How often have you heard an unbeliever play their trump card, 'You don't have to be a Christian to be a good person'? The assumption being that they are strong, independent people who don't need anyone's help, especially not Jesus. Above all, they aren't Christians and how dare you imply they aren't good? This seemingly absolves them of the need to consider the claims of Christ.
There is a partial challenge to the unbeliever's statement from the most unlikely source. Richard Dawkins has achieved world-wide fame, not to say notoriety, for his relentless campaign against theism. He is well known for making, like other atheists, statements such as 'sending children to Sunday School is a form of child abuse'.
In an article in The Times, Dawkins said he feared that if religion were abolished it would 'give people a licence to do really bad things'. He is of the opinion that security camera surveillance of customers in shops appears to deter shoplifting, adding that people might feel free to do wrong without a 'divine spy camera in the sky reading their every thought'. He said 'People may feel free to do bad things because they feel God is no longer watching them.'
Expanding on his point, Dawkins described an experiment by one of his former pupils, Dr Melissa Bateson, Professor of Ethology at Newcastle University, which involved setting up a coffee station with an honesty box for payments.
'They help themselves to coffee and they are supposed to put money in the box and each week the honesty box takes in less than the amount of coffee taken,' Dawkins said.
In alternate weeks the honesty box had a picture above it of some flowers or a picture of a pair of eyes. Professor Bateson reported that when the watchful eyes were on display, the takings were nearly three times higher than when the flowers were on the wall.
Dawkins concluded that 'whether irrational or not, it does, unfortunately, seem plausible that, if somebody sincerely believes God is watching his every move, he might be more likely to be good.'
Dawkins has not changed his scepticism concerning the existence of God, but he does think that without religion, people would behave in ways that are deplorable.
'I must say I hate that idea,' added Dawkins, a lifelong anti-God campaigner. 'I want to believe that humans are better than that. I'd like to believe I'm honest whether anyone is watching or not.' Hate the idea he might, but Dawkins is honest enough to admit the reality exposed by the experiment.
Dawkins rightly said the 'Great Spy Camera theory' isn't 'a good reason' to believe in God but nevertheless he acknowledges that it benefits the world. Referencing a society that affirms God's existence, he wrote: 'It might bring the crime rate down.'
However Dawkins, like other atheists, gets Christianity wrong. We Christians try, however imperfectly, to live a good life not because we see God as a spy camera catching our every wrong move, or fear that God won't accept us if we do wrong. We try with His help to live a good life because we know we already do have the love of God who knows just how bad we are.
Christianity is about so much more than being 'a good person'. You don't need to be a Christian to be a good person, but it certainly helps.
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand where he looks at the Church and the world and wonders 'Why?'