“He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.” (Lev 16:21-22)
When I was a young atheist one of the emotions that I was most suspicious of was guilt. I think that on some deep, visceral level I sensed that there is a huge destructive capacity latent in the human ability to feel bad about things that we’ve done in the past. Since I didn’t have a religion, and I subscribed to an existentialist philosophy that placed supreme moral responsibility on the individual, there wasn’t really a way of expiating these feelings. I believed very strongly in the goodness of regret (which I defined as a rational acknowledgment of having done something wrong, coupled with a determination to try to do better in the future.) I believed in taking responsibility for my own mistakes, apologizing for them when appropriate, and making amends if possible. But guilt seemed to be something stronger and more perilous than that.
It’s something that I’ve continued to grapple with as a Catholic. Basically, my atheistic intuitions about guilt seem to be more or less accurate: if I’ve done something that I regret, even if I’ve said sorry, and have done my best to fix the situation, and have made a sincere resolution to do better in the future, there is still a residual negative feeling. On some level I’m aware that all of my best attempts to make things better are insufficient. There are consequences that linger and that I cannot take away.
While it’s true that feeling bad about residual guilt is not productive, merely trying to repress guilt feelings is also unhealthy. My own attempts to completely eradicate guilt from my psyche never actually resulted in a release from feelings of inadequacy, they just pushed those feelings deeper into myself. I felt momentarily liberated, and then quickly found myself labouring under the weight of a thick, inscrutable cloud of existential dread.Ritual atonement is a way of expiating the guilt that haunts us after we have made amends for our sins. In the modern world, we tend to have a pretty negative view of this practice. Scapegoating, as we see it, is a way of escaping from our own responsibilities by offloading them on to others. We take our feelings of guilt and we project them onto some other person or group of people. So, for example, the vilification of poor urban black communities serves as a way for poor rural white communities to offload their fear that they have brought about their own poverty through sloth or profligacy. The demonization of LGBTQ people allows Christian communities to do away with feelings of guilt over widespread divorce, pornography and other sexual sins. Contempt for the Christian Right allows liberals to expiate their own responsibility for sins of judgment and intolerance.
In one way or another, the Other becomes an icon of everything that we, ourselves, are doing wrong. In heaping abuse on the heads of those people over there, we are able to feel relief from our own inadequacies.
Ritual scapegoating performed, I think, the precise opposite function. In the ritual the entire community came together and their sins were spoken over the goat before it was driven out into the wilderness. In other words, everyone involved in the ritual had an opportunity to quietly, in communion with everyone else there, admit their own faults. They were also reminded that these faults were common: no particular individual or group of individuals within the community was singled out. Everyone heard their own sins spoken alongside the sins that they had not personally committed. And then all of these sins, together, were driven out into the wilderness.
Image Credit: “The Scapegoat” By William Holman Hunt – Козёл отпущения, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6053842