After talking to my husband and a classmate (two fellow atheists), I have come to the conclusion that my views on being a good person are highly influenced by the Catholic church.
I don't want to make this a personal blog (there already is one for that, and I call it a journal), so I will briefly explain where I'm coming from with the Catholic reference: I was born in a religiously apathetic family, but of Catholic background, I was never taught anything religion related at home, but I did go to a Catholic elementary school, and I believe my education occurred 60% at home and 40% at school. (I won't claim that's the case for everyone.)
I wasn't forced by anyone in my family to take my first communion (in fact, they didn't even bring it up), but I was encouraged to do it at school. And though in that particular school, it happened to be optional, I decided to go through with it.
Enough about me now. Moving on to the actual topic in question: are feelings or actions what makes us good or bad?
Well, my basic thought on being a good or a bad person is "you are what you feel" rather than "you are what you do". But why? Why do I think feelings are what makes us good or bad, when it's actions that have an influence in others? Well, here's where religion comes to participate.
I had mean classmates in elementary school, and my mom (who was brought up by a very Catholic family, but wasn't particularly Catholic herself) always taught me that I needed to be a good person and not have bad feelings about them. I was told I needed to always have good feelings, so if someone hurt me, I wasn't supposed to hurt them back, if someone did rude things to me, I should always wish them good, because it wasn't my place on Earth to return the bad that was done to me, God would eventually decide who was good and who was bad, and those people weren't worth having bad feelings about.
I think that is an excellent approach (and I will probably use it some day if I ever have kids of my own, of course, though, I'll leave God out of it) but I think maybe I did take it a bit too seriously. I started to think that if a bad person put bad feelings in my mind, then I was becoming a bad person myself, by even having those feelings, and then God wouldn't be happy with me, because he knew what we all felt at all times, so He wanted me to not have bad feelings, and to always stay good.
I actually removed the God parts cause I don't even believe that the concept of a God as humanity knows it is remotely possible, but I did stick with the whole "always have good feelings", and even today, what hurts me most about people doing 'bad' things to me is that they put bad feelings in my mind, thereby, making me a bad person.
My husband told me, after reading what I'd written about feelings in my previous entry, that, based on my high standards, everybody must be a bad person, because there isn't and hasn't ever been one person in the entire history of humanity who has never, not once in their life, been invaded by bad feelings.
He then urged me to come up with a name, "name someone who's never had a bad feeling in their entire life" and then he said "Jesus doesn't count, cause he's a mythical creature". Well, I wasn't going to say Jesus, because I know he's a mythical creature and my husband had asked about real people, also because even if Jesus had existed, I would not have a way to know what his feelings really were. But the thought did occur to me, the thought that the one person I'd been taught had nothing but goodness in his soul was Jesus. That disappointed me, because it made me wonder: have I been basing my entire concept of good vs evil on a mythical creature? Have I let religion influence me more than I thought? Truth is, if I have been expecting to be like an unrealistic fictional character who was supposed to be more divine than all of us anyway, then maybe I have been too hard on myself all this time...
With my classmate, the conversation went in a different direction. He said if you have bad feelings but good actions, then you're twice as good, because you're having to go against your feelings to act good, and that requires a lot more effort than to just be good cause you feel it that way. He separated the whole process in three (as opposed to my simplistic two) stances: desire, intention, and result. Where the nature of the desire does not make someone completely good or completely bad, as that part of the process is beyond our control. The result also shouldn't determine a person's goodness, because, again, results are unpredictable and uncontrollable, to some degree. It is the intention that makes you good or bad. To put this into perspective, I'll just use the example he used: you can feel envy because someone else is doing better than you in school, but you don't intend to hurt that person, because you are actually good and you don't really want to act on your envy, then comes the action, you recommend a book for them to study from (in good heart) and it turns out that confuses them more and they fail the test. Are you a bad person for feeling the envy? Are you a good person for actually recommending a book you thought would help them? Or are you a bad person because the book turned out to hurt them? Well... It is clear to me that he made an excellent point, and that, as well as everything I later discussed with my husband, made me rethink the entire concept I had, which was based solely on irrationalities (and by that, I mean religion).
Even with how much sense those arguments made in my head, I am still having a hard time breaking up with the idea that feelings are all that matters, I still have it deep within me that having bad feelings automatically makes you a bad person...
I was told by one of my religion teachers that the best time to die is either immediately after a confession or during prayer, because that is when all your bad feelings are forgiven by God and removed from your mind/soul. There are very few religious concepts that stuck with me from my school years, this was one of them.
I actually believe in the power of confession, I mean I think confession is a very cool concept, even without the God part.
In fact, I still practice confession to some degree. Even though I haven't done it with a priest since I was about eleven years old, I confess whenever I have bad feelings, generally it is to my husband, sometimes it is just to myself, in the form of writing.
By confessing I feel I get all my bad feelings out of my mind, and I can go back to a clean start. There's no absolution needed, though, because I don't believe in sin, and I don't believe in the religious power of priests; but there is the forgiveness. When I confess, I find it much easier to see that my bad feelings were not so bad to begin with, and to forgive myself for feeling them at all...
So, I guess the point of this entry is, after talking to people who showed me different insight in the matter, I have realized just how influenced by religion I have been regarding the "good vs evil" concept, and just how irrational and hard on people it is for anyone to believe that bad feelings are all it takes to makes us bad, considering it is virtually impossible to always have good feelings about everyone; after all, there's always someone who brings out the worst in us.