The shame you feel is one of the best connections to reality you have. Consider the alternatives.
I’ll bet you feel bad about that. That phone call you missed, that last bite you ate, that condescension. I don’t blame you—and hardly anyone does—but the shame you feel is one of the best connections to reality you have. Consider the alternatives.
Alain de Botton is a smart man who writes about philosophers and life. He is an atheist, for whatever personal or philosophical reasons. A Nice-Guy Atheist. The kind who doesn’t have a bone to pick with religion, and is even happy to cherry-pick the tree of faith. Who knows? Thousands of years of work and thought for the force of Good might have something to offer.
De Botton is known for his pop-philosophy self-help book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and his latest offering is just as eagerly intended: Religion for Atheists, which grabs at religion’s flowers without regard for their roots.
De Botton has put money out there for a secular retreat center, too: “The idea is to create the most useful aspects of a monastery without the ideological aspects of monasticism.” It is funny that in America we have some Christians who do the same thing with secular culture—try to import the form while changing merely the message. But form and content, base and superstructure, are one organism. If Christianity has cultivated at least some objective, happy spiritual success, De Botton fails completely to see that it cannot be extracted from the sheer downers of original sin and penitence. You cannot cherry-pick a spirituality just like you cannot cherry-pick a personality.
More than disconnected, the practice is simply worn. The famous behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner had a book in the mid 20th century called Walden II, detailing his utopia of creedlessness and classical conditioning. The proposed society would include a church. There, interested fellow-feelers could gather for common songs about Love and Success, and hear an uplifting word from a neutered parson.
Remember, the only time people actually did these things in the 20th century the Politburo was holding guns to their heads.
De Botton was raised under atheist nurture. On the opposite end of the disbelieving spectrum is Brad Pitt, who grew up Southern Baptist. In his youth, Christianity “worked for me in whatever my little personal high school crisis was,” but it would not last. “In my eyes it was a mechanism of guilt, this engrained system, used to keep the flock in servitude…Guilt is the thing I find most evil about it. It’s the thing I rail against the most.”
Undoubtedly, Pitt is not against all guilt. It’s rather effective for those who are, you know, at fault. But it’s also a tool of manipulation, or a lack of self-examination. You can feel guilty about all sorts of things, like a chocolate pie or the Armenian genocide. So he might mean one of two things. On the one hand, the twice-voted Sexiest Man Alive may think the emotional response is an invalid motivator for action, and thus follow behaviorists like B.F. Skinner or hard-core rationalists like the entire school of Analytic Philosophy. So the moral sentiments emphasized by the British Enlightenment (and today by David Brooks and Brian Brown) are not allowed, because illogical or immoral.
On the other hand, the Sexiest Man Alive may think that guilty feelings are simply immature. In this model, religion is infantile. More importantly, the mature moral man would be beyond guilt and shame. He would be life-affirming and not belittling. This is the moral vision of charity, non-profits, and (you guessed it) Hollywood. But it is also increasingly the moral vision of many other Americans. I will not give you statistics, but I hope an appeal to your own experience is satisfactory for the case.
But what do people feel good about? In my own case, I’d have to say it’s just about anything that tickles my toes. I really like people who are happy, but what happens when interests conflict? When people die? When I royally screw up and it’s all a hot mess?
Of course guiltiness can create psychological problems, and even congregational cattle-herding. But if there is no passable alternative for guilt as such (like the spiritual disconnect of De Botton or the moral disconnect of Pitt), then perhaps we should parse which kinds are to be promoted. For guilt is legitimate if it addresses something legitimate—if it has a role. I think there are at least two: sociological and psychological.
No doubt there is a sociological function for guilt and shame. Here is Philip Rieff with a brief justification: “It is the prophets who created the notion that charisma is a perfectly ordinary phenomenon, not extraordinary, that we are all…creatures of obedience…A common culture, like a common faith, is rather like a permanent lawsuit—but the law is the moral law.” Guilt is the first step toward honor, and honor is the first step toward authority. Legitimate authority.
But guilt’s legitimacy and need in our time is also due to psychological function. No one wants to feel guilty. But neither does one want to grieve. We must be sober and frank about the undesirable emotions. It is not simply that guilt can lead to repentance, but that guilt is the shadow of honor. And if we are never wholly, truly honorable, guilt is the moral sentiment that calls us back and helps us to see that we are always casting a shadow, and that we are never simply the tower of honor. Shame is the face of some of my actions, projected back into me, so that I am always a shameful-empowered-shy-righteous-diligent-dying Janus, reflective because hypocritical, mature because failed, powerful because unable to supply potency. In all this, shame is an ingredient in the pot, and we will be left hungry while it is left out.
The churches should not be faulted, then, for prodding the faithful into guiltiness, but for failing to equip those psycho-spiritual saints with the tools to handle their guilt with all care and sapience. For there really is no replacement.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.