“Why can’t you be a good person without a man in the sky telling you what to do?” I am sometimes asked by my atheist readers when I mention that Christianity has made me a better person. I understand their confusion; if I’m willing to try to be a good person now, why couldn’t I have done that when I was an atheist? What’s God got to do with it? The short answer is: Everything. Here’s why:
1. What is “good” is really clear now
One of the biggest lessons of my conversion experience was when I learned that evil always works through lies. No sane person has ever woken up in the morning and said, “I think I’ll do something despicably evil today!” The only way we ever cooperate with evil is by telling ourselves that what we are doing is actually good. This was my problem when I was an atheist. I did try to be a good person, but the temptation to rationalize my way into doing whatever was most comfortable for me made my moral code a whole lot more squishy than I perceived it to be. I would end up doing bad things and simply making excuses for why my actions weren’t bad at all.
This is where God and the Church come in: Realizing that God is the very source of everything we call “good” made me wake up to the fact that objective good and evil do exist, whether or not I want to admit it. And the “rules” God gives us through the Church are simply the boundary lines of what a life of goodness looks like; having it articulated so clearly is a gift because it prevents us from rationalizing our way into complicity with evil.
2. I don’t want to go to hell
I hesitate to admit this one since it’s often used to discount good behavior by Christians, but yeah, I’m afraid of hell. In dialogue with secularists, this is usually framed as a bad thing: Christians avoid bad and do good out of a self-serving interest to go to a nice place called heaven. While I’m sure there is a self-serving aspect of my behavior, now that I have a better understanding of who God is and what heaven and hell are, it’s more complicated than that. Hell isn’t an eternal naughty corner that God happily sends you off to because you annoyed him. We choose hell; we choose it by making an active decision to reject God and, therefore, the very source of goodness. So I am pained by the idea of ending up in hell not just because of the personal discomfort aspect, but also because ending up there would mean that I made a conscious choice to turn my back on goodness.
3. I have role models
How did I ever live without the saints? I’m sure I always had their intercessory prayers, but how did I get through decades of my life without their stories to remind me what a life well-lived really looks like? Nothing puts my days in perspective faster than reading about people who experienced real suffering and made serious sacrifices for God and others. And few things inspire me to be a better person like seeing the impact that just one person can have on the world when he or she turns everything over to Christ.
4. I have a new vision of myself
I have plenty of bad character traits; left to my own devices, I tend to be a judgmental, unforgiving, lazy trash talker. Before my conversion, I just assumed that these were inherent parts of my personality: being “me” meant being judgmental and unforgiving and lazy and talking a lot of trash. Sure, I kind of tried not to take those things too far, but when I imaged what being authentically myself looked like, those behaviors were always a part of the picture.
Through Church teaching, I now have a different vision of the person I was meant to be. I’m freed from the idea that sinful, damaging habits are inescapable aspects of who I am. I now understand that the path to being most truly yourself is the path to sainthood. Put another way, the way to be most true to yourself is to aim to be the person God, your Creator, wants you to be; and God wants each of us to be saints.
5. I have help
I don’t meant to imply with this post that I used to be a terrible person and now I’m basically a redheaded version of Mother Teresa. I have a long way to go on the path to being a good person. But I am a better person now that I’m Catholic, and while the four factors above are a big part of it, the biggest reason is simply this: Grace. Without God’s grace, I couldn’t forgive people I’ve forgiven; I couldn’t make even half the sacrifices I’ve made in recent years; I wouldn’t have the deep peace I’ve found that helps me remain even-keel in challenging situations. I have found the Sacraments to be channels of grace—a real, palpable power—that allows me to be the person I could never be on my own.