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Dealing with Religious Guilt

By Higgs ~

"All religions are the same: religion is basically guilt, with different holidays." ~ Cathy Ladman

I can only speak of my own experience. I know that many religions and churches have recently toned down the guilt-trip they used to regularly place on their devout followers. I know many Christians who would claim that their religion or church never makes them feel guilty. This was not my experience during my enslavement to the Christian religion. I suspect that guilt in religion is still much more of a problem than many would like to admit, but I cannot say for sure.

My very first memory in life is from when I was three years old. I was in my bedroom, trying to sleep, but there was a bad thunder and lightning storm and I was scared. I was worried that the lightning was going to strike through my bedroom window and kill me. But the prospect of death did not scare me as bad as the prospect of going to hell. So, at three years old, tears in my eyes, I bowed my head and prayed to God: “please God, forgive me of my sins. I believe Jesus died for me, so please, don’t let me go to hell if I die tonight.”

Between the age of 3 and 15 I made numerous professions of faith, where I asked God to save me just in case he didn’t hear or believe me the last umpteen times. I believed I deserved to go to hell, but God could forgive me of my sins if only I genuinely believed and asked him to. Hell was preached at almost every sermon I ever attended and it felt real to me. I could picture it vividly and I also pictured people I knew burning in it. It made me sick with remorse and guilt.

I was taught that if people are going to hell it isn’t God’s fault, it’s ours. It’s a Christians duty to tell everyone they meet about Jesus. After that, it’s in the hands of the unbeliever and they cannot blame anyone but themselves if they continue to disbelieve.

At three years old, tears in my eyes, I bowed my head and prayed to God: “please God, forgive me of my sins. I believe Jesus died for me, so please, don’t let me go to hell if I die tonight.”I was an overly shy kid so I found it hard to talk to other kids about Jesus and every Sunday I was reminded that I was failing to meet God’s expectations. I remember feeling overly guilty one day and grabbing a handful of gospel tracts from the church on my way home. I was in grade 5. I went to school with these tracts, intending on handing them out to my classmates. I was too shy to personally hand them out, so instead I placed a tract on everyone’s coat hanger. When the class broke for lunch all the kids were wondering who had placed these strange pamphlets on their hangers. Some asked if it was me and I denied it. I felt like Peter who denied knowing Jesus. I was asked at least three times if it was me and each time I denied it. Finally, someone spoke up and said that they saw me do it and I was forced to confess. The teacher spoke to me and told me that school was not the place to do this sort of thing. I felt embarrassed, but I no longer felt guilty. I knew God was pleased with me and that was all that mattered.

I was made to feel guilty even for certain thoughts that crossed my mind – thoughts that were natural for an adolescent male to have, such as thoughts about girls and sex. Sex was preached against a lot at my church. Of course, sex within marriage was acceptable, but this type of sex was rarely discussed. I never remember hearing anything good about sex; only bad. I felt like sex outside of marriage was one of the worst sins one could commit. Close to murder, but not quite that bad. Something that was as bad as murder (at least this was the impression left on me) was being a homosexual. It took me a long time to rid myself of a homophobic attitude that had been engrained in me from such a young age. Even for years after I gave up religion I had a negative view towards homosexuals and homosexuality. Thankfully, I was gradually able to overcome this attitude.

Many people in my church were much stricter than even my family was. Some thought television was evil and didn’t own one. These people also usually felt that women should never wear pants or shorts (these would make them look like men). Some even felt that it immodest for men to wear shorts. One family that began attending our church was this strict. They were overwhelmingly friendly and they had four kids, all pretty close to my age. I became very close to these kids and I started to feel like an inadequate Christian because I wasn’t as strict in my beliefs as they were. I remember going an entire summer, when I was about 14, without wearing shorts. Oddly, it was my grandmother – a devout Christian fundamentalist – who called me out. She helped me realize that I was doing this for the wrong reasons. I did not personally feel convicted that wearing shorts was wrong. I then resumed my wearing of shorts.

The moment of my greatest guilt came when I was 13. One day I felt a strong conviction that told me I had to witness to my grandfather. I was crying immensely just thinking of him going to hell (my grandfather on my father’s side – not ‘saved’). I determined I was going to talk to him about Jesus and warn him about hell. But months went by and I kept putting it off. After about 6 months, I was told that my grandfather was in the hospital dying. My heart sunk. I went in to see him before he died, but I couldn’t muster the courage to talk to him about God. Finally, one day I determined to stay up all night praying for him to accept Jesus. I fell asleep after about ten minutes. I woke up the next day to hear that he had passed away. Did he accept Jesus? I wondered. No, he had not. And it was all my fault. What if I had of spoken to him months earlier when I had felt convicted by God? What if I had been able to speak to him in the hospital? What if I had been able to stay up all night praying like I said I would? These are the questions that haunted me for days, months, years after my grandfather’s death.

Once I let go of religion, once I let go of God, I was consequently able to let go of my guilt. I did not leave religion because of guilt. I could have managed with this guilt and still kept my religion. Some people manage much worse guilt than that. I eventually just came to realize how improbable the claims of Christianity actually are. The removal of my guilt was just a by-product of the removal of religion from my life. It is not as if I am now incapable of feeling guilt. Of course I occasionally feel guilty. I am an atheist, not a psychopath. I just don’t feel guilty over the ridiculous things my religion made me feel guilty over.