An Honest Question: Atheists, How Do You Process Your Guilt?
- 2007 Sep 13
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's not 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.
Respond below, or here.