Catholicism and Guilt

The relationship between religion and guilt is rather complex. Religion both manufactures and eliminates guilt and the more dominant aspect varies according to an individual's disposition and personal experiences. I would like to examine these two elements in detail. Since I was a Catholic for many years, I will speak about Catholicism in particular, but some of what I will say is relevant to Christianity in general and, to a lesser extent, religion in general.

Catholicism manufactures guilt in several distinct ways. First, the Church teaches that, because of the actions of Adam and Eve, we are all born sinners with the stain of original sin on our souls. This includes exclusion from heaven unless we are baptized and an insurmountable tendency to sin ourselves regardless. Second, the Church's liturgy constantly reminds us of our worthlessness and our sinfulness, especially in contrast to a perfect God. Third, and most important, the Church almost uniformly condemns as sinful a completely natural and normal aspect of human existence: sexuality. The Church teaches that every single sexual act except intercourse between a married man and woman without contraception is a mortal sin, meaning that it can cause that person to be damned to hell. This includes not only homosexuality and fornication, but masturbation, viewing pornography, mentally indulging in sexual fantasies, and even sex between a husband and wife who simply want to avoid having more children. It thus excludes from sexual activity every person who isn't currently ready to have another child with their legal spouse, i.e., the vast majority of the planet, and tells them that if you do anything sexually, you are an enemy of God who should burn forever in a lake of fire. Sexuality is an absolutely integral aspect of life and to attach extreme guilt to a basic human need is terrible. Sex is a serious affair and requires responsibility, maturity and respect, but condemning with hellfire every single sexual act except one is absurd. It's similar to teaching that if you eat any food other than organic vegetables, you are evil. Perhaps that is why dietary regulations are also common among religions; they create guilt and give power to the leaders of religion who alone can magically absolve that guilt.

Catholicism also eliminates guilt, primarily through confession, or as it is known today, reconciliation. Psychologically, it's probably helpful to admit one's faults to another person and to hear someone say that the sins are forgiven. The requirement of confession, however, on the balance probably creates more guilt than it relieves. Most penitents feel anxiety before and during the confession and many often avoid confessing for that reason. Others feel anxiety because they are afraid that they forgot something or that something made their confession invalid. Since receiving communion in a state of mortal sin is another mortal sin, worries arise every week at Mass. Adding anxiety to guilt is a recipe for much anguish. For some people, however, confession frees them of their guilt and tells them everything is all right.

Atheism, by contrast, neither manufactures nor eliminates guilt. Atheists have no one to make them feel guilty except their own consciences. Actions can be judged from a human level without fear of offending a perfect deity, violating an arbitrary regulation, or incurring eternal punishment. In addition, atheists are not tied to a holy book which must either be reinterpreted or discarded in order for their moral values to progress. But atheists also have no one to make them feel less guilty. They may occasionally and informally confess their failings to friends and family, but they have no deity to instantly make everything better. They have to take responsibility for their actions and realize that if they hurt someone, no one but them will make it right again. All of this echoes the theme I propounded in a recent entry, that a major aspect of atheism is maturity.

Before I finish, there is one more related topic to address. Theists sometimes claim that atheists really do believe but just want to sin without guilt. While this may be true of a small number of self-identifying atheists, the vast majority of atheists with whom I interact are quite sincere in the disbelief in the supernatural and exhibit no greater tendency to sin than theists, excluding actions such as not attending church and not praying which could only be considered wrong within the context of religion. They don't lie, steal, cheat, or hurt other people more often than the average theist. On the contrary, atheists are statistically much less likely to commit crimes than theists. The evil atheist who does whatever he wants because there is no divine police officer watching is nothing more than a caricature.



Water Tower Cross Removed in Starke

Today I was surprised to read an article on the front page of The Florida Times-Union reporting that a federal judge in Jacksonville has ruled that the nearby city of Starke is prohibited from displaying a ten-foot cross on its municipal water tower. The cross, which had been there since the 1970s, was recently removed and this judgement ensures that it will not be replaced. I applaud Senior U.S. District Judge John H. Moore II for this decision.

The most interesting part of the story was that the city argued the cross was a lower-case T for “Tornadoes” – the mascot for Bradford High School. I literally laughed out loud when I read this absurdity.


Believers without Faith

Although I was raised a practicing Catholic and became very devout for about ten years before my deconversion, I never really had faith in the sense of belief without sufficient evidence. To the extent to which I justified my beliefs, it was always through reason. Perhaps this is why I have difficulty relating to people who justify theirs through faith.

Before junior high school, I never gave much thought to religion. I went to Mass with my family and attended religious education classes, but like most children, I didn't pay much attention to it. My first real interest in religion developed when my family starting receiving EWTN on cable. A few years later I became interested in apologetics and it was then that I first examined my reasons for believing. At that time I adopted what I now call the rationalistic faith paradigm, discussed in more detail in my lengthy essay justifying my apostasy. I believed that the arguments for God's existence were valid and that the miracles of the Catholic Church objectively proved that it was the true, infallible church. I had faith in the sense that I accepted the truth of the dogmas of the church without direct evidence for them, but I thought that I had perfectly valid reasons for trusting the church. From my perspective, it had nothing to do with feelings or blind trust; it was all rational and logical.

It was that claim to rationality that later made my belief susceptible to inquiry and investigation. If the arguments for God's existence were invalid and the evidence for the supposed miracles of the Catholic Church were called into question, then my rationalistic faith could and in fact did crumble. My anchoring of my mind to reason led me to my current position.

There was for me no “having faith” in God to justify my belief in God himself. One cannot trust a being to establish the existence of that very being! It is circular and invalid. One is simply trusting himself and his own faculties. It's such a simple point, but the vast majority of believers fail to realize that their supposed faith in God is nothing more than faith in their own unjustified personal opinions. There are certainly, however, other believers who claim to base their beliefs entirely on objective evidence and it is these people, if they are unafraid or at least willing to face their fears, who are the most open to rational argumentation against religion.



Beliefs of Historical Figures

Today we find a letter to the editor in response to one last week which claimed that many abolitionist leaders were not Christians. This letter by Gary Pudimat was published today under the heading, “Famous men: Most were Christians.”

A recent letter writer extolled the anti-slavery views of several historical figures and the fact that they were either atheists, deists or free-thinkers. When you research these men, you find that most were, in fact, committed Christians.

Abraham Lincoln stated: "That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scripture." Upon receiving a Bible as a gift, he stated, "In regard to this great book ... it is the best gift God has given to men."

George Washington stated in 1796, "It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible."

Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1778, "Whoever shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world." He also wrote, "A Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district ... are the principal support of virtue, morality and civil liberty."

Even the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a Christian. His problem was the fact that the church where he lived would not take a strong stand against slavery and so was denounced by the people of the church. In several biographies written about Garrison, it was stated that "the central fact of Garrison's life was his religious faith. The Bible was the only book he ever really read." Garrison "demanded that all who called themselves Christian act like Christ."

To try to label these men as anything but Christian is wrong.
I find discussing the religious beliefs of historical figures quite tedious and mostly irrelevant. One could easily produce quotes by Lincoln, Washington and Franklin which support the position that they were deists and freethinkers, but I simply have no interest in doing so. My beliefs are unrelated to the historical accidents of who held similar beliefs. Let us discuss the objective evidence for and against religion, not engage in quote mining.



Despair and Hope

When I was a Catholic, I viewed atheism as the pinnacle of despair. Atheists have no hope for an afterlife; consciousness ends with bodily death. Atheists have no hope for ultimate justice; good deeds often go unrewarded and evil deeds often go unpunished. Atheists have no hope for final vindication of their beliefs; if they are indeed correct, the vast majority of the world will never know that their religious beliefs were mistaken. Atheism, from the outside, thus appears to be desolate of hope. It was partially this bleak appearance which kept me from investigating my doubts about religion for seven years after they first arose in my mind.

Now that I am an atheist, I no longer view atheism as gloomy and dreary. While I willingly admit that each individual claim above about hope is completely valid, I feel no despair and no sadness. I simply realize that I can only accept that, with atheism, all things come to an end. I would like to examine the two sides of that coin.

First, all bad things come to an end. No one suffers eternally and everyone will eventually be released from even the most protracted and intense agony. Many theists, by contrast, grapple with the idea that their closest family and friends may be tormented or may already be tormented eternally in hell and of course also grapple with the possibility that they themselves may be tormented with absolutely zero chance of ever escaping even for the briefest moment. Fear of being endlessly tortured filled my own life with considerable sorrow for several years; simple annihilation of my personality upon death is quite pleasant and even poetic in comparison.

Second, all good things come to an end. This is the difficult aspect and there really is little I can say to make it any easier. We would all like to live in paradise, to see our loved ones again, to learn every mystery, to enjoy every delight, to celebrate love and friendship with every person without any anger, fear or jealousy. Unfortunately, wishing cannot make it so. Some atheists find it useful, however, to realize that they continue to live, in a sense, through the people they have affected, especially their children and grandchildren, and then through the people they affect and so on. Some also believe that they would grow bored in an eternal paradise, and that it is not so tragic that our lives end after only several decades. I cannot say that death is not tragic, only that the associated pain is not necessarily unbearable without religion.

Atheism to me now represents maturity and honesty in the face of reality. Atheists must accept the cold truth that there is no one to make everything all better in the end, no one to give our lives purpose and meaning, and no one to tell us what to do or what to think. We must take ultimate responsibility for our lives and for ourselves. While it's comforting to believe the promises of religion, without evidence to support them, we must discard them as childhood fantasies and embrace our future as mature adults.