Ask Mary: Why Be Religious?

Question:

Why do you put so much value in your religion?  Don’t you think you can be a good person without it?

Answer:

Admitting to practicing a religion in your 20s sometimes feels like admitting to having some sort of embarrassing disease.  As a practicing Catholic, I am often pitied for my apparent ignorance, thought to be closed-minded or judgmental, and written off as some sort of right-wing fanatic trying to force my religion upon everyone I come in contact with.

Even though I don’t feel this paints an accurate picture of who I am or how I feel, I still am not ashamed of being called religious.  I am religious because I want to worship the God who created me.  I want to grow closer to him.  I want to learn how to become who he created me to become.  These are just a few of the many reasons why I am religious.

But I am not religious because I think I need to be in order to be a good person.

This may come as a surprise, but I don’t believe that before the Ten Commandments, everyone thought that murder and theft were perfectly acceptable choices.  I believe (and my faith teaches) that as human beings, we know the difference between right and wrong by our natural reason.  Everyone on the planet has reason, regardless of if they practice a religion or not.

Now, our human reason can become corrupted by the choices we make.  We know this from extreme examples, such as the mass murderer who says he feels no regret for his crimes (surely there is some sort of glitch in the way a man like that reasons through things); but we can also see this in our own lives.

I don’t think anyone can honestly say they have never done anything they knew was wrong.  But in the moment that we make those wrong choices, we feel somewhat justified in doing so.  Slowly as we make these decisions, the line between right and wrong becomes blurry, and we find ourselves making excuses.  “It’s not as bad as ____” or, “Well who is to say what is right and wrong anyway?”  The first time we make a “wrong” decision, it might be hard to justify it to ourselves, but the more we become accustomed to it, the less “wrong” it seems in our mind.

This might be why some people arrive at the (false) conclusion that we need religion in order to be good people.  Religion is there to aid us in growing closer to God (and being a “good person” is a necessary effect of that).  Because of this, someone might be able to make the case that it is “easier” to be a good person with religion, but religion is certainly not necessary to becoming a good person, and obviously not all people who call themselves “religious” are good people.

As I said, I’m not religious because I think I’d be a terrible person without it.  I personally think that my religion does help me to become a better person, but I don’t think people without religion are bad people simply because they do not believe in religion.  I am religious for the simple reason that I love God and want to serve him. Religion aids me in loving him more perfectly.

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