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.


101 responses to “Guilty

  1. Great food for thought once again.

    I can honestly say that I do not feel at all guilty for having left religion. It was probably one of the most liberating decisions I´ve ever made. Our kids have been raised in a religious laissez-faire. They have been allowed to go along with their classmates and do churchy stuff. At home our religiousness shows little – there are no guillotins..sorry crosses visible and during Xmas time there is nothing religious on display. The main thing is that our kids are never lied to about our stance on deities or religions. They have made their own minds up – my princess in apparently currently pondering how she views things but she talks about the stories they´ve been told at religion classes just as stories. The age of fairies and boogiemen seem to be over 🙂

    I can understand that the guilt is there if religion and faith have played a big part of you life previously – I come from a family of nominal xians (like the majority of my countrymen), whose life touched religiosity only during christenings, weddings and funerals.

  2. Wow, powerful “sermon”, nailed it, thank you!

  3. I like saab93f have never felt guilty. I do sometimes fear some religious folks whom I sometimes feel wish to do me violence when I express my point of view. I could deal with my believing friends and neighbors better if they would read the Constitution, especially the part” about “freedom of speech” and “freedom of religion”. The fun part is when you clearly state this “this is not a religious Country but one that allows religion” including christians, buddhists, methodists, etc. and oh yes atheists.

  4. OH, HELL NO! I don’t feel guilty whatsoever for leaving sorry ass religion behind. You know what I feel guilty for as a parent?
    Circumcising my two little boys before I even left the hospital after their births because cutting off the tip of a penis is what good Jews and Christians do to non consenting, tiny newborn boys!
    Giving my boys Biblical first and second names to both of them.
    Having both of my boys dedicated in two different Southern Baptist Churches.
    Leading them both to Jesus myself at home while they were each just two and a half years old.
    Exposing them to holier than thou, judgmental and morally superior, religious grandparents for a few years.
    Having them read and listen to the most vile, misogynistic, hateful, cruel and violent book of all time, the Bible.
    And last, but not least, being so stupid as to spank them once in a while because that’s how the godly do it.

  5. I was fortunate to have grown up in a house that encouraged lively debate, except sometimes it became cruel and vindictive when unpopular ideas were presented. However, I learned from an early age not to be apologetic or feel guilty for holding a particular view if it was reached using logic and reason. As a result, I suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at the hands of my family when I revealed I was decidedly an atheist. The pressure to renounce my position was nearly as bad as what Galileo faced from the RCC (that may be hyperbole, but not by much). This is part of what led to my near 30-year estrangement from my blood family (and please don’t feel bad for me as I am much better off away from them).

    Do I feel guilt? Yes, but never over religion, having lost religion, thinking god is terrible joke, understanding Abraham was insane, knowing Jesus is a piece of fiction, and seeing Mohammed was a liar. Through atheism I discovered the value of real self-worth as applied to the self, not just as a concept. I find I am worthy simply because I am a human being. It is my job in life to make myself feel more worthy by the acts I do, how well I treat others, how well I mistreat others when they are being a**holes toward me, and basically being the best human I can be. I do not need some imaginary figure to hover over me telling me I am worthless and need supernatural intervention. I started rejecting that when I was 8-years old because I saw how religion worshipped death and not life. Thus, I turn to the bible, 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” God and religion are childish things.

    Leaving behind the make-believe of god and religion freed me from the guilt religion so desperately needs me to consume in order to keep me under the influence. Logic and reason is the sunlight that disinfects me of the mold and mildew religion tries to impose. When we use the term “free thinker” it takes on so many important aspects. One of central facets is freedom from the unnecessary tyrannical guilt of religion. Once it is seen as the tool of mental oppression and the progenitor of ignorance and stupidity, the ability to think in a clear manner allowed me to throw away the mental manacles. I garnered the power to be who I wanted to be and not some preconceived plaything of an imaginary invisible man-child in the sky.

    Without guilt of having given it up, religion has no hold or power over me. Without guilt over the fact there is no god, I no longer have to fear the night that the boogeyman or the devil is out there waiting to get me. Without guilt that I must conform as those around me have done, I am allowed to pursue my intellectual interests without reservation. Without guilt, I am free.

    • @Derrick: Very nicely and powerfully put. This echoes well with the previous topic on morality without deities. I am not ashamed of saying that an unbeliever’s morals are stronger than those who require a watchful God to lead a decent life.

    • Derrick — Loved your comment and your insights. The Corinthians 13:11 quote is really ironic. I remember reading that as a kid: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” God and religion are childish things.”

      I don’t feel bad for you–I know you’re in a better place.

  6. I don’t feel guilt about leaving the church. Like saab93f, I feel liberated. Psychologist and historian, Steven Pinker, writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, that humans have over time civilized themselves by various means such as religion, philosophy, marriage, temperance movements, rights movements, and even through manners. He mentions how these efforts teach people to be less violence and more empathetic. However, when the lessons take, people begin to chafe under the authoritarian rule that imposed them in the first place. For example, the rigid family structure imposed by patriarchal societies for the sake of consolidating and passing on wealth also had the benefit of improving infant mortality and reducing male on male violence. In the modern age we have a legal and financial infrastructure that protects our wealth and thus modern people don’t feel compelled to marry to attain financial security. In the same way, I think many religions have run their course. Many of them were intended (at least in part) to civilize people (teach them how to get along without constantly killing each other). But that lesson has been learned and now people can be civilized without the fear of punishment in the afterlife. Evolutionary biologist and atheist poster-boy, Richard Dawkins, says that religion had an evolutionary purpose in helping humans cope with the stress of survival in difficult conditions and to cope with the fear of the unknown. But, like Pinker, Dawkins believes that humans have outgrown the need for religion. We shouldn’t feel guilty about putting aside our teddy bears and favorite blankies when we grow old enough to sleep without them.

    • @Patti No more binkies? 😉 Great comment. I wanted to read Pinker’s book, but I did read Jonah Goldberg’s column about it. In prehistoric times, about half the population died from homicide. Even since the Industrial Revolution the world has become much more hospitable. With the decline of religion, we’re also seeing a decline in violence, even though there are still some who hold very tight to the belief that we will sink into doom and anarchy (there was a commenter here recently who thought that). It is interesting, though, if you look at the shift from magic and mysticism from the point where the RCC broke apart (in part from it’s ties to magic), we continue to move away from the supernatural. So even churches are evolving and are giving up traditions tied to the occult. I guess we’re still in the midst of shedding our skin.

  7. Deb

    what a great post today… full of depth…

    I guess that guilt is basically what drives believers and not believers on doing or not things… Werther you think someone is watching over your shoulder will be dissapointed or oneself, I think it is what draws the limit between doing good and bad… of course that line is drawn on a different place for everybody…

    I can only speak for myself, but i do feel that sometimes my daughter is missing out on things by not going to church, particularly since I live in the Mexican bible belt… but even though I feel like that, I know that eventually she will realice it was for the best that me and my wife are letting ther brain to develop without any of the artificial limits that I grew with, and that helps me overcome the guilt of not taking her to many religión-based activities, such as camping with kids her age (even boy/girl scouts are quite religious in these latitudes!!)… when I think of how difficult was for me to come to terms with my atheism I know I am doing the best for her… she can later on decide wherter it was right or wrong..


    De: Kids Without Religion
    Enviado el: ‎jueves‎, ‎5‎ de ‎septiembre‎ de ‎2013 ‎06‎:‎07‎ ‎a. m.
    Deborah Mitchell posted: “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 “

  8. I started to drift from Christianity years ago and always felt guilty for doubting god. However the older I got the less that guilt effected me. It took years but I finally came to terms with my non belief. Like you stated we are made to feel guilty for things burned into our way of thinking from an early age. Guilty for being human because we are born into sin. When you start looking at it for the nonsense it is the guilt looses effects and falls away.

  9. I think you answered the questioned very well and nailed it spot on. I never went through the guilt phase and I think it is only because I wasn’t raised in a religious family, but was encouraged to go to church only to “fit in” with all the other kids in the neighborhood. Ironically though I never felt like I “fit in”. I have always had a strong feeling that I was “different” which has plagued me my whole life. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I thought maybe it was because I wasn’t a believer like the majority of the people that I’m surrounded by. We are simply wired differently because of the way we were brought up to believe or not believe. I think that in itself creates a different perspective in the way we deal with issues in our lives. The religious pray to God for every little trivial event in their lives where us non-believers have had to tackle it on our own. Recently there was a post on FB that said “God puts us through as much as we can handle, so the people who struggle the most, have been chosen by God to be the strongest ones.” On the contrary those that have God in their lives in my opinion are the weak ones. Wonder how they would truly handle issues in their lives if they didn’t have an invisible guy in the sky to help them through each day? Were as we non-believers have to tackle it on our own. Maybe we are the chosen ones? 😉

    Sorry Deb for getting off the subject, but like I said I think you thoroughly explained why some go through a guilt phase.

    @Larry………right on! I have also mentioned the Treaty of Tripoli to some who claim this country was founded upon Christianity. They look at me baffled. Obviously they had not heard of it………..As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. – June 10, 1797

    @Charity……wow now that you mention it I too feel guilty for a few of the points you mentioned. Circumcision, which at the time didn’t know it was religiously affiliated. I don’t remember it ever being a choice even. It was just performed because it was for cleanliness is what I was told. Making them go to Sunday school only because my husband and his family expected it and living in a small community you don’t want people to think your raising heathens, which on the contrary they are all very good kids and am told by many of those of religious faith who are actually struggling with their own children.

    • Hi Juls, It’s good to hear from you. I was wondering how you were doing. I was floored by that FB post you mentioned. I had not seen it before, but as you said, it’s very ironic because we don’t see it through that lens. It’s much harder going alone, though I do think we appreciate those around us SO much more and the goodness we see in people.

    • Hey Juls, I sure have missed you! I hope that you are finding some hobbies, friends and activities outside of religion to help you cope with the religious people around you. I know that you had mentioned how difficult it is for you way out in such a small community.

      I can only imagine you raising wonderful human beings. You strike me as a patient, caring and thoughtful mother. As women who spent most of our lives in Christianity, I’m sure that you and I both tried to submit to authority and do what we were told. I have already apologized to my 5 and 8 year old boys for their circumcisions, spankings and to the oldest one in particular, some pretty shitty churches I made him endure.

      I spent years dwelling on leaving my faith and my parents, now that I have done both I’m looking forward to enjoying what I have today with a great hope for tomorrow. The best I can do is sincerely apologize, make up for my mistakes to my husband and kids the best I can and work on all the things that I’ve neglected about myself for so many years.

      Hey Juls, if you follow my blog I’ll have your email and I can send you a message so that you may have mine….only if you want to that is. Have a great weekend!

      (Thanks for the info you sent me, Debbie. That was really kind of you.)

  10. I think everyone deals with guilt… and it is probably derived BOTH naturally and from social constructs. Guilt sucks, and the thing that I struggle with is…. Is this guilt I’m feeling a) an indication that I need to change something or b) irrelevant pressure that I need to ignore? Seriously, I struggle with that constantly… not with religion but with being a working mom. Does the guilt mean I should quit my career because that is really what is best for my family? Or does this guilt come from information or social pressure that forces me to believe what is best for my family? I struggle with that weekly, if not daily. I guess my point is guilt can really suck the life out of you, sometimes you have to squelch it. But guilt also serves a purpose at times, in modifying our behavior and helping us to see what we need to change.

    • @Molly I know how you feel. And sometimes, even though you know you shouldn’t feel guilty, you still do. Women have it particularly tough, especially when we work outside the home. And even then, we feel (or at least I did) that I wasn’t giving 100 percent to any of my roles. One of my girlfriends used to say, “I need a wife!”

      • @Debbie that is so funny and relevant… there was nothing on TV the other night so my husband and I watched “Sister Wives” for a few minutes. I said to him, “I know this is weird, but I can totally see the value of having another wife around here to help with the housework and the kids”. Don’t worry, all hypothetical… plural marriage is not in my future 😉

  11. I have to agree with your post. Being raised with religion does instill the guilt. I was lucky enough not to be raised with religion so I do have “this guilt” of raising my kid without religion. My husband though, is a different story. Being raised catholic where he went to church every week and was the alter boy, he has often expressed his dismay about not bringing our son up in the church. I keep reminding him that as long as we teach our child empathy, respect and effective communication and listening skills he will turn out fine. And then I remind my husband of fallacy Santa Claus to put everything in perspective.

  12. The Xian mythology in a nutshell —

    God sent God to die for God so that God could forgive God’s creations according to God’s unbending rules ~ LanceThruster

    Too Rube Goldberg for me.

    • LOL. I like that quote of yours, LT.

      If you were creating something, would you intentionally make it flawed, capable of screwing up in the worst ways possible? If so, what does that say about your capabilities as creator. And why would curiosity be the worst flaw ever? Seems that would be a strength–useful for improvement–not a weakness.

      • You and Twain – great minds think alike —

        …a God who could make good children as easily a bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave is angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell–mouths mercy, and invented hell–mouths Golden Rules and foregiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!
        – No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger

        You make people miserable and there’s nothing they can do about it, just like god. ~ Homer Simpson

  13. Stealing! How could you? Haven’t you learned anything from that guy who gives sermons at church? Captain what’s-his-name?
    — Homer Simpson

  14. You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work in real life — uh, Christianity.
    — Homer Simpson, telling what religion the family belongs to

  15. I was too much of a…..oh, what to call it…”naturalist” to ever buy the statements about being “dirty” or “sinful by nature”…especially where sex was concerned. It was a natural biological component of life, like eating, sleeping, and defecating. So I simply had an inward giggle whenever someone started in on that bit. I think in a way, this insured that religious guilt was simply going to run off me on all other topics as well….like teflon coating for the mind.

  16. What I felt guilty about as a teenager was continuing to go to church when I no longer believed what was being said there. Unfortunately I didn’t have the option of saying “no thanks” to going to church with my parents. They made me go. I didn’t have a choice. It definitely colored my attitude about church and parents who force their children to attend. You can lead a horse to water …

    I felt no more guilt about leaving religion than I did about leaving Santa or the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny. There was that period of ambivalence, of uncertainty, of wanting to keep playing along with the story because it benefitted me in some way. But in each case I eventually outgrew the make-believe of childhood.

    • @PiedType. I should have clarified. I meant adult children going to church with their parents. It’s hard to say no to parents when living a home. I can see how that would make you feel guilty, too, if you are just playing along.

  17. I feel a slight tinge of remorse (but *only* for the possibility of hurting someone’s feelings) when they realize that my atheism means that I find their theological mythology on par with fairy tales and other absurdities. In another way, I’m actually more embarrassed for them.

    Nothing offends a person more than to reject their deeply held beliefs. ~ LanceThruster

  18. Ha – piping hot topic for me. My solution? (I come from an SDA background by the way):

    How did I get over feeling guilty for not keeping the Sabbath the way I once did? I made a point to do all the things I used to believe were taboo during those sacred hours. Instead of abstaining from what I’d been taught as “evil” I now allowed myself to take part and I continued to take part until one day, the guilt was no longer reminding me of my “sin.” Here’s just a few of those activities:

    Watch TV
    Listen to any sort of music that was not religious
    Read non-religious books
    Go to a movie
    Go shopping

    What did I learn from this experiment? Two biggies:

    The world did not implode.
    I did not spontaneously combust.


    It’s been a loooong haul but my husband and I are making huge progress. We are so glad to have escaped and I don’t say that lightly.

    • Great suggestions s. belmonte! Substituting an enjoyable and even beneficial activity (such as reading) is a great distraction. Then, too, every time you push out a bad feeling with a good you create positive memories in its place.

  19. Ps This strategy is much like the one that patients use to overcome phobias.

  20. I had the dubious honor of being the first in my entire family to leave religion. My parents’ reaction was a mix of what could only be described as condescending amusement … as if they were treating this as nothing more than a phase … and fear on the part of my father who flipped his lid when I implied that I didn’t consider myself a Christian.

    This was the same guy who cursed Him out on a daily basis to the point where if He did exist, surely we’d have had a visit by at least four of the ten plagues of Egypt and a few strategic bolts of lightning just to make sure.

    The whole process originally made me feel guilty and scared. God knows my thoughts, after all, and I’m doubting his existence in the context of the religion in which I was raised. Surely that was hell worthy? It wasn’t until college when I spoke with other people who felt the same way that I slowly began to realize that there was a much larger world than the one in which I was brought up. It also became apparent that everyone claimed to have the right answer, and they all lacked the evidence to back up their claims.

    Clearly, given my daily rantings, I’ve gotten over the guilt part. Nowadays it’s more of a resentment toward those who push to hard-wire their kids (and other peoples’) into the world of religion so early in their lives that it’s damn near impossible to get out. Even if they become scientists, there’s a greater chance of their still keeping come small compartment of “faith” safe from the ravages of rational thought out of some deep seated, primal fear of the consequences.

  21. Very much enjoyed reading this post. I spent the majority of my life as a Jehovah’s Witness. The guilt and the fear were big tools used to keep members from “leaving the truth”. It’s cloaked nicely in “loving fellowship”, but you know you will lose it all, including family, if you leave. You also know that people will think less of you, and look at you as weak, if you leave. I felt a lot of guilt while still a part of the religion. Guilt for laughing at a dirty joke, for not spending enough time in bible study, for kissing a boy, etc. Now, that kind of guilt is gone. Now I feel guilty for skipping a workout, for getting take-out instead of cooking, for not listening well enough to my husband when he tells me about his day. Much more normal things, I think. I definitely felt guilty about disappointing my parents when I finally left the religion. But that guilt evaporated quickly when my parents completely kicked me out of their lives and refused to associate with me, all because my fiancee and I were living together before we got married. Such sin! I told my parents at the time that they got to choose to become JW’s when they were adults and could make an educated decision. Whereas I was not allowed to make that decision, it was chosen for me when I was 3. Once I got to be an adult and made the educated decision that it was best for me to not be a part of it anymore, I was ostracized. In what world does that make sense?
    I definitely don’t feel any guilt now for raising my son free of religion, although he is sometimes exposed to it in ways that are out of my control. His father believes in god, although is not a member of any religion. Although we’re no longer together we’ve both made it clear to our son that organized religion did a lot of damage to both of us. I try to make it very clear to my son that he is free to make any decision he wants about religion and belief or non-belief in god once he is able to study it for himself. I didn’t leave the JW religion until my son was 4. I felt soooo guilty for shushing him at the meetings, trying to keep him quiet and well-behaved and paying attention. What a complete and utter joke. The children who were quiet and well-behaved were the ones who got hit. Of course they knew what to do, they knew the alternative! The squirmy noisy ones who wanted to run around were the ones being regular kids. I think becoming a mom was a big of part of why I left. What the heck was I doing, trying to raise my son in a religion that I never liked when I was a kid, that I knew deep down made me unhappy? Why was I trying to make my son behave unnaturally? It was all for other’s approval – my parents, friends, my congregation, “god”. And you are so right, we are approval seeking creatures, which is part of beiing human. But I finally realized I was paying too big a price for that approval. And now it’s been 9 years since I left, and my guilt is so much simpler!

    • Pretty amazing story, Angie. Thanks for sharing it. Welcome to our community.

    • Angie–As LT said, thank you for sharing your interesting story and welcome to our community. There is another person who visits here and is an ex-JW. She told me about the practice of “shunning.” I could not imagine rejecting my child just because she/he didn’t believe the same things that I did.

  22. FYI – Twain and religious guilt —

    JIM, the slave from Huckleberry Finn

    So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter – and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

    Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. Huck Finn.

    I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

    It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

    “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

    – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

    That passage has always amazed me because here was a young man steeped in the religious culture of the day, certain he would be doomed to hell for aiding and abetting in theft of property (nigger Jim), yet saw Jim as a human being and friend, and was willing to risk the very fires of hell, to do the right thing.

    If that isn’t a glorious inspiration for us all, I don’t know what is…

  23. thank you for taking the time to write this and also, to all of the commenters adding feedback, i really appreciate it. i’d emailed this question to debbie originally on behalf of a friend. we are in the thick of the mormon culture and while i personally do not hold on to any guilt as a result of my lack of faith, my friend who is on the fence about religion/faith/theism/creationism has concerns that can get in the way of allowing her to question all that she’s held as beliefs since childhood. i believe the mormon culture here in utah is fascinating in that many people who have been raised in the church and baptized at the age of 8, even as adults, have very little understanding of what it is they believe in. ultimately, they know one is either mormon or not and the “nots” don’t sit well with the majority. for me as a child, god was not discussed. neither was heaven or hell. i didn’t know what it meant to sin and couldn’t have recited even one of the ten commandments but you can bet your ass my parents had me
    baptized into the mormon church (which neither of them attended but both were members of as well). how strange is this? as an atheist/secular mother now, i cannot comprehend why they made this choice for me other than for the most obvious reason, so that i would fit in. how sad. now we can laugh about it, my parents and i, but, it wasn’t funny during my years as a teenager or even a young adult as reason and logic began to take hold and i realized that everyone around me was deluded in their beliefs. it took me years, lots of questions and even more reading to br able to say, “this is silly.” i have tried to answer the questions my friend has and explain how i came to think as i do. i understand her guilt as she explores her beliefs stems from two reasons; 1) for questioning Him and 2) for not giving her child something to hold on to (a greater purpose per say). i believe she will find her way in time. she is smart and values logic and reason. a theist told me recently how he can understand why someone would become an atheist, “because there are two types of people; the analytical ones who demand evidence and need to make sense of everything and the more emotional ones who rely on what makes them feel right regardless of what seems most reasonable. the more you question, the farther you fall away from faith.” all I could think was, what an unfortunate life philosophy. my opinion is we can demand evidence, make choices based on reason and feel good about the results all at the same time. …. anyway, i’m rambling. thanks again.

    • etmoore I love that quote by the theist you know. It’s ironic that we are taught to demand evidence and question in science, in reconstructing history, in a court of law, yet not when it comes to religion. As for your friend believing that her child a greater purpose, whether we believe in god or not, we still define our own path. When we are believers, we think we let god decided, but it’s really just time or life circumstances that decide for us. We allow the world to choose for us.

      It’s interesting that your parents raised you without religion inside the home but took you to church so that you’d fit in. Sounds like they tried to do what they thought was best for a child who would live and attend schools in a very religious area of the country. At least it was much easier for you to give up religion…

      Thanks for sharing, and best of luck to your friend.

  24. Deborah,

    A friend sent me a link to your post and I am glad he did. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts. I am dealing with guilt from a different angle and am interested in your thoughts.

    As a now non-believing ex-Southern Baptist, I still experience guilt with the idea that I am causing my parents true emotional pain. I know that my non-belief disappoints them and I can deal with that. I don’t have any guilt about my own non-belief. It is the true, emotional pain that I cause them because I know that they truly believe that my wife, my daughter and I are all doomed to eternal damnation and will be horribly punished for our non-belief. As illogical and silly as that seems to me, to them it is their truth and knowing that “truth” causes them pain. Their pain saddens me and does make me feel guilty. We all want what is best for our children and my parents want that for me and my family in their nonsensical religious idealistic way.

    I am interested in your thoughts and the thoughts of your readers. Thanks for a great forum to discuss this.

    • @K I truly understand your pain. My family was/is German Catholic (if you want to understand Nazi Germany, look no further than there), and the announcement of my atheism was met with incredible hostility from parents and siblings. Here is something I learned from their onslaught: The emotional pain they say they feel is brought about by their sense of expectation about how you should lead your life.

      This really is a very selfish statement on their part. They are faced with having deal with their own sense of doubt as to whether what they believe is true. They see this as a rejection of them. They feel like parental failures because they cannot make you do what they want you to do. They want you to be the child who does as told and does not think for himself. They are using the warped culture of religion as a weapon against you. Guilt will be big in their arsenal.

      Try having an honest conversation with them. Help them see what they feel relates mostly to themselves and not you. You are not the cause of their pain. Their own unspoken expectations, their own fears, their own uncertainty, and their own doubts are the root cause. You simply exposed it. If their love for you is truly unconditional, then they should not care one whit whether you believe the same as them. This is on them, K, and not you.

    • Hi K, I understand, and it’s a tough spot for you to be in. Your parents really believe that, after you die, they won’t see you again. They’re afraid. They’ve been brainwashed and all they know is fear and fire and brimstone. I agree with what Derrick says, but I also don’t think people always understand their motivations. Yes, it is selfish (it’s their fear, their pain), but for them, all they know is that they don’t want to see a child they love suffer in eternal hell. Perhaps, when you talk with them as Derrick suggested, you might also add that if they are confident that their god is a good, loving, merciful deity, that he wouldn’t send undeserving people to hell. (Would he forgive a murderer, yet send you and your innocent family to suffer forever?)They’ll probably never understand why you left religion, but maybe they won’t suffer so much if they think their god will spare you.

    • @K I hope you will listen to @Debbie as I think she was very wise in her answer to you. I agree with her that your parent’s motive is not selfish, it is love. They love you and want what they *think* is best for you. Who can fault a parent for that? All you can do is try to help them change how they perceive their God.. as I agree He is not quite as cruel as your parents perceive Him to be. I admire you for showing concern and empathy for their feelings. How big of you.

      @Derrick what a general, offensive, and incorrect statement “if you want to understand Nazi Germany, look no further”. First, of all congrats on fulfilling Godwin’s law. Second, I suggest if you have not been already, you visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. where you will see an entire section dedicated to the Catholic Church’s resistance in Germany (and other occupied nations). So many Catholics – priests, nuns, and laymen – sacrificed their lives to resist Nazi power and save Jewish lives, and yet their memory is ignored by comments like the one you made. What a shame. I have no doubt there were also some Catholics involved in Nazism, but I refuse to diminish the memory of the good by lumping them in with the bad.

      • @Molly It is offensive because, despite the overall hyperbole of my statement, there is a lot of truth to it. I was not being blithe, flippant, or glib. Let me explain.

        My grandparents, aunt, and father were refugees from Nazi Germany. My great-uncle lost a wife and two daughters in Belzec. I had many other relatives who fled Nazi Germany. Mind you, they were not Jews but people who refused to become part of the National-Socialist party because of its brutality and the hatred they fostered. I grew up listening to the tales of what went on in in Germany from the fall of the Weimar Republic through the rise of the Nazi party to right before the start of the war. These were first-hand accounts of people who lived there, who knew the culture, and who saw what was happening.

        One of their consistent statements I heard from them and several others was that complicity of the German people in what went on and, in numerous cases, the implicit castigation of the Jews by the German catholics. Yes, some German catholics went to great extent to help the oppressed, but a great many more stood by silently or participated in the horror that took place.

        • @Derrick I appreciate the explanation you provided as to why you made that statement. I react very passionately to bold and general statements steeped in bias, as they are rarely true or fair. Of course there were German Catholics who supported the Nazi party. However, I would argue with you that there were probably more who did not. Either way, you can see how very closed-minded it would be to label all German Catholics as passionate Nazis. I would expect more from a fair-minded, free-thinking atheist.

          I could literally give you hundreds (probably thousands) examples of Catholic persecution at the hands of the Nazi regime and/or Catholic leaders and laymen who boldly opposed the regime with both words and actions – and sacrificed their lives in such opposition. But if you have a bias in your mind already about what occurred, then it would just be a waste of my energy. And I am usually low on energy anyway on Friday afternoons… and I tire of Nazi conversations….

    • Hello K,

      IF you have parents who absolutely love you, tell them when the time is right FOR YOU. Look for a gateway conversation to speak about your non belief, like when your parents make comment/s about going to Church, the Bible or even a particular religious holiday. I didn’t tell my religious parents that I’m an atheist because they’re extremely poisonous and controlling. I recently broke away from them.

      I have flat out said to four different people, “I’m an atheist.” I would recommend telling a couple of people before you tell your parents to gain some practice in coming out. The first person I told was someone I had known well for years. We had not lived near each other in a long time. She and I were super close when we met in Hawai’i and she was the maid of honor at my wedding. She’s a Messianic Jew and in all honesty, I think our friendship ended when we talked about it on the phone back in June. The crazy thing is I used to consider her to be the most progressive and liberal Christian that I had ever known. She’s originally from New York City, has friends of various faiths, including a few who have no religious affiliation and her deceased father was gay. However, she took it REALLY hard!

      K, should you come out, be prepared for tears, yelling, really offensive questions about your character and morality. There may even be a little bit of Scripture thrown your way. Just know that your marriage and the way that you parent will come under some scrutiny. There will also be great denial of your deconversion, your parents will more than likely tell you “well, we’ve had our struggles and trials too!” Christians tend to think that when someone they’ve known as a Christian for a long time comes out as a “none”, he or she is just going through a rough patch in his or her faith. If your parents really do love you, just know that because of their background they may still react dramatically to your news. They will also continue to talk about faith, prayer, church and the Bible around you because 1) they think you’re back slidden’ and just need some encouragement to continue your salvation in Jesus and/or 2) It’s just who they are, they’ll always talk about those things.

      Personally, I had seriously struggled with my faith for over two decades. During that time I was an avid meeting chaser, tither, worshipper, church goer who prayed and read the Bible obsessively and even fasted at times looking for answers. I didn’t turn to secular sources, I instead dug my heels deeper into everything about God, Jesus and Holy Spirit. It just wasn’t working for me and the more I learned about God, the more I knew I had to get away from the whole idea of God.

      I came to an understanding about hell over the summer. If there is a hell and if there is a God, He will not send me there. Why? Because He, of all people, knows that I did EVERYTHING in my will, finances, mind, emotions and power to follow Him before I FINALLY walked away.

      Good luck!

  25. Deborah, I have been following your blog for quite a while now, but haven’t yet commented. THIS post is, in my opinion, one of your strongest. Thank you for your common sense and your intuition.

  26. Very meaty post today! I understand that you are speaking from your perspective and experience but what I see is a barely recognizable caricature of the teachings of Jesus and how I live and experience my faith in him. I do not live in fear or riddled with guilt nor did I raise my children that way – quite the opposite. I feel that it is through my faith that I am freed from guilt and worry. You can call this what you wish but the joy I feel keeps me coming back for more.

    • @jp I respect your feelings and your beliefs. As you know–I don’t want to convince you not to believe.

    • Yes, I understand – thank you. By joining in on the conversation here over the last several months, I have gained a much better understanding and appreciation of the position and beliefs of those who participate here. From time to time, there is a lot of criticism of “christian” practice – and rightly so. When the conversation turns to topics that Christ taught about and where his words are unknown or misunderstood, the dialog often ends up in odd places. In the case of guilt, one of the central teachings of the New Testament writings is freedom from guilt through Jesus Christ. Clearly, some have entirely different experiences at the hands of persons or organizations that claim to follow Christ.

      • @jp Yes. Unfortunately, your Christianity and your Christ are now used for political weapons. If we all could just accept and respect that some of us like football, some of us like soccer and some of us don’t like any sports, then we wouldn’t try to force each other to participate in each other’s preferred activities.

  27. This is an excellent post. I know that there is guilt from those of us who have been raised in and brainwashed by the religious community. We are not allowed to think for ourselves, we were taught it was wrong not to trust and have faith. If we didn’t, it was going to be very bad. The more someone tells you think the more you believe it. I have started to slowly get through this and feel less and less guilt for my revelations. It also helps to see the religious community for what it is. When you finally get to that point, you can have a serious guilt free conversation with yourself and your children.

    I won’t pretend to know all the answers, but I know what was done to me as child and it was abuse. It was literally child abuse, mental abuse. In the end, what matters to me most is not subjecting my small child to the same abuse and punishing her to have the same guilt I still have occasionally.

  28. @Rachael Too bad not all parents see that….

  29. A deep reminder of the Religion you learned as a child gives you this feeling, its still hidden in your subconscious mind. This guilt even unjustified as it maybe shows you are changing your past and creating your future, most people do not understand guilt is nothing more than your mind reminding you of what your had learned at one time or the other. Religions use this guilt as sin therefore keeping their heard close at hand asking for forgiveness. When one becomes free of the feeling of guilt then they are truly a free person. (One day I will write my thoughts about religion and life on earth. -Church’s will hate it and science will want to deify it because not enough evidence can be found to prove or disprove it.-)

    • @TheFreeOldMan Interesting perspective. Yes, everything we learn sticks, even if we no longer believe, the ideas/fears/hopes we learned when we were young are still lodged somewhere in our minds.

      • The perspective is the truth, the things that make you feel guilty will control you and your life if you can escape those feeling then you can think and act freely. I truly find raising your children free to chose for themselves about religion is great. I never believed in religion and never will I noticed that the teaching contradicted itself in to many ways to believe it.

  30. This is a timely post for me. Even though I dropped the God-belief almost three years ago, the psychological damage from years of living under a system built on guilt and shame still effects me. No one is watching yet I still feel ashamed for shit that I shouldn’t. I still internalize negative feelings about myself. This wouldn’t be so bad except that I take my self-loathing out on those closest to me and it deeply affects my relationships. My wife keeps asking what I think is so bad about me and, while I don’t have a good answer, I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m unworthy. It sucks.

    • @MichaelB I am really, really sorry to hear this. You know it’s not true, and no one deserves to live with negative feelings about him/herself. Your wife is closest to you, and she doesn’t want you to suffer.

      I hope you can let go and find peace before it’s too late–our time here is so short. (Then, too, the kids are watching and learning from us.) Would meditation help? Could you write a letter about your guilt and shame and then burn it?

      Anyone else have suggestions?

    • Michael, your comment makes me cry. You know, abuse makes us feel dirty. When parents abuse us, especially if religion is somehow involved, we feel horribly evil. For me, I felt ridiculously wicked because I prayed to God for years that He would deliver me from my abusers, but He didn’t, so, I must have deserved what I was getting. As time went on I decided to seek God for me to have nothing but unconditional love and kindness for my abusers. What happened instead, is I continually walked into cruel romantic relationships, horrible friendships and abusive Churches. This not only made me unable to heal, I continually found myself in many situations that wounded me more and more. Over the last couple of years of my Christianity, I began to see people for who they really are. I quit apologizing for who I am and started to defend my husband, children and myself to my parents, neighbors and church people. Things got really ugly with people because they were not used to me consistently defending myself and sticking up for people who genuinely love me.

      For me, atheism is empowering, but when I first left a year and a half ago, I had to learn how to deal with my personal let downs.I had to come to the place to where I began to tell myself that I’m not evil, I’m not dirty and most of all, I matter, dammit! I am not someone else’s bitch. I am learning that just because someone else feels bad about who they are, doesn’t excuse them to make me feel bad about who I am. And that includes anyone who tries to use anything related to religion to hurt me.

      I had to come to terms with letting go of the fantasy of a perfect God and His heaven, as well as the ideal childhood that I will never have. I have literally said goodbye to God, my parents and even my childhood. It’s super sad at first, but as time has gone on I am making myself more aware of the creative and loving person that I am, as well as the strong and protective husband that I have and the smart and kind children that we are raising. Life, right here, right now, is so fucking amazing that I would be really sad in the future if I looked back and realized I didn’t embrace how good I had it today.

      • @Charity. Your words are moving. Thanks for sharing your hurt. It has to be hard–after all those years-to walk away from the life you knew.

        • Hey Debbie, it was hard at first. When I initially got out I was so depressed and I felt so much guilt for all that I allowed religion to do to me, my marriage and my family for so long. Mr. Amazing has helped to see that there is absolutely nothing I can do about the first four decades of my life. They’re lost and forever gone. I think it’s healthy for people to mourn loss. I had to go through the process and I still am going through it to a degree. There is an actual disorder that many suffer from when they leave religion. I’m sorry that I forget it’s proper name, but many have had it and some are going through it now. People of faith can tell me that they’re healthy all they want, I know better. The Bible, church and prayer can really mess a person up. You can’t always see it’s damage until you step out from under it’s shadow.

          • @Charity – I wrote this about you in a personal message to Deb —

            You’re good peeps!


            Seriously, I’m lucky in that my disassociation from the faith was pretty much completely painless. The only pains in the @ss are the people who treat the godless as someone to fear or cure. If they try to do it by doing battle in the arena of ideas, I’m all for it. If they try to do it by bullying and other strong-arm tactics, I think they’re bloody hypocrites and put a large share of the blame for the problems of the world on their “type.”

            I really love Charity’s in-your-face defiance. She’s very cordial and well spoken, with an unapologetic undertone of “F#ck that sh!t, I’ve been there.”

            It shows it’s OK to be pissed that you spent so much time being deluded by well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) delusional (or unethical) others.

            • Aw, LT,

              You’re so sweet, you’re giving me a tooth ache! Yeah, I have been going back and forth a little bit with another female blogger about “Not Ready to Make Nice” by the Dixie Chicks. She and I were discussing how it accurately describes how we both felt in our deconversions.

              I may blog about it next time I write because I have a definite story connected to it.

              Men in particular need to see how damaging religion can be to women, so, that they can better understand where it has failed and why women hurt so bad from it. Unfortunately, the biggest misogynists I have ever known were Christian women because they have fully believed their male counterparts and the Bible.

      • Debbie and Charity, thanks for the words of encouragement. My guilt is just sort of this background thing that hangs around. I don’t feel guilty every moment of the day and I have gotten better recently, but man does it linger.

        Religion as a whole may not be evil, but religion that proposes we can’t be good without a deity? Talk about an abusive relationship! And boy do people defend their abuser…

    • “Does anyone know whether ‘under God’ was added to the pledge, or was it part of … ?”

      “It was added … it doesn’t matter, though …”

      Yeah, just a minor detail that the original pledge didn’t have those words, nor did it make any declaration of religious belief.

      Dana might want to consider that some modern luxuries she currently enjoys … like no longer being considered her father’s property or having no recourse for being beaten by her husband … are the result of society embracing secular moral ideas like liberty and egalitarianism rather than the religious ones that they replaced. I don’t understand these people. They live in – ad enjoy the freedoms of – an overtly secular society, yet they act like the world’s going to end when “God is taken out of” some thing or another where it didn’t belong in the first place.

      • I left it out at an opening session of the Senate when I visited DC, and Strom Thurmond gave me such a look because I was out of sync (which I did loudly and proudly) that I thought to Capitol police would have escorted me out. I would have said that *I* was reciting it in its original form.

        I also like to modify it to, “One nation, under the Constitution, indivisible…”

      • @Senator Jason haha Exactly!

    • @LT I don’t watch Fox News that much, and this is why. There is SO much ignorance. That whole mentality is frustrating, “If you don’t like our way, get out.”

      In the clip you provided, one of the guys said, “In America you’re not killed if you don’t adhere to whatever belief system their forcing down your throat.” I thought that was kind of ironic because, yeah, they are forcing their belief system down everyone’s throats.

  31. What makes me feel most guilty is not having a church family for my kids to know. I have the most wonderful memories of my church family. Even after moving half way around the world and coming back, they are happy to see me out and about. I learned more about respecting my elders at church than anywhere else. They were a replacement for my dysfunctional family. I wish my kids had that kind of awesome group of people outside the walls of our house. Since there is practically no sense of community left anywhere, due to the rampant selfishness of my generation and those younger than I, it is hard to see my kids missing out on that. I was also lucky to be raised in a church that was not pushy about religion, especially to the kids. We were a small congregation of about 30 people that were like family. I would take my kids there in a heartbeat……if it weren’t for that is pesky religion part 🙂

    • @Lynda – Good observation, but I think you can find the same welcoming, nurturing associations within many subgroups not focused on lockstep invisible buddy dogma. Try hikers, bicyclists, rationalist and skeptics groups, environmental and community service groups…whatever you think might interest your children (and you).

      One other thing, I was interim president of the local Americans United for Separation of Church and State chapter for a short time. You couldn’t ask for a better group for believers and non/un working together for the common good.

      • LanceThruster- Thanks for your response! Those are all good ideas, but when you literally live in the middle of nowhere, in a small town of 500 people, it becomes very time consuming and expensive to travel to towns or cities that have groups like these. The county I live in has several small towns, the biggest being about 2,500 people. In each of these small towns, there are 1-8 churches, depending on the size of the town. Everyone goes to church or is associated with a church and this is what constitutes their social group. That is fine because I could care less what others do for religion or lack of religion. So this makes it really hard to fine like-minded people who share our lack of religion. If I could take that group I knew growing up and have them in a group that was working toward something other than religion, it would be great. Sadly, we are looking to move back to Europe so we don’t have to deal with people wearing their religion on their sleeves. So sad that it is so hard to find in America.

        • Hi Lynda, I just got to your next message. I didn’t realize you lived in such a small town, but I imagine there are not many options. You may be able to start a meet-up. Maybe there are a few like-minded people around you:

          Are you thinking about moving to Europe just because of the religious climate here?

          • Deborah – Thank you for responding!! Sadly, husband and I run a small business in our town so our business relies on all different types of people here. We have politely declined several offers of attending different churches already. Actively trying to meet up with other atheists would not go over well with the general public and could hurt our business. My husband is German so you can imagine his shock at how much religion plays a role in everything here. It is simply not discussed in Europe. That’s probably why I felt so at home there! Even if we looked for something like a Unitarian church, we would have to drive over an hour to get there. Its easier for us to keep our mouths shut and spend our time communing with nature. So hopefully we can find our community and sense of peace back in Europe where my husband and kids were born.

    • Great suggestions, LT.

      Lynda–Have you looked into the Universalist Unitarian church or atheist/freethinkers meetups in your area?

  32. Thank you so much for this! While I’ve never felt even the tiniest shred of guilt about leaving the church, I have felt bad about depriving my children of the tremendous comfort religion offers in dealing with difficult situations. My children recently watched their great grandmother pass away. It was the first time anyone close to them died and they took it pretty hard. Not only could I not tell them “you’ll see her again in heaven”, but I had to lecture them on not arguing with the well-intentioned folks who do tell them this. (Like Lynda, my husband’s business would likely suffer if we made our non-belief widely known.) I couldn’t help but feel that if I’d just go along with the crowd, I could make something very painful easier on my kids.

    • Hi Lucky, Sorry to hear about your grandmother/children’s great grandmother passing away. It’s so hard when someone close dies, and I agree that sometimes it would be easier to just tell the kids that someone who dies is happy and in heaven–and everyone will be together later. That postpones indefinitely part of the grieving process. I can tell you that it gets easier as they get older–at least with my kids. They seem to understand that it’s just part of the life cycle, but that, even after a person dies they can carry the memories with them.

      It is also sad that your business would suffer if the community knew your views. That’s hardly freedom.

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