Atheists: How Do You Process Your Guilt?

Hello, atheists! Thanks for reading this!

As you probably know, I’m a Christian.

Wait! Come back! I won’t try to convert you!

Even better: I (along with my incomprehensibly vast company of Christian readers) will actually listen to you.

Oh, stop it. A Christian actually listening to you isn’t that rare.

Now then, here’s my Big Question to you: As a zero-tolerance-for-God sort of person, how do you process your guilt? I promise I’m not being facetious, or playing any kind of  “Let’s trap the atheist” game; I’m genuinely curious. For the first 38 years of my life I was most emphatically not a Christian—I was and remain a huge fan of philosophy generally, Zen Buddhism particularly, and what I guess you could call the religion of art—and I never used to know what to do with my guilt.

I mostly just waited for it to fade away, and then disappear altogether.

Except my experience was that my guilt never faded away and disappeared altogether. Despite my determined efforts to shun it, it always just sort of … remained, hanging around inside me like some creepy, vaporous organ I could have totally lived without, disturbing my sleep.

Anyway, what I always did when I got serious about my guilt was to passionately resolve to do better. If I treated my wife snarkily, or … I don’t know … took too many long lunches at my job, or spent money I shouldn’t have buying booze or pot and then behaving in ways even less likely to win me any Husband of the Year award, I always fervently resolved to change my ways.

“That’s it! ” I would cry. “From this moment forth, I shall be a veritable pillar of strength! Strong! Resolute! Incorruptible! Insusceptible to temptation! I will become a man worthy of the woman I married!”

But, then … you know: Who can take a lunch in half an hour? I’m a chewer.

And am I not supposed to ever buy beer?

And if a friend of mine in the parking lot of the factory I work in offers to get me high before my shift starts, then … well, then I’ll be sittin’ in that guy’s car sharing whatever he’s got faster than you can say, “Um. Dude. Is that clock right?”

The point is: I personally always had exactly zilch in the Exert Your Will To Better Yourself department.

Which inevitably left me again suffering new, fresh guilt over the way I’d treated my wife, or my money, or my employer, or my body, or some other confounded thing or another.

And you, atheist, surely suffer guilt as I did. I know we Christians can sometimes seem awfully arrogant, but we’re not so arrogant that we think only we possess a conscience. We know that everyone has one.

We know what any fool does: All people hold within them expectations and desire for themselves that they constantly and inevitably fail to live up to.

We know that that’s one of the pains of everyone’s life. (Or we should know it, anyway, since it’s true.)

So. If you’re an atheist (or even a New Ager, if you would) what do you do with the guilt that you engender in yourself whenever, at someone else’s cost, you act selfishly, or greedily, or harshly, or arrogantly, or … secretly bad? (And please don’t say you never act that way, or never suffer guilt if you do. Even if you do think that, don’t ever say it. No one over the age of six will believe you. Well. Four.)

I daresay you know what we Christians do with our guilt. (Though I have to say how likely I think it is that you actually don’t know that. Which isn’t your fault! But it’s a fact that if we Christians have long failed at anything, it’s making clear to non-Christians what exactly we mean when we use words such as “repentance” and “confession.” Unless you’ve spent considerable time studying, reflecting upon, and actually experiencing what Christians mean by, say, those two particular words, trust that your relationship to them is equal to the relationship a person looking at a diorama of an African veldt has to actually being on an African veldt.)

So, again: How, atheist (or New Ager), do you process your guilt? What is the means by which, after you have in effect soiled yourself, you come to feel clean again?

And to again be clear: All respect to you. I’m truly curious.

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Fantastic answer. Thank you. I, too, have limited time to respond, but lemme quick say: That IS (part) of why Christianity works for me.

    Your observation about asking someone uninvolved … seemed weird and shaming is so extremely excellent.

    23 is young. I know it's insulting to say so, but the bottom line is it IS easier to exert your will upon yourself when you're younger, in the sense that it's easier for you to SHAPE who you are before time has had a chance to help/force you to shape who you are. When you're 23, it's all about potential, and the future, and optimism. Later–say, right around 40–it tends to become about loss of potential, and the past, and the certain, now seeable future that is death, and a creeping pessimism. I mean … that's pretty common.

    I, too, believe people are essentially good. And bad. You know: everyone's about half, or somewhere near it.

    Anyway, thanks. Wonderful.

  • http://none John Gaskin

    Before I answer, one clarification. I am not a "zero-tolerance-for-God sort of person", I just fail to have a god belief (any god), though I support freedom of religion (or lack of religion).

    To process my guilt, if I wronged a person, I apologize and try to do better next time. Then I forgive myself for my behavior, acknowledging that I make mistakes like everyone else. Guilt doesn't go away immediately, but I realize that not forgiving myself, or not apologizing to the wronged person, would just make the situation worse. Seems like most people would handle guilt this way…nothing special in the way an atheist does it, except that I don't extend my apology to imaginary gods or priests.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    You know, I was wondering who would first tag me for the "zero-tolerence" bit. I know it's not so … definitive like that. Good call!

    And an outstanding answer. Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://blog.jonolan.net jonolan

    I guess I fall in the "New Ager" category as opposed to Atheist. I process guilt quite well; I don't feel it. I may feel a sense of failure, for not doing what I set out to do, but guilt isn't in the equation. Remorse for causing harm might be, but that can often be mitigated by fixing the harm I caused.

    I've found that a lot og guilt is actually fear of consequence. You're god is thought of as being both the highest judge AND the prosecutor. You're already caught! How much of your guilt is actually based on a "moral conscience" and how much is based on a sublimated "fear conscience"? Just asking, and only that to illustrate my point.

  • http://www.brentrasmussen.com Brent Rasmussen

    I apologize to the person I have wronged, make amends as best I can, then resolve to do better next time.

    There is really nothing more to it than that. I would even go so far as to say that this is how humans in general "process their guilt". It is not an atheist/theist thing at all.

    The fact that *you* do not have the willpower to follow through on this process does not mean that *everyone* has trouble with it. Sorry.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Jonolan: If when it comes to guilt you simply, as you say, "don't feel it," then … you're the luckiest person EVER! (And, for the record, I hardly think of "my" God as a prosecutor. But I know what you mean.)

    Brent: Tad snarky at the end there, no? But it's cool. I know this only means that you'll be making amends as best you can. Looking forward to it! : )

  • http://www.brentrasmussen.com Brent Rasmussen

    Hehheh…

    Bingo! Sorry about coming across snarky there. However, I was serious. Your post indicates that you have taken your own personal difficulty with "processing guilt":

    "The point is: I personally always had exactly zilch in the Exert Your Will To Better Yourself department."

    …and you have confused it with every other human on the planet everywhere. You seem to be saying that everyone has *your* problem.

    And that is just not the case at all.

    Some of us, to paraphrase your own words, have exactly zero problems in the "Exert Your Will To Better Yourself" department. :)

    In any case, a very interesting post. I really enjoy your writing style!

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Brent: That was excellent. Still, I feel a little hurt. You know, I think CASH would really close this deal for me. It doesn't have to be much, really. Twenty or thirty should do it. I'll e-mail you, and let you know where to send it. Thanks! (Har! No, but good points there. And you know, because of this form I'm forced to essentially paint in awfully broad strokes. Of course through the excercise of my own will I was able to positively influence my behaviors. I was just never able to ULTIMATELY do what I wanted to, which was … well, know God, basically. Anyhooo.)

    Mel: Go away. There's no place here for brilliantly articulate, astoundingly insightful young people. This is for older people whose utter failings in life have left them bitter and desperate for any answer, no matter how shallow or sophomoric.

    Har again! God, that's AWFUL about your friends giving you the… Christian shoulder. That's crazy. Oh, and of course you're right about the process of making amends with those you've wronged. No doubt. But I'm interested, too–and particularly so–in that dynamic wherein any given person violates their OWN … higher nature. I was always … well, extremely good and vigilant about going back to deal with people I'd wronged. I was always less good at actually… well, changing my nature.

    Anyway. Beautifully said. Someday, you're going to make all of us … forced to acknowledge you as the ruler of the Western World.

  • harvey melton

    Well first of all, I myself, since a very young age have felt the presence of God in my life.Also at a young age i recieved Jesus Christ in my life as my savouir. I accepted all the tenets and teaghings of christianity as being true and real, because there was a working of the Holy Spirit upon my heart and mind that this was Gods plaan for me in ''my''life. Now you as an athiest are entitled to believe anything you want. And i would assume rightly that LAS VEGAS would love to have you as a permanent guest, because you are being the biggest gambler in the world,LOL. I would also assume that all athiests are believers in the ''Big Bang Theory'' since they say that that is another big chance thing, Also i guess all athiests are evolutionists, since that too is a big chance thing.But, there is also a very BIG chance that you are ''Wrong'' You ask for proof that there is a God,what happens when you come face to face with one? My own brother, I have no sisters, just him, he proclaims a belief in zen bhuddism, i dont nag him about his choice, but i do plead with God every night on behalf of his very souls sake every night in my prayers.There is no special formula to any way to pray, just talk to God, respectfully of course, but as you would to a long time friend, give him a chance, dont tell anyone that you did, keep it to yourself. sort things out with him. Do this in a very special, quiet place where you find peace and relaxation away from the outside world, where your inside world can come out in the open.no special technique here niether, just relax…. and think…. and speak. Who made you? as to what purpose? are you living in a illusion or real world/etc. Examine… this is the way to your truith that will be revealed to you if given an honest chance. one time i had a very special place out in the country, this place had a running trickling stream hanging willow trees that overhung this stream, the sounds of nature. and no city sounds at all.all natural and beautiful what a place just to get alone with God. Everything has had a master designer, builder, planner/etc. I believe that to be GOD. Just give it a chance, being the worlds biggest gambler already, this should be the eaisest thing you have ever done. -insurance-Harv.

  • http://FVThinker.blogspot.com Mike (FVThinker) Bur

    Just like many others have stated here . . . I process my guilt exactly the way that every human does. It is inate. But unlike the theist, I have no third-parties to bestow forginess upon me. Forgivness comes from the victim (if there is one) or, possibly, myself. I don't take forgiveness too well though. Even if forgiven, I still carry the guilt and strive to not repeat my mistake.

  • happy atheist

    Hello, I am an atheist.

    How do i delete my bad karma ? Either by standard psychological mechanisms :

    1. By not thinking about it.

    2. By blaiming others for my faults

    3. By convincing myself that it was not a big deal

    Don't we all to that sometimes ?

    When i am not such an egocentric schmuck i really try to do my best so that any suffering i have caused be overpowered (not undone) by a good dead. Of course that's not simple. But some times it works. Fact is i cannot undo my bad acts i can only try to avoid them in future or to have people forgive me if i deserve it.

    Ok that's how i deal with it. Now let's speak more general.

    I really do not think that people who believe in supernatural entities have a priori higher moral standards than people who don't. And what really drives me away from christianity (or any other religion) is the whole concept of sin as it is presented to us. First of all the (christian) concept of the "original sin" i find to be nonsense. Although it could be that in some cases criminall behavior could be genetically driven (this is an open scientific debate and i m no expert in that field) it surely does not aply to all person's. Babys are innocent.

    The second thing is the already mentioned fear factor.

    I ask you what is more descent to avoid evil actions because of fear of punishment by "god" or to avoid it just because it IS BETTER not to do evil ?

    I am also convinced that "good" and "evil" are human properties. They have a lot to do with how are brains work and we know to little about that. I am confident that animals do have feelings but not the feeling of guilt (of course that's speculation).

    Also the christian idea of an benevolent god is not the only approach to the subject and i see no argument that it is more correct than other concepts like the punisher yahwe or the rather neutral concept of brahman.

    So to sum it up : Yes even we atheists can be good people and why oh why do you christians think that we can't ?

  • CamusCanDo

    Okay,

    So I haven't read through all the responses and forgive me if anyone has made any of the following points already.

    Your question is a fair one, I suppose, so here's the truth.

    How do I, as a complete atheist, process guilt? Well, I feel guilty and try to amends to the person or people that I've wrong…. just like any other rational person.

    How is that any different than how a religious person handles guilt? Well, the theists have notions like confession, absolution, and others that they use to wipe the spiritual slate clean. Trouble is, at least from my point of view, those ideas fail to get to the root cause of guilt, your/my actions. Sure, they might make theists feel better, but only by trying to rectify things here on earth — rather than … um.."heaven" — can anyone really ever see any relief from guilt.

    Confession and the like also often have the unintended consequence of making people feel like whatever they've done in the past somehow matters less, as if they've rewritten history by saying a few prayers. I've seen it.

    But the people we've wronged don't forgive and forget just because you've tried to put things right with "god." We have to try and fix things here on earth, "heaven" can wait.

    And if I can't fix whatever it is that's causing me to feel guilty? Well, then I make a point to learn from my mistakes, see the error of whatever I've to avoid repeating them, and talk to the people I care about — rather than, say, talking to myself in a church pew — to unburden myself of the emotional baggage. Remember, atheists generally don't believe in an afterlife, so we know that we'll only get one chance to live life to the fullest. And if the roots of our guilt can't be addressed, can't be fixed, and can't ever be unmade, all that's left is to learn from the past and look to the future.

  • happy atheist

    John, I think your question has been answered rather satisfactory by Melanie, CamusCanDo, RobertMan and Calladus.

    Now let me ask you this : Would it be unthinkable to you (or any other Christian) to follow the core of the teaching of Jesus (not the Old Testament) without actually believing the supernatural dogmas

    that accompany it ? In other words would his teaching be less valuable if we assume that he was not a god but an mortal human with great ideas ?

  • mm

    John

    I think it depends on your own personal sense of morality. Depending on what you define as being amoral, or unethical, you may or may not feel that certain words, or certain actions are even hurtful/harmful to another person .

    By and Large, Religion plays an important role in dictating a persons sense of what is right or wrong.

    What you may view as wrong, may be viewed as neutral or even positive by another person(though, common sense generally dictates that rarely will their be such an opposite, though i can completley see two people differing on the same action/words in the wrong/netural territory more than positive persay)

    Wow, i'm rambling and not answering your question.

    I'm not really an atheist. I'm more of an agnostic in that, when i die, anything can happen and anything can explain life, the universe, etc…

    It could be an overarching force/consciousness, or it could be completley random and accidental. Personally, I am not really sure

    So as someone who doesn't believe in a "god" per say, when i slight another person, i do feel guilty.

    And i deal with my guilt by making amends. By apologizing, and being humble.

    Most of the time, it is our arrogance that leads us to hurting others. By devoting yourself to something other than yourself, you tend to have less instances of hurting others.

    I try, as hard as I can, to make sure that i do at least one positive thing for another person, every day of my life. By focusing on the positives of others, as opposed to their negative aspects, one tends to be less hurtful, more thoughtful with their words and actions, and a much better friend and neighbor to those we inhabit this earth with.

    Every moment of guilt is another lesson to learn about how to be more humble. Humility is a virtue that is not exclusive to religion. No man(or woman) should be so arrogant as to assume that their actions and words are so virtuous that there is no room for disagreement.

    Simply Put: Treat others the way you want to be treated. It's really that simple.

  • mm

    John,

    Though i guess what that all means when it is said in done is that I am buying my indulgences through acts of Kindness.

    Maybe that's terrible. I don't know.

  • http://virrvarr.wordpress.com/ virrvarr

    Well, I stopped being religious, and stopped feeling guilty as well. I do as I please, and if I do somthing stupid, I'm forgived by myself and my fellow man. Som much better (c;

  • happy atheist

    John, it is nice to see Christians which are open minded and have a positive attitude. But beyond the morality question you posed there is another issue of great importance and equally controversial on which i would like to read your opinion and that of other Christians. Namely the clash between Religious Doctrine and

    the Scientific method. Do you think you could write something on that ?

  • http://braindump.parachutemind.com Nick H

    Hi John, I want to start out with agreeing that the great majority of responses are very well spoken and seemingly intelligent.

    Now, for my response, I understand that you're question was to Atheist, which I am partially. However, as of late I have found myself leaning more towards an Anti-theist position (fighting religion). I step carefully as I'm a great minority, but I feel that it's a crucial part of our future as a civilization.

    How do I process my guilt? It's not much different than most of the other responses, but I wanted to chime in. I process my guilt in a number of different ways; it depends on what I'm guilty about. Without giving examples or getting super specific, it goes something like this. Ultimately, I use guilt as an experience in my life and learn from the cause and effects of my actions. Guilt is a 'steering wheel' for my life. I have been very fortunate to have a strong influence from my older siblings, my mother and my father, so I have not made huge mistakes. But the things I have done that affected others and that caused me guilt, I owned up to them. If I was forgiven then the guilt is gone but the experience remains.

    I do have to admit that I do not often feel guilt, even for actions that would likely cause guilt in others. There is so much substance to becoming guilty that I can often and do often reason my way out of it. Wrong or right, I’m not sure, but it’s useful. It’s probably not the most fair, but it’s very useful for me.

    As I first read your post I had a difficulty getting passed this “As a zero-tolerance-for-God sort of person, how do you process your guilt?” because I really don’t understand how those two are relevant to each other. No worries though, I made it. And Atheism isn’t really the “zero-tolerance-for-God”, Atheism is “Atheism is a doctrine that states that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units. This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.” Thus forcing me to become an Anti-theist.

    As for your response to Chris you said, “Later–say, right around 40–it tends to become about loss of potential, and the past, and the certain, now seeable future that is death, and a creeping pessimism. I mean … that’s pretty common.” I’ll be honest John; I became very sad for you when I read this. What a sad outlook on your future. I don’t want to get into a therapy session or anything so I’ll spin into the common Atheist outlook on life. We do not believe that we are going to a better place and we certainly do not feel that we can be forgiven for our past by praying for forgiveness. As an Atheist I know that my one shot at being something, anything and making an impact is this one life. So while I reflect on the past as everyone does, I only use it for the experience and courage keeps me moving forward. I find it somewhat ironic that you said the “now seeable future is death”, when as a man of faith you must believe you are going to Heaven, a better place than here. I would rationally think a person of no faith would fear death and the very opposite for someone of faith.

    Anyway, I’m at work and I must go back to earning money so I can get material things and support myself since I do not have God to look out for me. ;o) (That was just for you, John!)

    Kind Regards, and I look forward to your response if you feel one is warranted,

    Nick

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Sure: I see absolutely no inherent clash between science and religion. This is God's world. People have every right to explore that world, and find out every last thing they can about how it works. No problem. If God didn't want us to explore, explore, explore, he wouldn't have made us as smart and as rigorous as he did.

    Issac Newton was a Christian. Columbus was a Christian. Darwin was a Christian.

    There's no inherent clash between science and religion. People can say or do anything–and, of course, they will. But positing that there MUST be a clash between science and religion is sheer, shallow nonsense. (And, to be honest, I don't want to discuss it here, in this forum. It's just too … uninteresting to me, frankly.)

  • http://braindump.parachutemind.com Nick H

    In reponse to #29. Because I apparently do not feel like working, I thought I'de throw this out there.

    These two, were only christians for a little while.

    Isaac Newton was thought Trinitarianism was a fraud and that Arianism was the true form of primitive Christianity. Newton held these views, very privately, until the end of his life. On his death bed he refused to receive the sacrament of the Anglican church.

    Charles Darwin attended the Church of England before joining the Voyage of the Beagle, upon his return and his development of natural selection he completley dismissed God and saw Christianity as futile.

  • andyinsdca

    Guilt? What for? I simply avoid doing stuff I'd feel guilty for doing. No screwing around on the wife, no stealing, etc. It's pretty easy to avoid guilt when you're not doing stuff that you should feel guilty for. If I do fark up, it's unintentional and I don't feel guilty when I make a mistake; I just try and fix it and move on.

    As an added bonus for being an atheist, I don't have the "built-in" guilt for being born of "Original Sin."

  • sevencapitalsins

    What a strange question.

    If I do something bad, I try to do something good then.

    If I can't avoid doing something bad, I explain why I'm doing it.

    If I can't avoid doing something bad, and can't explain now why, I'll do it and explain later.

    My answers are suitable for a robot, so I'll add another one…

    If I do something bad, forced by my nature (maybe sleeping with the beautiful other-man-wife) I'll accept the consequences (the man comes to have a fight).

    That's all I can think of :)

  • Mario Z

    What a Christian refers to as guilt, I, as an Atheist, call regret; and this is where the fundemental difference lies. To a Christian this emotion is the downfall of man, causing burdon, low self esteem, relegates humanity to live in the shadow of sin, and civilization as whole to judge others and make laws that enslaves the indivisual to a lifelong, never ending struggle to live with the horrible imperfection that we are.

    To the Atheist, it causes much introspection. Of course we are all sometimes under heavy burdens because of our decisions, but to the atheist, the internal conflict that this state of mind creates, is where we will eventually find understanding, purpose, self awareness and confidence; it is because we have to take 100% account for our own actions that we can't brush it off with a hail mary, a donation to our favorite minister or a couple of lashes across our backs.

    It is a dfificult life to feel responsible for your own actions, but to the atheist, there is a joy in the creativity of introspection, of testing the solutions, of finding answers, not for their universality, but for their uniqueness. There is truly a joy, a real freedom in knowing that ultimately, I am behind the wheel, that this is without question, my journey.

    I don't have a need for anybody to have died for my sins, because there is no sin to humanity. I'm not talking about the serial killer here, he would not be defined as being part of humanity; that is an abnormality, a cancer.

    Humanity is when we exsist as indivisuals first, but also see the importance of cooperating to function for the betterment of the whole. Our mistakes are learning experiences, when we fail to learn or be responsible is when we ultimately fail ourselves and that's when laws will fine us or remove us from society; not as much for the safety of others, but again, for how we have failed ourselves.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    What she said.

  • Chris Morse

    I have to admit I just skimmed this article. I’m at work, so I only have limited time. But I will come back later to give it my full attention.

    What I’d like to comment on, however, is this:

    “The point is: I personally always had exactly zilch in the Exert Your Will To Better Yourself department.”

    Perhaps that’s why Christianity works for you? I can’t speak for all atheists, I can only speak for myself, but exerting my will to do better is the only thing that’s ever worked for me. I was a Catholic for 20 years (I’m only 23 now), and the idea of asking someone uninvolved in the reason for my guilt for forgiveness always just seemed sort of weird and shaming.

    Another thing is, I don’t have a god to go to for forgiveness. That fact in itself helps me to work so much harder at keeping from doing things to feel guilty about.

    I also believe that people are essentially good. And so mistakes that we make are just those, mistakes, and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much for them.

  • Ben

    "So, again: How, atheist (or New Ager), do you process your guilt? What is the means by which, after you have in effect soiled yourself, you come to feel clean again?"

    After I have come up short to what I wished to be, over and over, I have learned to accept that I am an imperfect fallible mortal human being. I can't feel that I am better than that – which might translate to 'clean.' What I can do, though, is realize that when others come up short, it is because they are also imperfect, fallible, moral human beings. All I can do is try and extend as much forgiveness and acceptance for faults and misdeeds as I am asking for my own.

  • Melanie

    John,

    While I am by no means an atheist, I also have not accepted the idea that I should put all of my faith into something that has never shown its/his/her presence to me. I have personally attended services for or been close to people from many different religions: Catholic, Episcopalian, Mennonite, Mormon, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Jewish. Thus far, I find myself aligned closely with Judaism. I took an introductory course at a local temple (Congregation Beth El in La Jolla) and found myself drawn to many things about Judaism: its emphasis on caring for the less fortunate, the lack of a directive to convert others, the sense of community and the quest for self-betterment. However, never in my experience with any religion have I felt the presence of a higher being or have I been inextricably drawn to the idea of a deity.

    That said I have never felt the need to ask this nebulous third party for forgiveness for my faults or indiscretions. The way I handle guilt is to confront it. I believe that people feel guilty mostly when they have wronged another person. Therefore, I don’t think it adequate to ask god for forgiveness, I find it noble and rewarding to ask the person who was wronged for forgiveness. When you are truly sorry for having wronged someone else, expressing that feeling to them is the best way to absolve yourself and to move on from the incident. Hopefully they will forgive you and you can repair the relationship that you have tarnished. If not, I take comfort in knowing that I have apologized and done everything in my power to fix my mistake. I also resolve to be better in the future, and in the past that determination has indeed helped me to change and evolve into a better person.

    Like Chris Morse, I too am young. However, John, as you know, growing up in Bakersfield meant that I was exposed to religion consistently, fervently and from a young age. During my adolescence I lost many friends because I did not believe in their god or would not attend church with them. I was always willing to try something new, and I was happy to go to Wednesday youth services and church camp with my friends. Once they witnessed to me and realized that I was not convinced they would tell me that we could not be close because they preferred to surround themselves with people who shared their faith. I still love these friends. I have forgiven them. I still contact them to congratulate them when they get married or have children. I hold no ill will towards them. However, my experience with religion has taught me that you don’t need to be religious to be a good person, or to be truly sorry for your mistakes, or to be forgiven for them. Feeling remorse is natural; it is not going to disappear once you ask god for forgiveness. Apologize for your mistakes, resolve to do better, and go on with your life. That’s what works best for me.

  • Mike

    yeah i really agree with harv. to just ‘not believe’, as some but not all athiests, new agers, etc (some have had the “bad experiences” with religion) say they do is nuts. who are you to know if there is no God if you say yourself that you’ve never seen Him in your life. whay not take a chance that there actually is a God who can change your whole reality. i guess you may never know if you refuse to whole-heartedly seek Him out. thats the down side to free will i suppose. God bless.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    I don’t know if this’ll serve any purpose at all, but not too long ago I wrote a piece called, “Why Doesn’t God Just Prove He Exists?”

    It’s here:

    http://johnshore.wordpress.com/2007/09/04/why-doesnt-god-just-prove-he-exists/

  • Born Again Non-Chris

    I think it's laughable that a Christian would challenge anyone to rationalize away their guilt when every day on the news we see Christians dealing with theirs by "rediscovering their relationship with Jesus." What a crock.

    How does George Bush whose "favorite philosopher" is Jesus wash away the blood of countless innocent Iraqi children killed by US bombs in his war of opportunity? Oh right, he dumps his guilt in Jesus's lap, and it's all good. Just like the mafia don who cleanses himself in the confessional.

    Nothing beats Christianity when it comes to personal redemption.

    Just like going to the car wash.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.org/ Ray Ingles

    There are things I feel guilty about. For example, I remember once in college I made a particularly cutting remark just because it was funny and cool… but the target just did not deserve it. I realized not too long afterward how I must have hurt her feelings, but I never apologized. At this point I don’t even remember her name, or what she looked like… but I still feel guilty about it.

    However, I’ve grown up a bit since and that guilt has motivated me to make sure ever since that I’m as polite as I can manage – and I try hard not to say things I’ll be ashamed of later. I’ve got an Internet presence that goes quite a ways back but I’m not worried about people Googling my name for that very reason.

    I don’t know who first said “It’s okay to make mistakes… just make new ones”, but I try to follow that principle. Sure, I don’t always live up to my ideals, but since I don’t believe perfection is attainable, either, I don’t beat myself up over it unduly. Still, guilt is a powerful motivation to try to improve… and I know from experience that it’s possible to succeed, more often than not.

  • http://calladus.blogspot.com/ Calladus

    First to the Harvey commenter – you assume a lot about Atheism that is not real. As long as you’re talking about gambling, what if you die and come face to face with Allah, who immediately sends you to Hell for the blasphemy of believing that the only God had a son named Jesus? You too are gambling that there are no other Gods. My “gamble” just goes one god further than your gamble.

    Now, to answer the author’s question – I was a Christian for over 20 years. I de-converted about 10 years ago and am in my mid-forties now. I have no proof that there isn’t a deity, but I’ve shown to my own satisfaction the inherent contradictions in any deity described to me by a book or by a person. Since I can’t prove that Yahweh, or Allah, or even the Invisible Pink Unicorn doesn’t exist then I just don’t worry about it – and I live my life as if they did not exist.

    I feel guilt when I do things that do not take others into consideration. I base my morality on sympathy and empathy for others, and I attempt to reduce the suffering of others by what little bit I am able. But I’m only human and sometimes act selfishly. Asking for forgiveness from someone else is difficult, but it isn’t nearly as difficult as asking forgiveness from myself. I’m very hard on me. To deal with guilt I make amends – or to use the religious word, I “atone” for my guilt. For example, if I broke something that belonged to someone else, I would fix it, replace it or pay for it.

    Of course there are many things that can’t be atoned for so easily – and sometimes I may not receive forgiveness from the person wronged. That’s difficult! To resolve the guilt I must work at forgiving myself, and my atonement becomes a kindness to others, a willingness to forgive them for their wrongs toward me, and even a “pay it forward” action of goodwill.

    In my opinion, atonement seems to be missing from modern Christianity. It seems to be fashionable to seek and receive a cost-free forgiveness. My respect for a “forgiven” person is very low when their only atonement was what was forced upon them. It makes me think that their guilty conscious is easily salved.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Um … "Born Again Non-Christian": I didn't challenge anyone to rationalize away their guilt. Like … not even close.

    And while I'm sure there are lots and lots of Christians out there who still support Mr. Bush's policies on Iraq, I can honestly say that I don't know a single, solitary one.

    Except for this little snark attack, I sure (to repeat myself) have been impressed by the quality of the thought shown in almost all these responses.

    It's so weird, that there's just this assumed hostility between atheists and Christians. I mean, I certainly know how it got there–and I'd be the last to say that Christians don't bear significan responsibility for it–but holy cow, there sure are a lot of SANE people in either camp, for sure. Of course, sane, thoughtful, rational people talking to one another doesn't sell newspapers. But this little pocket of thoughtful sharing has been really nice. It's a shame that so many of you who have displayed such clear emotional sophistication are destined to spend eternity having the living flesh seared off your bones.

    KIDDING! JOKE! Please don't send me any insane, ragingly hostile e-mails. Please?

  • Mario Z

    formerthings, your 'holier then thou' attitude is what turns a 'live and let live' atheist into a militant anti-theist. We are not devil spawn that feel no remourse for our misguided actions, we just don't feel guilt to a god. I do feel bad if , for example, I have to lie to my sister. This has nothing to do with god or the bible.

    Please formerthings, everyone has been very polite up until now, don't allow your insecurities to get the better of you by being mean.

    Allow me to clarify a word that I feel defines your comments: Bigot (bi got =by god) From the 15th century on Old French bigot meant "an excessively devoted or hypocritical person." Bigot is first recorded in English in 1598 with the sense "a superstitious hypocrite."

  • happy atheist

    I just so the comments written in the meantime and i would like to answer to Mike regarding:

    “to just ‘not believe’ ….is nuts. who are you to know if there is no God if you say yourself that you’ve never seen Him in your life”

    Dear Mike actually it is the other way around. I think in any case one should use his Reason because that is one of the things that makes us human. Especially i think Occam’s_Razor is the best way to get to the truth.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_Razor

    How do you know that there exists a God if you haven’t seen him (her) ? Or have you ? Even if he (she) does exist what makes you so confident that he(she) is like “God” and not like “Zeus”, or Shiva or the flying spaghetti monster ? You just uncritically accept what other people have written or told you to believe. And although i am not a buddhist i find his words to be of great wisdom when he says ” Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

    Sorry for the lengthy post

  • http://newsontheweb.net Robert Mann

    Hi John,

    JS – As a zero-tolerance-for-God sort of person, how do you process your guilt?

    RM – As a Buddhist I am technically an atheist. (Although I have heard a Buddhist teacher say to a Christian questioner, “Yes, we believe in God, but we don’t mean exactly the same thing you do.”)

    I think that the “zero tolerance for God” impression perhaps comes from hard-pressed athiests who adopt a harsh line in the face of intolerance and disapproval by others — or perhaps because of some bitter personal experiences with people claiming to speak for God. Remember that in some places in this country it has been — and stll is — very heard to be an athiest. I can’t tell you why someone might have “zero tolerance for God”. I don’t think that describes me. But that’s not what you are asking about.

    I think you are asking me in Christian terms, how do I handle my sins, my personal wrongdoing, the suffering I have caused?

    I am not qualified to speak for Buddhism or for Buddhists, but I will share my personal understanding. A better-educated Buddhist may correct me.

    My explanation of “how I handle guilt” may seem to involve turning some things inside out and upside down — but at the end you and I may find ourselves very close together in our views.

    I have learned that happiness come from being genuinely helpful to others. Even helping a baby squirrel get out of a trap feels good.

    I feel bad when I know have caused suffering. Feeling genuine gratitude when someone helps me also feels good.

    When I think of real pain I caused years ago I still feel bad.

    I have learned that sometimes when I try “to help” someone, I may instead cause suffering.

    In some difficult situations, I understand that I can only try to minimize the harm I do. (A WWII Army aptitude test for truck drivers showed a truck loaded with soldiers barreling down a narrow elevated road, with a small child crawling with the road in front of the truck. What should you do? The correct answer was keep going and run over the child.)

    So to some extent, guilt is part of the suffering that is built into human life. To some extent.

    What can you do about it? Buddhist teachings are helpful to me in this regard, and I think other religions (including God-based religions) may have similar teachings that are helpful to those who follow those religions. Basically, I try to be VERY CAREFUL not to deliberately or inadvertantly cause suffering. IF there is a God who takes an active interest in our lives, it was surely God that gave use the ability to be VERY CAREFUL not to deliberately or inadvertantly cause suffering. Maybe God gave me that ability or maybe not, but I have discovered that I’ve got it and I intend to use it. If I knew who gave me that ability, I would be grateful to them. As it is, I am grateful for this gift, wherever it came from.

    When I do cause suffering, I confront what I have done. I do this in meditation. I renew my vow not to deliberately or inadvertantly cause suffering. This is a continual process that I come back to again and again.

    What I do not do is adopt a HARSH AND PUNITIVE attitude towards myself because the consequences of a harsh and punitive attitude is more suffering. If I can find an action, an apology or some kind of real help, that may realistically correct harm I have done, then I take action.

    If I were responsible for a fatel industrial accident or even if I had killedsomeone in anger and sat on death row, I would take the same approach.

    Basically the problem we human beings have is ignorance. The harm we do comes from ignorance. Very destructive people are very ignorant. So one way I deal with guilt is to seek greater understanding. Again, this is a CONTINUAL sincere, heartfelt process. From my pouint of view, no magical “quick fix” is available.

  • Melanie

    First, to address one issue that arose from my post: my feelings about religion are not dictated by any negative experiences that I have had with religious people. As I said, I am not religious because I have not felt the presence of a higher being. I am open to the possibility of this happening to me, as it happened to John, all of a sudden and at any moment. In fact, I have sought out god continuously since I was introduced to religion by my Catholic neighbor/best friend that I have known since birth. Christianity seems like a cool club. I would be happy to be a member. But, for me, that is not going to happen until there is irrefutable evidence that being a Christian is the best way to live your life, and that it is impossible to be a good person and have a fulfilling existence without it. I do not, and would never look down upon someone who has chosen a life of Christianity for themselves. I’m just not convinced that being a Christian is the best path for everyone, no matter who they are. You’re religious. I think that’s great. Amazing, even. Jesus, as described in the New Testament (yes, I have read it) had some incredible things to say about love, tolerance and forgiveness. However, I too see inherent contradictions in the faith that will not allow me to subscribe to its tenets.

    I do not believe that the personal choices a person makes would exempt them from being embraced by a true savior. I know that what I am about to say will make most Christians reading this post cringe involuntarily, but I cannot see how someone following the Christian path and asking themselves “what Jesus would do” would judge or condemn anyone, including homosexuals, those who believe in other faiths, a woman who has had an abortion, or someone who has engaged in premarital relations. I also agree with Calladus’ point that it is naïve to assume that your god is the only one and that every other religious person believes in the wrong deity and is therefore damned. The message that I gather from Jesus’ teachings tells me to love everyone regardless of their actions and to forgive them for all wrongdoings. This is how I live my life, regardless of god’s presence in it. I do not like to be pitied by those who are religious, nor do I want anyone to think that my life in incomplete. I have a wonderful existence, and I am constantly blessed by my amazing family, wonderful friends, my career and my path in life. I do not feel like there is an indescribable void that needs filling or presence that needs defining. I am happy to be me, as I am. I hope this will not provoke the usual response that you, as a religious person, feel sorry for me because I don’t have god/Jesus in my life.

    Now, what do I do when I feel that there is no victim when I have made a mistake? That I have not injured anyone but myself and my personal values? It is difficult for me to envision a scenario where I would feel overwhelming guilt when I have made a mistake but have not wronged another person in the process. Doing something that harms only myself may be a mistake, but I generally do not feel the same type of guilt about it because I have no one to blame but myself. Taking responsibility for my actions and holding no one but me accountable is the best way to avoid guilt before it even occurs. If, for instance, I failed to study for an exam in college and failed the test, I would have no one to blame but myself. However, I would also feel guilt for letting my parents down, and for knowing that they were paying for an education that I was not taking full advantage of. Their belief and trust in me motivates me to be better and to avoid mistakes. I suppose the gist of the matter is that I believe supremely in holding yourself accountable for every choice and mistake that you make. When I hear someone say that god or the devil is testing them, it seems to me that they are looking for something outside of themselves to blame. Similarly, asking god for forgiveness sounds like an easy way to absolution, instead of making the hard choice to change your behavior. If I feel guilt for a lapse in judgment or because I failed to live up to my own values, I can forgive myself. That forgiveness is accompanied by a personal resolution to make a better choice next time. If I fail again, it is because my resolve was not what it should have been. And, I have no one to blame or to ask for forgiveness from other than myself.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Wow. Just about everything I’ve read here is outstanding. What careful thinkers and compassionate people we have here!

    Two things I thought I’d quickly add: In no way do I think that people who are not Christian can’t be moral. The very proposition is absurd. A strong sense of ethics and morality comes built-in to all humans. I was just as concerned about the state of my morality when I wasn’t a Christian as I have been since .. I have been.

    Also, it’s an extremely firm conviction of mine that Christians need to show FULL respect to all people, Christian or not. I don’t see how anyone, Christian or not, can argue that, given Christ’s very explicit Great Commandment. (“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”) So strongly do I feel that Christians need to flat-out stop trying to turn everyone who isn’t a Christian into one (because doing that a person ISN’T loving them, since it MUST be disrespectful to them, and love without respect is … nonsense) that I wrote a book called, “I’m OK-You’re Not: The Message We’re Sending Nonbelievers, and Why We Need to Stop.” It’s a book that I’m happy to say has been accepted by a lot of Christians whom one might not guess would too readily embrace it.)

    It’s my hope that my fellow believers in Christ READ some of the thoughtful, rational comments here, and in consequence maybe loosen up a little bit on the all-too-pleasing assumption Christians sometimes hold, which is that they/we have an exclusive death-grip on every profound truth that matters to people.

  • http://stephenrees.wordpress.com/ Stephen Rees

    What guilt? I am a human being. I make mistakes. That is how I learn. I do sometimes act out of anger or fear or ignorance, and I recognize and try to make amends to those I have hurt, when I can. I do not expect ever to be perfect, but I have stopped beating myself up over it. Like everyone else, I try to do better next time. I also practice the “pay it forward” or “random acts of kindness” philosophy. I resist the urge to punish those I see doing wrong – that is not my function. I know the difference between right and wrong but I recognise that some people either do not or choose to do the wrong thing for whatever justification they cook up for themselves. We still need to recognize the difference between the things we can and cannot change. I don’t leave the things I cannot change to a higher power, I try to find ways that we can work better as a community towards a better, cleaner, safer place. That is called social responsibility.

    I do get tempted to do things that I know I should not do – but I avoid doing them simply because I know that someone will get hurt and often that someone is going to be me.

    There is a technique that psychologists call “self talking” – you may know it as prayer but it still works either way. It doesn’t actually matter very much if some divine being is listening or not. Just so long as you are.

  • http://watercolorblues.wordpress.com/ Kimberley

    Interesting conversation going on here. I enjoyed reading through all the commentary.

    As for me, I am a Christian – but would like to make clear that not all Christians take the Bible literally or see it as the direct and only word of God. Not all Christians see God as some big guy with a white beard that is busy punishing and blessing. Much of Christian theology is much much more complex and intelligent.

    That said, I take care of my guilt in the same ways that many atheists here. Amends, taking the time to be honest with myself about my shortcomings and taking steps to change. I did not become a Christian because I was looking for salvation. I don’t see the divine as some dispenser of absolution and guarantees of “heaven”. If I do good simply for the promise of heaven it would seem a bit perverse to me. What I have learned in my Christian path is to risk loving others, to risk having compassion, to risk being of service to others even when the mainstream would rather ignore suffering here and around the world. Nor do I think you have to be a Christian to do these things. Atheists are just as capable in taking these risks as anyone else.

    My two cents. Thanks for asking the question and opening up this conversation.

  • -30-

    As an atheist, how do I process my guilt? What an odd question. What does my being an atheist have to do with it? Do you imagine I have no way to deal with guilt? Or perhaps feel no guilt? Or maybe feel the weight of the world because I don’t have prayer as an outlet or a god to forgive me?

    Aside from not turning to an irrelevant, supernatural third party for forgiveness, I imagine I deal with guilt much as you do: apologize to the offended person, try to make amends, try to learn from the experience, and try to do better in the future.

  • http://www.richarddawkins.net Pat

    I mean, the better question isn’t what atheists do with their guilt but WHY someone who be guilty. As a Christian, you would probably feel guilty if you masturbated, or had pre-marital sex, or missed church on Sunday, or some other rediculous rule implemented by the church.

    As an atheist, I deal with guilt like any other normal person would. I think about what I have done, hopefully apologize to whoever was hurt, and tell myself not to do it again. Pretty simple.

    I think the wrong answer is to say: I go to confession. Wrong answer.You also are putting responsibility on original sin and human temptations rather than on the real problem- yourself (i.e. “It’s not my fault- the devil made me do it.”)

  • happy atheist

    Another interesting and highly speculative (for believers utterly blasphemic) question is how does God deals with his guilt. Does he regret creating such imperfect beings who spend most of their time causing harm to each other and his beautiful earth ? Or for not making every animal a vegeterian so that they don’t have to eat each other ? Or for allowing viruses and diseases to exist ? Or for not actually stopping people torture and kill others in HIS name ? I know you re gonna argue that he gave us free will but didn’t he see that we are going to misuse it ? and if you argue that it is Satan behind everything that is bad well why does god allow him to interfere anyway ? Are we an experiment in his eyes ? So what does God actually do ? Does he pray ? to whom ? does he apologize ? i never heard any coming from above. Will he try to make it better next time ?

    (These questions are retoric and their sole purpose is to demonstrate the logical inconsistency of christian dogamta)

    PS: That’s my last for today i really need to get some sleep. Read you tommorow.

  • http://exchristian.net Dave

    I was a devoted Christian for 30 years, and it was at the times I felt the closest to God that I was filled with the most guilt. Now, as an atheist, if I haven't willfully harmed another human being (physically, emotionally or materially), then I really don't have anything to feel guilty about. Since leaving Christianity, I feel much better about myself and my life.

    Thanks for asking.

  • happy atheist

    …that we have been able to speak up and not be discriminated.

  • formerthings

    You notice alot of them are admitting they are guilty! Funny how they prove God correct when he says that his law is written on their heart and their conscience bears witness.

    That is the sad part..most of them know they are sinners but they refuse to turn from it even though the just judge warned them of the consequences of breaking his laws.

  • Chris Morse

    Formerthings, I just want to clear something up for you. No one is debating the existence of the human conscience.

    You say it comes from some sort of personal deity. I say it comes from the mind. Who’s right? I don’t know…I have my opinion, but I can’t say for certain. However, the fact that I have a conscience is not proof of god.

    Just thought I’d let you know that. Cheers.

  • http://watercolorblues.wordpress.com/ Kimberley

    Former Things,

    I am going to ask you here, with witnesses, to never again post comments on my blog (which I moderate) and never again to email me. I am not interested in debating with you or defending myself to you. If you plan to ignore this request, remember that I have your IP address. Any further contact with me after this formal request will fall under harassment. If you persist I will not make any further posts to you or email you with further requests – I will simply go through the proper channels to insure that you comply.

    John, sorry to take up space here with this. You opened up a valid conversation that most of us have participated in with humor and courtesy.

  • D. Edward Farrar

    All right, but as I am at work too – like many early respondents – I cannot say I had time to read your piece as closely as perhaps I might. I also did not have time to read all the responses posted above, so I may be repeating something already said. If so, I apologize.

    How do I process my guilt? Apologizing to whosoever I have hurt is step one; examining my own motivations for causing hurt and making a personal commitment to avoid doing so in the future is step two; being prepared to make amends if I fall short of adhering to this resolution in the future is step three. There really is no final step since neither I nor anyone I know is perfect there is always a perfectly reasonable expectation that one will have to deal with the same issue again. I do not see any need to appeal to supernatural authorities in this process, however. Nor do I see any way such an authority could be remotely helpful. My mistakes are my responsibility. And one of the most important things about making mistakes, after all, is that each one is an opportunity to learn.

    As one who is not a "zero-tolerance-for-god" person, but sees no reason to believe such an incredible and unnecessary creature exists, I have been critical of religion and am particularly critical of the belief so many religious people have that 'god' somehow takes their guilt away. Say some prayers, do some penance, maybe throw in a "Hail Mary" or two, and PRESTO! – Guilt is gone. So far as I can see, this just makes whichever god you choose to pray to into the ultimate enabler. I see nothing either productive or worthwhile in that – more often it seems to be an easy out for people to do bad things, take no responsibility and still walk away believing the path to heaven is theirs. If asked, I would strongly advise people who look to their religion that way to leave it since it is doing them no favors – they get away with doing things for which they should feel guilty, and they do not learn from mistakes that they think they have put behind them.

  • http://calladus.blogspot.com/ Calladus

    You're right John, there is hostility between believers and non-believers. It becomes increasingly difficult for an Atheist to stay civil when they keep hearing the same tired old arguments that have been defeated over and over again.

    The Atheist community in America has been forced, by the uber-religous environment of the last 20 years, to start banding together in order to have a voice. The Internet has become a great tool for this, and non-believer groups have been starting up everywhere. I'm one of the founders of two such groups.

    This organization allows us to combine our knowledge of science and philosophy, and we have discussed many refutations of favorite Christian "proofs" and arguments. These have become familiar to many of us. When a Christian mentions one of these a polite Atheist will point out that it has a counter, and perhaps discuss it a little.

    At least for the first 20 or 30 times!

    After that it becomes difficult to hear another flawed version of "Pascal's Wager" (post number 11) or CS Lewis' "knowledge of Good and Evil is proof of God" (post number 42) without thinking, "Geeze, didn't I just tell this guy that his argument is flawed and why it doesn't mean anything intelligent to me?"

    You start to see the reason why Atheists get a reputation for being disgruntled?

    And the idea of the "Angry Atheist" is self fulfilling. I've had a few people who barely know me, upon hearing that I'm an Atheist for the first time, comment, "Oh you're just angry at x. When you get over it you'll come back to God." Yes, after saying that I'm not angry a few times, I start to sound angry!

    When an Atheist finally does come forward with the purpose of explaining why bits of religion are unconvincing, or why they are inherently contradictory, then we are attacked by the religious for not "respecting" their religion! Douglas Adams (Of "Hitchhikers Guide" fame) made a wonderful speech that you can read online about the foolishness of the idea that religion automatically deserves respect.

    "Respect my religion" is also a source of hostility between believers and non-believers. We are being preached at, relentlessly, to accept religion because it "makes sense" or it "saves our soul", or a hundred other reasons. But as soon as we start pointing out the reasons why religion seems like nonsense to us, we are declared disrespectful and condemned for "attacking" religion!

    And I agree with "Happy Atheist" about another point of hostility, where Christians in American government try to legislate Christian ethics on non-believers. Christian morality is based upon unchanging biblical rules (I'll ignore the shifting Christian position change on the treatment of women and slaves) that actually ignore the fact of human suffering! Historically suffering has been considered to actually be valuable in saving a sinner's soul. Sam Harris points out that Christians actually divorce the question of suffering from morality, which is why so much religious energy is spent on moral questions where suffering isn't even an issue.

    Is it no wonder that I get angry that every Presidential contender has a high profile position on Gay Marriage, but none of them have an equally high profile position on child poverty in America? Or universal children's health care? Whether or not these things are valuable isn't even discussed, because they are drowned out by the candidates trying to "one up" each other with demonstrations of piety. Empathy and sympathy for the suffering of Americans does not make a good campaign platform.

    Do I seem angry or hostile because of this little rant? Probably. It is because I've said much the same thing over and over, with little result. But I keep on doing it because I hope to plant the seeds of rational thinking, and to let closeted non-believers know that like-minded people actually exist and are willing to offer support and company.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    You know, it's actually hard for me to keep up with the quality of stuff here. I am SO going to make my next post, "What the Atheists Taught Me."

    If I can, lemme just cut and paste here some of what's been said that I find particularly illuminating. All of this stuff is from postings after … #23:

    "Every moment of guilt is another lesson to learn about how to be more humble. Humility is a virtue that is not exclusive to religion."

    "However, as of late I have found myself leaning more towards an Anti-theist position … . I step carefully as I’m a great minority, but I feel that it’s a crucial part of our future as a civilization."

    "Guilt? What for? I simply avoid doing stuff I’d feel guilty for doing. … If I do fark up, it’s unintentional and I don’t feel guilty when I make a mistake; I just try and fix it and move on."

    "There is a technique that psychologists call 'self talking' – you may know it as prayer but it still works either way. It doesn’t actually matter very much if some divine being is listening or not. Just so long as you are." [This is from Stephen Rees' comment (#32). His whole comment was superb.]

    "If I do something bad, I try to do something good then. If I can’t avoid doing something bad, I explain why I’m doing it. If I can’t avoid doing something bad, and can’t explain now why, I’ll do it and explain later."

    " … but to the atheist, there is a joy in the creativity of introspection, of testing the solutions, of finding answers, not for their universality, but for their uniqueness. There is truly a joy, a real freedom in knowing that ultimately, I am behind the wheel, that this is without question, my journey."

    "As for me, I am a Christian – but would like to make clear that not all Christians take the Bible literally or see it as the direct and only word of God. Not all Christians see God as some big guy with a white beard that is busy punishing and blessing. Much of Christian theology is much much more complex and intelligent." [This is from Kimberly--#35. Her whole comment is worth a read, for sure.]

    "Aside from not turning to an irrelevant, supernatural third party for forgiveness, I imagine I deal with guilt much as you do: apologize to the offended person, try to make amends, try to learn from the experience, and try to do better in the future."

    "As an atheist, I deal with guilt like any other normal person would. I think about what I have done, hopefully apologize to whoever was hurt, and tell myself not to do it again. Pretty simple."

    "I have learned to accept that I am an imperfect fallible mortal human being. I can’t feel that I am better than that – which might translate to ‘clean.’ What I can do, though, is realize that when others come up short, it is because they are also imperfect, fallible, moral human beings."

    "Nothing beats Christianity when it comes to personal redemption.

    Just like going to the car wash."

    "We are not devil spawn that feel no remourse for our misguided actions. We just don’t feel guilt to a god."

    "I was a devoted Christian for 30 years, and it was at the times I felt the closest to God that I was filled with the most guilt. … Since leaving Christianity, I feel much better about myself and my life."

    "My mistakes are my responsibility. And one of the most important things about making mistakes, after all, is that each one is an opportunity to learn.

    "I have been … critical of the belief so many religious people have that ‘god’ somehow takes their guilt away. Say some prayers, do some penance, maybe throw in a 'Hail Mary”'or two, and PRESTO! – Guilt is gone. So far as I can see, this just makes whichever god you choose to pray to into the ultimate enabler."

    Well. Seriously: Does it GET any better?

    At the end of each of the 10 chapters of my book "I'm OK" (under the heading of "Ouch"), I run four or five anonymous, separate comments from non-Christians about their experience with Christians and Christianity. (I got these statements by putting out a call for such statements on Craigslist sites all over the country.) These quotes above remind me of those. This is mighty rich stuff. I don't think we can overstate how important it is that Christians really HEAR stuff like this.

  • http://essentialsaltes.livejournal.com essentialsaltes

    Why would I want my guilt to magically disappear? Why would I want to erase the feelings of shame that come about from doing something worthy of shame? Guilt is negative reinforcement for antisocial acts, acting as a spur to better action.

    When you do something shitty, it's okay to feel bad about yourself. Getting absolution just for the asking is a cheap solution.

  • http://3asal.wordpress.com/ AyyA

    I am not a Christian, I was born a Moslem. And I have become a skeptic in my later years. I’m over forty now. How to deal with quilt? Not easy in the beginning. When you are molded through the years in a certain belief, even when you know that that belief does not make any sense, you still feel guilty. As for how I got over my guilt, it was a long process. First, I believe in evolution. Not only of species, but also in ethics. I believe that people should bare the responsibility to better themselves. I believe that my mind can always direct me. And I reached the conclusion that moderation in every aspect of life is wise. I do not believe that a person is basically good, but a combination of good and bad. But there you have the mind to put the bad under control. What I do everyday before I go to sleep is think of all the events of the day and reevaluate my actions. If I have done something wrong, I make a point to avoid such thing in the future, or compensate for it somehow, this is how ethically I develop. And what is considered good or bad is dependant on how much harm I have done to others and myself. This way I take the responsibility for my actions instead of throwing it on someone else’s shoulder (God), and I sleep with a comfortable conscience.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Calladus: Sorry your post didn't go up right away. For some reason it got marked as spam, so I had to mark it as … un-spammy–and then up it went.

    And I'm glad it's here. Everything you've said is valuable and true. (Um. Except for the part about the relationship between Christian morals and human suffering. Though of course I understand and appreciate the truths upon which your observation is based, it's not at all fair to either the reality or history of Christianity to suggest that integral to it is a dismissivness of human suffering.)

  • http://calladus.blogspot.com/ Calladus

    John, I'm not saying that a dismissal of suffering is integral to Christianity or Christian morals. I'm saying that suffering is not even a consideration in many of the Christian moral teachings.

    Suffering isn't mentioned in the 10 commandments. When Paul condemns homosexuality in Romans, he doesn't comment on their suffering – he says they are "worthy of death". Jesus' teachings about divorce, or about putting God before family never even consider suffering – and often Christians have allowed these teachings to swamp his teaching of the Golden Rule.

    Even the Golden Rule may or may not imply the consideration of suffering because it is flexible in accordance to the person applying it. How would a Christian Monk apply the Golden Rule if he believes that the mortification of the body is good for the soul?

    Sure Christians are sympathetic toward suffering. Humbling yourself to relieve the suffering of others is considered to be a tenet – until it bumps against certain real-world examples, such as the current internal conflict that religious pro-lifers are having over the question of abortion in the case of saving the woman's life or to prevent her suffering or the suffering of the child. It is too bad that the relieving of suffering isn't a commandment because that would go a long way toward resolving this conflict.

    I agree that many, even the majority of Christians are deeply concerned about suffering – but I must disagree that suffering is a consideration in the biblical rules of morality. And when suffering and rule-based morality collide in America today religious leaders usually advocate legislation toward biblical morality at the expense of human suffering.

  • happy atheist

    Since the hostility issue has been brought up let me say that personally i try to be tolerant and take things with a sense of humor. But in some cases i have to really control myself so i don’t start ranting. Such cases are :

    1. When ignorant and at the same time arrogant people (like formerthings) feel pity for me just because i don’t share their beliefs.

    2. When members of religious communities insult my intelligence by claiming that (un)Intelligent Design is science.

    3. Especially when they point out that every scientists who does not accept a divine creator is stupid (Cardinal C.Schönborn of austria did that some time ago ).

    4. When religious leaders like the Pope want to make politics by saying for example that abortion is not a human right. (Recently in his visit to austria)

    5. More generally when religion interferes with politics using

    it’s influence on some part of the public.

    These are just 5 cases and there are a lot more.

    To be fair i think that some atheists are unnecessarily hostile against religion sometimes but this is somehow understandable

    through newton’s 3rd law of action and reaction (beautiful how physics explains almost everything ;) ).

    Atheists have been an oppressed for thousands of years and it’s only in the last couple hundred year

  • Atheist

    I evaluate my actions and change what needs changing. If I owe someone an apology, I apologize. If I have to repay someone, I repay them. If I can't fix the problem, I often times "pay forward" and do something nice for someone who needs help who doesn't "owe" me anything.

    Why would this be such a mystery ? As if believing in an imaginary being would make a difference ! Actually, I think it does. I think the believers think they don't need to behave well because they are *saved*.

  • David Gleeson

    Well, it’s really very simple …

    If I’ve done something wrong, I apologize to the person I’ve wronged and ask for his/her forgiveness. If I’ve behaved selfishly, I make a mental note and attempt to do better next time. If I lie or mislead, I fess up and work to be more open and honest.

    In short, I acknowledge my shortcomings, ask for forgiveness when necessary, and strive to be a better person in the future.

    What I most certainly do not do is half-heartedly confess to a mythical father figure and then expect all my transgressions to be magically poofed away in a shower of loving kindness and forgiveness. I actually expect to have to work at getting better.

    I suspect you do, too. But let’s not pretend that the Christian path to betterment and forgiveness is any nobler than the atheist’s. If anything, it’s the other way around.

    Dave Gleeson

    Superior, CO

  • Tom

    "And i would assume rightly that LAS VEGAS would love to have you as a permanent guest, because you are being the biggest gambler in the world,LOL"

    Hey Harvey. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins – assuming God, Heaven, and Hell exist: What do you think would be more offensive to an omnipotent, just, rational God.

    The Christian who believes just enough to be "saved" – that is, bet-hedges against God's existence, through a profession of mere belief, in an effort to be "on the safe side."

    or

    honesty.

    Something to ponder, isn't it?

    I process guilt the way any rational individual with a developed moral conscious would; I try not to repeat it.

  • Tom

    "I see absolutely no inherent clash between science and religion."

    I STRONGLY beg to differ. Science has nothing to lose from asserting itself, whereas religion absolutely does. Take homosexuality for example. We humans are the only animals that treat our homosexuals with disdain for no apparent reason. Gorillas, fruit flies, giraffes, penguins, rams, and flamingos don't seem to mind.

    Most Christians believe it is a lifestyle "choice" or triggered by something "negative" in early childhood development. Most Christians conveniently disagree with the argument that homosexuality is biologically-determined since that revelation would severly weaken the being-gay-is-immoral argument. Aren't you absolved of moral culpability if you're born that way? Corresponindgly, an all-knowing God cannot possibly make mistakes, can he? And the Bible certainly cannot be wrong, right?

    This is reality. There is a vast field of unbiased, non-ideological, factually-based science on human sexuality, the overwhelming evidence of which indicates that human sexuality is either genetically-determined or triggered by hormonal activity during fetal development. Plus, I've never met anyone gay who said they wanted to be gay. Finally, there is an almost unanyomous agreement that children brought up by gay parents suffer no adverse effects and may even grow up to become better-adjusted adults.

    Despite this evidence, you can still find a majority of

    Christians citing Leviticus or Romans and suddenly the debate is closed. Homosexuality is a sin. Amazing that a simple case such as this can be made based on the same chapters which prohibit the consumption of pork, sanction the maintenance and treatment of slaves, glorify the destruction of polytheists and sorcerers, convey the proper ways to stone disobedient children to death, and instill fear of a "merciful" God at every angle. Yes, I completely understand that many new-age Christians consider these barbarities "misinterpreted" "misapplied" or "non-applicable in today's world." But that certainly did not stop the "pious" South from citing the Bible when fighting the abolition of slavery less than 200 years ago. Nor did it stop the Church from burning and torturing questionable women and "rebellious" Jews to death as recently as 300 years ago.

    I find it puzzling that some of these new-age Christians accept that homosexuality is probably biologically-based but that means they still shouldn't act on it. Why not? Who is that hurting? What malice comes of it? How does what two consenting adults, of sound mind, do in private offend God or anyone?

    In 20 years, the gay rights movement will be over. Gays will enjoy the same rights as anyone else. Just watch. Religion will have to once again, bow down to the realities of science and social progress and accept defeat.

    The difference between now and yesterday is that now, religion has been so discredited and its influence so weakened, that its power-brokers can't burn any of its challengers at the stake anymore.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Ah. Perhaps you see why I began my statement with "I see no …", rather than with, "There is no …."

  • Scott M.

    John,

    I hope you're still reading this thread because I'd like to put in my two cents. I apologize if what I'm saying has been duplicated above.

    I think you may be asking the wrong question. I think the question should be, "why do atheists seem to have less guilt than some Christians or conversely, why do Christians seem to have more guilt than some atheists?"

    I think the answer is in what we believe. When I was a Christian, I knew God was looking over my shoulder watching my every move to make sure I hadn't committed some infraction. For example, I felt terribly guilty many, many times over Jesus' saying that he who lusts after a woman has committed adultery in his heart (my cousin would blush if she only knew). That's the perfect recipe for guilt.

    Now that I no longer believe I have someone looking over my shoulder, reading my thoughts, my consience was greatly eased. As a matter of fact, once a Jehova's Witness asked if being an Atheist made me happy; the answer was "Yeah!" precisely because I no longer had that needless guilt. So I no longer feel guilty for being human.

    Maybe you should ask yourself if the things you feel guilty about, are they because you're human or because you've actually done something wrong?

    Which brings up one other point. When I was religious (a long time ago, I could be wrong about this) I seem to recall being sort of passive aggressive about the guilt thing. I'd be "good" for so long, I couldn't stand it any more and would do something deserving of the guilt. Now that I'm much more at ease with myself, I'm much more even keeled. I don't hurt people any more and when I do, it's easier to apologize and get on with life.

    Please let me know what you think.

    Best wishes.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Ross: I AM surprised at the number of atheists commenting here. If they are "trackbacks" from other sites, I don't … know that. I think people are just … showing up here, and commenting. It's sure been interesting.

    So you're a Christian positing that, as far as you can tell, aetheists today are generally smarter or better educated than atheists?

    Wow! See you in hell!

    Har.

    As I said a bit back there recently, somewhere in Comment Land, I personally do not have the experience of relating the reality of God in my life to whatever I might do that I later regret. I know a lot of Christians do, though. I just don't happen to myself.

  • Ross

    John- just read your above post. It was Jesus himself who said to not fear man but to fear God who can cast your soul into hell. I know that's not a real pc thing to say, but Jesus said it.

    A few of our atheist friends have noted that they were former Christians, and now are liberated (my word) atheists. I wonder if any of these people were truely born again as that's the whole enchilada and makes all the difference. Even if you believed the gospel, if it was only in your head, and intellectual excercise, and not of the heart then you were never a true Christian. When one has tasted the sweet fruit of salvation and the blessings and joy that accompany it, it's hard to see how a person could turn from that.

  • http://metaandmeta.typepad.com "Q" the En

    On Ross's comment 67, my understanding (and I admit I do not have a citation) is that religious sects lose far more members to apostasy than they gain by conversion (i.e., by persons' being "born again"). By and large, the growth of these sects is due to accordance by their members with Genesis 1:28.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    What's this? No CITATION!? AWAY, NO CITATION PERSON!!

    Sorry. Forget that. Carry on.

  • http://www.williamely.name/ William

    Hello folks!

    I am an atheist. I do not overly suffer from a whole lot of guilt because I do not feel guilty for things that do not harm another person.

    When I do harm someone, inadvertently or purposely, all that can be done is to attempt to right the wrong as much as possible. If I say something hurtful, I explain what I meant (or didn't mean) and apologize if I am sorry. If I break something or damage something, I replace it or pay for it. There are very simple ways to right the wrongs you have committed.

    Sometimes, an apology covers it.

    I certainly do not dwell of guilt at all. I think I would have to kill or maim someone to really cause the kind of guilt that would make me lose sleep at night. Why spend so much time on guilt? Just right the wrongs, learn from you mistakes and move on.

    Peace.

  • http://metaandmeta.typepad.com “Q” the Enchanter

    I take guilt as a signal that I have failed or am failing in some deep way to live up to the fundamental standards I’ve set for myself. I do not take guilt as something I ought to feel, but as a sign that I need to address the apparent tension between my principles and my deeds. Perhaps the principles need to be revised. Or perhaps I need to take concrete steps (rather than utter vague oaths to “do better”) better to conform my prospective actions to those principles.

    Of course, where my guilt stems from what I take to be my betrayal of another person’s reasonable expectations, it signals the need to seek reconciliation by demonstrating to that person my commitment to honest self-assessment and robust change.

    Although I am indeed a “zero tolerance for God” kind of atheist (which, you should note, is actually a rarity in my experience), I’m inclined to think that the Christian practices of “redemption” and “confession” are probably useful heuristics along these lines. In fact, in some ways they are analogous to the exercise of the commitment I outline: If it turns out my guilt stemmed from merely faulty principles, I can “forgive” myself; if from failure to conform to sound principles, I “redeem” myself by my prospective active commitment; if from a betrayal of others, I “redeem” myself by “confession” and demonstration of my commitment. (NB: The analogy is not to justify my process but to aid understanding; an attempt, then, to “rebut” the analogy with arguable distinctions would be beside the point I’m making.)

  • Ross

    Look happy, sorry about using the term "lost" and I did hesitate to use it, knowing many non-Christians would read it and find it offensive. I suppose I should have used heathen. Rimshot!

    As for Newton, I only mentioned him once…not sure how that's a trend. Why did I choose him? I read somewhere that he was a genius and maybe the top genius of all geniuses, but have I done a comparative study of great scientists? Nah I pretty much dropped his name cuz I knew it. Einstein was not a Christian…but certainly no atheist.

    Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

    Einstein is probably the best known and most highly revered scientist of the twentieth century, and is associated with major revolutions in our thinking about time, gravity, and the conversion of matter to energy (E=mc2). Although never coming to belief in a personal God, he recognized the impossibility of a non-created universe. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says of him: "Firmly denying atheism, Einstein expressed a belief in "Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of what exists." This actually motivated his interest in science, as he once remarked to a young physicist: "I want to know how God created this world, I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details." Einstein's famous epithet on the "uncertainty principle" was "God does not play dice" – and to him this was a real statement about a God in whom he believed. A famous saying of his was "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."

    Thanks for the props on my poetic prose. I wasn't even trying to be poetic. Anyway I'm not going to go down the typical believer/non-believer debate road where I try to convince you that Christianity is the truth. If I thought it would work I would, but it never does so it's pointless. Let me just answer you're last question.

    For me it's two things. Changes I've seen in my life and how I feel about myself and others since converting have been profound. Also, a desire to read the Bible and sing songs to God (worship) as well as a desire for others to know Christ. Pre-conversion none of these things would appeal; be honest it probably makes you revulse a little just reading that. I know I've been there. I never thought I would like to read the Bible and sing worship songs to God it's just a byproduct of conversion. The second reason that I think I'm on the right track is there is alot of evidence to substantiate what I believe. These are the two pillars of my faith. If I'm going through a season wher I'm not feeling the joy of the Lord, and all Christians do, I still have confidence in the Biblical account and hold on to that.

    If you happen to respond to this, I doubt I will be able to reply as I have a busy weekend.

    God Bless you (you can't stop me from saying that).

  • http://calladus.blogspot.com/ Calladus

    (sigh) Ross (comment number 67) just brought up the, "You were never a "True Christian" (TM) argument. Which has also become a cliche'.

    When Josh McDowell or CS Lewis or Kirk Cameron claims to have been a previous Atheist converted to Christian, I'm tempted to make the, "You were never a True Atheist" argument. I'm sorely tempted (pun intended) to do so, especially when I see these people use or have used such worn arguments for God like Pascal's Wager.

    It is an insulting argument with a built-in arrogance that is almost calculated to lose friends and create enemies among the faithless. A sort of anti-witnessing program to drive people away from your faith.

    It's great, though, if you are merely interested in feeling superior to non-believers.

  • Scott M.

    Last one John -

    Please re-read post 63 & 64 for a refresher.

    Imagine you are the fish.

    Does the fish feel guilt for being a fish and doing fishy things?

    Be the fish John.

    The water is fine.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Oh, how…Zen-like.

    Trenchant–except, you know: for all those tricky differences between human consciousness and fish consciousness.

    I'm good with God, thanks. I can't even imagine (though sometimes I try–and utterly fail–what it must be like to be inside the mind of someone who isn't constantly aware of the presence of God.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    By the way: I don't think being "constantly aware of the presence of God" makes me in any way better than anyone. I don't even think it's that INTERESTING. NOT constantly being aware of the presence of God seems fascinating to me. That's something I genuinely can't imagine.

    One thing's for sure: Whether or not a person is "religious" sure tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of their character. Terrible and fantastic people are found everywhere, in every group. It ALL boils down to the individual, doesn't it?

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Scott: I think what you’ve said is extremely insightful. And of course so much of the discussion it naturally engenders rests upon the definition of the word “guilt.” But yes, without question the “guilt” I’m talking about comes with simply BEING human; it’s the guilt that is intrinsic to the state of … personhood. I don’t feel God looking over my shoulder all the time, judging me, or evaluating the moral quotient of my actions, or any of that kind of thing. That’s just not part of my … experiencing of God. I know God is no more surprised when I “sin” than he is when a fish suddenly darts a weird way in the water. It’s just what fish DO, you know? So I just process my understanding of the interaction betweeen myself and God with that sort of classic, old-school paradigm in mind.

    My fear of God isn’t related to my sense of morality (in the cause-and-effect sense in which that term’s most usually used), because … well, because I don’t fear God. I’ve got ENOUGH to worry about in life without having to worry about a God I have to be AFRAID of. I know a lot of Christians do fear God. But, you know, like with anything this dense, you’d really have to be clear what you mean by “fear.”

    Except … well, in no sense of the word do I fear God. Still, I certainly do understand and respect what Christians are saying when they say they do.

  • Ross

    Wow John, 62 posts and counting. I doubt you have this many atheists reading your column on a daily basis. I’m guessing these are trackbacks from various atheist site(s), but I could be wrong.

    I’ve read a fair amount of these comments and almost all of them are well reasoned. I think it’s fair assessment to make that the collective IQ of atheists are higher than that of Christians of today. I think the inverse was probably true a hundred years ago, (just look at all the great scientists that were devout Christians. Arguably the greatest mind ever was Sir Isaac Newton.)

    Anyway, have you given thought to the idea that perhaps the lost don’t feel guilt the way you or I do? It was the Lord who said, “my sheep hear my voice…” and that voice is often the Holy Spirit convicting us of sin of which someone who doesn’t know the Lord wouldn’t hear.

  • http://www.rogueminister.wordpress.com Rogue Minister

    I am certainly not an atheist, at least not most of the time, but I am so thankful for this post and this blog. Thanks for wrestling with difficult issues, asking questions about those issues, and being willing to listen to those answers without being preachy, arrogant, patronizing etc. It is refreshing and a blessing to have come across this blog. I hope to join the conversation on more posts!

  • snowhite197

    Wow John! This really blew up! I am not done reading but I am already formulating a response (hope it won't turn out too long!). I love discussions like this. The majority of responses have been really well-written, polite and insightful. (I finished up to post 40 or so hopefully it stayed that way!)

    I really want to encourage everybody to keep sharing and trying to legitimately answer each other's questions instead of feeling like they must take sides against one another. I'm sure what John really wants is not so much a debate as a clearing of the air and clarifying of your own beliefs.

  • SRH

    Guilt is an incentive to change.

    If the necessary changes have not been made there is no reason to be remedied of your guilt.

  • AZNAtheist

    And let me add a question: Do you still do the things that make you feel guilty? Do you do them any less than you used to? If no, then things haven't changed for you since you conversion. You're just using God to make yourself feel better.

    Again, I don't want to be offensive. But this is my honest assessment.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Hey, guys! Lemme (too quickly) respond from … well, let's see…#76 on:

    Rogue: Ah, well, this is easy: Thank you!! Do drop by any time!

    Snow: Easy again! Thank you! You're right!

    SRH: A little confusing, but I'm sure an excellent point!

    AZN: First paragraph: Good! Insightful! Second: A tad obnoxious. I MIGHT, if I were … that sort … counter by saying that perhaps our difference is born of the simple fact that I have reason to expect more from myself than you apparently expect of yourself–but of course I wouldn't think of implying anything so … counter-productive.

  • http://ricbooth.wordpress.com ric booth

    John, I really like the way you moderate your blog. You have guts and compassion. Not being an atheist any longer I'm probably not you're intended reader/responder… but I did write a poem about how much simpler things were back then. I call it "life was so simple before I died" http://ricbooth.wordpress.com/media/

  • AZNAtheist

    I assure you that my personal standards are no lower than the average person's. I honestly do not see why it is at all difficult to avoid hurting people. Nor do I see the point in feeling guilty over minor things that don't cause harm to anyone else.

    It seems that you are shooting for perfection or something very close to it. NEVER buying a beer, for example. I can avoid a lot of useless guilt by understanding that perfection is not attainable, nor is it necessary.

  • http://Idonthaveaurl.com Zach

    Hello Everyone,

    I am sorry if this duplicates some content, but I am writing this when there aren't a lot of posts on this page. I am told that there are about 70 something now.

    As an honorary agnostic/atheist I think that in order to deal with something you must first understand it. Just like tail bones and opposable thumbs, ethics and guilt are most likely a product of evolution. There is a good documentary on the evolution of morality called "Nice Guys Finish First" by Richard Dawkins It's a little old but probably still relevant today. I was going to try to find a youtube video of it but apparently they have all been removed.

    So imagine back in the days when our ancestors brains were developing. Some of them would have developed into jerks who would treat life like some sort of "Quake 3" style deathmatch. And others would have developed to be nice to one another and spent their time forming villages and trading with one another. And over millions of years the nice cavemen fared better than the jerks, and today we are most likely the descendants of those nicer cavemen. But nothing is perfect and we probably still have a bit of jerk in the gene pool.

    This may be a bit exaggerated but you get the idea.

    And when you think of it like this, we need our guilt, just like we need our opposable thumbs. We need to feel bad when we do bad things, we need to feel hurt when we hurt others. Imagine what the world would be like if we didn't. And so I am glad that we cannot shun our guilt until it fades away.

    So when I feel guilt it's a reminder that I can do better, that I can act in a way that is better than the way that was making me feel guilty. So when I feel bad about being a jerk to people, I feel guilty, and thus resolve to behave in a way that will not make me guilty any more. And for the most part it works. You get a little better, and over time you can improve yourself.

    This is by no means perfect, and it's not instantaneous. But just like teaching a small child table manners or learning to ride a bike, you can do it.

    And you have to remember that people are not perfect. We shouldn't beat ourselves up for every little sin. It's OK to feel a little guilty for eating the last slice of pizza at a party, and try not to do it again next time. But don't let it get to you too much. We will improve over time, but expecting perfection all at once would be like learning how to ski at the winter Olympics.

    One common theme I see in religion today is the idea of perfection. Jesus is perfect in every way and wants you to be like him. And we have this "Fallen Man" thing going on since the garden of Eden. I wonder what psychological effect that would have on a person.

    I would like to finish off with a question. Would you mind explaining how the whole repentance and confession thing works. And does it free you from the whole resolution making process that you mentioned going through earlier?

    So for example lets say that you had a Christian and an Atheist in a parking lot. Both of them are able bodied people but for some reason they park in a handicapped space. On the way in to the store they parked outside of they both feel guilty. Now the Atheist resolves to be a better person and not park in the handicapped spot again, and over enough time of parking correctly he will slowly feel better. However the Christian asks Jesus for forgiveness, then Jesus says to him, "I forgive you my son", and the Christian's guilt is washed away.

    I know this isn't accurate. But it's the way it looks to an outsider.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    WOW! Awesome! This is really good.

    You know, before I was a Christian I used to HATE the way it seemed to me that Christians could so EASILY let themselves off the moral hook by just asking their Big Daddy in the sky to forgive them. I've never been much of a road-rage kind of guy, but if ANYTHING would have turned me into one, it was that ultimately infuriating bumpersticker, "Not Perfect, Just Forgiven."

    I'm a Christian, and that STILL (reflexively) pisses me off.

    Anyway, I definitely hear you. And I suppose at some point along the line here I SHOULD blog about what, to a Christian, repentence and forgiveness is ACTUALLY all about.

    Dude. You rock. Thanks for this lovely, thoughtful, articulate summation.

  • http://assuredscorn.wordpress.com/ -30-

    I'm loving this thread. And the technology that enables it. (At the same time, I'm hating the technology for keeping me bound to this miserably uncomfortable chair when I'd much prefer a sheaf of paper and my La-Z-Boy.)

    Anyway, I agree with Zach's Dawkins-caveman thing. It certainly tracks with my still-developing idea of things. In the next chaper, those nice, sociable cavemen gradually develop language, learn to write, and eventually codify their ideas into formal religion. That's sort of how I picture it.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Too late. You said "chaper." Now we can't take you or your thoughts seriously. Sorry. It's the price you pay when you … type publically.

    "Sheaf." There's a word you don't hear enough of anymore. And "La-Z-Boy." There's something my dad used to call me.

    Yeah, what IS it with this thread? Well, it's fascinating. And, alas, it's dying: today, this posting got ogled but 131 times, which is WAY down.

    Bummer.

    Still, as Britney and I both know, one minute you're up, and the next minute you're wearing a spangly bikini in front of 23 million Americans and trying to remember to at least move your lips.

    Life. It's cruel, but … abnormally long.

  • AZNAtheist

    Wow. Lotta posts, so sorry if I’m repeating anything. How do I process my guilt? The same way as you, I imagine, minus the prayer/repentance/whatever you want to call it. I apologize to the person I’ve wronged and fix the problem to the best of my ability. And even then, only time will make it fade completely.

    You say you have trouble exerting your own will. I think this is due not to your non-theism but (no offense) to a personal character flaw. I for one have little trouble avoiding actions that would make me feel guilty. I also learn not to fret over little things (such as my diet) that are more or less harmless. You seem to be the exact opposite, which may be why you feel you need an authority figure constantly forgiving and re-forgiving you.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Hey, that’s weird. My comment above (#81), showed up AFTER AZN’s response to it (#80).

    Well. Cyber-stuff. Whaddaya gonna do?

    AZN: “You’re just using God to make yourself feel better,” and “I don’t want to be offensive,” are diametrically opposed statements. Pick a path, brother.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Well (to take the teeniest, quickest example of the trillion that instantly come to mind): You pass a homeless alcoholic on the street, and give hiim nothing because you KNOW he’ll spend it on booze.

    Did you just hurt him?

    You want to take a day off work, but know that doing so kind of screws your co-workers a little. You do it anyway. Did you just hurt them?

    Life is ALL about calculating the infinite nuances of need between yourself and others. If you never find it difficult to avoid hurting people, then you either never interact with people, or are blessedly insensitive to the impact of when you do.

    Your last statement is very good. Of course it hinges on your definition of “perfection.” But I know what you’re saying, and it’s certainly a solid precept.

  • http://assuredscorn.wordpress.com/ -30-

    Argh, where’s the edit key? The above should read, “In the next chapter…” Sorry about that.

  • Hjordes (re: Pat, ab

    Sort of off-topic…

    Pat said: "As a Christian, you would probably feel guilty if you masturbated, or had pre-marital sex, or missed church on Sunday, or some other rediculous rule implemented by the church."

    Omgosh, do nonbelievers really think that's what Christians are like?

    Are some Christians really like that, and that's why Pat thinks that way? Nevermind, that sentence just made my eyes wiggle, and I had to say something. Ridiculous, indeed.

  • Tom

    "Ah. Perhaps you see why I began my statement with “I see no …”, rather than with, “There is no ….”

    That's your entire response? You didn't address anything.

  • Tom

    I don't know how to say this without sounding arrogant. Look at the level of debate, intellect, reflection, insight, and simply choice of words used by atheists. And we're considered immoral heathen…..

    John – there is a painfully obvious clash between religion and science. Religionists have always painted scientists with the Devil's brush suggesting that their desire for knowledge is driven by evil. It would make sense though. Many scientists are atheists – this is based on a survey of 517 members of the National Academy of Sciences. When queried about belief in a "personal god," only 7% responded in the affirmative.

    And by the way, are scientists lying? Do they have an agenda? If so, what would that be? Are they biased or subscribe to a particular ideology? Are scientists simply not curious about the nature of the world, make observations, formulate hypotheses, and test their veracity? I would imagine they could care less what religion claims. They are in the pursuit of truth, not defending fairytales like Creationism, Noah's Ark, or the Tower of Babel. Those same scientists which cure diseases, alleviate famines, and make daily discoveries certainly do not fit the profile of immoral heathens who are out to "get religion." Can you imagine what our world would look like today without that human curiousity which so many Bible-believing Christians call Satanic temptation? And plus, if science had conversely proven anything in the Bible, you can bet that Christians would be applauding the scientific community and embracing their conculsions with almost hysterical enthusiasm.

    Science has always trumped religion and will continue to do so in the future. Facts always triumph over any factually-devoid ideology like religion.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Here's what I'm saying: I PERSONALLY have nothing whatsoever against science, and I don't know a Christian who does. The idea of being "against" science is, of course, insane. And you have GOT to realize that It's as absurd to characterize all Christians as being anti-science as it is to characterize all atheists as cat sacrificing Satan worshippers.

    Do you personally know ANY Christians? I'm not sure I've EVER met a Christian who was "against" science.

    So let me say it again: I have virtually nothing but love for science. My best friend for the past 15 years, in fact, is a scientist. (He's a chemistry professor in the Cal State University system.) My wife is a science freak. I'M a science freak.

    Dude: You are looking at this WAY too one-dimensionally. (Though, let me say, I do understand the truth behind what your'e saying. What you've got to understand is that all the sane, normal Christians are in, like, church. It's all the CRAZY ones who are on TV.)

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Yeah, and I don't of course mean to imply that all televangelists are crazy. I'm just saying that when all you know of Christianity is what you get from mainstream media, you've got … well, as skewed a version of it as that media gives us all of us about everything..

  • mm

    “All the Crazy ones are on TV”

    Crazy: Maybe-Industrious:Most Definitley

    My favorite is Benny Hynn(Sp?)

    I guess he’s trying to get people to buy him a lear jet. You know, so he can spread the gospel.

    And for a donation of 1,000 USD, you can have a little plaque put on the inside of his plane, so you can be with him to spread the gospel.

    Now obviously i have no problem with those who manage to make a living through their religion. By speaking about their religion, or working on behalf of their religion, or even by running a ministry or whatever the case may be but…

    DID JESUS REALLY SAY YOU NEEDED YOUR OWN JET?

    Sorry, has nothing to do with the topic.

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  • jhon byran garet

    hello john i am an athiest i actually dont belive in god i was wondering why you even belive in god. there are so many things that can prove christianity doesnt even exist.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Uh. Yeah. It's a mystery.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Um. I’m afraid that saying there’s lots of proof that Christianity “doesn’t even exist” sort of automatically renders you untalkabletoable. Perhaps you’d like to rephrase that … exceptionally wrong statement?

  • Tom

    “Dude: You are looking at this WAY too one-dimensionally. (Though, let me say, I do understand the truth behind what your’e saying. What you’ve got to understand is that all the sane, normal Christians are in, like, church. It’s all the CRAZY ones who are on TV.)”

    According to a recent USA Today Opinion poll, half of Americans believe the world started 6,000 years ago when a talking snake tricked a woman into eating illegal fruit. Those same Americans want to teach that in my schools to my children. That, my friend, is mental child abuse.

    Is that one-dimensional? Are those creationists televangelists or regular Americans?

    In other news, according to Angus Reid Global Monitor, 61% of Americans wouldn’t vote for an atheist president.

    Since 93% of scientists are atheists, and coincidentally, also are most brilliant minds, what does that say about Christian influence in our country?

    Is that looking at the science vs. religion clash as one-dimensional? I’m just saying that Christians like you are in the minority. And I still don’t understand how you’re able to reconcile your faith with science.

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  • Pingback: [website] $ sudo life » Blog Archive » Guilt

  • http://darklydreamingdavid.wordpress.com Dave Id

    OH BOY!

    First of all, associating atheists with new agers is just wrong. New Agers are religious people who want to eat at the buffet of religion instead of ordering a la carte. Atheists don’t even go to that restaurant.

    Second, in Buddhism – a non-religion, there’s no guilt. Only correct and incorrect thought. Guilt is hanging on to the past and that’s a big no-no in Buddhism. If you do wrong to someone, you present your excuses, you try to correct the situation but as they say “life is a bridge, cross it but do not take refuge upon it”

    Religious people surrender to guilt because religion is built around controlling minds through guilt with tools such as crotch-control, thought-control and so forth. I know what I speak of. I’m a Quebecer and until the 70s Québec was basically a theocracy, the kind that exist in African and Mid-Eastern countries today. Instead of Islam, we had a Catholic Theocracy so intent on controlling everything that one had to tuck his shirt with a stick because one should not accidentally touch his penis, which would be bad, you would be guilty of masturbation.

    Religious people feel guilt for all sorts of supercilious reasons because they are expected to live to rules of conduct that are impossible to live up to.

    The Atheist deals with guilt with less trouble. The true atheist of good morals screws up will fix his mistake, make his apologies if needed and that will be that. Because you know what? Crap happens. In extreme cases, say, you run over a child, I figure, there will be more work to do here on a psychological level, and there will be guilt, I’m certain of that. An atheist isn’t heartless that’s for sure. But on the little things such as coming home drunk, well dude, that’s the stuff life is made of. If you come home drunk every night, well you have a drinking problem. Otherwise, it’s just life. No guilt needed here.

    I never feel guilty getting late to work. Crap happens. I don’t have guilt over insane sex with women, I don’t guilt over having to much fun, I don’t have guilt because I have and others don’t have because other’s have way more. Life is meant to be enjoyed to the fullest and I won’t feel guilty about that. Sometimes people get upset, yeah well just too bad. Sometimes I just come first. I can’t live my life putting everyone else first all the time. Let’s not forget that people around you will often look for a reason to get upset with you because they are unhappy with their own lives.

    We rationalize what happened, we feel bad when we screw up and hurt others feelings but we don’t dwell on it forever and ever. We don’t need to confess, there’s no god to forgive us. But morality isn’t the purview of the religious.

    I’ve done a lot of things in my life I’m not very proud of but I’ve come to terms with it. It comes down to being honest with yourself. If you are, you won’t feel guilt forever.

  • http://DukeyDog Michael L. Duke

    A true christian will explore for answers whether to science or behavior patterns in an “add or subtract” way.

    Atheists hunt for answers for the reason why science says, “facts boy, only the facts”..

    I am a christian who’s suffered both mentally and physically in his life and these 2 elements helped me along on the path of “Why”.

    When I talk about Jesus, the Bible, christianity, its not from my experience with other christians or anyone else. I’ve learned that we really are imperfect beings who do some really strange things in our lives for strange reasons. But we are like the fish – it just does what a fish is suppose to do. But we humans can change. A fish cannot – because it has no reasoning power. Survive baby, thats what its about – in the fish’s world.

    I’ve also had lots of fun on our planet. A balance has to be struck between living, loving, learning, interacting with others. We really need a God who can identify with us and help us to change.

    “You gotta give it up to true reason” and sometimes our reason must be changed by a force outside our experience and philosophy.

    I am speaking as one who’s been so far on the “bottom” that you would pass me up – no matter how mr. or mrs, ms. goody two shoes or atheistic or God fearing.

    Christianity is based on love not legalism! Let’s stop being narrow-minded if we’ve been hurt by christians – I’ve been insulted many times by my brothers and sisters in Christ as well as by atheists. Does that mean now I can dislike and not give others a chance to like me? That’s narrow-mindedness and we humans are naturally judgemental – though I sure don’t advocate it. God bless you (I can say this too with an open heart and mind.)

    . .

  • Karin

    I don't do guilt, I believe it's a waste of time and energy, I have more productive things to do than sit and wallow in what is 'wrong', or what other people believe is 'wrong'.

    If I have hurt someone, I apologise. I don't go away and stew in my wrongdoing, what's the point in that? It doesn't help me and it doesn't make the person I have hurt feel any better, does it?

    I gave up religion when I was eight years old. I can't remember the reason, but I can remember the moment. To this day, a long, long way down my life path, I have not regretted that decision.

    I am a moral person, I have ethics, I put my best foot forward and do the best that I can and that's all that anyone can really ask of a person.

    Guilt? Um, no thanks, I have no need for it.

  • Karin

    I forgot to add, and I can't edit my original post, that I'm speaking of guilt in the manner that you, John, are speaking of it.

    Definition of guilt:

    The fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong

    None of your examples is 'wrong' within the meaning of the definition (well, maybe not treating your wife as best as you can is, but not the rest). These are things you should not feel guilty about, that's absurd, really, it is. Like those people who feel guilty because they had a chocolate bar when they were on a diet, this is not an offense, crime, violation or wrong. It may be wrong, but it's not "a wrong", if you see the difference?

    I needed to clarify as I wouldn't want anyone to think that I have the mindset of six year old :)

  • http://mashikopots.blogspot.com/ Lee Love

    Hi John,

    I was raised a Christian and was a lay minister, but have been a practicing Zen Buddhist for over 27 years and have been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for about 20 years.

    You mention that you studied Zen Buddhism and felt that it lacked, because it didn’t deal with your guilt. What I am surprised by, is that you are not aware that there is repentance and forgiveness in Buddhism.

    And, I want to clarify, because you imply that Buddhism is atheistic. It is not. In Buddhism, there is no separation between theistic and atheistic. Concepts such as atheism are primarily used by theist and non-believers who are reacting against monotheism. Buddhist and polytheist then not to encounter this difficulty. As they say back home, “We ain’t got a dog in that fight.”

    If you plug repentance and Buddhism into Google, you’ll find many references to the topic.

    Here are some prayers of repentance from the Soto Zen tradition that I practice:

    “All the twisted karma ever created by me, since of old,

    through beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,

    born of my body, speech and thought.

    I now make complete repentance of it all.”

    From Samanthabhadra-sutra:

    “The ocean of all karmic hindrances arises solely from delusive thoughts.

    If you wish to make repentance, sit in an upright posture and be mindful of the true nature of reality.

    All faults and evil deeds are like frost and dew.

    The sun of wisdom enables them to melt away.”

    In Buddhism, we try to avoid taking away guilt before the root cause of guilt is addressed. If you superficially quell your guilt, it festers under the surface.

    Also, in Buddhism, the merit of repentance is given away freely to other people. This also focuses you on the root of your guilty feelings.

    Here is a link related to Buddhism and guilt:

    http://buddhism.kalachakranet.org/guilt.html

    Palms together,

    Brother Lee Love

  • togeika

    I just signed up for my own account on world press.

    Brother Lee Love

  • http://smjpoems.wordpress.com samanthamj

    Wow… this is a great thread! And I haven’t even read it all yet. Still, I felt compelled to scroll on down to the bottom and add my 2 cents. =)

    I have been on a bit of a guilt trip most of my life… and have even been recognizing that fact and asking a lot of questions myself about it these days. I was JUST posting on guilt, and similiar questions actually earlier today. Then I stumbled into here from the tags. (Cool site, btw.=)

    So, how do *I* process my guilt?? Truthfully? Pretty poorly. :)

    I don’t think I do handle guilt or deal with it very well at all. I tend to prefer to let it gnaw at me in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep. And, I can feel guilty over just about anything… even things that aren’t my fault. So, I am just soaking up all the ideas on this thread on ways to better process it. (Except for the idea to “apologize and be humble”. As if. That will never work!

    (jussssst kidding! I apologize all the time! I’m sorry I’m sorry!).

    Now, the thing is, I’m probably what you’d call “agnostic”… but, I use to be Christian. I don’t think I processed my guilt well either way. Even when I believed whole-heartedly in God, and confessed and prayed away… there just seemed to be too much guilt for even God to deal with. I picture him rolling his eyes every time he saw me kneeling down. ;)

    So, really, I don’t know that I ever really felt truly forgiven or “guilt-free”. Somehow, I don’t think I’m alone here. I gotta think there are many Christians that want to believe they are forgiven, but have a hard time really really believing that. I think, there are many good Christians that still question whether they will make it into heaven, even. Then again, maybe it’s just me.

    I guess I’ll go have a glass of wine (that’s always a good way to start dealing with it), and hit the sack!

    =)

    ~smj

  • Arium

    I know I'm late to the game, but I wish to contribute because many of the other atheist respondants seem to have worked from a definition of "guilt" differing from my interpretation of your meaning. I assume that by "guilt" you mean pangs of pain that emanate from what is called the "conscience."

    For the record, I rejected my Catholic upbringing at 17, and became atheist at 19. I am now 43. I have vague recollections of what it was like to be Christian.

    (My understanding of conscience is influenced by Robert Wright's book The Moral Animal.") I don't believe the conscience is some Magic Moral Compass that points us toward the straight and narrow. I agree with Wright that the conscience evolved as a mechanism to foster reciprocal altruism. I recognize that the intensity of feelings of guilt and the actions that trigger guilt differ from person to person.

    When I feel pangs of guilt, I first consider whether my intellect is in agreement with my emotions that I have done or are considering doing something inappropriate. If I intellectually determine my action is nothing to feel guilty about (as an example, I see nothing wrong with taking that last slice of pizza (see #86) if I haven't already had my share, but I may still feel some guilt over the action) then I do my best to ignore the feeling. If I determine the guilt is warranted, then I act as others have described above (strive to do better, possibly apologize, etc.).

    (Originally I was going to use "questioning authority" as an example of an action that triggers guilt in me, but since this action triggers a "fight or flight" response, perhaps the feeling is "fear," rather than guilt. Assuming there is a distinction to be made between the two.)

    Another topic that has been addressed only minimally is rationalization. I don't know whether atheists are more or less likely to rationalize behavior than are Christians, but I am certain it is quite common in both populations. (Above I rationalized breaking with a social norm based on my perceived fair share, and some Christians rationalize persecution of homosexuals based on Leviticus, to give but two examples.)

    This effort to engage in non-judgemental dialog is quite refreshing, in that in my experience this is not the norm in cyberspace.

  • Philipp Griewank

    Hello,

    i didn't read all the posts, but i still wanted to answer because i read your article and was happy to find an honest question and not a badly vieled attempt to prove the other side wrong. I won't go into deep into the definitions of guilt and just try to briefly show hoe i handle things

    So here i go: (note: i consider myself a atheist, age 23 )

    Beginning of Scenario, i feel pangs of consiense or guilt. First step is to analyze with some logic if it was indeed a "bad" thing. If yes, and if possible i try to make ammends and/or promise to do better next time ( just as you nicely wrote in your article ). Many things however can not be amended and many situations lead to ineventable "guilt". So what i do is admit i screwed up, and also admit to myself that i do not/did not fulfill my own standards in some ways. Next step is either to readjust the standards, or to just digest it.

    So far, i would say we pretty much are on the exact same level.

    Now things start to split: I continue my life knowing that am "guilty" of some things and thats what i did and who i am. I don't expect everthing i did wrong to be forgiven or cleansed is some kind of way. Sure, some things can be repaid, other things can't. That's life, thats the consequence of your actions, and things have so far worked out.

    I don't mean to attack you here, but just an add what strikes me as stange in faith.

    I find the notion that if i wrong Joe ( name chossen at random ), somebody other than Joe can give me forgiveness or lessen the guilt strange.

    anyway, hope that was what you were asking for, bye

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Nice comment, Phil. Very thoughtful and intelligent. Thanks for it.

    For the record, or whatever, Christians don't SUBSTITUTE the forgiveness of God for the more practical, down-to-earth dynamic wherein they do what they can to get forgiven by the actual person they wronged. That's a given: We ALL must do what we can to make amends to anyone we've wronged. The difference between non-Christians and Christians is that a Christian ALSO, in private, turns to God–or, more specifically, to Christ, whom he or she understands as the very spirit of humanity–and asks for the strength and wisdom not to AGAIN offend in that way. And asks to be forgiven not just relatively (as he or she was relative to the person they offended), but also, even, absolutely, via God.

  • http://savemenot.wordpress.com samanthamj

    " a Christian ALSO, in private, turns to God–or, more specifically, to Christ, whom he or she understands as the very spirit of humanity–and asks for the strength and wisdom not to AGAIN offend in that way."

    I hope you were not implying that only Christians seek to not offend again. Because while I (or any atheist and most agnostics, etc) do NOT turn to God for this – I DO try to understand the nature of whatever mistake was made and learn from it, in the same attempt to gain wisdom and NOT AGAIN repeat it. The only difference is you are seeking a divine power to help out with this… where as I am seeking inner strength and general understanding.

    Sounds like to me that we both (believers and non-believers) seek the same results… and often get them… and sometimes… do not.

    ~smj

  • http://savemenot.wordpress.com samanthamj

    oops… please excuse the many typos above…

    must

    have

    coffee!

    =)

    ~smj

  • http://www.myspace.com/the502 The 502

    “And you, atheist, surely suffer guilt as I did.”

    Actually, no.

    After reading this, I had to give ‘guilt’ some serious thought. To tell the truth, I don’t feel guilt.

    I live my life the best I can and try to make the best choices possible. When I realize that I haven’t made the best choice, I learn from it. If I have negatively affected someone else as a consequence of a bad choice, I apologize and explain my rationale. I seriously don’t know how I could feel guilty for doing what I thought, at the time, was the best choice.

    Guilt is an interpretation of an emotional response. This is no different than jealousy, depression, and hate. The fact is that we feel hurt, sad, or angry, respectively. How we act based on these responses leads to a state of mind. Yes, I feel hurt if cheated on, but I don’t experience jealousy. I am angry is someone takes advantage of me, but I don’t experience hate. I’ve always been very analytical (which led to love of rationality and logic), and I know that these negative states of mind are unproductive, and mostly a personal hinderance. Because of that, I react differently to situations than others do.

    I hope that sheds some light on how some of us approach life’s experiences and the feelings that they produce.

    The 502

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  • Craig

    I would also like to make a point of, (no i havn't read posts past 29) that you can't say that certain people are just "Christian" as a generalization to all "Christian" faiths such as prodestant, methodest, etc. I once had a girl friend who broke up with me just because i was athiest and she happened to attend a non-demoninational christen church, which seems very demoninational to me. I was catholic at the time, and it seemed weird to me because of my presumption that all "christians" were just "christians". So to simplify my point, saying that your christian or that some one else is christian has no meaning to me, because of the many definitions of christianity. I would just like a definiton of your point of views so i can understand your statement more fully.

  • dave

    well not really caring about religion as a whole, i was brought up christian. but have since just not cared. it seems that everything we do in the eyes of religion is a sin. we are born with sin and even when we die its a sin. how messed up is that. sure i may be only 29, but believe me i have done a lot of “grown-up” things in my short life. i had sex way before i was married, cursed at my parents growing up, vandalized property, disobeyed probably most of the commandments. yet some how i have been married for 10 years, have a successful job and a happy family. my kids are some of the brightest in their class and are well above their respected grade level ( i have 3 kids by the way). i threw out the idea of religion when i was taking some college courses and took anthropology. wow did that just make sense…and there was something to back it up. sure we dont have the missing link to show us we came from monkeys but whatever. christians for example have a bible…but so does most every religion, and in some way or another they are almost the same…except for the author. and whats with the king james version…different versions of the same thing? its like 3 toddlers explaining what happened to the light in the livingroom. i realize im not the most creative writer among these postings but i dont really care. ive done many “bad” things in my life which im not proud of, cheating and she doesnt know, stealing from work which they dont know, the list goes on. so i have a lot of guilt, right? not really. sure i feel bad sometimes for what i do or have done, but maybe im just mental but all in all i just dont really think about it, i just do it. no remorse and no worry about consequences. I JUST DONT CARE. my guilt just goes away if i wrong someone i say oops sorry, your a big boy or girl, get over it. i dont pass the buck to my savior or whatever, i have better things to do in my life, like play golf on sundays, or hang out at gay bars with my friends ( im not gay btw). people are people, we do not have a set of rules programmed in us and our life is not predetermined….NO DESTINY!! we make choices good or bad for one reason or another…its that simple. when we die we are burried and bugs eat us. circle of life. we dont come back as a bird or an ant, or as someone else. im usually a pretty good person, i pick up a cute hitchhiker cuz she drunk…take her home safe, give someone money at the gas station cuz they dont have enough to fill their tank. i dont give to the homeless, they just need to go take a shower and apply at mcdonalds until they get on their feet. stop wanting my hard earned money…its mine. you want it you work for it….i need a new fence put up in my backyard. i will pay “immigrant” wages for you to do it. lol. anyway thats my 2 cents. like it or leave it. doesnt matter to me either way. i love my life, my family and my destructive ways of living it no matter what others say or do. its my life not yours. SO GET OVER IT!

    dave

    seattle, wa

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Dave: nice look at your life and mentality. Sounds great! Not sure what the burst of hostility at the end was all about, though…

  • david

    just got carried away i guess sorry sometimes i just get on a roll and things just end up typing themself

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Ah. Welcome to my life, then. You’re a writer!

  • Lindy

    Hi I suppose I'm an agnostic. When I was much younger(I'M 51 now) I had the strangest experience. It was on Easter am. It sounded as though angels were singing and then I was filled with the most incredible feeling as though I was part of everything and everything was part of me. It was a very moving and spiritual experience. All through my life I have known people who say they are Christians, who go to church and then do the worst things or talk behind others backs. An ex boyfriend met this girl and she converted him. Everything was "god" this and "god" that . Well she ended up really hurting him and their 3 children by having affairs. I've just seen too many people commit sins then think they can wipe the slate clean by confessing. How about never doing the sin in the first place. Conducting your life with honor and grace? Often metal illness erupts in delusions of Christ and have you seen those people who twirl with rattle snakes because they believe it says so in the bible? How about those people who take the bible literally and tell a person they can or can't do something because of something that was written in a 2000 year old book. Jesus reminds me of a cult leader. I do not believe he did all those miraculous things. I think it's silly to still worship a man who died so long ago. Our minds are what should be worshiped. We are so capable and so gifted. See what we have accomplished in this world since the bible was penned. We only use a small portion of our brain. We are capable of great things yet to be seen.Idispel my guilt by talking with myself and reolving not to do the thing that has caused me to feel uncomfortable again.I rarely have to do this as I run my life in a pretty upstanding manner.If I fub up with the kids or something I just feel that it's a human mistake and I resolve to try harder. I certainly do not need to ask Jesus or God for forgiveness that is just a silly notion to me. Ahigher power to me is a huge brain our brain. It's like electricity. When we die the electricity is still there just not in this body. I am rambling

    Lindy

  • Lindy

    By the way, I’m a Psch nurse and that guy above me, Dave, sounds as if he is sociopathic. That would allow him to cheat on his wife, steal and have no remorse. He isn’t a strong character because he has no guilt he is just one with a mental illness. My bet is that he has a father with alcoholism or has it himself.

  • Lindy

    Also wanted to add that research has been done into what I described as my being at one with the universe. Scientists have been able to duplicate that “God” experience in the lab using a helmet.It could be decreased activity in the brain’s parietal lobe,which helps regulate the sense of self and physical orientation.Religion prompts divine feelings of love and compassion possibly because of changes in the frontal lobe caused by heightened concentration during meditation.The brain is set up in such a way to have spiritual and religious experiences. The brain is predisposed to having these experiences and that’s why so many people believe in God. Believers are offended by the notion that God is a creation of the human brain, rather than the other way around.Researchers have taken brain scans of Tibetan Buddhist mediators as they sat immersed in contemplation. After giving them time to sink into a deep trance, they injected them with a radioactive dye. Pattern of the dye’s residues in the brain were later converted to images. Certain areas of the brain were altered during meditation. These areas included the front of the brain that were altered during deep concentration. but found decreased activity in paietal lobe, one of the parts of the brain that helps orient a person in 3 demensional space.. When people have spiritual experiences they feel they become one with the universe and lose their sense of self. Possibly because of what is happening in that area-if you block thAT AREA YOU LOSE THAT BOUNDARY BETWEEN THE SELF AND THE REST OF THE WORLD. rELIGIOUS EXPERiences follow epileptic seisures.Could Jesus’s conversations with God have been a mental delusion?4 in 5 people report a mystical experience, the feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or near them.Some talk God, others talk of demons or spirits.Religion is a property of the brain, only the brain has little to do with what’s out there. Those who believe the new science disproves the existence of God say they are holding up a mirror to society about the destructive power of religion. Religious wars, fanaticisim andintolerance spring from dogmatic beliefs that particular gods and faiths are unique, rather than facets of iniversal brain chemistry.It truly is irrational and dangerous when we see how religiosity affects us. During times of prosperity we are contented. During times of depression, we go to war. When there isn’t enough food to around , we break into our spiritual tribes and use aor gods as justifications to kill one another.So I am not thrilled with religion or with the hypocritical people that swarm around me. My friend who belongs to a bible study class but will buy thing, wear them then take them bacj to the store , tell them she’s never worn them and gets her money back and has her 17 yr old daughter do this as well. She also has a boyfriend and she is married. She justifys this by the fact that her husband goes to bed at 800 pm and doesn’t give her any attention. She is always telling me the Lord will take care of this and that. It’s nauseating.

  • erin

    What happens when you do something that you can’t get forgiveness for?

    My husband committed suicide three years, four months, and 14 days ago. He needed me, and I wasn’t there. I was too wounded, I was masking it, I pushed him away and he couldn’t hold on. I left him at the precise moment he needed me the most.

    He is gone, forever gone. I’ll never see him, we’ll never speak, I can never say I’m sorry. He can never forgive me. I will live with it forever.

    I asked God to forgive me, so I guess he did, right? Great. Honestly. But in this lifetime, I don’t imagine I’ll ever feel any better for knowing that. I can’t go back and change things. I did not do everything I could have done. I am guilty, trust me on this one. I can’t forgive myself. That’s what guilt is right? So, really there is no way to process it.

  • http://skerrib.blogspot.com Skerrib

    I’m not sure I can tell you anything to make you feel better. Are you responsible for your husband’s suicide? No–that was his choice and his choice alone. Were there things you could’ve done better to be there for him, etc? Maybe–you say yes, so I’ll defer to you. Is God’s forgiveness big enough to cover whatever your sin was in that situation? Absolutely.

    The question you seem to be asking, though, is how to not feel so terrible about it anymore, or how to ‘feel’ forgiven. And regardless of all the subtleties and interactions within that relationship, your husband’s death is a terrible and hurtful situation, and I’m sad with you about it. I can’t imagine the hurt you feel at your loss. Unfortunately, the ‘feeling better’ is so subjective there isn’t any one thing I can tell you to make it better. As a Christian I would encourage you to talk to God about it…and be brutally honest with him. He can handle your strongest words and emotions–he’s big that way. I would also encourage you to get some help ‘somewhere’…because you can’t heal in a vacuum. That could be therapy, or a GOOD church/support group, or close friends…but again as a Christian I caution you to be careful who you listen to. Anyone who piles on more guilt or says you need to ‘do’ something to somehow absolve your guilt is not speaking from God or the Bible. At the same time, anyone who dismisses your feelings and/or gives you empty platitudes in hope that you’ll say “Oh! Thanks! I’m fixed now” is just as wrong. Find a place that speaks of grace, healing, and protection…someplace you can dig into your deepest feelings and feel safe, because healing is painful and usually takes a while. You can’t do it if you don’t feel safe. I’m lucky to have a home church that offers all sorts of support to people with various ‘issues,’ and I have had lots of help in general in the form of therapy, friends, etc. I know the help is out there, because I’ve received so much of it.

    I should probably qualify this since it’s on an atheist-related post…and I say this with respect. If you are an atheist, or you are thinking long and hard about whether or not God exists amidst your profound pain, one option is to decide that he doesn’t. You did something you regret, we’re not perfect, and certainly no one’s going to condemn you for not being perfect, and maybe that can give you the comfort you need to ‘move on’ with life. Which is certainly your prerogative…but even if that is the case, you’re still hurting, and I still encourage you to find someplace to help you work out your hurt. Therapy, a support group, friends, etc…pretty much everything I said before but in this instance you wouldn’t need to look for ‘Christian’ anything.

    Obviously since I’m a Christian I vote for the former–I feel that not only does God exist and wants to help you through this, he wants to know you, and for you to heal and be able to live your life without a constant oppressive guilt-feeling. And please understand, I’m not just giving religious lip service–I really. do. believe. that is the case.

    Regardless of the path you take, I hope you are able to work through your hurt somehow and come out alive, functional, and healed on the other end.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Erin: Please go to the front page of this blog–to today’s post, which I just put up–to see my response to your very touching letter.

  • togeika

    John Wrote:

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    amends to anyone we’ve wronged. The difference between non-Christians and Christians is that a Christian ALSO, in private, turns to God–or, more specifically, to Christ, whom he or she understands as the very spirit of humanity–and asks for the strength and wisdom not to AGAIN offend in that way. And asks to be forgiven not just relatively (as he or she was relative to the person they offended), but also, even, absolutely, via God.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    John, you didn’t reply to my last comment, where I corrected you about repentance in Buddhism. (I have been a practicing Buddhist for 28 years now.)

    You bring up another fallacy. Christians are not alone in receiving and absolute power in private, asking for the guidance of compassion and wisdom. We have a multitude of Ultimate personages to commune with, each focusing on specific areas where you may need help. Something like Catholic Saints, which protestants don’t recognzie.

    My Tibetan teacher gave me a personal guide, Green Tara. We met the year before and for a whole year, he carried two small bronze figurines for my wife and I and presented them to us a year later. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tara_(Buddhism) She is known as the Buddha of enlightened activity.

    We have prayers for wisdom and prayers for compassion, depending are what you might need to strengthen at that moment in time. Manjusuri is the wisdom factor while Avaloketisvara is the compassionate aspect.

    What Buddhist recognize, is that any conceptualization we have of the Ultimate is limited, because our finite minds cannot hold the infinite nature of God. Therefor, the way we depict God, is filtered through our limited perceptions. This is why Buddhist cannot USE God as a weapon against others. We can only be USED by her.

  • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

    Tog: Sorry, don’t know what comment you’re referring to–which one you left before somewhere that I didn’t reply to.

    If it’s any help, in this blog SOMEWHERE, to someone saying something about Buddhism, I replied this:

    “…. And I certainly do agree with you that Christianity and Buddhism are not incompatible. I’m a huge fan of Zen Buddhism, which I practiced and studied for many years.”

  • Fred Hedgecoth

    Hello people,

    I have to confess (no pun intended) that I haven’t read all the comments on this article so I may be redundant…if so please forgive (oops! there I go again). My observation here (with acknowledgment to CS Lewis) is that everyone, atheist, deist, Christian, whatever, seems to be operating on the unstated agreement that we share some basic notions of right and wrong, at least in the broadest terms. Without an admission that there is a standard of right and wrong by which we judge the actions, thoughts, intents, of ourselves and others we can hardly be expected to experience guilt or the desire for forgiveness because we would hold ourselves AND EVERYONE ELSE blameless by default. Saying to ourselves “I forgive me because nobody’s perfect and I’m gonna try harder to be good” forces us to extend that privilege to everyone else as well regardless of what they have done to us personally or to mankind as a whole. Part of the equation has to be how we respond when WE are the injured party. When wronged (in whatever way we define it) most of us have some desire to see justice prevail; otherwise we’d never complain that something was unfair or just plain wrong. We want the guilty party to make it right. Resolved guilt then results when the offended party receives satisfaction for a very real offense against him or her and releases the offender from all present or future liability. The atheist, living as he must in his world where ALL morality, ethics and definition of right and wrong ultimately resolves down to personal preference and majority rule can never truly resolve or be resolved of his guilt because he will not or cannot acknowledge a moral law OUTSIDE and APART from himself that tells him he has done wrong or that wrong has been done to him because then he must grapple with the question of where this moral law comes from, what does this law demand, who is the lawgiver and what authority does that law/lawgiver have over him in the first place. The question to me then boils down to “Is there actually Someone in the place of authority over us and within his right to hold us to a standard of morality and is this Someone offended when we deliberately violate that standard?” Whether we BELIEVE in this Someone or not does not affect the reality of the Someone’s existence or moral authority over us one whit. The experience of guilt familiar each one of us tells me that the answer to that questiojn is very much YES.

  • Steve

    We feel guilty because there’s a problem in our relationship with other people. We did something our friends, coworkers, loved ones, or the police wouldn’t approve of. What we did might have made their lives a little more difficult, or we have to keep our misdeeds secret from them, or both. Those things rightly make us feel stressed. When we confess to them, and they forgive us, we know they’re still okay with us, and our relationship is stable and cozy again. Maintaining stable relationships was vital to our ancestors, probably all the way back to the dinosaurs. So it’s reasonable that having an, honest, open, strong relationship is deeply satisfying in the same way that eating and breathing are.

    In the case of an atheist, apparently she can live comfortably in a community of mortals. We don’t need an ultimate person. At least, that’s the situation happy atheists are in. God help the ones with crappy relationships and no one to turn to.

    For guilt about personal failures, which don’t affect other people, I’d say there’s no such thing. If I lived alone on an island, with no hope of ever helping or impressing another person, I’d never experience guilt.

  • boegil

    Hello….

    I'm an atheist

    I don't believe the existence of god

    The only way to retrieve myself of guilt or to absolve my soul of sins, I search within myself.

    There is peace in every man's heart. There is conscience. You don't need religion to tell you that….

    Thanks.

    fuseart@yahoo.com

    • http://www.johnshore.wordpress.com John Shore

      boegil: I agree with you: no one needs God to realize they have a conscience.

  • Danneskjold

    That’s a very good question. I suppose that I handle guilt through a combination of introspection and decided action. I understand that guilt is the manifestation of my unconscious believing that I’ve done bad. I know that my subconscious mind is not inherently right or wrong; it is simply a quilt of ideas – some ideas being innate, others learned. Knowing this, I try to identify what it is that I’m feeling guilty about. Often, I have been influenced to believe that i’ve done evil even when I haven’t (the perfect example of this is the pangs I’ve felt for having left Christianity). If I can idenifity what outside of me has caused this unsubstantiated guilt, I try to submlime it to anger, instead, and then go for a jog to get the frustration out. If I have indeed done something wrong, I usually have subconsciously catastrophized my misdeed. I remind myself of the mitigating factors that led to my mistake and how what I’ve done is not the end of the world. Then, I decide how I can do better in the future and/or what action I can take to remedy any damages I’ve caused. After admitting that I’ve made a mistake and deciding to take corrective action, the guilt disappears.

  • Charles Grodsky

    When I make a mistake, I simply realize that no one is perfect. It doesn’t surprise me when I make a mistake. I try to learn from the mistake. I show myself compassion. Although I make mistakes, I am wonderful.


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