A friend of mine asked this question the other day. “Is it better to be a good person or religious?” The question turned out to be more thought-provoking than expected. Not because I was stumped. Instead, my first reaction was: “This question doesn’t make sense.” Those aren’t categories a Christian tends to think in.

You might be thinking, though, “Seems like a straightforward, reasonable question. Why wouldn’t it make sense?” And that’s fair. Just because a Christian doesn’t think in those categories doesn’t mean other people don’t. But the question is difficult to answer. This is because, to a Christian, being ‘a good person’ or ‘religious’ amounts to the same thing. And as such, neither of them will get you very far.

To explain why, we need to go on a journey. We’ll try answering the question by running a thought experiment.

A thought experiment

Suppose we consider two people, Sean and Silas.

Sean is a good person. Sean:

  • Is patient and supportive with his coworkers,
  • Coaches a children’s basketball team,
  • Cooks for his aging parents once a week,
  • Volunteers for a soup kitchen, and
  • Gives money to assorted charities.

Then we have Silas. Silas is ‘religious.’ Silas:

  • Attends church every Sunday,
  • Prays regularly for his coworkers and friends,
  • Runs a small group bible study one night each week,
  • Meets up with a friend to read the bible and chat, and
  • Reads his bible every morning.

If you examine these two lists, which person is better?

The answer, of course, depends on what you mean by better. But most people will look at those lists and conclude Sean produces more good. His actions more directly benefit others. Silas might also be doing some good, but the good is, at best, indirect. Thus, we conclude that Sean is a better person than Silas.

It seems we have an answer to our question then. Is it better to be a good person or religious? It’s better to be good. In our thought experiment, Sean is a better person without any religious extras. If ‘better’ means ‘produces more good in the world,’ Sean is winning. Silas’s good is diluted; indirect. His religion is superfluous. It takes up time that could otherwise be spent doing good. Therefore, religion is pointless.

Nothing is ever quite that simple, though.

The virtue conundrum

Let’s press our thought experiment a little further. Suppose we learn a little more about Sean. Suppose we learn that:

  • Sean is patient and supportive at work because he wants a promotion. He needs his coworkers’ goodwill to make that happen, as it involves a 360° review.
  • He coaches the basketball team because his daughter is in it. And he wants her to become a professional athlete. He doesn’t trust anyone else to give his daughter enough game time or attention on the court.
  • Sean cooks for his parents each week so they will recognise what a caring son he is. When it comes time to draw up their will, he’s hoping they will express their gratitude accordingly.
  • He volunteers at the soup kitchen because it provides opportunities for inspirational selfies. They get lots of compliments on social media. He intends to run for public office in the future, and this will help establish his reputation as a good person.
  • Sean donates money to charity because it reduces his taxes. He often takes cash-in-hand jobs at his small business and donates the proceeds. Knowing that the money goes to a good cause helps ease his guilt about tax evasion.

Knowing what we do now, how do we rate Sean’s ‘goodness’?

Nothing has changed about Sean’s behaviour. He’s still doing the same good things. Children get to play basketball. He’s still cooking meals for his parents and helping the soup kitchen run. And it’s not like Sean is a horrible person. He’s just self-interested. Does his motivation matter if good still gets done?

For some reason, it does.

Instinctively, we feel a person’s motivation for good behaviour matters. It matters to us why a person does good. It makes a difference when someone does something for us because they care or if they do it to get some benefit. We don’t want to be used.

We also know this kind of goodness is brittle. Such a person will stop being ‘good’ the second it no longer serves them. They produce good behaviour by leaning vices against each other in a house of cards. It might stay up for a while, but it is far from stable.

Now, I’ve publicly stated that I’m a Christian. So, here, you expect me to claim victory for religion. Since Silas is involved in more ‘spiritual’ activities, surely he’s less likely to be corrupted. His religion ought to give him better reasons for doing good than Sean’s. Right?

Sadly, we can give Silas the same treatment:

  • Silas attends church every Sunday because he, too, would like to run for public office. He knows that a significant number of people will vote for him simply because he’s visibly a Christian.
  • His bible study is with a group of people Silas identified as influential in the church. Running the study means that influential people from the church look up to him as an authority.
  • Silas meets with his friend to read the Bible and chat because this friend works at a prestigious law firm. He’s nurturing this friendship, hoping to get a recommendation if he ever wants to switch firms.

Silas isn’t necessarily any better than Sean. They’re both doing ‘good’ things for selfish reasons. They’re pursuing self-interest while portraying an image of benevolence. They’re hypocrites.

Whether you’re religious or not, your why matters.

Because our motivation matters, we face a conundrum. Virtue ceases to be virtuous if it is self-interested. Sean and Silas appeared virtuous until we impugned their motives. Put another way, good behaviour is better when it’s not self-interested. But why be virtuous if there is no benefit to you? How do we motivate anyone to do good without destroying their virtue in the process?

This is the virtue conundrum.

Now, this isn’t to say that nobody ever does anything selfless. It’s possible to do good without being selfish. All we need to do is care about something other than ourselves. For this to be sustainable, though, that something has to matter. It has to matter so much that it changes your behaviour. It becomes the thing that drives you.


The Bible calls this worship. The thing that drives your behaviour is effectively your god. And Christians aren’t the only ones to notice this pattern. David Foster Wallace makes a similar observation:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.1

The only way to achieve sustained virtue is to ‘worship’ something other than yourself. And, once again, you might expect me to claim victory for religion here. Didn’t Mr. Wallace just give us a compelling reason to choose “some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship?” Surely, this proves it’s better to be religious, yes? Indeed, worshipping JC or Allah or YHWH or the Wiccan Mother will prevent you from being “eaten alive”. And it will give you a reason to be good outside of yourself. But trying to keep “the truth up front in daily consciousness” doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work because we can’t turn our desires on and off like switches. We don’t have that level of control over ourselves. So we end up using JC or Allah or the Wiccan Mother to get what we really want. We bargain and make deals. I’ll be good and show up at church and pretend I don’t find Rev. Lovejoy repulsive. And in return, you, Deity, owe me a happy life.

Prof. Wallace is right. Worshipping some sort of spiritual-type thing keeps you from being eaten alive. But how do you practically do that? How do you make yourself want something you don’t really want? How do you keep worship from instantly devolving into religious hypocrisy?

The virtue conundrum in the Bible

This problem is a central theme of Christianity. God wants people who love and worship him. And for centuries, he told the Israelites: “Obey me (do good), and I’ll bless you.” And sometimes they would—for a little while. So God would make life go well for them. But, as soon as life started to go well, people forgot about God. God would then withdraw his blessing like he said he would. But, instead of turning back to God, they would turn to idols. Whichever idol they thought would give them what they wanted.

  • If they wanted wealth or good weather,2 they sacrificed to Baal.
  • If they wanted children, they worshipped the fertility goddess Asherah.3
  • If war threatened, they burned incense to Anath.4

They sought the most direct route to get what they desired. They didn’t want God. They wanted wealth or children or victory in battle. They didn’t love God and had no desire to do good for his sake. So God sent prophet after prophet to plead with them. But people wouldn’t listen.

They didn’t get it.

Fast-forward 400 years or so. The Jewish nation is living under Roman occupation. Amongst the people, a popular movement has arisen. This group thinks it has learned from its ancestors’ mistakes. They diagnose the problem as not taking God’s rules seriously enough. Their remedy is to develop a whole bunch of traditions (rules). The idea is that these traditions create a hedge around the laws of God. If you keep the traditions, they reason, then you won’t even come close to breaking God’s law.

This group was called the Pharisees. They were the first-century religious elite. When it came to following rules, they went harder than anyone.

Enter Jesus. The ultimate prophet. God’s perfect representative. You’d think he’d come along and give these guys a pat on the back. Instead, Jesus reserves his harshest and most scathing criticism for the Pharisees. He called them snakes, vipers, and whitewashed tombs.

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries5 wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.


23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.6

God wanted people who do good because they love him. He wanted justice, mercy, and faithfulness. But just telling people what he wanted didn’t work, and neither did the ‘carrot and stick’ approach. At best, it produced religious hypocrites.

So God did something about it.

What he did is perform an act of extreme, undeserved, lavish, overwhelming generosity. None of us do what we were born for. None of us loves God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. For that, we deserve annihilation. But God, instead of annihilating us, substitutes himself in our place. He takes the punishment we deserve. He suffers our punishment. And we get treated like the hero he is.

And this, in turn, is the antidote to religious hypocrisy—the solution to the virtue conundrum. To accept this grace, you must humble yourself and admit that you need it. You can’t take pride in your accomplishment because it’s not your accomplishment. You can’t look down on others because you need the very same grace they do.

Why are there so many Christian hypocrites?

We’ve just claimed that Christianity has an antidote to religious hypocrisy. Why, then, are there so many visible Christian hypocrites? You don’t have to look very far to find them, either. The history books are littered with them. In some parts of the world, they’re in the news every day. If Christianity has a powerful antidote to religious hypocrisy, why isn’t it working?

This situation has two causes:

  1. Many people don’t understand the faith they claim to profess, and
  2. Given what Christians believe, we wouldn’t expect them to be much better than other people.

First, many people who claim to be Christians, aren’t. That is, they don’t understand what Christianity is. Instead, they’ve picked Christianity the way people pick football teams. They support it because it’s part of some cultural identity.

For example, I had a friend of Italian descent. He told me that he enjoys going to mass because it helps him feel connected to his cultural heritage—it helps him feel more Italian. At the time, he had almost no understanding of what Christians believe. But if you’d asked him, “Are you a Christian?” He would have replied, “Yes. I’m Italian.”

Sometimes, people in this category will condemn others outside Christianity. They do it in much the same way football supporters condemn other teams’ supporters. It can get violent. And that’s not OK. But it’s not Christianity. It’s tribalism. And it makes people like me very sad. Because it gives Christians and, more importantly, Jesus, a bad name.

Second, given what Christians believe, you’d expect them to be much better than others. Every other religious worldview says, “The good people are in, and the bad people are out.”7 The definitions of what ‘good’ entails vary, but the principle remains. Christianity, in contrast, says, “The humble people are in, and the arrogant people are out.” That is, to become a Christian, you have to admit that you need help. You don’t measure up; you’re spiritually bankrupt; a sinner.

Jesus is for losers.8

Given this, you would expect Christians to be worse than the people around them. They’d be worse parents, more prone to lying, less self-disciplined, and more likely to hurt each other’s feelings. Sinners. Because Christian churches aren’t exclusive country clubs for high achievers. No, they’re rehabilitation centres for the spiritually broken.

Your average Christian is a work in progress. They’re on a trajectory towards better behaviour. But for some reason, God doesn’t make people perfect the instant they become Christians. So, we all struggle with reforming our habits and our loves. But we’re given fantastic motivation to keep at it.

Christians’ complex relationship with the term ‘religion’

After all of this, you can see why Christians have a complex relationship with the word ‘religion’. (Particularly Protestants). For Christians, ‘religion’ has a technical meaning. It means doing good so God will reward me (or refrain from punishment). But this is the opposite of Christianity. Christianity says “I do good because God has already done more than I deserve or could have dreamed.”

So if you ask a Christian, ‘Is it better to be good or religious?’ they may look at you funny. To Christians, these options amount to the same thing. Both are variations on behaving well to get a reward. The only difference is where you expect the reward to come from.

This is not to say that nobody but Christians ever does anything selfless. People do selfless things all the time. Some part of us knows what good is and that we ought to be doing it. But sustaining virtue over the long term is incredibly difficult. It almost always devolves into religious hypocrisy.

Christianity, though, offers a unique solution to the virtue conundrum. Something that gives people a reason to be good and motivates them to continue being good for a lifetime. This doesn’t prove that Christianity is true. But it does suggest that perhaps it’s worth investigating further. What if there’s more to Christianity than “Do good stuff because God said so?” Maybe it’s not what you might have assumed. And if you have questions, let me know.