"Why do I need religion when I can just be a good person?" "Isn't the Church full of hypocrites?" In this episode Trent examines common attitudes among the "nones" or people who don't belong to any religion.
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Welcome to The Counsel of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic answers.
And good afternoon. It is another episode here at The Counsel of Trent podcast. I am your host, Catholic Apologist and speaker, Trent Horn. Religion. Who needs religion, anyways? You know, it's interesting. My grandfather, so on my maternal side, he was actually not a very religious person, so it's ... Now, I only knew him when I was a really, really little kid, so I never really ever spoke with him, but what my mom used to tell me was that he was not a religious person by any means. My grandmother is a very devout Catholic. She was very excited, actually, the only person excited in my family to find ... You know, really excited to find out that I was becoming Catholic in high school. My grandfather died when I was a little boy. My grandmother lived until I was later high school, early college, around that time.
But I remember my mom telling me my grandfather, he thought religion was just a bunch of hooey, but it still served a useful purpose to keep people in line basically, because if you didn't have it, then people would just always be scamming each other and out to get one another, and it served a useful purpose.
What's interesting though is there's a lot of people nowadays who don't believe in organized religion, but they also think that organized religion is a really bad thing. They might cite the scandal that's happening right now in the church, and I'm going to keep a promise, or at least something I alluded to in the last episode is I want to move away from talking about the scandal. I feel like a lot of us are getting fatigued. I mean, this is ... We're not going to sweep this under the rug, but this is something we have to confront, we are confronting, but it's also good to talk about all the other different aspects of our faith as well. I mean, I know people right now, a good friend of mine, he thanked me that he got to come over when we had our meeting, our lay meeting I told you about in the last podcast about what we were going to do, and one of the things we decided to do in response to the scandal was to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day.
He texted me and he said he was grateful just to have time to talk to people one-on-one, and not just be up late on his phone with the glow of a iPhone in front of him, reading article after article and getting mad, and that's what I want to do here in the podcast. So today's topic reflects ever so slightly on the previous week's, but I want to talk about something that's just kind of a general objection, an argument that you'll hear from people, and these are arguments just against religion in general. 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 at a party, a gathering of friends in college, 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. I think a mom in our group, in our church group, used to say to us, "Remember, nothing good happens after midnight, so make sure you get home early." I think she was right. So I remember at this party it was late, we had let things drag on too long. We were talking about God, and I said, "Well, you know ... Well, obviously you guys know that I go to church, I go to mass every week. 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, but others were just ... They weren't atheists. They believed in God, but they believed in God on their own terms.
I remember one of the guys with me, I'll call him Bill. I said, "Well, Bill, 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, Bill, 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 500 years ago, 2,000 years ago.
In this case, this is pantheism, the idea that the universe just 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 there's good arguments from reason and science to show the universe began, if the universe came into existence, then the universe cannot explain its own existence.
So I talked to Bill a little bit about that and others, you know, what's so bad about religion? What is so bad about organized religion? And I think it was a good conversation to have with them, and I've heard these arguments before, and so I wanted to share them with you, kind of like these six common arguments people will give against just religion in general. They may not be coming from an atheistic perspective, but it is a perspective of just 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 number one: 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, they'll say. 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 that are problematic with this kind of view. Number one, what do you mean by a good person? You know, I'm a good person. I find that whenever people try to ... What's the word I'm looking for here? When they try to justify their own position on this subject, say, "Well, what makes someone a good person?" It's always a good person is somebody at their level or higher, you know? So I'll ask people. They say, "Well, why can't just good people go to heaven?" I'll say, okay, well, what is a good person? Is a good person somebody who doesn't cheat on their wife, 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.
So I mean, it's just so ... It becomes kind of self-serving, if you will, when people look at it that way. I just have to be a good person. And the root of this, the root of what this comes from, I would say, is going to be from moralistic therapeutic deism. So what is that, moralistic therapeutic deism? That is a descriptor for a very common belief system here in America today 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 pray, I'm in a jam, 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 these two, Denton and Smith, on the religious beliefs of teenagers, and even teenagers who identify as being Catholic, a lot of them actually really 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. So otherwise, I'd say to someone, "Look, 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'm going to be debating ... What's his name ... Dan Barker soon on whether the Christian God exists, and so I've listened to Dan's previous debates recently. He was saying in his debates, you know, he points to the Bible and says, "Look how horrible God is for slaughtering people and smiting people," and we're going to talk about that at length in the debate, I'm sure, but I've always wondered like, well, if God makes us, if God creates all of us, then what right do we have to say to demand life from Him? Like, 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 gave you, dear podcast listener, let's say I just gave you ... I sent you 20 bucks in the mail today, then 20 bucks tomorrow, then 20 bucks the next day, then 20 bucks the next day. Then Wednesday comes around and no $20. Would you get mad at me, like, "Hey, Trent, 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, after life, eternal life with Him, that itself can only be a gracious gift. We have no right to demand something like that from God.
Argument number two, and this one kind of tucks back a little bit on the scandal and things like that, that we've been talking about, so lightly touching on. I don't want to go too deeply because I think a lot of us, as I said before, have fatigue, but you'll hear this. I don't need organized religion because the church is full of hypocrites. I'm sick of the people. They say one thing, they do another. They're all hypocritical. I don't need to be a part of that, none whatsoever. 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 like 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, they say 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.
Because 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, and even if you think you can go, just stay at home and play video games and you're on YouTube, and say, "Well, I'm going to be the church of myself and everything I believe," I'm sorry. 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 Catholic Church of ... And I'll talk about that phrase organized religion here in a second. The whole point of the church, the body of Christ, 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 hotel or a museum for saints. It is a hospital for sinners.
Now to dive into one of my other books here, a shameless promotion for my worst selling book. I actually enjoyed writing this book recently, is my book, What the Saints Never Said: Pious Misquotes And The Subtle Heresies They Teach. I had a lot of fun with this because I like history. I like tracking things down. Did the saint really say this, or did he say something else? What's the real story? As a history major, I like finding that out. But to this day, What the Saints Never Said has outperformed Persuasive Pro-Life as my worst selling book because nobody wants me to puncture their illusions, to pop their bubble about all these great things the saints said that they didn't really say, and one of them is the church is not a hotel for saints, it's a hospital for sinners. Stuff like that always gets put to like Saint Augustine, for example. He didn't say that.
I tracked the quote down. It basically comes from ... An earliest point I found is something similar as to George Stewart. He's an episcopal bishop. In 1931, he was talking about this very objection. Hey, the church is full of hypocrites. I don't want to be a part of it. This is his answer to that objection he gave in ... George Stewart, episcopal bishop, 1931. 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.
So if you want to be a straight-shooting soldier for Christ, and you know, we see that imagery in 2 Corinthians 10:5, Saint Paul tells us to destroy arguments, talks about we are fighting a war here. If you learn to shoot straight, you're always bad at first, you 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 hotel for saints ... Oh, sorry, the museum for saints, 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 kind of 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. And what Dear Abby, Abigail Van Buren, here's what she said to them. "We do not belong to a church ..." Or sorry, the couple said to her, "We do not belong to a church because we do not feel we are worthy of going to church."
Interesting. 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, "I'm too good for a church." So interesting shift there, but the idea here is we're not good enough to go to church, but the answer still answers the modern objection, "I'm too good for church. I don't want to go with all those hypocrites." This was Dear Abby's response: 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, received the Eucharist, go to confession. The answer here is not to think that we are well when we're really sick, it's to be healed. That's why Jesus said in Mark 2:17, when he's talking, the Pharisees said to him, "Why are you with all these tax collectors and these prostitutes?" Jesus said, "I've come not to call ..." He said ... Sorry. Jesus said in Mark 2, he said that a doctor does not come to treat the healthy, but the sick. "I have come not to call the righteous, but to call sinners."
Number three: I'm spiritual, but I don't believe in organized religion. And when we hear that, I think it's important to say that's a good thing that you're spiritual. Sometimes when people will say what they believe, we're instantly kind of on attack mode. We say, "Oh, well what's wrong with this? What's wrong with that? What's wrong with this?" And that just creates kind of 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. The pope is a moron. I hate Mary and the saints and Mother Teresa. I just think you should follow reason and science, and you should follow the evidence."
They could say really mean things about the church, but you know what? I would just start and say, you know, I think it's really good you believe in following reason and evidence. It sounds like you think we should believe things because they're true, right? "Yeah." That's a good thing, and I think the same thing about the Catholic faith. So I know the things about the Catholic faith you don't like, let's talk about them, kind of one by one. What's so moronic about the pope? What do you really hate about Mary? Mary seems very nice. Can you help me understand that? That, Saint Paul talks about this in the letter to the Romans, that when you are kind to an enemy, it's like heaping hot coals upon their head. So that's the way we should respond to people.
And so when people say this, say, "Yeah, being spiritual is a good thing. It shows that you understand there is more to life than the material," but I would ask them, 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 divine, with the eternal, shouldn't there be some organizational principles behind it?
Now, some people ... What I might do here is also make an analogy. 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," and things like that. Well, I might make an analogy, like when this person says, "I'm spiritual but not, I don't believe in organized religion," I would say, well, that's like saying I'm athletic, but I don't believe in organized sports. I think they're terrible. Well, why are they terrible? Well, look at all the cheaters, and look at the fans that riot after games, and there's so many rules. They don't even make any sense. Well, look at it one at a time. I mean, yeah, in organized sports there are cheaters, but they're not the majority, and they're often punished. And yeah, there are some fans that are rude or violent, but the vast majority are respectful and doing what they ought to do. And so when you look at this ... And for the rules, well, you can't have the game without the rules, otherwise nothing would really make sense.
I like to say that the rule book for the NFL, for playing one game of football, is 300 pages long. So when someone hears us talking about the Catholic 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? Just to start, but that doesn't mean that our lives have to be 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 if we ever fall into mortal sin, we reconcile ourselves to Christ through the sacrament of confession, and someone who maintains this pattern will and dies in God's friendship will go to heaven.
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, so I think that can be helpful here when someone sees, "I just like being spiritual. I just go to the mountains. I feel God's presence there. That's it." And to say, "Well, yeah, 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 kind of what we have on our own?" Like confession for example, talk about how wonderful it is to know that God exists, God is not just some abstract deity off in the clouds that made the universe like a painting, and we just look at the universe, we look at 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," He became man, Jesus Christ, 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. To say, what if He told us how to come to Him? 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 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."
So one last point, though, when it comes to religion. There are even some Christians, I remember ... You might be able to still find this on YouTube. I did a video back in 2012. I produced it. I filmed it on my birthday, actually, and there was a viral video going around about a guy who says, "I hate religion, but I love Jesus." So even you'll find Christians who will say, "Well, I just have the Bible and Jesus. I'm not ..." They'll 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." There's nothing wrong with religion. Religion is just man's response to God. That's it.
I mean, there's Buddhist religion, there's Muslim religion, there's Hindu 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? And 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, you know, 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 universal Catholic Church. So there's nothing wrong with being spiritual, but why not also believe in the response that we should have to God that God gave us Himself?
So something to think about there. I only made it through three points, so I tell you what. I've got three other arguments against organized religion against religion I do want to share with you. Those are going to be uploaded as a part two episode here on our Patreon page on for premium subscribers. So if you liked this episode, you'd like to hear more, just like it. Go to trenthornpodcast.com. You can catch the rest of the episode and other content that I will be uploading there, trenthornpodcast.com. For as little ... I mean, you can get this episode and others for just even giving $5 a month, and that will help us. Once we get enough patrons, my next goal is to get this stuff on YouTube, both full episodes of The Counsel of Trent, we're recording them now, and short videos you can share with people, but we need your help to do that so go to trenthornpodcast.com to make that happen, become a subscriber. I hope to catch you on the next episode of The Counsel of Trent.
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