Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Just Being Good for Goodness' Sake: A Response to The American Humanist Bus Campaign

Recently a humanist organization placed a series of holiday ads in the Washington D.C. city transits, on which there is a person who is wearing an over-sized Santa suit that hangs sloppily on her body. Her shoulders are shrugged and her hands are extended in a common pose that people understand to mean that she is saying by her posture, “I don’t know.”

To what is she saying, “I don’t know”? Simple. Above her are the words “Why believe in god?” and below that is the phrase “just be good for goodness' sake.” Apparently the individual in the ad cannot find a reason to believe in God but finds it necessary to believe and act out and do and be good for goodness’ sake. This conclusion cannot help but make one question “Can a person be good without believing in God?” The clear answer is both at the same time “yes” and “no”, but I will leave the details of that question to people smarter than myself.

What I want to examine is what exactly are they encouraging and promoting in that add? Are they really promoting a disbelief in God for the sake of goodness? What do they mean by ‘good’ and ‘goodness’? The humanist ad raises more questions and supplies fewer answers.

First, whose definition and understanding of ‘good’ and goodness does a person use when interpreting this sign? As it is, there are varying opinions of what people consider good. Some believe abortion to be good, while others do not. Some believe that sexual promiscuity is a good, while others think monogamy is a good and the later is to be loathed. Still some find communism to be most favorable and good and others view it as an evil not to be tolerated.

So again, whose good do we use? To what understanding of good and goodness are the humanist appealing? I think the best place to begin is to consider where the humanist group placed their ad. Their ad was placed in a public location that is seen by many travelers so as to ensure a maximum exposure and saturation of their message. So first, from the placement of the ad it can been seen that the humanist group is appealing and promoting an understanding of good and goodness that is not theoretical and to be left to the philosophers to debate. If this message was meant for such a target group, as the one just mentioned, the humanists would have never displayed it in such a public place and would have left their message in the universities for the professors to discuss.

Further, it can be deduced from the placement of the ad that the good and goodness that is being promoted is accessible to people of all walks of life: rich, poor, famous, proud, humble, etc. . . . That is, the humanist are assuming that all who see this sign will be able to understand the ‘good’ and ‘goodness’ which is being promoted. In other words, it is a message for the common man that can only appeal to the common experience of all who read the ad. The only logical conclusion is that the good being promoted is something that is universal to all people, otherwise the sign would speak something differently. The ad is aimed at a common good: something universal. Something that is so common and so universal and so readily accessible to the common person that makes much sense to the common mind that it might be called “common sense”: that weak intuitive knowledge and understanding, which can too often be overridden by reason, that allows us to look at the world and situations as they really are with honesty and humility.

Though the humanists are promoting a good that is both common and universal, it still remains: is this universal and common good that they are promoting objective or is it relative? In brief, the humanists are promoting an objective and absolute good. As if they meant something relative – as in the philosophical understanding of relativism – where each person creates their own understanding of what is meant by ‘good’ they would have taken a different approach to their ad. A more affective slogan might have been “the good is what you make it.” Moreover, the humanists, if really promoting a relative understanding of the good, might as well have placed on the ad that we should all be ‘burrito for burritos sake” or be “yell, for verb cookie dog”. Further, the good the humanists are promoting must be objective, otherwise there could be nothing common or universal about the ‘good’ which they are promoting. Since the humanist did not do any of these, it is clear again that the good is common, universal, and objective.

Second, the word choice the humanist group chose is of great interest to the analysis of this ad. The first sentence is obvious and not worth discussing. However, the choice of “be good for goodness sake” is of much interest. “Be good for goodness sake” is a line plucked straight from the popular Christmas song “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” I will assume that most people know, even if only elementary, that Santa Clause is an Americanized version of who was once called Saint Nicholas: a Christian saint known for his goodness. Moreover, this song is only sung during the Christmas season, which is really the Advent season. It is the season that America anticipates the celebration of the birth of Jesus. To try and remove the Christian under and over tones to this season and song are like trying to separate light from the sun. Therefore, taking into account the song to which the humanists are appealing, the Christian undertones to the song and the overtones of the season, the good that the humanists are promoting can only be some kind of Christian understanding of what good and goodness are.

But couldn’t the humanist be appealing to some kind of evolutionary definition of the good? If they are, then they are doing it very poorly in their ad. However, lets entertain that idea for one moment. What if our understanding of good is really just something that evolution programmed into our genes? Though this seems like a plausible argument and suggestion, what evolution proposes and what being good proposes are contrary to each other. Briefly, the good is counter productive to the evolutionary process. If we were to look at the animal world, you would see many animals acting instinctually, whose behavior revolves around its own survival and procreation. But acting instinctually can hardly be called good, as there is no goodness in instinct: no thing ethical or moral about acting on pure instinct alone. That is, evolution dictates that the strongest and most cunning survive and says nothing about being good in the universal, common, objective understanding. In fact, evolution seems to be silent on all grounds of goodness.

However, being good seems to contradict evolution. As who could deem it bad or evil or not good to feed a hungry mouth or those less fortunate than one’s self? In fact most would consider it a good thing to do such an act. Yet, this simple act of goodness goes against what evolution wants to happen. It is to pollute the gene pool with those who have genes that are less favorable. If evolution was the only driving force, evolution would dictate to let all the starving starve to death as then the weaker genes would be cleansed from the gene pool and only the stronger more favorable genes would survive. Strangely, there is nothing in science or evolution that can explain or account for the need for such good actions as feeding the hungry. The only possible answer that since might be able to provide is that somewhere along the evolutionary path evolution deemed it necessary that such ‘good’ genes be in the pool, but this begs the question as being good is contrary to what evolution dictates.

Finally, the notions of the good and goodness are so ingrained and associated with God in our current culture and time that to try to separate the good from God, especially in context with the Christmas/Advent season, would only result in the painful process that occurs when one tries to separate heat from fire. Then again, if we search scripture and find the simple line, "God is good" then the answer is simple.

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