Why Do I Need Religion When I Can Just Be a Good Person?

Happy Christian Nihilist
14 min readJul 7, 2022

There area lot of people nowadays who don’t believe in organized religion, and simultaneously they also think that organized religion is a really bad thing.

These people will often say something like:

I don’t need religion, who needs religion, who needs organized religion? I don’t need all that. I can just have my spirituality.

I remember once I was gathering with friends, and we were staying up late. I think it was past midnight. All of the worst philosophizing, all of the worst reasoning about the world, I think, happens after midnight.

We were talking about God, and I said, “Well, you know … Well, obviously you guys know that I go to church, I attend Liturgy as often as I can. I think God is important. I think the Church is important.”

And they started being critical:

Oh, we don’t need church.

Some of them were atheists, while others believed in God, but they believed in God on their own terms.

I remember one of the guys with me, I’ll call him Shane. I said, “Well, Shane, what do you think about God?” He said, “Yeah, I think God’s out there. I think God loves us, but you know, what if God … Follow me here … He just is the whole universe. This is God, and are we in God’s stomach right now?” And I just kind of looked at him, I said, “No, Shane, we’re not in God’s stomach right now. I’m pretty positive of that. I’m not being digested by some deity.”

And what’s funny is people will philosophize, and they’ll think they’ve come up with these really profound thoughts, and then you say, “well, actually, somebody thought of that 2,000 years ago.”

In this case, this is Pantheism, the idea that the universe is God. But Pantheism fails to explain reality for a number of reasons, one of them being that if the universe does not have to exist or if it began to exist as we believe, we know that from faith and good arguments from reason and science that the universe had a beginning. And if the universe came into existence, then the universe cannot explain its own existence.

So I talked to Shane and others a little bit about that, asking questions like:

What’s so bad about religion? What is so bad about organized religion?

And I think it was a good conversation to have because I've heard these arguments before time and time again. For this post, I want to address three common arguments people will give against just religion in general. There are many more arguments to be had and made, but that is for another time.

Now, people who argue against religion may not be coming from an atheistic perspective, but it is a perspective of thinking, “Well, I can have God without religion or the Bible or anything like that.”

Why do people have these thoughts? Let’s take a look at them.

Argument 1

I don’t need religion, I’m a good person. Why would I need religion? You know, I am nice to people. I don’t cheat on my spouse. I don’t cheat on my taxes too much. I don’t do all these terrible things. I don’t murder anybody. I’m not Hitler. I’m not doing bad things. I’m a good person. God will understand that, and if I meet Him in the afterlife, then I think everything should be just fine.

Well, a few things are problematic with this kind of view.

  1. What do you mean by a good person? What exactly makes someone a good person? When they try to justify their own position on this subject, they inevitably admit that a good person is somebody at their level or higher.

The conversation might go like this:

“Well, why can’t good people go to heaven?”

“Well, what is a good person? Is a good person somebody who doesn’t cheat on their wife. Is a good person someone who doesn’t murder people?”

“Oh yeah, definitely.”

“Okay, let’s up it a little bit though. Does a good person donate 10% of their income to charity?”

“Well, I think you can be a good person without doing that.”

“Oh, okay. Does a good person ever drink a little bit too much every now and then and maybe drive home? They’re not drunk, but you know, they’re not quite sure.”

Some people say, “Well, no. Good people don’t do that.”

Others will say, “Well, maybe that’s okay,” because they do it.

It all just becomes kind of self-serving when people look at it that way.

The idea that all it takes is being a good person is rooted in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

So what is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

It’s a descriptor for a very common belief system here in America today made by two sociologists, Melinda Denton and Christian Smith. They said that a lot of people believe in God, but not the God of Classical Theism, of classical Christianity or religion, but they believe in a Moralistic Therapeutic Deity.

What that means is God is deistic, He made the world, but He doesn’t quite care a lot about it. He’s not really involved in it. If He is involved, He’s involved in a therapeutic way. He exists for me to thrive, and God is there to help me. He’s basically a cosmic vending machine. I’m in a jam, I pray. He helps me, but other than that, He’s not too involved, and he’s moralistic. Now, He doesn’t have a very rigid moral standard, but he wants me to be a nice, kind, generally good person.

This is from an article I read from Denton and Smith, on the religious beliefs of teenagers. A lot of them actually embrace Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

This is what they write:

The language, and therefore experience of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.

The idea is, well, I’m a good person. I’ll go to heaven. God wants me to be happy. As long as I’m nice to other people, I’m going to go to heaven.

Sorry my friends. You can’t earn your salvation. There’s nothing we can do to earn eternal life with the infinite, perfect, glorious being that is God Himself. Eternal life can only be the gracious gift of God that we say yes to.

To ask it bluntly, what right do you have? Why should God say yes to you? Why should a perfect being choose to spend eternity with you and all of your imperfections? What right do you have to demand that upon Him? What right do you have to demand a single, extended day of your life?

I’ll have friends who, while pointing to the Bible, will say “look how horrible God is for slaughtering people and smiting people. Why would I believe that I need a God like that in order to get to heaven?”

But I’ve always wondered, if God makes us, if God creates all of us, then what right do we have to say to demand life from Him? Can’t He just give us however much life He chooses to give us? What right do we have to demand a certain lifespan from God?

It’d be like if I sent you, dear reader, 20 bucks in the mail today, then 20 bucks tomorrow, then 20 bucks the next day, then 20 bucks the next day. Then Monday comes around and no 20 bucks. Would you get mad at me and say “hey, Will, where’s my 20 bucks?” I’d say, “Well, shouldn’t you just be glad I gave you 20 bucks on these days? Who says I have to give you more every single day from here on out?”

It’s kind of the same with God and our lives. If God gives us life, isn’t it just a gracious gift however long He chooses to give us? Much the same way that eternal life with Him can only be a gracious gift? We have no right to demand something like that from God.

Argument 2

I don’t need organized religion because the church is full of hypocrites. I’m sick of the people. They say one thing, yet they do another. They’re all hypocritical. I don’t need to be a part of that.

Well, what’s wrong with this argument? First, this argument almost always misunderstands what a hypocrite is. What is a hypocrite? It comes from a Greek word, hypokrites. It referred to, in ancient Greece, the practice of wearing a mask in a dramatic production. So hypokrites is like performing a role or wearing a mask, so when you were on stage in ancient Greece, you would wear a mask to show which character you were. So a hypocrite is literally somebody who wears a mask with other people. A hypocrite is not someone who says one thing and does another. That is not necessarily a hypocrite. That could be a weak-willed or cowardly person. A hypocrite, a bonafide hypocrite is somebody who says one thing to people, but they actually believe another. They are not buying the very product that they are selling. That is what makes them a hypocrite.

If you say, “I want to be healthy. I think going to the gym is great. I’m going to go to the gym. This is what we should do,” and you don’t go, it doesn’t mean you’re a hypocrite. You could just be lazy. You could just be weak. And that’s what happens to a lot of us. We talk about the moral life. We fail to live it. That’s just giving into weakness and sin. It’s not necessarily hypocrisy.

And the thing is, if you don’t want to be a part of the Church because they’re hypocrites, I’m sorry, but you can’t be a part of any organized group of people because you’re going to find hypocrites there, too. And lest you think you can just stay at home and play video games and go on YouTube, and say, “Well, I’m going to be the church of myself and everything I believe,” I’m sorry again. There’s going to come mornings when you look in the mirror and there’s going to be a hypocrite staring back at you. So if you try to get away from hypocrisy, you can’t. In fact, the whole point of organized religion of the Church is to sanctify us and cure us of this disease that makes us either engaged in hypocrisy or look like hypocrites. That’s the whole point, that it has been said, the church is not a museum for saints. It is a hospital for sinners.

A Hospital for Sinners, Not a Museum for Saints

I like history. I like tracking things down. Did the saints really say this, or did the say something else? What’s the real story? I like finding that out. The saints often credit for saying things that they didn’t really say, and one example is this quote that the church is not a museum for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners. Stuff like that always gets put to Saint Augustine, for example. He didn’t say that.

The quote seems to find its origin in George Stewart, an episcopal bishop in 1931, who addressed this very objection concerning the Church being full of hypocrites. His answer?

“I know it has been full of sinners. What did you think the church was, a club for shining saints? But if it has been a hospital for sinners, it has also been a training school for saints who have been disciplined and trained in her fellowship, not as men in barracks but as soldiers on the march.”

Look, you want to be a straight-shooting soldier for Christ, like we see in the 2 Corinthians 10:5 imagery? Well, Saint Paul tells us to destroy arguments. Basically, we are fighting a war here. And anyone who has learned to shoot straight knows how bad they are at first. In fact, you most likely have terrible marksmanship. You got to be trained. So the church is a hospital for sinners. Then once you’re out of critical care, that’s when you’re in the training school to become a saint.

Now, the museum for saints and the hospital for sinners…the most common place that probably comes from is a 1964 column by Dear Abby. This couple wrote to Dear Abby in 1964, and they’re cohabitating, and they said, “Hey, we want to get married, but we don’t want people to know we’ve been living together. We don’t want people at our church to find out. Where could we go to get married quietly?” And she says, “Hey, this is great. You guys are virtuous for realizing you want to go and get married.” Try reading advice columns today that would have that kind of question! The couple goes on to say that they do not belong to a church because they feel they are unworthy of going to church.

You don’t hear that attitude as much today. You know, in the 60s, this couple was saying, “I’m not good enough to go to a church.” Now a lot of people are saying, “I’m too good for a church.” It’s an interesting shift.

Dear Abby goes on to say that the very fact that you are troubled by the way you have been living proves that you are worthy of going to church. A church is not a museum for saints. It’s a hospital for sinners. Go to a clergyman, whether you belong to a church now or not, and let him chart your course. You will be amazed at how easily you can legalize your union quietly without publicity. Good luck.

So if you’re concerned about hypocrisy, that’s just life. If you want to get better, if you want to stop being a hypocrite, if you want to stop giving into sinful temptations, then go to church, go to receive the sacraments, receive the Eucharist, go to confession. The answer here is not to think that we are well when we’re really sick. The answer is to be healed. That’s why Jesus said in Mark 2:17 when talking to the Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Argument 3

I’m spiritual, but I don’t believe in organized religion.

When we hear things like that, I think it’s important to acknowledge that being spiritual is a good thing. Sometimes when people will say what they believe, we’re instantly on attack mode and we want to point out what’s wrong with their belief. And that just creates tension and tough conversations. It’s very adversarial or confrontational. It’s always good to start with, “That’s a good thing that you believe.” Even if someone says, “I hate religion, religion is stupid. I just think you should follow reason and science, and you should follow the evidence.”

So yes, being spiritual is a good thing. It shows that you understand there is more to life than the material. But what’s wrong with organized religion? We like lots of things organized in our life. I mean, it’s nice to have an organized government that makes sense, and organized traffic system with traffic lights, and organized schools. We organize our friends in our phone, for crying out loud. What’s wrong? We like organization in other parts of our lives. We want things to run smoothly and make sense, so shouldn’t our relation with the divine, with the eternal, come with some organizational principles behind it?

People say, “Well, no, no, no. What I’m saying is I don’t want to be stuck with all the corruption of the Church. That’s why I’m spiritual but not religious. I don’t want anything to do with organized religion.”

All this is like saying “I’m athletic, but I don’t believe in organized sports. I think they’re terrible.” Well, why are they terrible? Is it because of all the cheaters, and the fans that riot after games, and all the rules? Sure, in organized sports there are cheaters, but they’re not the majority, and they’re often punished. And yes, there are some fans that are rude or violent, but the vast majority are respectful and doing what they ought to do. And as for the rules, well, you can’t have the game without the rules, otherwise nothing would really make sense.

The rulebook for the NFL, for playing one game of football, is somewhere around 300 pages long. So when someone hears me talking about the Church, and it can become complex, canon law and things like that, don’t you think the rules for how we live our entire lives or how a church of a billion people functions might be a tad more complex than the NFL rule book? That doesn’t mean that we’re always living in fear of trying to obey the spiritual equivalent of the IRS tax book. I mean, you can boil it down to something just very simple. What salvation is, is that we repent of sins, we believe in Christ, and we receive him through the sacraments, first through baptism, then through the Eucharist, and when we fall into sin, we reconcile ourselves to Christ through the sacrament of confession, and someone who maintains this pattern can have confidence that Chris will finish a good work in them.

Now, of course, there’s a lot more to it than that when you ask more questions, but you can still simplify things for people. I think that can be helpful when someone says, “I just like being spiritual. I just go to the mountains. I feel God’s presence there. That’s it.” And yes, I can see all those things in organized religion you may not understand, but what if you took the time to understand them, and maybe there’s benefits there that are better than what we have on our own? God is not just some abstract deity off in the clouds that made the universe like a painting. We can’t just look at the universe and nature like a painting and try to figure out this artist. We don’t have to just look at the artwork. We can meet the artist Himself.

And if the artist came down within the artwork and said, “Here I am,” and became man, and established a Church, and wants all of us to spend eternity with Him, then we don’t have to fumble in the dark trying to understand who He is. We don’t have to reach up vainly for Him to hope that we’re getting there, to hope that our sins are forgiven, because even if we think, “Well, I’m a good person. God will forgive me,” I find that a lot of people, when they do something really bad, they still wonder, “Well, can God ever forgive me for this?” Especially if it’s something serious, like having an abortion, for example, or ruining a marriage through adultery.

They wonder, “How do I know God really forgives me?” and they struggle with that, and that’s why it’s beautiful that God gave us the sacrament of confession, and the priest says, “Without doubt, I absolve you of your sins.” That with Christ, working through him, he can say, “I absolve you of your sins. You are forgiven of your sins, in the name of the Father, in the name of the son, the name of the Holy Spirit.”

One last point, though, when it comes to religion. There are some Christians that will say “I hate religion, but I love Jesus. I just have the Bible and Jesus.” Some will go further and say “I’m not a Christian. I’m a Christ follower. I don’t belong to a religion. It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”

Listen. There’s nothing wrong with religion. Religion is just man’s response to God. That’s it.

There’s the Buddhist’s religion, there’s the Muslim’s religion, there’s the Hindu’s religion. Religion is man’s response to God, so if God exists and God has revealed Himself to us, shouldn’t we respond to Him? Christians who say they don’t believe in religion, that’s just silly because look what it says in James 1:27. In James 1:27, the Bible says religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James says you should be religious. That’s a good thing, but he says, if anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is in vain.

So religion is a good thing. We ought to respond to God. We just ought to do so in an authentic and a holy way, and by asking God, “God, how do you want us to respond to you?” And maybe He’s shown us how, and I think because God is all powerful and all knowing, He’s given us an organized way to do that that’s sensible. He’s given us our faith, the Orthodox Church.

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Happy Christian Nihilist

Poetry. Prose. All the hits so far. Don’t expect too much. Musings on theology. Thoughts on life, death, and the dash betwixt and between.