Ask Richard: How Do Atheists Absolve Themselves of Guilt? April 21, 2011

Ask Richard: How Do Atheists Absolve Themselves of Guilt?

Dear Richard,

How do atheists absolve themselves of guilt?

I’m an atheist who is very comfortable in my beliefs and/or non-beliefs. I try to be a good, charitable person. I try to make moral decisions and take responsibility when I’ve wronged or unintentionally offended someone. However, like every other human being, I’m not perfect and I make mistakes. When situations like that arise, I do my best to take ownership and do what is necessary to make things right.

But quite a while ago, I believe I hurt someone emotionally. I didn’t realize at the time that I was being so unkind, nor that I would come to regret my actions so deeply. By the time the guilt set in, it was much too late. I’ve lost touch with the individual and now have no way to contact them to tell them I’m sorry.

I’ve never experienced this level of guilt before, and I don’t know what I can do to move on. I know many religious individuals find solace through prayer. As a former Catholic, my absolution used to be attained through both the Sacrament of Confession and prayer. Asking for forgiveness from an almighty god seems to do the trick for those who believe.

As a non-believer, what can I do to rid myself of this guilt? It seriously keeps me up some nights.

I look forward to hearing from you.

From: Secular Penance?

Dear Secular,

We forgive each other and ourselves. It’s the same way everybody else does it, but we don’t invent extra characters to confuse the process. Step by step, this is how we do it:

The first steps you have already done. You have realized the nature of your wrongdoing, and you have used empathy to understand how hurtful it probably was for the person you wronged. Because you can’t find that person, the steps that you are unable to do would include a direct apology with no ifs, ands or buts. All you can do in this case is to make your apology to the air, to your memory of that person, to the best part of yourself in which the caring you hold for that person still lives.

Then comes the step of making amends. “Amend” is related to the word “mend.” So making amends means quite literally mending what was broken, healing what was injured, or restoring what was taken. Since you can’t do that directly either, you can make an indirect amend by being diligent in never repeating a similar behavior toward anyone else. In that way, the guilt that you have experienced has the positive effect of spurring you to correct your behavior, benefiting many people you know. It also as a secondary effect of benefiting you, because it makes you less harshly judgmental of others who do similar wrongs, even those done to you.

Now to the forgiveness.

Back when you were a believer, when you felt guilty for a wrongdoing, you prayed to God for forgiveness, and you confessed to the priest. The priest listened and gave you what you both believed was absolution from God. Then you felt better. But what had actually happened?

You forgave yourself.

An important part of your religion was to instill in you the conviction that by your very nature you are forever in need of forgiveness, that a person forgiving themselves is not legitimate, and that you can only be forgiven by an authority higher than yourself. This chronic “guilt” (it’s actually shame) for simply living is a twisted perversion of what should be a very healthy and constructive emotion of guilt that helps us to correct specific misbehaviors. Then the guilt should recede. Your church’s ritualized forgiveness from on high temporarily suspended the chronic curse, and gave you permission to forgive yourself, and only then you began to feel better.

But whether a believer or a non-believer, that is what you have always actually done. You’ve always forgiven yourself. There never was any divine stamp of approval. That was just a game. Now you only need to realize that after you have made all your best efforts to make things right, you can give yourself forgiveness instead of obtaining it from an imaginary celestial parent.

Even when we can find the person we have hurt, and we make our apology and amend directly to them, and even when they accept our contrition and forgive us, the last step is still when we forgive ourselves. Only then do we feel resolved and mended of our guilt.

You’re clearly a person of strong conscience. You might not trust your own motives in forgiving yourself without some kind of outside certification that assures you you’re not just being “too easy” on yourself. So try this exercise:

Imagine that you meet someone very much like yourself. This person once did a similar wrong to someone, and has gone through the same kind of guilt and remorse, with the same level of intensity. S/he has made the same efforts to make direct apology and amend to the injured person, but cannot find them. As an indirect amend, s/he has made the same efforts to correct the bad behaviors, and has never repeated them. You see that this person has grown more mature, kind, conscientious and ethical since the time of the transgression.

Do you despise this person, or do you feel compassion for them? Do you want this person to be punished, or do you feel a desire to ease their anguish? If you were the one they had injured, would their direct acts of contrition and amend move you to forgiveness?

If you are genuinely able to do that for another, then do it for yourself. You have always done it for yourself anyway, even when you thought you had a validation from a separate source that existed only in your beliefs.

Don’t worry, it’s okay. A person as conscientious as you obviously are, will not become dissolute, depraved and degenerate, casually and blithely forgiving yourself for awful things without a proper effort to self-correct. You’re still the highly moral person you used to be. Otherwise you would not have felt the need to write your letter.

I wish you days of fruitful effort, and nights of well deserved rest.

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I think holding on to a bit of guilt is a good thing. It can keep us honest. I don’t mean that you should beat yourself up, but I believe the best thing you can do to make ammends is to resolve to not repeat your mistakes and move on.

  • Mihangel apYrs

    You look your filthy, dirty transgression in the eye and say “I’m better than that. I will do all in my power to avoid doing it again because I’ve learned something about myself that I detest and which makes me feel unclean.”

    You then try to make amends, even vicariously by helping someone else who is hurt.

    And you work your “sin” off until you can say to yourself “I can never make it better, but I can look myself in the face in the morning”

    And guard yourself against a repetition

  • Rover Serton

    Yup, Say, ‘I screwed up and will try not to in the future’, Do something nice for someone ‘above and beyond’ what you would normally do. Give a donation to a food bank and tell youself “I’m doing this for (incert name here), I’m truely sorry”. Move on and enjoy life.

    If you meet the person in the future, tell them you regret what happened.

  • Liz the 1st

    Wonderful advice. I think this is advice everyone on this site could use or be reminded of.

  • Like everyone is saying, think this through (like you’ve already done) and figure out how you make make sure you don’t make the same mistake again. Even though it won’t fix the relationship, it will prevent you from making the same mistake.

    Don’t forget it, just use it to keep you on the right track. Over the last few months I’ve dealt with some guilt of my own for preaching and witnessing to people when I was a Christian and being a horrible hypocrite who preached sermons I didn’t believe. This guilt helps keep me honest and outspoken as an atheist to try to make up for the work I did to keep people from reason.

  • Nele

    Absolving yourself from guilt? It’s very easy. Look into yourself honestly. If you find any wrongdoing, be frank about it. Face the consequences and try to compensate any damage you have done.

    That’s it.

    That should be feasible to anyone, religious or not.


  • Matt H

    Perhaps talking to a trusted friend or family member to admit what you did could help. A real one. It’s nice not to shoulder the burden of such thoughts alone. Perhaps doing something generous for someone, above and beyond what you normally do will help you feel better. Ultimately, as Richard said, you will have to forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Think of them as learning opportunities. A chance to become a better person.

  • Thegoodman

    Beyond forgiving yourself, you can also research the particular topic. For example, if your offensive was sexist, read up on gender issues.

    I am a white-late twenties male and I once fit many of the stereotypes of my demographic. I have made many strides recently to be a better person and I want very much to better understand the issues that people different from myself (non-americans, women, people of color, etc..) experience.

    Learn a lot about yourself, and people like yourself, and why you did this wrong thing. Be open to changing your outlook on the world and be willing to take a hard look in on your own self.

  • Ms. Crazy Pants

    One way to make amends is to “pay it forward.” By that, I mean try to help someone else as a means of making amends for any wrongdoing. If you have spare money, donate to a charity. If you have spare time, volunteer. If you have something that most others don’t, then use that item to someone else’s benefit.

  • JB

    I find it very hard to let go of guilt. I still rue behavior from 60 years ago, and I suffer painfully from shoulda-coulda-wouldas after simple interactions such as a party.

    I would love to find an easy way to dump my personal responsibility onto someone or something else, but I can’t find anyone or anything I can fittingly blame. All I can do is hope that the guilt buildup doesn’t overwhelm me before my lifetime ends.

  • Robin (not Robyn)

    About a decade and a half ago, I did something really shitty to my Significant Other at the time. I mean, seriously, absolutely shitty. Did I mention how shitty I behaved? Well, let’s just say I did.

    There were reasons I did what I did; I was suffering from extreme PTSD at the time, but that doesn’t not excuse or absolve me of that guilt. And it never will.

    He tossed me out of his life, and he was absolutely right to do so; I had poisoned our relationship, and both of our lives. We went our separate ways, and as I recovered from the trauma I experienced, I started to feel really guilty.

    Three years ago, he died of cancer. He never forgave me. And I never forgave myself. I don’t deserve to forgive myself…I not only want to keep this guilt, I need to keep this guilt. Because of it, I know that I am a better, gentler, and more loving person.

  • Back when I was an ignorant fundie, I was on a web forum. I decided to be all preachy evangelical, and one of the girls on that forum was my target. I tried to change her mind and tried to tell her things that I read in the Bible, and over time I learned she was a lesbian.

    When she told me this, my response was to tell her that lifestyle is sinful and wrong and she should repent and stop living that life. Over the next few hours we talked, she started to cry because of how mean I was to her, telling her that her love was incorrect. We lost contact after that, and I haven’t talked to her in years.

    Now I’m an atheist, I’m pansexual, I’ve got gender identity problems, and I cannot find this girl and tell her how sorry I am. It eats me up every day and every time I see situations like this, knowing how awful I was in the past.

    What I do with that guilt is use it. I am an advocate against homophobia and transphobia. I call bigotry where I see it and I try to explain to everyone what the truth behind this is. If I had the opportunity, I would talk to students and people and try to explain this, but so far only online situations have sufficed.

    If I ever met her again, I would apologize from the bottom of my heart. I will never again tell anyone their love is wrong. And I will make damned sure that, my power permitting, no one would have to suffer the meanness and hate I visitied on this girl.

  • Christianity offers a world-view where Jesus can “take the hit” for our sins as part of a bargain where we pledge ourselves to Him. In theory, this world-view allows believers to cast off any possible sin (except for perhaps denouncing the Holy spirit) and be forgiven so you can move on with your life. It is questionable whether this really works as a psychological instrument. Most believers probably have to do what Richard says in addition to the letting Jesus “take the hit”.

    Pragmatically, each person has to work through gilt in their own way. You did a wrong. The first step you have already done. You have admitted it to yourself. As a secular “penance” you will need to decide for yourself what action you need to take to ease your guilt. Perhaps part of this is not repeating the same behavior. Another part, though, is recognizing and accepting that you are not perfect nor are you expected to be perfect. We all make mistakes and sometimes do bad things. The better people learn from their mistakes and don’t repeat the same ones. You can be a better person in this way. Hopefully, that will be enough to easy your mind.

    If you feel that you need to do some action over and beyond merely not repeating the prior bad behavior, there are lots of opportunities for service work. Just find something and volunteer. It may be a win-win situation.

  • Jeebus

    Yup, it’s a lot tougher having to own up to your faults and transgressions as an atheist. But it’s exactly that that makes us more moral than theists. Theists have it much easier. Just talk confess your sins to one of the local pedophiles, chant a few magical incantations and of course, telepathically ask your imaginary friend to forgive you. Much easier than owning up to your transgression and actually doing something about it to better yourself.

  • Very well written, and helpful to me as well. I’ve never had a higher authority to lean on for forgiveness, but it’s always good to be reminded to forgive yourself. It’s not easy for me, and something I work on daily. I’m getting better at it, but will always have more to work on I expect.

  • Ravyn

    Nicely explained, Richard. The way that you have phrased this actually leads me to a realization that I probably should have a long time ago. What you describe is exactly what I already do in this situation but when people go to a “forgiver” whether it be a priest or deity they are just absolving themselves of guilt without the benefit of introspection. Understanding WHY you did something and HOW to stop doing it in the future is more important. Religion doesn’t force you to do this. It just absolves you of your sins through ritual which doesn’t teach you the fundamental lesson that helps you develop into a better person in the future.

  • gwen

    “I’ve never experienced this level of guilt before, and I don’t know what I can do to move on. I know many religious individuals find solace through prayer. As a former Catholic, my absolution used to be attained through both the Sacrament of Confession and prayer. Asking for forgiveness from an almighty god seems to do the trick for those who believe.”
    Please tell me exactly what prayer does to rectify the situation. It allows you to avoid apologizing to the person you have hurt/wronged. As an atheist, I accept that it is my responsibility to take care of the problems I have created. If I hurt someone, I apologize and do what I can to make it right, I don’t dodge it through prayer and telling myself that prayer to a magical creature will make it right without making amends to the person I have actually wronged.

  • e-man

    Too often we are looking to rid ourselves of guilt because we are uncomfortable with the anxiety – it’s often like the initial act a self centered and immature action – now we say we want to apologize to rid ourselves of guilt but again it’s about us…
    indeed we should be able to forgive ourselves but we should not run away from the feeling of anxiety or guilt – process and learn and let them influence you to grow into a better person more sensitive and caring.. that is what the guilt is.. your desire to be a better person.. use that ‘hold it’ and give the forgiveness to someone else who needs it.

  • Kristi

    What an incredible response. I personally feel that a little bit of guilt on one’s shoulders is healthy for the mind.. but as with all things, too much of a good thing makes it no longer a good thing. I wish I could offer any additional kind of advice to this situation, but I think he pretty much covered it. Sorry you feel this burdened with your own guilt. It takes time to heal… sometimes longer than what we are comfortable with. Hope things get better soon.

  • Kristi


    I think he has attempted to make the situation right with the person involved, but that person is unavailable or cannot be contacted. This is the main problem .. that the other person involved cannot be reached to make things right. He needs to know how to move on without being able to rectify it directly. This is a very interesting situation that I feel many people could learn from.

    I do not think for a moment that he is trying to avoid taking responsibility for the situation ~ in fact I think it’s just the opposite… that he is carrying too heavy of a burden and he doesn’t know how to set it down.

  • Erp

    One thought in addition to Richard’s advice, write (on paper) a letter of apology to the person even though you can’t deliver it now and file it for delivery if you ever do have a chance to deliver it.

  • This is so timely. My husband, struggles with guilt all the time. Yesterday was The Good Friday Appeal in Australia, and we had a charity rep knock on our door for donations. We don’t give money through the front door, We donate direct but this isn’t one of our chosen charities this year. Husband lied to the girl, saying we’d already donated, to make her go away and then he felt guilty about it. He felt guilty for hours about lying to some stranger, not about not giving to TGFA. His reasons were valid but he can’t reconcile why he chose to lie rather than just saying “We don’t give donations to door knockers.”

    It’s hard to watch him cut himself up over something rather trivial, but to him he feels it exposes serious flaws in his morality and judgment.

  • Deepak Shetty

    As a former Catholic, my absolution used to be attained through both the Sacrament of Confession and prayer. Asking for forgiveness from an almighty god seems to do the trick for those who believe.

    I have never understood how this worked. if say I offend my spouse in some way. Does God forgiving me(through confession and prayer alone) make any difference if my spouse doesn’t? Or if my spouse does forgive me then does it matter if God doesn’t.

  • paulalovescats

    “Back when you were a believer, when you felt guilty for a wrongdoing,
    you prayed to God for forgiveness, and you confessed to the priest. The
    priest listened and gave you what you both believed was absolution from
    God. Then you felt better. But what had actually happened?

    You forgave yourself.”


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