My Thoughts on Repenting out of Fear: How is This Moral?

For many religious people, the idea of hell is a terrible thing. It’s the ultimate threat:  eternal torture, with no hope of escape. It’s also supposed to be the pain and suffering that comes with a lack of God’s presence. Either way, it’s presented as a very bad place, and Christians are taught to fear it, and avoid it at all costs. 

Growing up, I was schooled with the Baltimore Catechism, (a very old Catholic religious educational system) which greatly emphasizes the concept of “contrition.” It defines it thus:

“Contrition is sincere sorrow for having offended God, and hatred for the sins we have committed, with a firm purpose of sinning no more.” (See http://www.catholicity.com/baltimore-catechism/lesson30.html to check my source and see the exact way it is presented if you’re so inclined).

One is supposed to have contrition when one goes to confession in order to be forgiven and absolved. Here’s the thing though:  there are two kinds of contrition, and each of them deals with the topic of this post in a way.

Perfect contrition is  “…when we are sorry for our sins because sin offends God, whom we love above all things for His own sake.” (This is the one we’re supposed to aim for).

Imperfect contrition is “…when we are sorry for our sins because they are hateful in themselves or because we fear God’s punishment.” (This is like a C grade–acceptable, but not ideal.) 

The Baltimore Catechism emphasizes memorization in the form of questions about the faith, and answers, which were to be learned and repeated verbatim. My mother used to teach me concepts from the catechism, and would test me on them verbally nearly every day. One day, she did this when my dad was home, and my extremely religious father became concerned when he heard the questions and answers explaining perfect and imperfect contrition. “When I go to confession, I usually confess for the second reason,” he said, “I don’t want to go to hell.” 

My mother assured him that imperfect contrition, while not ideal, is an acceptable form of contrition in the sacrament of confession. Here’s the thing though:  there are a lot of people who fear hell, and does it actually make them good people? Does it make up for any wrongs that they do? All that the fear of hell says about their character is that they’re cowards. It doesn’t mean that they’re sorry for what they did in any way. It’s basically the difference between “I’m sorry I hurt you,” and “I’m sorry I got caught.” The first acknowledges some real responsibility. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” says, I know I did something that affected you badly. Because I understand that, and know that’s a bad thing to do to someone, I’m sorry.” The second merely acknowledges impending punishment. Why is this acceptable? What if our criminal justice system worked like this?  

“Are you sorry?”

“I don’t want to go to jail, so, yes!”

“OK, court adjourned.”

It’s ridiculous. But let’s look at the other acceptable reasons for contrition. “when we are sorry for our sins because they are hateful in themselves,” is a form of IMPERFECT contrition. Not perfect. In this belief system, it is NOT ideal to despise a sin because it’s hateful. I realize that “hateful” is probably not being used to mean “a hate crime” or to refer to any specific kind of wrongdoing. Perhaps it refers to the attitude taken while committing the sin? I don’t think all sins are done out of hate though, so maybe that’s not a correct understanding of it. Anther way of looking at it is to translate “hateful” to something along the lines of “hurtful,” or “harmful.” This is how I understood it as a child, and it’s how I prefer to see it because it creates a form of contrition to which reason can be applied. Certainly, shoplifting is harmful. Rape is harmful. Lying can be harmful. If that is what the catechism means by “hateful,” then I personally think this is the ideal form of contrition. I want people to feel sorry for their wrongdoings because they recognize the very real consequences of their actions. I want muggers to recognize that they’re spreading fear, and also stealing hard-earned money and items from strangers who may very well need them. I want murderers to realize that they’re snuffing out the lives of other human beings who, whether they agreed with them or not, could have been potential friends or allies rather than enemies, but who will now no longer be able to provide for their families, or fulfill whatever important roles they filled during their lives. I want rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault to be sorry for the fear they have instilled in their victims, and the way that their behavior can affect the emotional well being of their victims for years or even a lifetime. (I realize I’m using examples of crimes, but most priests would definitely group these under sins, and as an atheist, these are sins that I agree are wrong too.) Why is this type of contrition considered imperfect, you ask? My understanding of it is that it doesn’t take God into account. Hell is the absence of God, and you don’t need God to tell you that wrongdoings can harm people. 

The definition of “perfect contrition” is, of course, the ideal. It involves loving God and being sorry to have offended Him. I don’t think that feeling sorry for an offense is the ideal sorrow for any and all circumstances though. Offense, while it can hurt a person in the moment and make him or her very frustrated or unnerved, is no where near as bad as actual injury or harm done. Besides, God is omnipotent. Your contrition for offending him isn’t going to do anything. But you know what might? Apologizing to the people you actually hurt with your wrongdoing, and looking for a way to make it up to them. It might not be possible in all circumstances, but that means a hell of a lot more to me than saying “I’m sorry God,” and assuming that the time you stole from the mall is now behind you. Seriously, you stole from someone’s livelihood. Take responsibility for that in an earthly way, not in a spiritual way. It’s a heck of a lot harder to do, but you know what? It actually fucking does something for the people who are really suffering from your wrong. 

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

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Is Believing in an Afterlife a Coping Mechanism?

A few days ago, I visited family in New York, and had an interesting conversation with my uncle. He took me aside during the reunion and said, “Look, I want you to be honest. I’m going to ask you a question. I won’t tell other people, but I’d like for you to respond with the truth.”

I have a lot of respect for this uncle, who always seemed very down to earth to me, so I barely hesitated before saying, “OK. What’s your question?”

He whispered in my ear, “Are you an atheist?”

I was relieved it was a question that I could easily answer truthfully. Even though I hadn’t actually told anyone in my extended family yet, my parents already knew. “Yes.”

He shook my hand and said, “Good for you. I was worried you and your brothers had been too brainwashed to come to your own conclusions.”

I explained that one of my brothers takes my parents’ word as law, but the other has expressed some doubts to me. He said he was relieved to hear that, then said, “You know with your parents, it’s a coping mechanism, right? They don’t want to die, so they have to believe in an afterlife.”

I nodded. “It’s hard to deal with the idea that you’ll cease to exist at some point.”

“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s a little easier for me though. I used to be an atheist, like you, but I did more research and I’m actually a Buddhist. Are you cool with that?”

Of course, I assured him, I’m glad he came to a conclusion that makes sense to him, regardless of what it is. While I don’t think Buddhism offers any new truth or revelation worth believing in, I don’t know much about it, so I’m not going to judge it with my limited knowledge. Then my uncle said something else that was very interesting. “I mean, I don’t exactly believe in that heaven or hell stuff, but I believe in reincarnation until I reach enlightenment.” I think he mentioned coming back as a blank slate to sort of try again until you get life right.

I didn’t want to argue with him, so i just said, “Oh, OK. If that’s what works for you, go for it.” We shook hands again. I’m fine with people coming to their own conclusions, but I did see some issues with what my uncle had said as I understood it. I’ve had almost no experience with Buddhism, so I’ll stick to the idea of reincarnation as I understand it (which may or may not be accurate. It was one conversation), and why I have trouble seeing it the way he does.

I don’t see how one can think that believing in an afterlife, which is just one form of eternal life, is a coping mechanism, but reincarnation isn’t. (Unless he was trying to tell me that he knows it’s a coping mechanism, but believes it anyway.) Either way, some part of you lives on after you die, whether it’s living in paradise, hell, or a new body, you’re not ceasing to exist the moment your brain stops functioning. Regardless of which one you believe in, you’re left with a feeling that you’re not going to cease to exist; some part of you always remains.

I will say that in some forms reincarnation probably could acknowledge death somewhat better than some forms of living after death, if the person believes that one’s memories will be removed and he or she will return as a blank slate. In that case, though, aren’t you technically dead? I mean, we declare people dead all the time even when their bodies are still living. It’s not always your heart that gives out. Sometimes it’s your brain. If that’s true, then you’re not getting closer and closer to enlightenment with each try because each time you’re starting at zero:  with the mind of an infant. So it’s hit or miss. You either get it right, or you try again to hit the bull’s eye.

If that’s the case, then it seems completely random to me, like firing blindfolded. Sure, you might hit the bull’s eye, but you might hit the ground, or a tree, or your friend, who’s aiming at his own target. If there’s no governing force controlling who you come back as, then you might be reborn in a situation where you’re not going to discover anything new. Nature vs. nurture is a question that can be discussed for days, but psychology typically says it’s a combination of the two that leads us to become who we are. You could get genes that make you prone to violence, or you could grow up in a neighborhood where you have to steal to survive. You could even be born with both. How is that life going to bring you closer to your goal of enlightenment, whatever that is? I assume there’s some sort of moral system in place. I’ve read a little about karma and other cosmic forces for morality, and maybe when you put them together with reincarnation they build a more compelling situation, but nevertheless, believing in reincarnation seems to leave the believer with a sense that death is not the end for that individual, and that’s simply not the way I see it. Who I am is intrinsically tied to my memories, my personality, and my genetic predisposition towards things, and all of that is stored in my brain. Without that being completely transferred to another being, I will die and cease to exist. If, on the other hand, you believe that I will retain my memories and move on, then it’s an afterlife, and in my mind, that could just as easily be called a coping mechanism as belief in heaven and hell. 

I definitely need to do some research on Buddhism. I hope I haven’t offended anyone by completely misunderstanding reincarnation, but I was going off of a brief conversation, and limited exposure to the idea as someone who grew up steeped in western culture.

Is belief in life after death a coping mechanism? This question interests me a lot. Feel free to leave comments.

Happy thinking!