I received an email that asked me to address the issue of guilt. Why do we feel guilty when questioning or rejecting religion, especially when children are involved? This person lives in Utah and is part of the LDS tradition. I know that many of you can relate to this topic, so I encourage any suggestions or feedback you have. How can we overcome guilt? Why do we feel this way?
Most religions, especially Christian-based, tell us that we are dirty, sinful things. For those of us born into religion, we are inculcated from our first breath with what our parents and their parents have learned. God is good. His children are bad. Jesus saved us (sort of) from the choices Adam and Eve made (but we really didn’t deserve to be saved anyway). We are told over and over and over again that we are unworthy, that our desires make us bad boys or bad girls. We learn to feel guilty as soon as we have awareness.
We’re asked to believe these religious tales without any basis of fact. If god, Jesus or any other character in the bible were on trial, they’d be dismissed for lack of evidence. Religion is exempt from questioning. For someone brainwashed and immersed in a religious way of life, it’s normal to believe in magic and the supernatural. It’s normal to accept and believe in some implausible stories (God, Satan) while rejecting other unbelievable stories (Santa, Casper).
Why do we feel guilty when we admit that religion doesn’t make sense? It’s definitely not because we’ve done anything wrong; on the contrary, we’ve done exactly what we are supposed to do in questioning the things that are outrageous and illogical.
Another reason we feel bad is that we have to reject the teachings of our parents, whom we were taught to obey and respect (honor thy father and mother), and we know this disappoints them. We have let down our family, our friends and our religious neighbors. We worry what others will think. No matter our age, we are approval-seeking creatures.
I felt bad when my kids were little because I wasn’t taking them to church, as my mother had taken me, as her mother had taken her. Instead, I chose for my kids what they would do on Sundays–and that didn’t include god. I knew that if I didn’t take them when they were little, I’d miss that window of opportunity to make them believe in things that rational adults would never believe in. But then I started thinking about it: Our parents chose for us, too, by taking us to church. They chose to indoctrinate us. I was worried that my kids “would miss out on something,” that they wouldn’t fit in, that they would resent me for raising them differently, but what they were missing out on was a big dose of brainwashing that would make them believe they are shameful creatures who needed the approval of a man they couldn’t even see, hear, feel or touch. They would miss out on feeling “loved” by a God who doesn’t show love. Why should I feel bad about doing what I thought was best for my kids? My choices made sense for me and didn’t hurt anyone.
Guilt is not necessarily bad, having served an evolutionary purpose—it was a mechanism that encouraged us to play nice, to make choices that were good, not just for us, but for the group. When we yell at our kids, we feel guilty because we know that we lost our cool, that we are scaring our kids. But guilt too easily attaches to places where it doesn’t belong, and it’s sticky and difficult to remove. We feel bad when we think that we haven’t done enough for our children—when we’ve done plenty. We feel guilty when we have to place an ill parent into a nursing home—when we couldn’t possibly care for him at home. We feel guilty for not volunteering enough—when we have so little time left to care for ourselves. The list is long, and there’s not much rationale behind our feelings, only that there was some standard we had set for ourselves, and we didn’t meet it. Then we worry what others will think or feel (most of the time, though, they haven’t even thought about it).
Perhaps the best way to remove guilt that has no business in our brains is to recognize it for what is it: harmful, useless, shackles. It’s a good idea to ask why we feel bad. Who or what was hurt? Are we just afraid that we will let a parent down or that a friend will be disappointed in us? Are we afraid that, if we let go of our belief, god will smite us? If so, look at all the people who don’t believe or who believe in a different god. They’re all still here. They’re healthy and happy and Satan-free. One of the most freeing experiences, actually, is to let go of religion and fear of retribution from god. Perhaps it’s scary to think you’ll be “on your own” without a safety net, but, in life, there really aren’t any safety nets. The closest you’ll have is the network of people around you.
So if you don’t want to go to church with your parents on Sunday, say “no thanks” and let go. Don’t think about it again—life is way too short to spend any of it feeling guilty about letting others down. You were polite; you did the best thing for you and your kids. As parents, we don’t want to teach our children how to feel guilty, to say “yes” just to please others. If we’re doing the best we can, trying to harm no one and just live a good life, it doesn’t matter if we believe in an invisible deity. Super-heroes and stories of super-human feats are great for entertainment, but they don’t save us, they don’t keep us safe and they don’t have a place in our lives outside the movie theater.