A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

On Judging Others


Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

Matthew 7:1-2

A commonly heard doctrine of Christianity is that we should not judge other people, and in turn, to hope that they will not judge us. I could write an entire article (or a book!) on the irony of this lesson considering how utterly ignored it is by so many Christians, and therefore the bald-faced hypocrisy they commit. But that is not my purpose. If you follow the link from the quote to the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, you will see a “thumbs up” icon in the margin, indicating “Good Stuff”. I disagree.

There is nothing wrong with judging people. Even if there were, it is not a choice we can make. We judge people all the time. Every second you spend with any person, you are making judgments about them, and they are making judgments about you. When you meet someone for the first time, your brain is constantly recording and analyzing data – in the form of body language, deeds, physical appearance, words, tone of voice – in order to decide what you think of that person. It will then form a general picture of your view of that person in your mind. You might say that a ‘file’ is created, and from then on, every time you are thinking about, or communicating with that person, the file is retrieved and opened, ready for review or updating. This is not a conscious or willing act on our part, it is simply the way our brains have evolved to operate.

I think that in order to be valuable, Jesus’ instruction not to judge requires three qualifications. Firstly, that while we judge people all the time whether we want to or not, we can control the criteria on which we do it. We can investigate, examine evidence, and through reason and introspection decide what we think is a “good” thing for someone, and what we think is “bad”, although clearly this is an oversimplification. I think in modern society, any reasonable person should realise that it is not fair to judge someone based on a factor over which they have absolutely no control, for example, skin colour or sexual orientation. If you meet a person who you find out is a murderer, you will inevitably pass judgment on them (and rightly so) for their choice to actively terminate an other human being’s life. But, if you meet a person who is Asian, whatever your views on Asian people may be, you can not reasonably judge the person for choosing to be Asian, because they didn’t have a choice.

Secondly, far more important than the judgment we pass, is the action we carry out, if any, based on that judgment. A judgment is simply a thought, and a thought on its own can never harm anyone. A homophobe, even recognizing that homosexuals have made no active choice about their sexual orientation, may despise them nonetheless. Even though he has not considered my first qualification, that is his opinion which he is freely entitled to. What matters, is how he acts upon it. If he decides that, whatever his views, it is not his job to punish or interfere with other people’s lives, and that as long as he stays away from them and they stay away from him he is content, then no harm is done (although I still condemn such small minded prejudice). If, on the other hand, he decides to take matters into his own hands, that gay people deserve to die for their sins and appoints himself as judge, jury and (literally) executioner, then we have a big problem. While it is perfectly acceptable to allow our brains free reign to form opinions, we are not free to act on them in any way we see fit.

Thirdly, it is important that we are always willing to allow new judgments to revoke, or at least to be taken into account with, previous ones. We humans are complex creatures, and are quite capable of surprising each other. A person whom you have deemed, on previous data analysis, to be selfish and arrogant may catch you off guard with a kind and selfless good deed. Inversely, a person whom you have grown to trust may betray you. I am not saying that we should not allow ourselves to develop trust in those we love, but it is important that once the betrayal has been carried out, that we do not delude ourselves about who that person really is. We have to allow the new data to adjust our view of that person.

The important thing to realise, is that judgment is a many-to-many interactive process. Every judgment you make effects the person that you are, which in turn will effect the judgments that other people will make about you. Which will effect the judgments that you, and other people, will make about them. And so on. It is for this reason that people are changing all the time, and that our constant judgment of others must continue in order to keep us all up-to-date. Any attempt to stifle or retard that process is deleterious to our wellbeing and our goals. What the process requires, is control and regulation.

12 Responses to “On Judging Others”

  1. I think whether the biblical advice is “good” or not depends on how “judgement” is interpreted in the passage.

    If by “judge” Jesus means condemning people to destruction or confirming them for salvation, then the advice is indeed good, because what Jesus is saying is that it’s god’s decision who will survive and who will die, not yours. In other words, ‘get on with your life and follow me, and leave peoples’ fates in god’s hands’.

    A lot of Christians are still hypocrites though, because many of them do still judge others and declare them worthy of salvation, or condemn them to hell for their actions or lifestyles; something that Jesus explicitly told his followers not to do. (But then, it’s not the only thing Jesus said that modern day Christians completely ignore.)

    As for evaluating others in our heads, I agree with everything you said. Only by our actions can we be judged, but judgement and evaluation aren’t synonomous in this context.

  2. I love to hear all the ways in which Christians feel compelled to comment on what Jesus REALLY meant when he said “judge” or, for that matter, anything else. Interpreters of scripture are ten-a-penny.

    Nonetheless, here’s an important point: if we are not to judge anyone else lest we by judged, how the hell is the judicial system to work? The same problem is implied by “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”; by these standards no one would qualify for jury service. Are the worst criminals to go unpunished?
    http://bluerat.wordpress.com

  3. Thanks Tobe, this got me thinking – which I guess is the mark of a good article of this kind.

    A related point, actually. When people say, “Do you trust him?” they seem to imply that has only one meaning and only two possible answers. Does that mean:

    1. Trust them not to steal your wallet?
    2. Trust them to keep a particular secret?
    3. Trust them to remember to pick you up?
    4. Trust them to make your dinner?

    I think the same applies for words like love, hate, etc…

  4. This is really good, Tobe. You articulate what I think, but have difficulty saying, very well.

    This brings me to mind a really important concept in law – credibility. You don’t hear about it much, but in any given case involving competing testimony, the credibility of the witness can be the linchpin to success or failure. Judges listen to both sides of the case, but often, in fact, most of the time, the testimony from both sides is in conflict, and oftentimes, there is no corroborating evidence, so the judge is forced to flip a coin. Who’s testimony to believe?

    It’s in this situation that credibility comes into play. The Judge makes an entirely arbitrary decision that he believes one of two sets of conflicting testimony. I guess this is where the noun “judge” actually comes from. He’s forced to make a judgment call, and it could turn on a simple perception of whether someone is telling the truth. The inflection in the voice, hesitation answering a question, the look on the face, all kinds of verbal and non-verbal clues go into the decision as to whether someone is telling the truth.

    For the most part, my experience is that they’ve gotten over racism and sexism. Judges are pretty good at making decisions of credibility based on skin color of gender. But appearance can have a big effect. A mangy looking guy in need of a bath with long stringy hair and tattoos might just have less credibility than an accountant in a three piece suit. That’s why it’s a good idea to dress up for court. People DO judge books by their cover.

    The bottom line is we are all human, so it’s easy to judge and be judged improperly. But either way, we ARE judged.

    Of course, Jesus wouldn’t fit very well in a courtroom. What with that long hair and beard, and those sandals.:)

  5. Nice post. I think you’re right on the money when you distinguish between mental judgments and active ones. But I would expand on your definition slightly.

    You should point out, though, that voicing a judgment is active, not merely mental.

  6. I’m a big believer in non-judgment. But, that word, “judgment” needs careful defining in any discussion. There are so many shades of meaning.
    I try to avoid labeling someone as all good or all bad based on the presence of a few traits. If someone is generally late for meetings, the automatic assumption is that they are inconsiderate. And it might be true. But, that same person can be very giving of their own time when you need them, putting off others.
    If we constantly allow ourselves the laxity of pontificating on the general character of others based on the time-slice view we get of them, we are doing ourselves and them a disservice. I prefer to think of it as being aware of other’s typical traits so that I will not depend on the always-late friend for the carpool or the spend-thrift to pay me back whatever I lend them.
    Be aware of the flaws and strengths of each person, but don’t use that to come to a verdict on the goodness/badness of an individual as a whole.
    To summarize: Measure the traits, not the person. I think that might even be the essence of what JC meant – but as always, YMMV.

  7. Ok, got a few to get through.

    @ Evanescent

    I see where you’re coming from, but I also think you’re splitting hairs a bit. Even if your interpretation is correct, I think many Xians do use the one that I have taken as well.

    @ Bluerat

    if we are not to judge anyone else lest we by judged, how the hell is the judicial system to work? The same problem is implied by “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”; by these standards no one would qualify for jury service. Are the worst criminals to go unpunished?

    Good point. This highlights another case of logical inconcsistency in Christain doctrine.

    @ James

    When people say, “Do you trust him?” they seem to imply that has only one meaning and only two possible answers.

    Another good point. I agree that trust is variable, not simply a binary one or zero. And, by definition, you can never have absolute trust. If you did, you would have knowledge, and there would be no need for trust.

    @ Spanish Inquisitor

    A very shrewd, and somewhat disturbing point. It’s a shame that we have to allow such measures, but I don’t see an obvious alternative.

    Of course, Jesus wouldn’t fit very well in a courtroom. What with that long hair and beard, and those sandals.:)

    Lol🙂

    @ The Exterminator

    You should point out, though, that voicing a judgment is active, not merely mental.

    Touché. A good point, one that I overlooked.

    @ Polly

    You’re right that there can be confusion of the context in which we mean “judgement”. Maybe Evanescnet was closer to the mark than I gave him credit for.

  8. Regarding Polly’s interpretation — that makes a lot of sense. I mean, I can’t say whether that’s what the Biblical passage means, but I’m with you on the idea of not judging people as a whole. One of my central tenets is never to condemn another human being entirely. Believe in the good in people, and then it will be more likely to surface.

  9. @ Lynet

    Believe in the good in people, and then it will be more likely to surface.

    I would modify that slightly – believe in the good in people, and then you are more likely to see it in them. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s there.

    Having said that, I do agree that nobody is all bad, but I think some people are so bad that they almost might as well be. As an extreme example, is Osama bin Laden all bad? Probably not, I’m sure his mother likes him. But I don’t see any practical purpose in going out of our way to credit him for that fraction of good.

    Essentially I come back to what I said in the main article – judge, but judge fairly, on the right criteria, with as much evidence as possible, and always be willing to change your mind.

  10. I would modify that slightly – believe in the good in people, and then you are more likely to see it in them.

    That’s also true. Nevertheless I maintain that if you expect people to behave well, there are many situations where they will be liable to react to your expectation by trying to fulfil it. Obviously it’s of limited effectiveness, but it’s not useless.

    As an extreme example, is Osama bin Laden all bad? Probably not, I’m sure his mother likes him. But I don’t see any practical purpose in going out of our way to credit him for that fraction of good.

    Even then, I wouldn’t indulge in gratuitous hatred — although I would count it reasonable to focus on fighting against a person like that rather than trying to see the best in him, you’re right.

    Still, it’s an extreme case!

  11. @ Lynet

    That’s also true. Nevertheless I maintain that if you expect people to behave well, there are many situations where they will be liable to react to your expectation by trying to fulfil it. Obviously it’s of limited effectiveness, but it’s not useless.

    You’re right that when there is interaction, clear expectation can illicit a response.

  12. I can’t see why the prospect of being judged as we judge should imply that we shouldn’t judge at all. Following the Golden Rule and not being a hypocrite should suffice; I try to judge others fairly, without prejudice, and with a measure of compassion. I have absolutely no objection to being judged the same way.


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