describing how the study and research was conducted.

    If you want to read the really interesting parts, skip down to Section IV, and then come back to the beginning if you have any interest in knowing how they conducted the research.

  10. Christine

    You are an excellent writer. Thank you for putting the truth out there. You explain it so well.

    Keep up the good work!

  11. Maria

    Your post and the video clip reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Eichmann, one of the chief engineers of the holocaust. She was looking for the monster and found a boring bureaucrat. Her phrase “the banality of evil” sums it up. We want the Nazis to have been monsters — clearly the people at the end of the video clip are appalled that they seem “human” or “like me.” Very few of us probably are capable of outright, intentional evil, but all of us have unlimited capacity to go along with systems that lull us into thinking we aren’t doing anything wrong, despite the evidence to the contrary all around.

  12. geekchic9

    You wrote:

    “Without God — or, to phrase it another way, without objective truth — we are sailors without a compass, trying to rely on gut instinct to navigate troubled waters.”

    You seem to be saying that atheists don’t have ethics and have to rely on their guts to determine the truth. That’s simply false. Here’s just one example of moral affirmations to which many atheists, freethinkers, and agnostics ascribe.

    Also, are you implying that the Nazis were atheists? If so, you are perpetuating a (rather common) lie. Case in point: Hitler wasn’t a Christian, although he did use Christian propaganda in his speeches; however, he wasn’t an atheist, either. Many Nazis, however, did ascribe to one form of Christianity or another. One form was called Positive Christianity. Now, you may argue that that form isn’t “True” Christianity, but I have yet to find a consistent Christian definition of what “True” Christianity is, as it tends to differ from denomination to denomination and even person to person. The common thread in all of the definitions seems to be “Whoever thinks, believes, and acts as I do (most of the time.)” This definition doesn’t really work, as practically all Christians by that point of view are “True” Christians.

    Suffice it to say, I am not convinced.

  13. Flexo

    That, in my mind, suggests two things: one, that if they only knew the truth, they’d never commit an evil that would separate them from God (mortal sin), and therefore, the second item, our God is unjust for sending* people to Hell for doing things they didn’t know they shouldn’t be doing.

    Cheryl –
    Since you write of sin and God, let’s use the prime example as an example: Adam knew the truth. Eve knew the truth. Indeed, they knew it better than any of us. They walked with God and, yet, they did commit sin. They committed The sin. They committed the sin that is most likely at the root of every other sin, and which, by its very action, necessarily separates us from God — they wanted to be like God. They wanted to free themselves from God; they wanted complete autonomy for themselves. They wanted FREEDOM! They wanted to be gods themselves. And in actualizing that want by eating the fruit, they necessarily severed their ties with God. And afterwards, they compounded it by trying to hide from Him. God did not send them into the bushes, just like God does not send anyone to Hell. We send ourselves there. By vainly insisting on a counterfeit freedom, on complete autonomy that frees us from even God, we necessarily separate ourselves from Him. He does not do the separating, we do.

    God being Love, will not force us into Heaven. He does not impose Himself upon us. He will not force us to spend eternity with Him against our will. That would not be love, but a form of divine rape. It is sad, but true, some choose themselves over God. They put themselves first in life, and they will put themselves first after this life.

    All because they have bought into a lie. Some unwittingly, some all too eager to believe it. That we can be like gods! We can be free, truly free, to do what we want, when we want, and none of it is evil, none of it can ever be evil because we also have the power to choose for ourselves what is good and what is evil. We decide! Not some tyrannical “God,” who seeks to hold down and oppress man, but us! We are beyond “good” and “evil”!

    And this is how we travel down the road to Hell. This is how we must necessarily proceed toward Hell because, by our own actions, by our own free will, we choose to separate ourselves from a God that we do not want or think we need.

    But this is a false freedom. This is counterfeit freedom, and we become counterfeit gods, not the real God.

    Authentic freedom is the ability to do what is right, and not the ability to do as one pleases. This is because what is right to do, “what we ought to do,” is do good, and what is good and right is that which is consistent with truth.

    And to do that which is inconsistent with truth is not freedom, but is instead being confined and controlled by error. Now, error causes disorder and leads to more error. The consequence of sin is that, by embracing a false and counterfeit “freedom,” we necessarily become a slave to error, even if we erroneously continue to insist that we are still free.

    Freedom necessarily is dependent and contingent upon truth. Thus, it is necessarily limited by truth, including moral truth.

    For those who believe in Christ, we would also say it this way –true freedom is doing what we ought to do, not necessarily what we want to do. This is because “what we ought to do” is love God, the “I am” and Logos, who is Truth itself. By rejecting this truth, by putting ourselves before this One Truth, we embrace error, and such deviation from the truth necessarily blinds us so that we can no longer easily discern truth from error, good from bad.

    Now, there is an answer to the quandary we find ourselves in, if only we will choose it. We must lose ourselves. We must put to death the Autonomous ME and, once again, choose to accept the real Truth, who does not limit us from anything except slavery and real death, but instead “sets us free.”

    But if we do not make this choice of the will, if we do not even do the minimal thing of seeking the grace to help make that choice, then we should not blame God for finding ourselves in eternal separation from Him, i.e. Hell. God did not send us there, we ran there ourselves in our zeal to be rid of Him once and for all.

    If we resist and ignore God and His graces, if we shut ourselves off from the Truth and Love which are Christ and the Holy Spirit, then life becomes much harder and unsatisfactory. If we turn away from the Light, it is much more difficult to find our way through life in the darkness. And if we resist too long, we will find ourselves in the darkness forever.

  14. Anne Marie

    That video is one of the most powerful pieces I have ever seen. I watched it and my mind immediately jumps to the unborn. Children who are aborted, cryofrozen, experimented on or flushed away for convenience sake. They are the human victims of this era. At this point even their parents have bought into the lie that they are a problem to be swept away, only different from the Jews of WWII or the slaves of the American south in age and era.

    We humans are expert at dehumanizing others and once we have done so elimination of the other is only a half step away.

  15. Someone Being Me

    It is amazing how we can justify just about anything. Even in prison there is a hierarchy with the child molesters at the bottom rungs. The child molesters will blame the victims saying they were seductive. There is always someone worse or more evil than you or at least thats what we tell ourselves.

  16. 'becca

    Do you know about the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment? If not, Google them. Indeed, “good people” will do bad things if presented with a justification they’re willing to believe.

    I work for a research study about the development of criminal behavior. One of our most interesting findings relates to the young men involved in urban homicides like you see in the papers all the time. When we compared participants in our long-term study who eventually killed someone to those who eventually got killed, we found that the VICTIMS are more individually deviant (commit more crimes, more aggressive, worse family relationships, etc.) and the KILLERS are more demographically deprived (poorer, living in worse neighborhoods, younger and less-employed parents, etc.). You might think it would be the other way around: Killers are different from normal people, and victims are just unlucky. But I wasn’t surprised by this finding, having dug up the details on exactly how each homicide went down. In most of the stories, I can see, I can FEEL, a regular guy who wound up in a desperate situation with a gun in his hands. That’s not to say he made the right choice! Just that there but for the grace of God go I.

    I think an important (and often overlooked) aspect of the story of Jesus is that His fate was decided not by the government but by the mob. It is an astounding example of the dangers of going along with the crowd and being afraid to speak up for what is right.

    SteveG, thanks for the information about the rescuer study. Both as a developmental psychologist and as a person raised with positive discipline, I agree with their assessment of parenting styles. Of course I like my child to cooperate with me, but I don’t want to teach him unquestioning obedience: He may need those questioning abilities someday!

  17. Anonymous

    Bravo, very well said. This is a post I will read several times I am sure. Writings like this is why I have you on my feedburner list.

  18. Ginny

    Wow, you said this all so well. Great post.

  19. Anonymous

    Just been reading Imitation of Christ where author says not to look down on those who do bad things because we don’t know how long we will stay good. I don’t think the battle between good and evil is always as clear as us vs. them, Allied vs. Axis, etc. I think the battle between good and evil is always within us – virtue vs. vice, living for self vs. dying to self, a self-centered choice vs. a Christ-centered choice.

  20. annie

    “Without God — or, to phrase it another way, without objective truth — we are sailors without a compass, trying to rely on gut instinct to navigate troubled waters.”

    It’s this sentiment that frightens me to death. I’m an atheist, perhaps not like you were, but an atheist nonetheless. To me, it’s scary to think I live int he world with people who believe this way. To think only your belief in God is what keeps you from being a bad person? You have no human decency? You have no compassion? You only have your belief in a man in the sky to keep you from doing wrong?

    That’s scary to the rest of us who live on secular humanism and empathy, based in something much stronger and much more sound.

  21. Flexo

    We discover that not only the natural but also the social environment – the habitat we fashion for ourselves – has its scars; wounds indicating that something is amiss. Here too, in our personal lives and in our communities, we can encounter a hostility, something dangerous; a poison which threatens to corrode what is good, reshape who we are, and distort the purpose for which we have been created. Examples abound, as you yourselves know. Among the more prevalent are alcohol and drug abuse, and the exaltation of violence and sexual degradation, often presented through television and the Internet as entertainment. I ask myself, could anyone standing face to face with people who actually do suffer violence and sexual exploitation “explain” that these tragedies, portrayed in virtual form, are considered merely “entertainment”?

    There is also something sinister which stems from the fact that freedom and tolerance are so often separated from truth. This is fuelled by the notion, widely held today, that there are no absolute truths to guide our lives. Relativism, by indiscriminately giving value to practically everything, has made “experience” all-important. Yet, experiences, detached from any consideration of what is good or true, can lead, not to genuine freedom, but to moral or intellectual confusion, to a lowering of standards, to a loss of self-respect, and even to despair.

    Dear friends, life is not governed by chance; it is not random. Your very existence has been willed by God, blessed and given a purpose (cf. Gen 1:28)! Life is not just a succession of events or experiences, helpful though many of them are. It is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this – in truth, in goodness, and in beauty – that we find happiness and joy. Do not be fooled by those who see you as just another consumer in a market of undifferentiated possibilities, where choice itself becomes the good, novelty usurps beauty, and subjective experience displaces truth.

    Christ offers more! Indeed he offers everything! Only he who is the Truth can be the Way and hence also the Life. * * *

    My dear friends, God’s creation is one and it is good. The concerns for non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity. They cannot, however, be understood apart from a profound reflection upon the innate dignity of every human life from conception to natural death: a dignity conferred by God himself and thus inviolable. Our world has grown weary of greed, exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and piecemeal responses, and the pain of false promises. Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion. This is the work of the Holy Spirit! This is the hope held out by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
    Pope Benedict XVI
    WYD2008 – Barangaroo

    July 17, 2008

    See video here

  22. Kelly @ Love Well

    I don’t have time to read all your comments today, although it looks like you’ve got some fascinating discussion going, as always.

    I just wanted to say — this is a brilliant, clearly articulated post, Jennifer. In our natural state, we can justify almost anything.

  23. Anne Marie


    I will leave the task of commenting on your take to someone more qualified than myself, but I wanted to weigh in and say that I appreciate your candor, civility, and frankly bravery for jumping into a pond where the viewpoint is so very different from your own.


  24. lyrl

    Annie, I don’t think Jen meant that to the degree that you have taken it: she feels she has more decency, compassion, etc. post-conversion, but certainly had a good measure of those things as an atheist also. She went into more detail in this post.

    Jen has been more impressed with the moral reasoning of the Catholic Church, in particular, over the moral reasoning of other groups. She believes this is because they are guided by their relationship with Jesus and God. While I’m impressed with many moral stances the RCC has argued, I believe it’s a result of statistics and not an indication of their holiness: they have spent more time as a large cohesive group thinking about these issues.

    I’m also wary of ascribing a “comes from God and must be obeyed” status to the declarations of any group. To me, such a claim carries the same dangers for religious followers that Steve outlined for children who grow up with “this comes from your parents and must be obeyed”.

  25. annie

    Thanks for you welcome, Anne Marie, and Lyrl, thanks for your message. I came on a little strong, but I am interested to read different viewpoints and do also enjoy engaging in debates/discussions.

  26. Abigail

    I had this thought the other day. You know how we are supposed to pray for our enemies? What if we Americans had prayed really hard for Hitler? What if we had prayed hard for the misguided souls who served in Hitler’s army? Would the outcome have been different? Would the war have ended sooner? Would more Jews have been saved?

    I mean, I’m still all for hiding Jews in basements and for fighting just wars. I’m not suggest that we simply pray and do nothing physical to fight evil.

    However, this post is about how normal, ordinary people can get caught up in horrific lies. The best way to “clear” someone’s sight if to pray for them.

    Anyway, just something to think about as we hear terrible things on the news. Maybe, in addition to offering tangible, physical help, we’re also called to pray for the ordinary people swept up in moments of terrible cruelty.

  27. geekchic9

    Hi, Annie!

    I encourage you to read Jennifer’s conversion story from atheism to Catholicism. It’s a sad tale of a non-thinking atheist moving on to non-thinking Catholicism. Don’t believe me? I found this quote to be the most telling:

    “Around this time someone told me that one of the Christian denominations claimed that God did leave us this “answer key” I’d been yearning for.”

    Yes, Annie, this atheist never really was a thinker. She wants an “answer key” to life, a shortcut to life’s problems. She decided to go into a religion where thinking was not valued and faith in a “special” authority was put on a pedestal. In short, she was lazy. As many people, not just many atheists, know, there is no “answer key” to life — not even in religion. Eventually, a person has to start making his or her own decisions. Anyone who tries to persuade otherwise is trying to sell something.

    I enjoy your comments, and I hope to see you again soon.

  28. Dan

    Hi geekchic9,

    I’d like to comment on a couple of your posts. In an earlier one you quote the following: “Without God — or, to phrase it another way, without objective truth — we are sailors without a compass, trying to rely on gut instinct to navigate troubled waters.” From this you infer that Jennifer is saying that atheists have no ethics. She is not saying that, nor does the Church teach that. The consistent teaching of the Church is that all people Christian or otherwise bear within themselves the “seeds” of truth; i.e. they have some sense of good and bad. The problem is that nobody’s sense of good and bad—not yours or mine or anyone’s—is perfectly honed. We can strive all we want but eventually we hit the limits of our capacity to know what “the good” is as well as the limits of our desire to do “the good.” Any reasonable person, religious or irreligious, must admit that. In other words, as Jennifer puts it so well, we are ultimately “sailors without a compass” because of those natural limits—we are all “sailors” (we have a sense of good and bad), and for the sake of the argument let’s just say that we all wish to “sail” (we want to do what’s good and not what’s bad); but once we hit our moral limits then aren’t we going along without a “compass”—a reliable knowledge of where we are going?
    At that point, deep down we would all like a moral compass—regardless of whether or not we think its possible to get one, we would all like one—that is part of the yearning which Jennifer felt and so many others have felt throughout history. That even includes you—for as much as you disparage Jennifer for being “lazy” and for “not making her own decisions,” you link us to the Council for Secular Humanism’s site which gives us nothing more than a creedal statement (in many ways not unlike the Apostles Creed) chock full of objective moral standards to which one is expected to conform, even on days when one would rather not. Notice I am not talking about an exact “play-by-play” guide as to how to perform each and every single action of your life—the Catholic Church does not offer that, because she stands for authentic human freedom. The God of love wants us to be people of love, not robots. That means freedom. Your desire for real freedom sounds like it is as powerful as Jennifer’s—I invite you to take a closer look at what it is exactly that she found.


  29. geekchic9

    Hi, Dan!

    My point for linking to the Council for Secular Humanism was to show that many freethinkers aren’t hedonistic relativists that just do whatever they feel like because it feels good like Jennifer implies. That’s all.

    You also wrote the following:

    “Your desire for real freedom sounds like it is as powerful as Jennifer’s—I invite you to take a closer look at what it is exactly that she found.”

    You make it sound like I never was a Christian. How wrong that is!

    My “desire for real freedom” is what I call my ability to think and reason for myself, instead of depending on an external authority for my personal values.

    As for taking a closer look at what Jennifer has found, I already have. I was a cradle Catholic, then I became an atheist. Then, for a brief time, I reverted back to Catholicism for similar reasons that Jennifer did — to have that desired “answer key,” although at the time I called it “structure.” Now, I am back to agnostic atheism. I’m pretty happy with my decision. I’m also reasonably certain I’ll never return to Christianity.

    I think the reason why I resonate with this blog is that I empathize with Jennifer’s past experiences, but I also feel a little sadder and wiser that religion does not provide the answers like I wanted it to provide. I also found it to provide as much freedom as a straitjacket. “You’re as free as we allow you to be” is a good way of putting it, and I didn’t really find it to be freeing at all.

  30. Melanie B


    You wrote: “To think only your belief in God is what keeps you from being a bad person? You have no human decency? You have no compassion? You only have your belief in a man in the sky to keep you from doing wrong?”

    Catholics do not believe that it is solely belief in God which keeps men from doing wrong. In fact, the Catholic Church has constantly emphasized that faith and reason are not opposed but must work together, faith builds on reason, it does not demand that the believer turn his back on rational thought.

    The Catholic Church teaches that all men, whether they know God or not, are able to be good and kind and decent. We say that there are two levels of moral knowledge, there is that which is revealed by God but there is also the “natural law”. Every person who has ever lived or will ever live has written in his heart this “natural law”, that is a blueprint for knowing right from wrong, good from evil. That natural law is the basis for human decency, compassion, it is the moral compass that everyone has.

    Of course, we believe that it is God who put it there. But the Church has never taught that one must know God or believe in God in order to be a good person. In fact, the Catholic Church teaches that the ability to be good and compassionate is available to everyone.

    However, we also believe that it is easier to be good and decent if you have a good road map and we believe that the best road map is having a relationship with God.

    You say that “secular humanism and empathy, [are] based in something much stronger and much more sound.” Can you articulate this further? What in your view is it based on?

    I would argue that the decency and compassion that you base your goodness on ultimately comes from God who made everything and made us to have the ability to be good. What do you think is the source of human decency and empathy?

  31. 80smoviemama

    Very compelling. I have just found you through antiquemommy and can’t wait to read more.

  32. The (Almost) Amazing Mammarino

    Very well said!!!!

  33. broken by blindness

    Wow. How eloquent. How truthful. You have so nailed the truth. Thank you for posting it. I am so blessed for having read it. May God add blessings to you for sharing.

  34. Firehand

    I am reminded of Reinhardt Heydrich, Hitler's 'Perfect Nazi'. Could, without a second thought, order mass hangings as reprisals, order mass murder of Jews and others, a horrible man.

    And to friends, he was a smiling wonderful guy, very good with children and dogs.

    Thing is, the friends and children and friend's dogs were real beings worthy of consideration, and the others were Jews and other sub-humans, so no problem.

  35. Anonymous

    I came across your blog on good and bad people, and I'm commenting even though this topic is way past your article date of 2008.

    I came to this thought BAD STUFF never happens to GOOD people.

    Before anyone gets 'excited' at this extreme revelation…pointing out things like hitler and concentration camps and other bad…let me explain.

    We hear it all the time in the bible and faith 'social circles'
    GOD'S WORD really. It rains on the just and the unjust, the weeds and the wheat will live together for a time, Our Lord cautioned "I'm sending you like sheep amongst wolves" It's plenty clear isn't it? THE WORLD is NOT a nice place.
    It's deceptive, hard, difficult.

    BAD works side by side WITH GOOD.

    When faithful people lose a home by hurricane, while the bad might have happened…they marvel that
    (or any other such miracle)

    GOOD PEOPLE are not naive…they know 'bad' but THEY CHOOSE to have

    it's more than positive thinking.

    It's a FAITH in GOD who provides amidst the 'weeds' and that abound.
    THE STUFF always comes back.

    All they need IS GOD…and THEY HAVE EVERYTHING…


    bad never happens to good people.
    A GOOD GOD wouldn't allow it.

  36. Amanda

    I often watch shows like, 48 Hours Mystery and Dateline Mystery. With your husband being a lawyer, I’m sure he has pondered these things over and over. But it’s very rare for someone to murder another and then to walk into the Sheriff’s office and confess, “I did it, it was me.” Are they all liars? Are they all so hell bent on getting away with it so that they don’t have to pay for what they did? I don’t think so. Although not going to prison may seem like enough to make people who have done heinous things deny their actions, I think they deal with more shame and denial than we could ever know unless we’ve fallen into the same sort of mess. I think some of them wake up one day and say, “how the hell did I get here?” Many of them have justified their actions, and many of them may have even blocked the actual crime from their conscience simply because they cannot deal with the realization of the magnitude of how far their sin has brought them.

  37. MaricelaKerr18

    Specialists tell that mortgage loans aid a lot of people to live the way they want, just because they can feel free to buy necessary things. Furthermore, banks offer consolidation loan for all people.

  38. psalm

    I don’t have time to read all the comments but I know the moral argument often gets misunderstood by atheists. It’s not that atheists can’t act morally. No, that’s not the argument. If atheism is true, then there is no such thing as objective right or wrong. There is no objective standard by which to judge something as moral vs immoral. You have to understand what the moral argument is actually saying.

    I’m Catholic buy to drive home the moral argument with my atheist friends, I role play as an atheist. They simply cannot tell me that some action is objectively morally wrong or right while sticking to their worldview (atheism).

    I know Dr. William Lane Craig explains this argument in several short videos on youtube. He also uses the moral argument very successfully in his many debate victories over atheist opponents. Most serious atheist apologists will concede the moral argument.

    • psalm

      Edit *but* to drive home….

  39. Amanda

    I love this one. It makes me think about abortion and all of the people who have bought into the lie that “choice” is good. You always hear, “IT’S MY BODY!” (no…it isn’t. It’s another human soul’s body) Perhaps someday we’ll be able to look back on abortion as we do the Holocaust.

  40. Mark

    Your final paragraph absolutely rings true with my own perception of religion and faith when i was an ardent atheist. Now i have converted, as of a year ago, i have not felt as liberated, positive, focus or as happy as this – EVER!

  41. anon

    I will make some controversy on the subject, I believe real good vs evil is similar to the classic Heterosexuals vs Homosexuals argument, are we all good? do we all think alike? ofcourse not!

    On the argument of been Human and demonizing by doing evil acts, there is another saying that goes: “more than meets the eye” or “judge by actions not by appearance” people don’t think alike have different temper, character and do different things because of it evil people the same.

    I really think evil people LIKE doing evil things, its very simple most people have insticts most of people are competitive and like sports, Hunting, fishing, etc but some people go the mile and like blood, murder, rape of kids, mass killing.

    I really think good people are SLOWER to note people that are EVIL but are QUICK to Fight it.

    Good people and Bad people, don’t think alike.

    Evil People or Bad people are always trying to the bad thing, pushing the limits society lets them.

    There is a difference among people.

  42. X Contra

    Thanks for posting that like to Holocaust Memorial Museum. I looked through all the photos from that gallery, especially Mengele.

    Then I went to the museum’s family name lookup page, and I put in my dad’s family’s last name. Hundreds of names came up, Jewish and Catholic.

    My 7th grade son just asked me why I was so sad, and I explained to him. He knew what the holocaust was, and he understood about the many lives that perished. Now he also understands that distant members of his great great great grandcestor’s family perished, a reason to be sad.

    Thanks for the link. I have to spend more time on that database and figure out what all the annotations mean.

  43. cinhosa

    I enjoyed this post and the video from the Holocaust museum.

    It reminds me of a story I heard in That Man Is You – a men’s leadership program that is offered at many parishes across north america.

    The program’s founder tells a story about the time when he was a commodity trader and when he and his successful colleagues debated whether a person was a ‘good’ person or not.

    Here’s a clip of him sharing it:

  44. Jen

    If you were born in the middle east, you’d likely be worshiping Allah.

    Religion is bunk.

    This post makes me feel incredibly sad.

    • Fernando

      That’s probably because you chose to be sad. I rejoice in reading a conversion story. What makes you so sad? Uplift yourself!

    • Maryam

      The Middle East is pretty big. Lets not forget about the Christians in the region, too.

  45. Frankie

    Is THIS how we got to aborted fetal tissue in flavorings for PEPSI? What justifies such insanity!!

    • firstcupsitecreator

      Great article.
      In re – Frankie’s comment about Pepsi, etc.
      I really had to wade through the material a good deal; they were using “engineered” fetal tissue and their derivatives to believe it or not, test flavor enhancers for Pepsi. As far as I know it wasn’t in the drink itself.
      Well, that’s what was said.
      pepsi vehemently disagreed/denied, etc.
      Then they came out with an announcement that their contractor/vendor would no longer be using anything like that at all for anything Pepsi was doing… but at the same time they denied they had been doing it (? Yeah, go figure)
      So it was not in the drink itself, but being used for “testing”.
      Had I known about this years ago, i would have switched to Coke on a permanent basis far earlier.
      Now, if I have this wrong, and Pepsico was feeding the public sodas with that in it, please correct me. And then I’m going to sue Pepsi for a bazillion dollars for totally grossing me out!

  46. Todd Michaels

    Seems you answer one post with another re: “How do I love the Psalms”.

  47. Bonnie

    I just came across this now, so many years since you wrote it. It made me think of a time, many years ago, when I began working at a new job and was getting to know a fellow employee. She was about 29 years old, a Catholic, married with a small son, and for whatever reason liked flirting with other men in ways that made me raise my eyebrows. There were other things she did in the course of our work that were sinful; lying to our boss, falsifying records, being mean-spirited. Though I said nothing, she sensed my disapproval, and I recall in defense of herself she said one day, “What? I’m a good person.” That phrase, “I’m a good person.” always stuck with me. I often thought I wish had asked, “Compared to whom; Mother Theresa or Hitler?” But this article makes it clear what she was saying. She too must have held the idea there are “good” people and “bad” people, and she was a “good” people. I’ve met others like this, some in my family. Thanks for the great insight into their inner thinking process that often had baffled me.


    The sociopath that lives next door is everywhere!

    Watered down versions of the Human race; that is my take on these people. Western society breeds levels of sociopathic conditioning within its people. Sociopathic conditions are necessary for financial survival. The condition is in-bread within the ritual cultural expectations of militaristic family systems within the society. It all starts with the family system. A zoo is a zoo is a zoo… The family system is a small form of a zoo… When you torture the monkeys at home; they grow up, the monkeys then torture abroad.

    How important is pack theory; the idea that the group is influenced to speak the same, act the same, walk the same, and dress the same to fit in. Fitting in is spiritual, ritual, emotional, physical survival; going against the leader is not!

    Pathological wolves. Wolves loving together, killing together.

    Who said life is not a brutal tough place for everyone. All are all victims that they may eat. Does one escape by having there conscious torn out of them from childhood; No!

    Im afraid no one gets out live!

    Would you rather be an SS or a Jew/ neither! What a sad situation for everyone.

    Have you talked to a sociopath that believes in God? I have, its quit interesting! Its a lie; they have no idea that they don’t know God, they have no idea that they are sociopaths. If they are, they don’t care, as they feel nothing!

    Sociopaths are a different form of human being; anyone born in Western societies that follow a natural course with no resistance indifference is 50% sociopath.

    When the lie is great enough; the bigger the lie, the easier it is to implement !. The lie is; people of the western world are pure innocent people. The truth is; middle class normal murderers of one or more forms.

    In western societies it is normal for a child to die that I live as I wish…

    The world is an evil place with out a relationship with God.

  49. Sane

    Well I’m disappointed, though perhaps not very surprised, to see my first comment here was apparently removed. May I ask what was so offensive about my post you felt the need to censor it? I was both civil and on topic. I may not be a Christian, but I was under the impression that the opinions and viewpoints of others not of your faith were welcome here. Is this not the case?

    • Sane

      I’ll attempt to post my initial comment in case the problem was a technical one.

      Recently stumbled upon this site and from what I’ve read so far, I’m in agreement with you. That same quote really stood out for me too when I first read it for the same reason. If you recall earlier in that same blog post (entitled: Why I’m Catholic), Jennifer also said, “I just felt sad and adrift. I really didn’t know what was right or wrong, yet I had this vague sense that a true “right” answer must be out there somewhere.”
      From what I read, it seemed to me her conversion had a lot more to do with emotional vulnerability than any sort of critical thinking on the validity of the Christian claims being made.

      When you say, “I don’t have time to read all the comments but I know the moral argument often gets misunderstood by atheists. It’s not that atheists can’t act morally. No, that’s not the argument.” It’s not that atheists misunderstand the argument, it’s that the argument is so often presented as an inflammatory remark by theists.

      In response to this comment, “If atheism is true, then there is no such thing as objective right or wrong. There is no objective standard by which to judge something as moral vs immoral. You have to understand what the moral argument is actually saying.”

      So you claim God to be this provider of moral absolutes?
      I assume you are familiar with Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious or is it pious because it is loved by the gods? In other words: 1) Is something good because God recognizes it as good or 2) Is something good because God commands that it is good?

      I highly suggest checking out Qualiasoup’s video series about morality on Youtube. I’ve provided the link to the first part. His voice is rather monotone, but the presentation is done very well. It also addresses William Lane Criag’s objective moral argument in part 3 of the series.

  50. David

    Oh my!! I’m so happy to have found this blog! You speak the truth so beautifully 😀 it’s so empowering and encouraging to read your articles. thank you thank you thank you.

  51. Mrs Coon

    Thank you so much for sharing this! It is so insightful!
    When I saw the phrase, I remembered it from scripture (John 8:32) But it even makes more sense with what you (and so many others) have experienced, to look at it in context:

    John 8:31-32 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

    Thanks again!
    L Coon

  52. Smart Arse

    Its such as you go through my head! You appear to grasp a whole lot approximately this, that you composed the hem ebook from it or something that is. I have faith that you may may possibly employ a number of Per-cent to be able to strain the content home somewhat, having said that as an alternative to that, this is certainly wonderful blog. An incredible read. I will easily be rear.

  53. Karen

    Interesting viewpoint, I am going to have to ponder this. 🙂 So did you go to University of Texas? Me, too! 1990 grad.

  54. tune

    I just finished watching the act of killing (available on netflix). The film was nominated for Oscar this year and won numerous awards the past 2 years. In the words of the director, “My first feeling, as somebody who lost a lot of family in the Holocaust, was that it was as if I had walked into Germany and the Nazis had won and former SS officers were discussing the deaths of the Jews as if it was something fantastic…” ( As I watched painfully scene after scene on how the story evolved over the 8 years time period it took to finish this movie project, I was reminded by this blog post of yours Jen. It described what you just wrote up there, “Now I see that, frighteningly, there is no ontological difference between me and the smiling employees in that Auschwitz photo; the difference is nothing more or less than the stories we tell ourselves about what was going on in the background.” I can write more, but seriously, just watch the movie! As Indonesian, I can say that it depicted the story and the condition of the Indonesian society (where the so-called “free man” rules) really well. It also oversimplifies a few things, as my friend wrote here:

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