Thursday, April 9, 2009

Conscience and Conviction

Conviction is the quality of showing what you believe to be right. Sometimes that means doing things you don't want to do. Generally speaking, when you do whatever you want, people get hurt. If you live a life without conviction, you will probably eventually be convicted in court. If you can't govern yourself, the law steps in and you eventually have face the penalty for your actions. It's true that some criminals are fortunate enough to escape conviction their entire lives, but depending on what you believe about the afterlife they might not be as fortunate on judgement day.

The truth is that every decent person has some level of conviction. Humanities greatest heros also had the deepest convictions (i.e. Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr), but everyone has some ruling or conscience or voice that tells them to do the right thing. Buddhists call it the wisdom of the "Buddha that lays dormant in every creature," Jews and Christians call it God, atheists very practically call it evolution or conditioning. Whatever the voice is, it's beyond our understanding. Right and wrong seem to be innate. They need not be taught. Very good people have come from very wicked situations and vice versa. There is no apparent rhythm to how conviction will influence people, it seems to be left up to the individual whether they will "do the right thing" or not. We are all naturally defiant, for many of us our first word was "no," but even at that age we know right from wrong. There's a pit in your stomach when you disobey your parents, but then there's the profound feeling you get when you do something unquestionably right.

Atheists would say that we, like animals, are conditioned to believe what is right and what is wrong. I think some conditioning is undeniable; culturally we differ from other humans, but at the core we all tend to follow the same laws which have nothing to do with culture. In no culture is it okay to steal from your family, rape your mother and kill your brother. Sure some people have done it, but even those people would tell you it's wrong. The reason I don't kill someone when I'm mad at them isn't because somebody told me it was wrong, it's because it makes me sick to think about it. It's because something feels terribly wrong about killing someone. 

This feeling has nothing to do with nature either. Your cute black lab could snap a chihuahuas neck and never think twice about it. He'd look up at you with the chihuahua at his feet, panting happily as if to say "Look what I brought you." Thats nature, there is no heart or logic. It often seems cruel and absurd, but only to us because we are cognizant, rational beings who have been ingrained with this innate sense of conviction. I've seen people cry when they watch a lion take down a gazelle on the Discovery Channel. That's perfectly normal in nature, a lion has got to eat. Do the vultures come down to mourn the gazelles carcass? Do they shed tears over the injustice? No, they tear it to pieces. Not another living creature cares. But something deep down our humanity cries out against bloodshed... it cries out against the ending of any life. We are at odds with nature in that way. We are at odds with nature in a lot of ways, which is why I tend to believe we are not merely an advanced byproduct of it.

Of course some people think killing animals is a fun sport, and some people think shedding the blood of people is fun too. I think we can all agree that there is something attractive about being bad. There is something enchanting about doing the wrong thing. It can get addicting. Even the greatest offenders would agree that unnecessary blood shed is wrong, however pleasing it is to them. The serial killers know, the poachers know... Whether or not they adhere to their conscience, they know what they do is instinctually wrong.

Some might want to pass this off as perception, that since I perceived the value of life at a young age I have been embedded with a desire to see things live. Maybe, but I believe desire is different than conviction. It's different than the feeling in your gut or the voice in your head. I believe that you will hear your parents and mentors in your head, but there is another voice, one that's been there all along and it's undeniable. It's a gut feeling, its a nagging thought. It's your conscience. It's the human ability to discern right from wrong. Christians believe that God is the ultimate discerner of right from wrong, and that humans were made in His image. The idea is that your conscience is a piece of God's image in you, the thing that makes you God-like and sacred, different from the rest of the animals. If you can't tell already, I like this explanation.

For a period in my life I ignored my conscience. I lived without conviction, and not only did I hurt myself I ended up hurting others. I think conviction is attractive to me because I am so naturally defiant. I really love being able to do whatever I want whenever I want. "Doing the right thing" never seems attractive to me at first glance. My conscience has to pick away at my heart to get me to do anything good. I love conviction, because it has changed my life. Every time I've responded to my conscience with action, something positive has happened. 

Living out what I believe has changed me for the better. The growing of conviction within me has grown my personality. It has grown me into a more goal-oriented responsible person, but it hasn't come natural to me. I still have to listen long and hard for my conscience to speak to me sometimes. It is fascinating, however, when it does and I am blessed by the end result.


  1. You're really good at putting your thoughts into words. I think this kind of material is good for anybody to read.

  2. I feel that, this line.. 'Christians believe that God is the ultimate discerner of right from wrong, and that humans were made in His image' rings very true to me, through personal experiences with following my conscience and discernment upon situations.

    Having a godly conscience is a lot harder when you are exposed to the corrupt way of life we live in, and I think dwelling in you know, bible study and time with God does really help you stay in touch spiritually. Love it Matt, good stuff to dwell on.


  3. I thought it was very interesting how you mentioned what atheists think about conviction, morals, etc. in this post. You haven't mentioned them before : ) Similarly, I've always thought that conviction varies with every individual, after all, everyone has their own sense of right and wrong. Guaranteed, there are some definite ones (ie, stealing, raping, murdering, etc.), however there are some people that still even defy those, even though they might sicken the average person. This is why I love religion, because it gives people guidelines, something to look up to and achieve to be (ie, more like Jesus). If it helps people, then religion has done it's job. For me, I'm content with obeying my individual convictions. And for the majority of society, they're pretty good/strict ones : ) Keep up the good work, Matt! I love reading these.

  4. That was the most incredibly amazing explanation of something most of us feel but can never quite put into words. Although there are those hardened criminals, who are so self centered that nothing around them has any worth. They may know right from wrong, but will do what ever their heart desires to please only themselves, placing the blame for their actions on anyone(fathers, mothers, etc.)or circumstances in their childhood, but not themselves. But you are right, we all need to learn to check our self control once in awhile, it's very easy to get lost in the moment.

  5. Hey Matt,
    How I think is that right or wrong, good or all based on conscience. It is not what you do but the intention with which you do it....ofcourse, excluding criminals...who, unfortunately have imbalances in their "conscience organ" so to speak ;) I found your awesome blog and like very much two things you say:
    "We are at odds with nature in a lot of ways, which is why I tend to believe we are not merely an advanced byproduct of it."
    "your conscience is a piece of God's image in you, the thing that makes you God-like and sacred, different from the rest of the animals. If you can't tell already, I like this explanation"
    They provide me with an EXCELLENT way to express what conscience is..and also what "God" means. It is pretty clear how UNsimple our universe is...and how impossible it is for man to simplify the magic of it...!
    Your thoughts are very infectious...Keep thinkin!! :)