Whenever philosophers speak of the human condition, of either a specific group or in general, their treatment can be seen as proto-psychological. Consider, for instance, Nietzsche’s influence on Freud.1 While I do not think Christianity is true, I am now considering whether, from the perspective of a given individual, it is necessary. I do not mean to invoke philosophical necessity, but rather a necessity akin to inevitability. When considering Korsgaard’s proto-psychological prognosis on morality, namely the internalization of man, there is the idea of instincts that discharge themselves outwardly, and one such instinct is forgiveness.2
Since self-forgiveness is difficult to come by, especially when given that a greater degree of guilt or shame sometimes corresponds to a greater offense, some may feel that forgiveness has to be discharged outwardly. It would appear that most Christians don’t feel guilt for the “sins” they commit, but rather shame. The distinction, although subtle, is important and crucial to understanding why the externalization of forgiveness is an unhealthy coping mechanism. Tangney explains:
“When people feel guilt about a specific behavior, they experience tension, remorse, and regret,” the researchers write. “Research has shown that this sense of tension and regret typically motivates reparative action — confessing, apologizing, or somehow repairing the damage done.”
Feelings of shame, on the other hand, involve a painful feeling directed toward the self. For some people, feelings of shame lead to a defensive response, a denial of responsibility, and a need to blame others — a process that can lead to aggression.3
From a Christian perspective, feelings of guilt would result in repentance. He has fornicated with his girlfriend. He then thinks that if he can get himself to feel that Jesus has forgiven his sin it is tantamount to forgiving himself. As most Christians can begrudgingly attest, this is not what happens. Most Christians go on to “live in sin,” which is to say that they persist in an “ungodly” lifestyle. They go on to reoffend because they enjoy “sin.” Therein lies what makes Christianity inevitable: the subservient are a shameful rather than guilty lot. Their propensity for shame only continues the cycle because in Christ they find the ultimate scapegoat who grants them unconditional, boundless forgiveness. There’s no personal responsibility to be had.
Guilt is the positive correlate to shame because guilt is reformative. Guilt is the precursor to changed behavior. A guilty person doesn’t blame their “accomplice,” namely the girlfriend he’s sleeping with outside of marriage. A guilty person is also actualized in that they realize their contribution to the “sin.” The need for Christ to forgive an offense is the mark of immaturity and even puerility. Forgiveness should not be discharged outwardly, externalized; it should instead and always be internalized, for when it is externalized, it is shame serving as motivation rather than guilt, and as such, one can readily predict that repentant behavior will not follow.
Perhaps this is why Christians, especially in the United States, tend to be vile individuals who curse at, threaten, and dehumanize non-Christians, especially atheists. This may explain their penchant for censorship and execution throughout the centuries as well because most of them are incapable of feeling guilt and therefore, reforming unacceptable, even unlawful, behavior. What they feel is shame and the externalization of forgiveness is more than enough for them to feel better about themselves. While self-forgiveness is difficult to come by, it is imperative that you learn how to do so because when you place the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders, it is likely that you don’t feel guilt over what you’ve done; what you feel is shame.
In doing away with the onus to hold oneself responsible, one then rationalizes one’s behavior. It’s the old “she made me do it” an abusive partner defers to after hitting his significant other. In Christian circles, it can take a more base, preordained turn: “God already knew how you would sin, when, and how often, so you just have to realize that you’ve already been forgiven!” This is how I’ve heard young people justify fornication. This is how I’ve heard cheating spouses justify adultery. This is how I’ve heard Christians justify losing their temper. While such a Calvinistic idea isn’t the norm in all Christian circles, it is a popular idea among American Christians.
On atheism, Christ’s sacrifice is meaningless because atheists reject the concept of sin. We reject the notion that Christ died for offenses we did not commit. Actualized atheism will lead an atheist to truly divorce himself from the religion he once subscribed to. For atheists in the United States, Christianity is that religion. Even in known atheist circles, guilt hasn’t replaced shame and that’s why some atheists are no more morally admirable than Christians. They have not internalized forgiveness.
The most damning and refutable idea that Christians hold is that someone else is ultimately responsible for forgiving you. While it is true that the person you’ve hurt has to forgive you, it is still left to you to figure out a way to forgive yourself for hurting that person. There is no Christ, no priest, no brethren that can do that deed for you! Forgiveness is resolutely characterized by self-forgiveness; forgiving oneself is primary, indeed the true end of moving on from something you’ve done wrong.
So long as forgiveness is externalized, in that the responsibility is rested on the shoulders of someone else whether ideal or actual, you will remain a subservient, shameful person prone to reoffending. The Christian psyche is prone to such shame and given the widespread influence of Christianity, an influence that extends into Islam, more than half the world’s population is wallowing in shame. Collectively, we must unlearn the feeling of shame and its ensuing, destructive proclivities. Anyone who has rejected Christianity has this responsibility, first and foremost.
1 Chapman, A. H., and Mirian Chapman-Santana. “The Influence of Nietzsche on Freud’s Ideas.” British Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 166, no. 2, 1995, pp. 251–253., doi:10.1192/bjp.166.2.251.
2 Korsgaard, Christine M. 2010. Reflections on the evolution of morality. Amherst Lecture in Philosophy. The Department of Philosophy at Amherst College. http://www.amherstlecture.org/korsgaard2010
3 Tangney June. “After Committing a Crime, Guilt and Shame Predict Re-Offense”. Association for Psychological Science. 11 Feb 2014. Web.