I received a short email from a reader concerning atheism and guilt. Here’s the nutshell version: What do atheists do for absolution? Whether there’s a god or not, Christians believe that by asking forgiveness directly or of a priest, they experience a spiritual change and receive peace. And maybe the belief creates the reality, which is a good thing.
I have two angles from which to approach this. I’ll begin with the direct answer to the question. What do atheists do for forgiveness and absolution?
The same as everyone else.
Guilt is one of the most powerful emotions in the human experience. When we’ve hurt someone, our guilt is a measure of our empathy. How would we feel if someone did that to us? Once we realize we’ve hurt someone, we try to do as many of these steps as possible:
- Sincere apology. We try to communicate remorse. We vow to do our level best not to cause the same hurt again.
- Amends. We attempt to make the wrong right. If there is a tangible way to do it, so much the better. If it is impossible for us to fix the situation directly, we sometimes go the indirect route — maybe we volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate to an animal shelter. We try to “fix our karma” by doing something good to make up for the bad we’ve done.
In the Christian model, these two steps are often encouraged, so in this way, theists and atheists are pretty much the same. Although it should be noted — not all Christians believe that any sort of earthly recompense is necessary, so they skip over one or both of these steps and proceed to number three. That’s a bad thing…
Step three is where Christians and atheists appear to diverge. Christians believe they must ask for and receive divine forgiveness. Jesus waves a magic wand and cleanses the soul of stink and stain. So they pray. Having prayed, they feel better.
Here’s the thing, though: What have they really done? There was no real magic, but they feel better. So what happened?
They forgave themselves.
That’s the same thing atheists do. Once we have come to grips with our faults, made amends as well as we can, and made the personal decision to try not to fail again, we forgive ourselves. It helps a ton if the person we’ve wronged also forgives us, but sometimes it doesn’t happen. In that case, we have to find the point where we’re comfortable that we’ve done all we can and then move on.
Is the Atheist Way Better?
There are pitfalls to the Christian model. I’ve alluded to one already. If the goal is divine forgiveness, earthly amends are not strictly necessary. Certainly not all Christians believe this, but if someone were looking for a way to feel better without the work, the loophole is there.
Furthermore, the “forgiveness” of Jesus turns out to be empty if you believe that he loves and forgives unconditionally. That is, if Jesus forgives every sin, then the forgiveness is a necessity, not an act of love.
Think of it this way: Suppose you are walking down the street and see a little old lady trying to cross the street. You run up to her, punch her in the face, steal her purse and push her into oncoming traffic, where she breaks her hip. While she’s in the hospital, you call her room and say, “Hey, little lady… I’m sorry. Forgive me. Ok… I’ve asked for forgiveness, so you have to give it to me. Have a nice day!”
Of course that’s not the way it works in the real world. Genuine forgiveness is conditional. It is not freely given, and it comes in degrees. While you might be able to convince the lady that you really want forgiveness, you don’t get a clean slate. If she ever sees you on the street again, she will probably have her walking stick ready to defend herself. She will never trust you completely again.
This is the reality of harm in the real world. Some things, once done, cannot be undone. For a non-believer, this can be a hard pill to swallow, but in a way, it’s much more relevant and compelling than the threat of hell or the promise of spiritual cleansing. We must carefully weigh our actions, for this is the one shot we have, and if we do irreparable harm, we may not be able to find a way to forgive ourselves completely. So we try very, very hard not to do irreparable harm.
There is beauty in this. Actions matter. The stakes are high. In a way, the threat of a life of guilt is worse than the somewhat removed and inconceivable notion of eternal punishment sometime in the distant future. Guilt has led people to end the one life they get — and this is a stern and palpable warning to the rest of us. Live well and try not to do great harm. There may not be a way to fix it if you do.
The non-believer’s model of forgiveness is very straightforward, and based on cause/effect. When we do wrong, we try to make it right. If we are truly sorry, make amends, and ask forgiveness, we might get it from the person we’ve wronged, and it may or may not be “complete.” There will be future consequences for our actions, regardless of whether we receive forgiveness. We forgive ourselves when we feel reasonably sure that we will avoid causing the same harm in the future and that we’ve done all we can do to fix what we’ve done.