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?
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.