Guilt and Atheism

28 Sep
Georges Rouault’s “Crucifixion”

Georges Rouault’s “Crucifixion”

I once had an exchange with a good friend of mine (we’ll call him Herschel) about the existence of God. Herschel asserted that the scientific method is the highest and/or only way to come to know things. The supernatural realm can’t be claimed to exist because it can’t be tested. After bantering back and forth for a while, I was surprised when he then turned, looked me in the eye, and said, “Isaac, you don’t have to live with this guilt.”

I was taken aback; it was clear we were no longer debating the existence of God anymore. We were psychoanalyzing me. Typically I require a comfy couch, a pillow, and a wave machine before I allow my friends to play shrink. I asked him what he meant, and he said one of the most freeing things about embracing his newfound atheism was being released from the burdensome guilt he carried around from being a Christian. The implication being that since it’s impossible to live up to the Christian ideal, it’s inevitable that every Christian has no choice but to live in the shame. After all, it’s our own sins nailed Jesus to the cross. This leaves no choice—unless Christians were to stop believing altogether.

I thought for a second, and responded by saying that I actually do know how great it is to live without guilt. In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now. And wouldn’t you know it, I still believe in God. Herschel was operating under a false dichotomy that said to believe in God means to live in guilt, and the only way out was to abandon belief.

Catholics in particular get a bad rap for this. Anyone familiar with the term, “Catholic guilt” has an idea that Catholics tend to “focus” on sin, so to speak, and its consequences more than the average Christian to their own detriment. What I tried to communicate to Herschel was that there’s no reason for even the most sinful Christian to have to be wracked with guilt as he described, and it has nothing to do with lowering standards or manipulating theology. Instead, it has everything to do with love and forgiveness, like any good relationship.

Sure, I sin. All the time. And if all I did was focus on how consistently and convincingly I fall short of Christian perfection, then I would be a sorry sack. Instead, I focus on God and his love and the reason he allowed his son to die on that cross in the first place: not to shame me, but to forgive me. Does that mean I give myself a free pass to sin at will? Absolutely not.  Do I somehow see my sins as less heinous? No. But my sins are nothing compared to that love and goodness. And the fact that he loves me so much, even to die for me, does sound too good to be true. Not because it’s not true. It’s just sometimes we have a hard time believing in things beyond ourselves.

– Isaac Huss

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2 Responses to “Guilt and Atheism”

  1. Matthew Fink September 28, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

    Well said my friend!

  2. rosesnearrunningwaters September 29, 2012 at 9:40 am #

    Great post! Thanks for sharing

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