That’s become a standard part of atheist liturgy. The question is, is it true?
In trying to make a case for rejecting atheism, some Christians have voiced the argument that without God we’d all be out there pillaging and raping. In a more realistic vein, Dostoyevski has said, “Without God, all things are permissible.” What he means is, without God there’s no such thing as objective right or wrong. Without God, all we have are likes and dislikes; all we have are helpful and unhelpful behaviours. On the other hand just because something is permissible, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’ll immediately do it - usually.
Christopher Hitchens poses the question, “If it was suddenly proven that God did not exist, would we all go out and commit horrendous acts?” Hitchens asks this question with his trademark sneer, and all the atheists in the audience laugh out loud. While on the verge of laughing themselves, Christian members of the same audience furrow their brow instead. They know that at one level Hitchens is almost right, but he’s almost wrong as well. How so? Well, it’s obvious that some functional atheists (those who think, talk and behave as though God doesn’t exist) only commit what humans call minor offences. And it’s obvious that some theists commit horrendous crimes. Clearly, some people will and some people won’t do wrong in the absence of God, just as they did or didn’t do those things while God was thought to exist. The problem is that Hitchens has left out of the equation what people do when those whom the Bible calls “God’s representatives on earth” are also taken out of the picture.
For example, we’ve all seen the reports of what happened after the fall of Saddam or after a natural disaster or during a riot or during celebrations of the home team's big win. In situations where the police are overwhelmed or where they can’t make it to the scene, in situations where the police or the government falls, chaos ensues. Would Christopher Hitchens go and loot a store if he knew for certain that he wouldn’t be caught? I suspect not, but who knows? If the window of a liquor store was broken out by a riot and Chris was standing on the sidewalk with no police around? Someone who is reading this, the same person who immediately slows down upon seeing a radar trap might know right now that s/he would in fact reach through the broken store window and grab what’s available. Society uses security cameras for a reason. We have traffic cameras and radar traps for a reason. Hitchens laughs at the prospect but reality is, people do behave better when they know they are being watched.
So, is that why some Christians say we’d all run rampant if God was removed from the picture? I suppose that’s part of it. What I do know is that prior to becoming a Christian, I was a much worse person than I am now. The world has paid a high price for my existence. Hopefully I can balance that out somewhat during whatever time I might have left. I also know that all those who became Christians later in life will be able to say the same thing about their existence. Further, those of us who became Christians later in life know beyond doubt that it is God Himself who has brought about quite an amazing change of character in us. What’s more, He seems intent on continuing this growth until the day we die.
Good for me. Good for us. Good for the world.
Could this change in character have happened without outside help? I suppose it could have but I don’t think it would have, at least not to this degree. Upon hearing this, I’ve had many an atheist tell me that I must be really weak and pitiful in character. Yes, well, they’re right. I couldn’t agree more. It truly was amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.
So I wonder. Could it be that those of us who accept Jesus’ invitation are in fact worse people than those who reject His offer? When Jesus said that He came to seek and to save the lost, are we “more lost” than those who are offended by the mere suggestion that they need saving? Those who flocked to Jesus in the Bible did so for two reasons. First they came because they knew that He could deliver what they didn't have. Second, to hound and harass Him because they were offended that He thought they needed saving.
In general, atheists as a group appear to see themselves as quite honourable people. Just like the Pharisees did in Jesus' time. Atheists view themselves as men and women of integrity. Of course they HAVE to see themselves in this light. As an atheist, if I tell myself that I don’t need God in order to be a good person, then in order to maintain that belief I really must believe that I AM a good person. On the other side of the tracks, we Christians fairly revel in our corrupt nature. “Look!” we cry. “Look at who God chose to love! I’m a lying, bigoted, hypocritical, adultering scoundrel and God said, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.”” We who follow Jesus believe that without God we really WOULD be doing awful things, and the reason that we believe this is because without God we really did awful things.
Does that mean that atheists likewise grovel in the gutter as we once used to do? Is it that they just don’t know they’re in the gutter? Not necessarily. While it’s true that many atheists are nothing more than brute beasts, most are probably socially functional and acceptable. On the other hand, the comment, “I don’t need God to be good,” invites the question, “So why aren’t you good?” Atheists don't even live up to their own code of ethics, never mind God's. The fact is, no one is good in a true sense and that’s obvious. Some are better than others while some are worse than most but none of us are good. Every motive of every action is tainted to some degree with corrupted self-love. No one has to teach us to put ourselves first. No one has to teach us to lie or to take what doesn’t belong to us. No one has to teach us to hit someone so as to release frustration. These things come naturally to us. From day one heaven help anyone who stands between us and the fulfilment of our desires..
Jesus said that no one will ever be good enough to be good enough for Heaven. Why? Because our character, our nature is the problem. It’s not what we do, per se but why we do it that’s the problem. Our very nature is “desperately wicked. Who can understand it?” Christopher Hitchens says, Christianity poisons everything. I would say,
Human beings poison everything, including Christianity.
Oh, about the title line? I for one do need God to be good. Simply reading His Word has a calming effect on me. Praying has a humbling effect. Talking with brothers and sisters in Christ infuses me with hope. Listening for God’s guidance creates an enduring desire to do good for others. None of this was present prior to my forgiven and healed relationship with Jesus. If you believe you have a good heart without the help of your Creator, well, good for you, I guess. I hope that when you’re old and alone your philosophy sees you through to the end.