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.


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