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What We Can Learn from a Conversation with an Atheist on Shame

Aaron Brown

“What a shame.”

We hear that sometimes from the people around us. They direct this statement towards politicians, family members, strangers, and at times, to us. If we’re being truthful, sometimes we say this ourselves. Shame, however easy to cast upon others, is something no one desires to hold.

What Is Shame?

Shame is an emotional weight that leaves us feeling wrong and insignificant. Shame takes away purpose and leads us to believe that we’re better off hidden away from society than in it. Unsurprisingly, shame operates in contrast to God’s love for us.

“For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.” (Psalm 149:4)

If God delights in us, why would we not delight in ourselves? Why would we not delight in others?

The answer may seem obvious. We sin, and in our sin, we become disconnected from God, disgusted with ourselves, and disgusted with others. Yet how many examples do we receive from the Bible of people who did wrong, but God still loved. Moses committed murder, Solomon gave in to sexual immorality, and Paul once killed Christians. Did they dwell in shame for their wrongdoings?

When we cast shame on others, we do so because we feel like they should know better. A man should feel ashamed for beating his wife. A mother should be ashamed for abandoning her child. A president should be ashamed of inhumane policies.

What should we feel shame about? The answer may not seem so obvious.

The truth is, we all sin. Each of us has fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Therefore, we all have reasons to feel shame. We all know the right decision to make, and still sometimes choose the opposite (James 4:17). That is sin.

Still, God chooses to delight in us.

The topic of shame is not unfamiliar to those of the Christian faith. Nor is it unfamiliar to those outside of the faith. Shame is a human experience.

Recently, I reached out to a fellow writer and university graduate for his thoughts on the topic. Richard Jennis is among many things a talented author who focuses on issues related to the LGBTQ community. He is a Jewish-born atheist, though at one point in time was also a believer. Needless to say, the many experiences of life have left Richard with a wealth of thoughts and wisdom. He was kind enough to share those thoughts on shame. Here’s what our conversation looked like.

A Conversation with an Atheist on Shame

What is shame?

Shame is a feeling of guilt and humiliation, brought about by the idea that we have failed or done wrong. 

What’s wrong with shame?

Shame isn’t always bad. It’s more that it has some unhealthy applications. People are often taught to be ashamed of things beyond their control, or things that don’t warrant shame. Shame has also been shown to be an ineffective means of promoting change. 

How do you respond to shame?

I try to analyze my feelings of shame and determine whether they’re appropriate. I was taught growing up that alcoholism and premarital sexual activity were shameful. Letting go of these harsh judgments made me more sympathetic toward people struggling with substance dependency issues, and more willing to let people make their own choices. It also allowed me to see that addiction is an illness, not a choice.

Where do you see shame in the concept of religion?

Religion is based on the idea of worthiness. In many world religions, there are varying afterlives depending on whether one has behaved decently or poorly. As a result, believers feel ashamed when they think they aren’t being worthy.

And more specifically Christianity?

I see shame in the diagnosis of sin and in the idea of pure personal accountability. I am more concerned with why people don’t behave in healthy ways than establishing that they’ve sinned. I think if Christianity constantly diagnoses sin as something willfully committed exclusively by the individual, believers are going to feel personally ashamed, instead of understanding the role their environment and mindset played in their actions.

What kinds of people do you think experience shame within Christianity?

I think Christian children experience the most shame. I’ve heard a lot of stories of Christians who grew up feeling like they couldn’t discuss certain topics with their parents or elders because they were too ashamed to admit to their feelings or wanted to avoid judgment. Others felt like no matter how hard they tried, they could never be as good a Christian as they wanted to be.

What have Christians told you about shame?

A lot of my Christian friends struggled with shame growing up. Some left the religion on account of it, others continued on. They shared that they often felt guilty over not praying hard enough if their prayers didn’t yield any answers. Other times, they would feel ashamed of impure thoughts, question whether their actions were pure, or feel like God was judging them for something they had said, thought, or done. For some of my friends, their religious beliefs caused a lot of debilitating guilt and constant self-questioning.

Are there Christians who promote shame? How do you respond to them?

Many Christians promote shame, though to varying degrees. In response, I remind people not to shame themselves or others over the things they had limited or no control over, the mistakes they made when they had no guidance to make better ones, or the unhealthy actions they took when they were too unwell to think clearly. I encourage people to be forgiving. 

How would you respond to a Christian who says that Christianity is not about shame?

I see their point. Christianity is largely about forgiveness, and that alleviates shame. I still think a lot of shame comes out of Christianity as a set of ideas and beliefs though. LGBTQ Christians who have attractions and gender identities they have never and will never be able to control are taught this was somehow a lifestyle choice, and one that God doesn’t approve of. Hormonal children grow up thinking that there’s something wrong with them when they experience natural sexual thoughts or urges. People of all ages can feel like they have failed to properly honor God with their actions or thoughts, so much so that there is a subsection of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) devoted specifically to intrusive religious thoughts and rituals.

How can religion eradicate shame?

Religion should make room for environmental factors and biology. The overdiagnosis of choice and individual will in Christianity is a huge part of shame. I believe that religion spends too much time establishing what is moral and immoral, and punishing immoral people in the afterlife. This is like watching a forest slowly rotting and cutting down the unhealthy trees one by one, instead of figuring out why they keep rotting in the first place. We are addressing unhealthy people after they have become unhealthy. Let’s look for the root causes of their unhealthiness and address that.

What do you think of the following verses from Scripture?

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

I like the idea of confessing our wrongdoing. It’s important to admit when we’ve hurt others. Still, I don’t think it’s up to a higher power to forgive us or to cleanse us. I am wary of depending on the Church or prayer for forgiveness. Forgiveness is much more about looking in ourselves and looking to the people we’ve wronged. Ultimately, we have to decide if we’ve made amends, and the people we’ve wronged get to decide if they forgive us. 

“Keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)

I interpret this passage to mean that Jesus despised but ultimately allowed the shame of the angry mob that crucified him, in order to stand for his convictions peacefully. I believe that Jesus was a real person, even if I don’t believe he was the son of God. His legacy of peace and non-violence is a worthy one, just as it was with Martin Luther King Jr. 

“For the Scripture says, everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 10:11)

My interpretation of this passage is that believers will not be put to shame, in other words, turned away, by God. I don’t see this as a matter of their living without shame, I interpret it to mean that God will not turn them away from his Kingdom as long as they are believers. I think that a fair God would not decide who is turned away or accepted based on belief alone, but rather based on peoples’ actions and character.

Approaching Shame as a Christian

Wherever we find ourselves on the topic of shame, let this conversation be food for thought as we further our relationship with Christ. Let this also be a reminder that as the Bible indicates, we are to live our lives as Christians in every aspect.

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

This truth also applies to how we talk and carry ourselves, whether in public or private. We are under observation at home, at work, and at the grocery store. People see us, and every time they see us is an opportunity to model Christ. While some may naturally make statements like, “What a shame,” these words can have a serious impact on the listener. A question to ponder is, why cast shame if we ourselves don’t want to feel it?

As Christians, we have to be mindful that other believers and even nonbelievers will look to us and gauge how we respond and act. Instinctively, they are going to compare us to the teachings we follow. In essence, they want to know if we practice what we preach. Let us, therefore, be mindful of our character, seeking to honor God always. And by doing so, we will also improve our ability to honor others.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/PrathanChorruangsak


headshot of author Aaron BrownAaron Brown is a freelance writer, dance teacher, and visual artist. He currently contributes articles to GodUpdates, GodTube, iBelieve, and Crosswalk. Aaron also supports clients through the freelance platform Upwork.